With scuba diving in tropical colourful reefs, I think wreck diving should come next on the list of reasons why people dream of becoming scuba divers. The legends of famous ships and their hidden treasures are often the reasons to explore these historic artificial reefs. Whether you are passionate by the history of the ships, or you just love the challenge of scuba diving through a complex structure, wreck diving requires more focus and knowledge than a casual swim over a reef. As Malta is famous for its shipwrecks, doing my specialty there while diving Malta sounded like an excellent idea. OK, let’s go wreck diving in Malta!
Why doing a wreck diving speciality?
Since my divemaster training in May 2013, I hadn’t been back to a scuba diving course. Yes, even a divemaster needs to be back to training once in a while! In three years, I learnt a few more things by doing, but spending 2 days with an instructor to tune up my skills sounded like an excellent idea. A year after my divemaster training, I moved to Scotland, one of the best cold-water diving destinations in the world for wreck diving. Scapa Flow and the Sound of Mull made me fall for wreck diving. However, I was always dealing with the same constraint: no wreck penetration! Why you may ask, after all, I’m a divemaster? Actually not. I am still surprised to hear people asking me if such as if I can dive at any depth. No, the limit of recreational scuba diving is still 40m (with a deep speciality). Same rules apply even for divemasters and instructors.
Rule number 1: never go beyond your training. It was maybe frustrating while swimming around these incredible shipwrecks, but no is no for 2 main reasons: Awareness and Insurance.
Awareness: “You don’t know what you don’t know” Seriously, you can’t assume that because you did 400 dives you are fully ready to penetrate a wreck. Most accidents come from an error of judgement and/or going beyond one’s training. While reading my wreck diving theory book, I came across a few things that made me say “Wow, I would have never thought about this one”. According to the latest DAN report (2015), drowning remains the cause #1 of the death of scuba divers. Getting stuck in an overhead environment and out-of-air being, unfortunately, one of the cases leading to it.
Insurance: If you’re diving without insurance (please, don’t!) you might not care. But if you do, you’d be interested to know that if you dive beyond your training, you’re not insured. What? Yes! If you need a recompression chamber treatment, because you got lost in a wreck, went out of air, had to ascend quickly to the surface, got decompression sickness and you are not a certified wreck diver, guess who is going to pay the thousands of dollars per day bill? Yes, you, even with a scuba diving insurance!
All of this may sound harsh, but I can’t be too casual while talking about wreck diving. This is often the first step toward technical diving for many scuba divers, so please be serious. Have fun but dive safe!
The best shipwrecks in Malta
Within the 18 main wreck diving sites all around the island, 6 are historic war shipwrecks and 2 of these are only accessible to technical divers due to the depth (below 60m). As the tourism authority of Malta had a strategy in mind to scuttle ships for scuba diving tourism as early as in the 1970s, today Malta is a wreck diving paradise in Europe for all levels.
For training purposes, Malta has plenty of tug boats all around the island. It allows training any day of the year as there is always one shore that is protected from the winds. The best wrecks for training are tugboats which were specially decommissioned to be safe for the scuba divers and the environment:
- Tugboat 10 (length 16m, max depth 20m) and St Michael tug boat (length 20m, max depth 22m) in Marsaskala
- Tugboat II in Sliema (length 30m, max depth 25m)
But wreck diving in Malta is also about historic wrecks from WWI and WWII for experienced divers who dream of uderwater treasure hunting :
- The HMS Maori: British Destroyer of 115 m from 1937, sunk in 1942, only half of the boat remains in St Elmo Bay, just down the fortified walls of Valletta. I had the chance to dive there for the final dive of my wreck diving speciality training.
- The HMS Stubborn: British submarine of 66 m from 1942, scuttled off Qawra Point in 1946, rediscovered by scuba divers in 1994.
- The Polynesien: French passenger vessel of 115 m from 1891, sunk in 1918 by a German U-boat 7 miles off Valletta. At a depth of 70 m, the shipwreck can only be visited by tech divers.
- The Blenheim Bomber: British bomber aircraft from 1939, crashed in 1941 during an attack against Italian air force. The wreck is at 42 m deep, off the shore of Marsaxlokk.
Amongst the shipwrecks sunk on purpose for dive tourism, some make exceptional dives. When wreck diving in Malta, do not miss the opportunity to explore these shipwrecks especially if you are into underwater photography :
- The UM El Faroud: Lybian tanker of 110 m from 1969, after a dramatic explosion accident in 1995 in Valletta harbour, it was finally scuttled in 1998 near the Blue Grotto.
- The Rozi: British tugboat of 30 m from 1958, scuttled in 1992 in Cirkewwa. This site is famous for its photogenic anchor.
- The P-29: German Patrol boat of 52 m from the 1960s, scuttled in 2007 in Cirkewwa.
My wreck diving training in Malta, step by step
My wreck diving speciality training lasted 2 days. I did 4 dives on 4 different shipwrecks all around Malta. Before each dive, we had an intensive briefing explaining which important aspects of wreck diving we would be practising.
By the way, I’d like to highlight that I did my wreck diving training with my friend, dive buddy and assistant photographer, Laurent. I loved that we could share our understanding and test our learnings together. He’s also the one who took most of the beautiful pictures of this article (basically all the pictures where you can see me, obviously!)
Day 1 – Dive 1 at Tugboat 10, Marsaskala: practice and improve your frog kick
For the beginning of our training, we focused on a skill that is useful not only in wreck diving but anywhere you dive near a silty bottom: the frog kick. It can be in a cavern or a fine white sand lagoon. This fin kicking technique allows you to swim around without messing up the visibility in silty environments.
I had the opportunity to practice it for the first time while diving the Cenotes in Mexico and then at Silfra in Iceland. I knew how to use it. It’s a movement close to the one you use when you swim breaststroke. I was also aware it was far from being perfect. So having an instructor dedicated to my friend and me to help us learn the correct position and movement was the best way to reach proficiency. As Malta’s wreck diving always include more or less long approaches from the shore, we took the opportunity to film ourselves underwater to spot what exactly needed to be improved. Everything is about the movement of your knees and your ankles!
Once on the shipwreck, a small tugboat full of scorpion fish and nudibranchs, we were asked to find visually the potential risks that can occur while wreck diving. At the debrief, we listed potential hazards such as sharp metallic parts or entanglement in remaining ropes or cables.
On the way back to the shore, we practised a different fin kicking technique called the “helicopter”. It’s a side frog kick with only one leg to help you pivot efficiently. We both struggled and we will need to practice again and again in the future. The hard part is not to move the other leg that is supposed to stay still.
Day 1 – Dive 2 at St Michael Tug boat, Marsaskala: Map the wreck for future dive planning
The second skill we focused for the second dive was the mapping of a shipwreck. I was excited about the skill as during my Divemaster I had to map the Sakkatut wreck in Koh Tao. Never assume things are always the same. The Divemaster skills were about the orientation and guiding when the wreck diving speciality mapping was about potential entrances and hazards identification for future dive planning. While I did a good drawing underwater, I did miss that but lesson learnt, and now I will not forget. Training is there to make mistakes and to learn from them!
One thing that appeared clearly during that dive, if whatever you’re planning to do on a shipwreck, because of non-decompression dive time, there is always only a little time available once on the wreck. So never overcharge you with too many tasks when planning such a dive. My planned bottom time was 20 minutes and that was just enough to make this drawing.
Day 2 – Dive 3 at Tugboat II, Sliema: learn how to use a reel properly
Things got serious on the following day: to prepare us for safe wreck penetration, we learnt how to use a reel. The point is to use the rope as a safety line indicating the way out.
First, after our dive briefing, we rehearsed on shore what we would have to do underwater: We learnt how to prepare a reel by unrolling and rolling it again in a specific way. We also learnt how to make 2 knots at the end to safely attach it to our BCD.
On the second step, we saw how to put the line inside a wreck by making a simple knot every 5m or every time we change direction. We practise it with the different poles and barriers of the parking. At the end, we built a spiderweb!
Then it was time to do it again underwater. The tug boat 101 of Sliema is one of the newest shipwrecks that can be dived in Malta. You reach it after a 10-minute swim at 8m of depth in the seagrass. Suddenly the shipwreck appears in the blue, fiercely standing on the sandy bottom at 25m deep. Following the signs of our instructor, the 3 of us started to place the rope of our reel on the exterior of the wreck, pretending we were inside. It was easier above the water! The secret is not to hurry, look carefully how you place the knot to follow your direction (I did one mistake) and when you roll the rope back, don’t try to put it perfectly.
Day 2 – Dive 4 at HMS Maori, Valletta: wreck penetration with a reel
Finally, the moment came for serious wreck diving. I was delighted that the last dive of our training would be on one the historic shipwrecks: the HMS Maori, a destroyer of the British Navy from WWII. Only one-half of this ship is remaining just down the fortified wall of Valletta. The ship sank initially in the Great Harbour, on the other side of Valletta. It was then towed to St Elmo Bay facing Sliema.
One part of this shipwreck is perfect for wreck divers to train their penetration skill with a reel. It’s large enough to let you and the instructor next to you observe how you proceed. It was so wide and straight that I thought I could imagine a more complex way by putting my line across in zigzag! I did really well and I was proud of how I put my knots this time without steering much sand inside with a well-controlled frog kick. The only thing was that I learnt later that my instructor was wondering what the h*** I was doing. “I was having fun because it was too easy otherwise?” Wrong answer but he smiled at me acknowledging what I was trying to achieve. Yet, he made a good point and I will not forget!
The theory behind recreational wreck diving
Within the 2 days of the training, you need to make sure to take enough time to study the book. You need to fill the knowledge check test at the end. It took me about 4 hours to finish the book and knowledge reviews from 6 pm to 11 pm, including a dinner break.
I may have been beyond what was expected, but as the first chapter is about regulation and finding artefacts on shipwrecks. It was very instructive to go into the details of British and French laws and compare the differences. After reading a few authoritative websites, just don’t take anything and contact local authorities if you find something interesting. Even if the book also gave arguments about why some people think it’s better to bring back artefacts.
I also found the chapter about potential hazards interesting. Remember, “You don’t know what you don’t know”: if sharp objects and entanglement are common risks on wrecks, I would have never guessed about potential suction due to a venturi effect when a current is passing through a restriction!
Finally, my biggest surprise and disappointment was when I read about the rules of recreational wreck diving. Here we are, I was already imagining myself exploring every room of a ship as big as the Titanic, but no, maximum penetration in a wreck for a recreational diver is 40m maximum! Yet, be careful, you need to take into account your depth: it means that at 30m of depth you can only progress inside the wreck for 10m and turn back. I was a bit sad but it totally makes sense for safety reasons.
How much did my wreck diving speciality in Malta cost?
After reviewing many websites of dive centres in Malta, Laurent and I decided to contact Aquatica as they had a detailed page about the wreck diving speciality. When comparing prices, they were far from being the most expensive, so we thought it sounded like good value for money. The cost of these 2 days is 196€ if you book in advance online and it includes your book and your PADI certification card.
When I arrived at the dive centre in St Paul’s Bay, I was impressed by their stylish café. While studying your theory or debrief with your instructor, you can enjoy a smoothie, a sandwich or a piece of cake. Their organisation with “who dive where with who with what” appearing on a screen in the gear room impressed me. Daryl, the Maltese owner of Aquatica, has a team of 9 instructors offering classes in English, French, and German. In a nutshell, a perfect balance between thorough organisation and relaxing environment.
Would I recommend you to do your wreck diving speciality? Definitely, yes! It was one of my favourite scuba diving specialities with dry suit diving and ice diving.
Getting back to training, 3 years after my Divemaster was a reminder that as scuba divers we should keep brushing up our skills. Even if my expectation of what I would be able to do after this course was higher, I also understand better the risks inherent to diving inside a wreck.
Do you want to learn more about travelling and scuba diving in Malta? Have a look at the following articles:
- Diving in Malta: a first-timer guide
- Diving Gozo: mission Blue Hole
- A weekend in Valletta before diving all around Malta
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