Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Not every species is harmful


The summer is here finally and people are getting braver when it comes to taking a dip in the sea. Over the past years, we have seen an increase in the number of mauve stingers (the little purple jellyfish) that make it close to the shore of our beaches and bays. As the name suggests, they leave quite a nasty sting.
Short of wearing a wetsuit, there is nothing much that can be done to avoid getting a nasty sting off one of them, and this leads many bathers to go on a spontaneous collective jellyfish cleanup.
Why they seem to be increasing is still open to debate, but it has become standard practice to simply kill them or let them melt in the sun. We can understand why, children and adults can get nasty stings and they can also leave quite nasty scars – but we must understand that not every species is harmful to humans.
A case in point was last week. This newspaper received a photograph of what turned out to be Sailors by the Wind – Vellela vellela. For what its worth, these are tiny jellyfish like creatures that have a small sail on their back which they use to navigate. As we have mentioned, they are harmless – but still many people have assumed the worst and proceeded to kill them.
The same happened last year when another not so familiar species (as it lives in open water and at more of a depth) is what is known locally as the qassata. Underwater, these beautiful creatures are bright yellow with vivid purple spots on them. They are quite harmless and you can actually handle them with minimal risk – their stings are benign to humans. But what happened? Hundreds and thousands of them were fished out of the water, looking like brown lumps of goo. And this is human nature. People look at these creatures and automatically assume the worst – we kill first and ask questions later with the usual “Oh my how ugly it is”. 
Meanwhile, a Spot the Jellyfish campaign has been launched and the aim of this is to increase the awareness of the different sub species of jellyfish which come close to our shores.
Whatever the cause of these increased jellyfish sightings, we should always remember one things – directly or indirectly, we are to blame. We have altered the sea as an ecosystem. We have fished the seas with impunity, eliminating species and drastically reducing the numbers of others. We have indirectly taken out the jellyfish’s natural predator – the sea turtle. They get caught in our nets and they eat plastic bags – killing themselves. Ask why? Because they mistake them for food. 
The temperature of the sea is also rising and we are partially responsible for that too. We simply cannot take the attitude of ‘kill it first, ask questions later’. We must understand that the cause of woe to every other species apart from human (western and advanced at that) is ourselves.  We kill for sport, we kill for food, we kill out of fear, we kill for trophies, we kill to make space, we even kill passively when contaminants are put into the sea – because at the end of the day we are the consumers. The human race is very much like the alien races we see in Hollywood movies – we hive, we strip, we deplete and we move on… except; we have no where to move on. We have one earth and she is sick.

P31 – a jewel in the making

While many divers think that a freshly scuttled wreck is somewhat sterile, there is a good appeal to it.
The P31 was sunk towards the end of last August just under the Tower in Comino. She lies at a depth of 17 metres on white sand and the water is just so unbelievably clear. You do not dive in blue water to see this wreck, you dive in turquoise water. It was August and all you needed was a 1mm suit, it was that warm and being in shallow depth also has its effect.
We set out from Marfa point and kitted up on the boat ride out – a leisurely 10-15 minute cruise from the jetty to underneath the Santa Marija tower. The P-31 is visible from the surface, especially seeing that she lies on a bed of white sand and shows up vividly in the bright seas.

Ben and I were the first to kit up and off we went off the back of the boat. I was actually lucky because I slipped and kind of fell into the water. As always with BCD inflated, there were no injuries, apart from a slight one to my ego.
There was no life on the wreck when we went down, only a few curious little fish having a look here and there. The P-31 is pristine. It’s a lovely descent down, warm all the way to the bottom and it’s a simple case if deflating your BCD and letting yourself just go down. Just before hitting the wreck, it’s a wonderful sensation to just float there, as if you are flying over the wreck. Being at a shallow depth and in incredibly clear water, you can see every bit of detail on her.

All doors have been removed from the wreck to allow entry and steel bars have been put in place to block access to areas that are a bit of a tight fit. Our first stop was the usual tour of the vessel, in through the back down a hatch, and through to the galley. You can even still open and shut the cooker door if you fancy it. From there you can go through into the sleeping quarters, the electronics room and then off into the bow section where you can come up quite nicely under the front of the superstructure. From there its an obligatory stop off at the bridge where you can still play with all the levers and pose for a photograph with the ship’s mascot – Sharkey.
From then on it’s a look at your air supply – and you still have about 150 bar left with a 15 litre tank. So what exactly can you do on a wreck which you have seen end to end and up and down? Do it again from the other side… of course. 

Being in such a safe wreck at a low depth really gives you the confidence to penetrate the vessel, even if it is not your cup of tea. It gives you the facility to practice your entry and exit methods. 

In short, it’s very good practice at doing the ‘real thing’. With 50 bar of air left, we decided that we would take a trip down into the engine room, which was quite fun, especially waving at other divers from the tiny little portholes inside. Another look at the tank and we were on 10 bar, so it really was time to get up and out. We found the anchor and used the line to feel our way up. Then it was time for a quick safety stop – mucking around on the rope for a few minutes and that’s it… dive over.
 Fins off, BCD off and floating in the water and back aboard. A quick kit wash and a cigarette to round off with. The P-31 is not the most interesting of dives, but it certainly offers something just that little bit different. I certainly can't wait to dive on it this summer!

Technical details

The P-31 was scuttled off Comino in the area known as Tal-Matz in August 2009. She is a former German Democratic Republic (East) minesweeper of the Kondor Class. She was commissioned in 1969 and was transferred to the Maltese Maritime Squadron in 1992. She served until 2002. Her most notable adventure was the rescue of 251 illegal immigrants off a leaking ship in Force 6 winds in 2002. She is 51.98 metres long and has a displacement of 361 tons. Her sister ship the P-29 is a slightly more challenging dive just off Cirkewwa.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Valletta's HMS Maori

30 May 2010
The HMS Maori will always be one of my favourite dives. I remember it was the venue for the third skill set dive in my Open Water Course. The dive site is not far from the Watercolours Dive Centre, which is located within the Excelsior Hotel in Valletta and is located just underneath the Gun Post Bar – quite obviously the converted remains of a WWII turret. It was my first dive this season.
The Maori is an easy dive and it is accessible for most of the year, due to its sheltered position in Marsamxett Harbour. Considering it’s a harbour area, the visibility is fairly good and the wreck is always teeming with wildlife. Some the examples include star fish, fire worms, nudibranches and various species of fish. There was a large grouper there for some time and although he was a permanent fixture last year, he has not been seen much this season.
The Maori lies on a bed of white sand at a depth of 14 metres – nice and easy. The wreck site consists of the bow section of the ship. History tells us that the Maori was bombed in 1942 in the Grand Harbour with the loss of one crewman. She was then towed out beyond the breakwater where she was repeatedly hit by Italian bombers. There was not much that could be saved and as a result, she was towed to her present position where she eventually sank. Most of the aft section of the ship was lost during the towing operation.
Being at 14 metres, the Maori is never a blue water dive. Oh but she has plenty of character. You can still see some of the large gun fixtures and you can penetrate parts of the wreck quite easily. Unfortunately, last winter some of the bridge superstructure gave way and collapsed. But there is still plenty to see. I will never forget her as she was my first wreck. I was barely able to keep neutral buoyancy, yet we went through a tiny section of the wreck which was, at the time, the most exhilarating experience I have ever had.
I have dived the Maori four times now and I never get tired of doing it. It is a nice leisurely swim to the wreck and there is so much wildlife to enjoy on the way. Skate and sole are in abundance and if you are really lucky, you might even get to see some seahorses. Sole are especially fun to ‘play’ with as they skip across the surface of the sand, kicking up silt – guessing where it might have buried itself after its ‘escape’ is a game in itself.
Fish egg sacks are to be found all over the place and there are plenty of crabs and fish around, especially on the Maori herself.
While the Maori is an easy dive in terms of access and depth, you should always be careful of the jagged bits of metal. She lies in fairly shallow water, and is in quite a state of decomposition. Some people say she is not safe, but like all wrecks – treat her with respect and you will be just fine. The swim back to shore is also very leisurely and the sloping sands turn to rocks once you begin to approach the shore.

A few words of advice:
  • Although the situation has improved since last year, the kitting up area is notorious for thieves who break into vehicles while divers are underwater. Take nothing of value with you and always lock your vehicle.
  • Marsamxett Harbour is home to a fair amount of scorpion fish. Their camouflage works well against the rusting hulk of the Maori. Always watch where you are putting your hands and be careful of jagged metal.
  • The Maori lies half buried in sand. Be very careful if you plan to penetrate the wreck. Portholes allow some light into the hulk, but always make sure that you know where you are going.

Technical details

HMS Maori (L-24/F-24/G-24) was a Tribal-class destroyer laid down by the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, Limited, at Govan in Scotlandon 6 June 1936, launched on 2 September 1937 by Mrs. W. J. Jordan and commissioned on 2 January 1939.
Maori served with the Mediterranean Fleet, was involved in the pursuit and destruction of the enemy German battleship Bismarck in May 1941, and served with the 14th Destroyer Flotilla during the Battle of Cape Bon in December 1941. Maori, commanded by Commander R. E. Courage, RN, was attacked by enemy German aircraft and sank at her moorings in the Malta Grand Harbour on 12 February 1942 with the loss of one of her crew. She was raised and scuttled off Malta on 15 July 1945.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Zurrieq's Um el Faroud

5th June 2010

Second dive of the season. The temperature is in the high twenties, but the water temperature at 29 metres’ depth was much colder. As yet, there is no thermocline.
We arrived at the Zurrieq slipway at about half ten and by the time we kitted up (and had a mandatory sandwich) it was eleven. There were three divers in our group – the experienced Chubbie Fabbri, an older English guy named Dave who had a fair amount of dives on his log and myself. This was my 18th dive.
We giant-strided into the water and it was chilly to say the least – especially as I was only wearing a 3mm suit. From there it was a quick swim across the creek to get out of the way of the small pleasure boats that take tourists to the Blue Grotto and down we went.
Jason took the lead and we meandered slowly round the reef on the opposite side of the creek where we saw a small octopus. As always, one cannot resist having a tickle and watch it squirt ink in its escape.
From there, we dropped in depth to about 15 metres and headed off on a bearing of about 355-360 degrees to get to the Faroud's stern which lies on a white sand-bed. Visibility was not as grand as we had expected. In Zurrieq you can get fantastic viz – sometimes of 25 to 30 metres, but today it was between 15 to 20 metres.
This was my third dive on the Faroud. The Faroud is one of those ships that does creep up on you without you realizing. It’s a fairly long swim through blue water to get there and you strain your eyes to pick it out.
It is one of the thrills of wreck diving to see a shadow which you first think is just Posedonia, but eventually morphs into the outline of a marine vessel.
Jason got us to the stern of the ship – our usual starting point. There were not that many fish about the stern of the Faroud on the day – sometimes you get to see baby barracuda, large groupers and many more species – but it seemed like they were all hiding.
In the event, we decided to go along the side gangway and meandered down to the section where the hull split in two a couple of seasons ago. On the way, we saw a fire worm and a purple nudibranch – a sort of sea slug.
As we made our way to the split section at about 29 metres, the cold really started to get to me, but it wasn’t bone-shaking cold – it was just about manageable. Jason asked if I felt ok to continue and I gave him the okay, so we slipped through the winch and lo and behold, we saw fish galore.
There was damsel fish (cawl), parrot fish, cardinal fish, mullets, rainbow fish and more. It was one of those lovely experiences where you flip onto your back and watch the hundreds of fish swirl around you.
Seeing as the current was negligible, Jason asked if we fancied penetrating the wreck. Confident that the cold was not too bad, I agreed and in we went. As I mentioned, this was my third dive on the Faroud, but I had never done much penetration through the bowels of the ship.
At 100 metres in length she’s a big girl. We entered her through the bottom mid-section and went through quite a tight corridor. It’s a bit dark and oppressing, but at the end of it, there is a sharp right turn which brings you to a spacious side compartment with a blue exit. Should you feel claustrophobic or want an easy way out of the wreck, this is it. But a little perseverance will result in a nice treat. At the far end of the compartment (beyond the blue exit) you take a sharp left and this, I believe, is quite close to the engine room. As soon as you get through a bulkhead, you are at a dead-end - or so it seems. If you look up, there is a perfect little exit above your head. A quick thumbs up, a kick of the fins and you shoot straight up, and back on the stern where you started. From there, it’s a reciprocal back course till you find the Zurrieq reef drop off. Normally, we meander round, heading slowly towards the surface with a safety stop near the ladder. But if you have enough air left in you tank and have the time left on your computer, there are some very attractive bottom dwellers in the creek, ranging from cuttle-fish to weird and wonderful sea urchins. Today we saw red mullets sleeping on the bottom and a fair shoal of red cardinal fish on our way back. That was it, safety stop done, up the ladder and back to the slipway. I must admit, it was the coldest I had ever been and it took me a good five minutes to get proper circulation back. At least I learned that I probably reached my cold threshold and know not to stay down if I get colder than that in the future.
I have a strange connection with the Faroud, in that she was built in Middlesbrough – my hometown. After three stern dives and one foray in the bowels of the ship, there are two more bits I would like to try. I have never been to the bow of the ship and I would also like to try going up the funnel. This has been done by many divers, but it is tricky because there is 22 metres from keel to top. This leaves you quite close to the surface. To get to the funnel, you have to know your way round. I’d also like to have a look at the bow section – although people say it is not as much fun. An adventure for the summer lies in wait!

A few of words of advice:

  • The Faroud sometimes has a heavy current on it. If this is the case, do not penetrate the wreck as the strength of the pull can deceive you. I have seen people get caught out on the periphery of the wreck and needing a push or a pull to get through openings. You will suck a lot of air in the Faroud, but when there is strong a current you will suck more. It’s best to leave it for another day if it is strong.
  • The Faroud is quite an oppressing wreck. Treat it with respect and do not bite off more than you can chew. Do not enter it unless you know your way around or someone else does.
  • Take a minute to locate the plaque that remembers the 11 men who died on the Faroud when it exploded in drydocks. The plaque can be found at the broken point, a couple of decks up and slap bang in the middle.
  • Careful where you put your hands. Zurrieq attracts a fair amount of Mauve Stinger (pelagia noctiluca) jellyfish which can give you a nasty sting. I got one myself on the forearm last year and the scar is still visible. Couple this with the fact that the waters around Zurrieq are cold – a full length suit is advisable. Also, wear gloves. Fireworms love to get into the nooks and crannies on the Faroud and there’s also a fair amount of jagged metal.
  • Take it easy. It’s a long swim there and back. It takes a good 15 minutes both ways. Don’t tire yourself out getting there, you will need some energy to swim back. A 20-litre tank should give you a 40 minute dive. It should take 10-15 minutes to get there giving you about 10 minutes of exploration and a 15 minute trip back including safety stop. You should set off from the Faroud with 100 bar and that will get you back to safety with about 50 bar left.

Technical details
The Um El Faroud is the wreck of a Libyan motor tanker that was being worked on in a dry dock in Malta when a gas explosion on board killed nine Maltese dockworkers.[1] For three years after the 1995 explosion she lay in the harbor of Valletta, then she was moved to the current location. She sits upright on the sandy seabed southwest of Wied iz-Zurrieq. The Um El Faroud weighs 10,000 tons and is 115 metres (377 ft) long. The depth to the top of the bridge is 18 metres (59 ft) and 25 metres (82 ft) to the main deck. Scuba divers might come across some squid and barracudas at the stern. The wreck can be entered fairly easily, but due to its size, this should be restricted only to divers with advanced wreck diving training.
M/t Um El Faroud was built in 1969 at Smith Dock Co. Ltd, Middlesbrough, England and was owned by the General National Maritime Transport Company, Tripoli (GNMTC). She had been operating between Italy and Libya carrying refined fuel up to 1 February 1995. On 3 February 1995 she was docked at No.3 Dock of Malta Dry-docks. During the night of 3 February an explosion occurred in No.3 centre tank and nine shipyard workers lost their lives. The vessel suffered structural deformation and, following inspection and survey, was considered a total write-off. She occupied the dock after the explosion until it was decided that the best option to utilize her remaining value was to scuttle her as a diving attraction and to start a new life as an artificial reef. The vessel measures 109.53 metres (359.4 ft) in length, and has a beam of 15.5 metres (51 ft); the height of the vessel from keel to funnel top is approximately 22 metres (72 ft). Um El Faroud was a single screw motor tanker.[3] After a bad storm in winter 2005/6 the ship has now broken in two. ref: www.divesitedirectory.co.uk/dive_site_malta_wreck_faroud.html

Servicing the diving industry

The summer season has begun, and the usual streams of tourists hoping for some early June sun are flowing into Malta. Numbers are up and record movements are being registered at the Malta International Airport.
But there has been another set of tourists that have been steadily making their way to Malta since March – and they are a niche group – divers. Diving tourism is one of the niche markets that Malta serves. We are blessed with all the natural resources one could desire as a diver – a concentration of sites within easy reach, clear blue seas, stunning underwater rock formations, an abundance of wildlife and calm waters. In short, it we have probably one of the best – if not the best - diving destination that Europe has to offer. Of course, the industry is backed up by very good professional schools and instructors who can take anyone from an advanced seasoned diver to a total beginner on an amazing trip underwater.
Diving is an extreme sport that requires safety, more safety and yet more safety to enjoy and there are medical facilities in both Malta and Gozo to cater for diving injuries, such as the bends where a decompression chamber is needed. The recent installation of a decompression chamber in Gozo was very welcome news – and one should not underestimate the positive effect such facilities have in influencing divers to chose a destination.
We are doing well, and we are making a good business out of diving, but of course, there is more that can be done. Perhaps one of the biggest problems is that only divers know exactly what is needed to improve our infrastructure. One of the main things that springs to mind is the provision of shelter from the sun and even simple ledges to rest equipment on before and after a dive to facilitate the donning of equipment (no easy task in sweltering 40 degree heat in a wetsuit).
There have been improvements at various sites – including Zurrieq and Cirkewwa in terms of the installation of ladders, handrails, footholds and more. But the government really should think about the installation of permanent (or semi permanent) structures to shelter people from the sun and to allow them to kit up easily. Showers to rinse off suits (which are expensive and deteriorate if left to dry in the sun) would also be welcome. These could even be used against payment and will leave an indelible positive impression on those who visit.
And of course, this brings us to the issue of wrecks. The main wreck sites in Malta are the HMS Maori in Valletta, the Um el Faroud in Zurrieq, the Rozi and P-29 in Cirkewwa, the P-31 off Comino and the Imperial Eagle. There are others, but these are the most popular in terms of depth vis a vis experience, ease of reach, wildlife and all round enjoyment. There is also a nice trio of wrecks just off Gozo. The truth be told, more are needed. Of course, this all has to be done in terms of complementing the natural environment – but more sites are needed. There were a few botched jobs – the Xlendi is one of them and gets more dangerous by the season. There was also the sinking of two tugs in Marsascala – but the lack of sea life and poor visibility means they never really became popular. To understand, we reiterate, one must be a diver. A simple chain, anchor or statue takes on a whole new life underwater. Surely, we can find some bits and pieces of junk that can be installed as underwater attractions. Old AFM and police equipment, perhaps an old bus, a gantry crane, an old aircraft, old tugs – literally anything will do. The bonus to all this is that if these artefacts are placed correctly, they will also stimulate reef life. But placing them in inaccessible areas, too deep or in zones with bad visibility will do no one any favours.

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