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:

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