Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The P-29 Kondor Class patrol boat

I last dived the P-29 last summer, and from what I hear, she has become the best wreck dive site for marine life. The P-29 lies at 33 metres and can be found almost straight ahead of you at the divers entry point in Cirkewwa. The tugboat Rozie lies nearby, but the two wrecks are too far apart to be dived in one. What i suggest is a morning dive on the Rozie and an afternoon dive on the P-29. While the P-29 does not lie at a great depth, she does have a feeling of "being in the middle of nowhere", with cold blue water all around. There is no drop off, no reef, no shelf, no nothing. You approach her with a 250-metre or so swim, and the best tactic to conserve air is to start shallow and then sharpen your descent as soon as you see her ghost begin the form on the white sand.
She was scuttled on 14 August 2007 and even last year - just two years into her new life as a diving attraction, she had already amassed some weird and wonderful creatures. The most intriguing of which is a moray eel, which lives in a small hole just above the midships hatch. It truly is an experience to just maintain neutral buoyancy alongside the eel and just watch it as its head bobs in the undercurrent. The vessel was already becoming home to a colony of algae last year, and by accounts heard this year, she has added to her covering.
The vessel is safe to be penetrated, but caution is advised. She is not a small vessel, and never forget, she lies at 33 metres and it's a fairly long swim back. In fact, one would advise heading back on 75-100 bar of air to allow for anything unplanned. If you do get back with plenty of air, there's plenty to see back at the reef which leads to the divers' exit.
She's not my favourite dive, but she is a bit of a challenge and you do have to watch yourself in getting there and back. Do not attempt to get to her through a head-on current. She is too far away, too deep and it is too tiring to get there. But if conditions are good, and you pace yourself getting there, you have one of two choices... admire the marine life or have fun on the wreck. The controls are all still in place and you can have a fiddle about on the deck or in the hold. If it is not the height of summer, wear a thick full suit and hood - it can get pretty damn cold down there.
Her sister ship, the P-31 is scuttled in the balmy waters of Comino under the tower in the Tal-Matz area. She is a much easier dive, and is only accessible by boat.

Technical details

The P-29 was built by Peenewerft shipyard as a Minesweeper for the German Navy. She then served with the Armed Forces of Malta for over 12 years and was involved in numerous patrol and border control operations. 

52 x 7 metres, with a 2.3 metre draft, powered by twin diesel engines, max speed 20 knots, max crew 20, 361 tons.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Tugboat Rozie

The tugboat Rozie was never meant to be a diving attraction. She was scuttled off Cirkewwa to be used as an artificial reef so as to be visited by glass-bottomed boats.
She was scuttled in 1992 and in the 18 years since then, she has become a gem of a wreck, as well as a fantastic artificial reef teeming with fish and marine life. She is a shore dive, and to reach her, one must swim round the drop off and take a bearing of 300 degrees from below the lighthouse. If you keep the reef wall to your right, you eventually come across an anchor and a bit further on, you will find the Rozie. She lies at a depth of 34 metres on white sand. 
The Rozie still looks like she should be at sea, with ropes making the ship look like she is ready for a day of work. She's a coppery rust colour and she is just teeming with life. First up, its time to have a look at the stern. 
Visibility is always very good on the Rozie if it's good weather. But the water is full of thermoclines, so be prepared for a few icy blasts. You can take a look at where the engines used to lie, which is now a wide open space, a cavern within the boat. From there, you can take a trip up to the bridge, which is all pretty straightforward. There are blue exits a plenty and it's simple enough to get inside the bridge structure for a play with the knobs and dials.
From there, you descend to the fore deck, and if you want a great treat, just fish (excuse the pun) out the packet of Twistees you put in your BCD pocket and open it up. You might need a knife as the pressure at the depth with vacuum seal the packet. As soon as you open the pack, you can expect every and any fish within 200 metres to swoop down on you for a snack or two. Groupers, rainbow fish, cawl, mullet... all sorts. It really is an experience to look around and see so much marine life which is tame enough to come and literally be fed by hand. After about 10 minutes on the wreck, you should be registering about 50-70 bar of pressure and it's time to head back. The swim back is easy, you can see the anchor on the way, and if you keep the reef wall to your left, you come across a statue of the Madonna which lies in a recess just before the exit point If you are staying for the day, just do your surface interval and then it's time for the P-29, another shore dive that complements the Rozie beautifully.

Wreck History: 
Built in Bristol, England in 1958 by Charles Hill & Sons Ltd for Johnston Warren Lines Ltd, of Liverpool and launched as “Rossmore”. In 1969 sold to Rea Towing Co. Liverpool and renamed “Rossgarth”. In 1972 she was sold to Mifsud Brothers (Malta Ship TowageLtd), retaining her name. In the same year she sailed from Liverpool for Malta where in 1973 she was registered. In 1981 she was sold to Tug Malta and renamed Rozi. Tugboat Rozi operated in Grand Harbour Valletta. In 1992 she was sold to Captain Morgan Cruises and was scuttled in the Northwest side of Malta as an attraction for tourists taking a submarine trip around the area. 

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Carolita - a ghost

The X-Lighter is one of those dives that you had better get done quick smart if you want to add it to you logbook. She is in danger of being lost to development right next to the dive site.
It is by no means an easy one and divers should have achieved good buoyancy skills before attempting it. It is located just underneath the Manoel Island Infirmiary where it was sunk during the last World War.
Getting into the water is the easy part. It’s a one-metre drop giant stride entry, but it’s not that easy and you have to present yourself at the gate of Manoel Island and tell the people at the gate that you intend to go diving.
Once you plunge into the water, you realize that the colour of the water is green and that there are a very many viz-reducing particles in the water. The wreck starts very shallow as is it sunk length-ways, one its belly on a slope leading from about 9 metres to 20 metres. It is 30 metres long.
Despite the limited viz, you see her immediately and she is like no other wreck in Malta. Firstly, being of the design that she is, there is none of the usual superstructure you would expect on a war wreck. She is largely smooth and there is little in the ways of penetration. There are a few small hatches, especially towards the deep end, but you must be very careful. There are silt deposits on the wreck itself, but once you try and get inside somewhere and fin – visibility can be reduced to as little as a couple of metres.  If you stir up the silt, you literally have to move up or down the wreck to get out of the green clouds.
You can also see where the ship’s hull was ripped apart by the blast if you just continue to swim down towards the bottom. It is not a deep dive. Being in such shallow water, a 15 or a 20-litre tank can give you plenty of time to explore and the area beneath the old naval hospital is a goldmine for ‘treasure’ hunters. You can find old NAAFI  cups, hospital bedsteads, ancient alcohol bottles, bed pans and goodness knows what else. Apart from that there’s not much else to do apart from perhaps practice some skills in a very silted environment.  You should also be very careful to check for passing traffic when resurfacing – remember it is a port.
And this is where the important bit is. Before diving, you should attach a rope to the jetty to haul yourself up. There is a development site next door and the watchmen are most unfriendly – picking on people who might climb up a sea wall which is on ‘their side of the fence’. It really is not worth the hassle.

Technical details: 
The X 131 is one of the 200 Lighters constructed for the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. Designed by Walter Pollocks & Son of Faversham in Kent. The X 131 took action in the Dardanelles Campaign but by 1921, the ship was in Malta and was converted into a Water Carrier. The wreck had different names, Coralita, Coral, Carolita and was at one point even mistaken for the wreck of an English Submarine. On the night of 21st April 1942 it received a torpedo hit in her stern and sank immediately.
For years, the wreck was thought to be an ordinary barge until David Mallard, an archaeological diver from the Isle of Wight, carried out an underwater survey and confirmed the vessel's historical significance. 
"The wreck has been on the charts for 40 to 50 years. Any development should have taken that into account. Now it The X-131 Water lighter remains in almost perfect condition even though it is 100 years old and Mr Mallard believes it can remain like that for at least another century if steps are taken to protect it. The only other known surviving example is moored on the River Thames.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

In the vortex

You streamline yourself and adopt a head-down position. All of a sudden you feel yourself being sucked into it, like an insect caught in a cup of freshly stirred tea. The adrenalin kicks in… you look all around you… streamlined torpedoes sleek and gleaming, rush up close and veer off around you. You relax, you are being carried down the vortex, faster and faster – you readjust your heading to make the most of the aqua-dynamics.  You go deeper and deeper, rushing headlong to 30-odd metres in depth. You relax your breathing – you realize you were hoovering up your air. You breathe again, and then you are at the end of the line. You are at the bottom of the pen and you flip onto your back… your senses heightened, your eyes dart around as your brain tries to unscramble the information and establish where is up and where is down. And there it is… a white mirror in the distance, the surface is visible through the air bubbles you expelled in your last breath – you are once again orientated and the spectacle is something to behold. A cyclone of huge tuna fish – some as heavy as 300 kilograms in weight - swim round and round in the pen.  That is what creates the vortex I have just described. Perhaps one can call it ‘extreme’ diving. The dive was organised by Watercolours Dive Centre's Underwater Naturalist Club
This is the experience you get if you go diving in a tuna pen. 1,500 Ferraris of the sea; all racing round in the same direction and there is you, all clumsy (no matter how good a diver you are) and slow compared to these bad boys. Imagine looking at a fish, in its own environment and there’s you, trying to use its wake to swim in formation with them. They speed past like lightning and they come within inches of touching you, yet they veer off and leave you to your business.
Diving with tuna has to be one of the best diving experiences I have ever had. You chug along outside of St Paul’s Bay and pull up to a pen which is just off the tiny islands of St Paul. If you are clever enough, you kit up first and you make sure that you are one of the first buddy teams into the water. Tank open, regulator in, inflate BCD, hand before mask, giant-stride and one big splash later you are in the sea. You float over to the pen and one of their divers hands you a rope and you haul yourself over the rubber and slap onto the rubber edging. Literally like a seal, you flop your way across; and into the water at the other side.
A quick ok with my buddy Ben; and down we went… an un-dispersed (as yet) school of blue fin tuna awaited. You deflate and descend, but it’s not mayhem from the word go. If you stay towards the outside of the pen, the vortex dissipates, it is only when you join the scrum of fish towards the middle that you can start to feel it.  A word of caution though, if you are on the outside, near the net,  you are also in the area where the stragglers swim. Some are a bit blind and might not see you in time to dodge.  You can tell them a mile off – their eyes, instead of alert and bright, are foggy and clouded over. They do not swim straight and they are slower – keep well away.
Once you realize that these fish will avoid you (almost) every time , the fun begins, you start to swim with them and as I have explained already, you get the ride of your life when sucked into the vortex.
But there is more fun ahead. Ever played chicken with a 300-kilo fish that is hurtling straight towards you? No? Well, be prepared. Even though you know it will break off, it is absolutely nerve-wracking the first time you do it. Hand to face, press mask down and off you go, you spot one and you fin as hard as you can, it looms larger… oh my God it’s not going to break-off. You prepare to curl up, and as you do, it tilts, one blast of its tail – and off it goes… you can breathe again, you smile and you realize that this is not something you do every day and not many people ever get to do in life.
If your breathing is good enough, and if you do not get motion sickness, you really should go right down to the bottom and look up – what a sight! I just lay there on my back for about four minutes and watched this microcosm go by. Do be careful though, it might be a bit too much for some as the constant swirling image may bit a bit too much. If you do get dizzy, just go to the net and chill out. Do also be careful lying on your back on the net. It is all too easy (as I found out) for one of your hoses to get caught up in the net – I lurched like a turtle on its back a couple of times, figured out what happened and allowed my buddy to sort me out.
There is only so much you can do, but another adrenalin rush involves cutting off the tuna. If you swim across them, you do honestly feel that they will mow you down. But then the mind registers…  being suspended in the water makes no difference to them. You steel yourself and cut across… it is like driving against motorway traffic. What a rush! Check out this video by Jason Fabri, who organised the dive: 

Do’s and don’ts
Do check all your gear. Check it again once you get into the pen.
Do take your time going down. Find the vortex and do not fight it. If you do want to get out, swim across to the side – like you would with a current.
Do be careful, it is easy to get tangled in the nets.
Do not settle on the nets with your buddy on the bottom. Take it in turns.
Do head to the side of the net if you feel dizzy. Do not stay in the shoal if you are disorientated.
Do try and ‘surf’ the vortex.

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