Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Investing in niche markets

This is the leading article published on today's issue of The Malta Independent, of which I am editor:

The Malta Tourism Authority yesterday announced that it would be scuttling two wrecks within two years to supplement diving attractions around Malta.
This is very welcome news to the local diving community, but the benefits are much more far-reaching. Let us look at money first. Malta is known to be one of the top diving destinations in Europe, if not the world. We have clear blue sea with great visibility, and abundance of wildlife that belies the expression ‘the dead Med’ and we have a great climate which allows diving all year round.
Malta already has the reputation of a top diving destination with the jewel in the crown being the Um el Faroud wreck which was scuttled in Zurrieq. There are plenty of natural dives, including reef dives, cave dives and nature dives. But the most popular form of diving attractions are, without a doubt, wrecks. 
Malta is also blessed with several ‘natural’ wrecks which were sunk during WWII, but most of these are at a great depth and are only available to tech-divers who dive on mixed gases. The bulk of divers are recreational divers who do not usually exceed 40 metres depth. 
The MTA sunk two wrecks in 2007 and 2009 – two former patrol boats. One is in Cirkewwa and the other near Comino and both have proved to be very popular with local and foreign divers who visit Malta for sport.
Malta currently attracts some 60,000 divers per year, but the figure could be so much higher. Just like with all our other attractions, the dive sites are all within an hour’s travelling distance and it is possible to dive two sites in one day.The weather, as we have mentioned, allows for diving all year round and it does actually happen. One of the boats, an as yet unnamed tug, will be scuttled off Exiles point in Sliema. In all probability it will not be a shore dive as traffic is rather dense in that area and would, most likely, be sunk further out to sea to become a boat dive.
The other vessel, former AFM patrol boat P33, is set to be scuttled in 2012 at an as yet undisclosed location. Of course, the scuttling is pending approval by Mepa. But like other wrecks, if they are correctly sited and avoid damaging posedonia meadows, then they will be teeming with life within a couple of years and will become artificial reefs.
But while we have a gem of a product, we must fine-tune it and the authorities must listen to divers. While there have been attempts to improve facilities for divers, these have largely been restricted to entry points – in other words, where they get into the water. But we must provide more than shiny handrails and ladders. We must continue to invest in this sport to gain maximum results and to continue to boost the numbers which come here. Simple measures such as putting up a canopy to allow shelter from the blistering sun (or rain) when divers are kitting up and showers for divers to rinse themselves and their kit, would be a welcome start. We must also continue to advertise our product. TV spots are important, but the diving community is a diverse one and the opportunities we can tap into by having a dedicated online presence to present our underwater riches to those who are actively seeking information is imperative.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

More wrecks!

The Malta Tourism Authority has decided to scuttle two new wrecks, one next year off Exiles Point and the other in 2012 at a site yet to be identified.From what can be gathered, a tug is to be scuttled off Exiles point. This would presumably put the wreck at a depth of about 30-40 metres. Exiles Point is already home to the Beaufighter wreck.
P33 photo Stephen J Borg
The MTA plans to scuttle another vessel in 2012, the former AFM Patrol Boat P33. The patrol boat, which is 23.33m long, 4.7m wide and approximately 7m tall when measuring from the top of the mast down to the draft of 1.87m.
The two wrecks will add to the P29 and the P31 which were scuttled in Cirkewwa and Comino in 2007 and 2009 respectively. The vessels will be sanitized to allow safe diving and will be cleaned to ensure no damage is done to the environment. Their scuttling is subject to MEPA approval.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

21 minutes on the line

What can be more painfully boring than hanging onto a rope for 21 minutes. 
Well, you might find that watching grass grow, or paint drying is more tedious But holding onto a bhuoy's anchoring rope at between ten and five metres depth is just about as tedious as things can be.
The dive was a boat dive on the Imperial Eagle, off Qawra point. It was a great dive and after the Eagle, we stopped off at the Christ Statue, Kristu l-Bahar and then went for a saunter under the natural archway which is over there. Maximum depth was 42 metres.
We got back to the rope and the computer beeped. 21 minutes of mind-numbing tedium while hanging onto a rope. Needless to say, we got cold and my buddy Karl and I just hung on the line. Needless to say, as tanks got lighter, we switched to positive buoyancy and there was a good deal of fiddling with the BCD release valve. Every minute, we flashed the countdown and every time, we gave the OK. 
A long deco-session later, we slowly surfaced and got back on the luzzu. We were still cold when we got back to dry land. The dive was well worth it, but if you're planning a dive where deco is involved, it definitely time to dig your hoods out. Summer is over and it's inching towards October. The sea is still warm, but it's definitely cooling down. 
What's your longest decompression stop and where?

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Lady Davinia

Do you remember the little wooden pleasure boat which used to be painted in a garish red Kit-Kat colour scheme? That was the Lady Davinia.
It’s hard to believe that the little ship had three lives. It’s first was as HMS Greetham in the Royal Navy as a mine sweeper. She was commissioned in 1955 as one of 93 ships in the Ham class. Each vessel was named after a British village with the ‘Ham’suffix.  She was built out of wood and non ferrous materials, so as you can imagine, she is quite an interesting wreck.
She is 32.5 metres long with a beam of 6.4 metres. The crew complement was 15, but rose to 22 in wartime. She was powered by two Paxman diesels, rated at 550bhp and generating a top speed of 14 knots. You can still see the engines, but more on that later.  
HMS Greetham was loaned to the Libyan Navy in 1963 as part of the country’s first Navy. She was transferred permanently in 1966 and was renamed the Zuara. Information is limited, but she seemed to be used for coastal patrols. She was decommissioned in 1973 and after languishing in dock, she was acquired by a Maltese tour operator. She was renamed the Lady Davinia and was perhaps best known for the red Kit-Kat scheme.  From 2007 onwards, she was laid up at Sliema Creek, then one day, after a few days of storms, she simply sank at her moorings. No one knows for certain when it was, someone just realized that she was missing.
The dive itself is easy enough, she can be found at 17 metres on a sandy bottom. But viz is pretty bad and it can get a bit disorientating.
My buddy and I plumped for entry just below the Fortina Hotel, where the steps down to the sea are and there is a ladder which you can use to exit. It did not take us long to find her. You simply swim straight out and there is a large metal chain on the bottom which was her old mooring. As soon as you find it, you just follow it to the wreck.
If you hit the Davinia nose on, she sort of jumps out at you. The water has a greenish turquoise tinge and its one of those “Is it? Isn’t it?” moments. All of a sudden, her outline becomes clear and out of the murk, you spot her. With her having sank at her moorings with all sorts of ropes and chains around her, she has a dense covering of vegetation, but you can clearly see some of the old colours underneath.
The Lady Dav is a very odd wreck. The first thing you need to realize is that she is not a purpose sunk wreck. If you are not careful, there are plenty of pitfalls – closed hatches, jagged screws, rotting wood… Your really do need to watch what you were doing. The wheelhouse, which has blue exits either side, is a time capsule and it literally seems frozen in time and space. You could almost sit down and sail her off.
Once you tour the wheel house, you can have a look in the small galley and have a fiddle with the knobs on the cooker. From there, it’s a trip down to the poop deck and you can descend through a hatch to the engine room. It is tight, so be careful. You must also be careful in which hatch you enter. One is through a flu, the other is a proper hatch. I’m a very slim guy, but I could barely squeeze in the flu and decided against it after getting half way in. We did, however, enter the other hatch and have a look at the engine room, which is immaculately preserved. Being made of wood and plastics, the Lady Dav is a in pretty bad way. I doubt if she could ever be raised and resunk as a diving attraction as she would probably break up. Do be very, very careful. In hindsight, we should have realized. My buddy and I were heading back, but we seemed to be making no headway whatsoever. We were stuck at 12-metres and we were drifting into each other. We swam for a good 15 minutes and realized that we must have got caught in a current. We decided that the best bet would be to surface and see where we had ended up. We purged some air and slowly rose to the surface. We were a good 400 metres off the side of wreck site and a little further out than we should have been. That’s a current for you. We decided to make our way in at the surface. All in all, a great eventful dive. Have a look for the kiddies’ chair on the sea bed just before the great chain I mentioned – great photo op J

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

San Dimitri and the earthquake legend

If you were to ask people about their experiences of diving in Gozo, they will probably tell you what a fantastic dive they had in Dwejra or Crocodile Rock or the Blue Hole.
These are all fantastic dives, but let’s face it; when you are faced with the diving riches in Gozo, you might as well go full whack. Last time I went, we dived the Billinghurst Cave and Reqqa Point and after a quick lunch, we decided to go to San Dimitri – behind Gharb. Legend has it that there was an earthquake many hundreds of years ago, which led to a chapel, which was built on the Cliffside, to fall into the sea in one piece. Apparently, the bell still chimes on religious feast days. It is not difficult to understand where the legend sprung from and I will explain later.
But first, a bit of excitement. As a guy, it’s always a rush to be on something fast and powerful, which is exactly what we needed to get us to the dive entry point. San Dimitri is a beautiful dive, but can only be reached by boat. We chartered a rhib from Dwejra for the afternoon and powered out of the inland sea, crashing along the waves for about 15 minutes in full kit. We felt like Navy Seals about to embark on a mission.
One we arrive at the spot, and after an OK, it was a summersault back entry… oh and what a view. Visibility was easily 50 metres and we slowly descended to about 20. The underwater topography is phenomenal. It literally looks like an earthquake had shattered the coastline and sent it tumbling into the sea.

I had a bit of trouble with ear lock on the dive, but I was able to hang around above the rest of the party at about 18 metres or so, and in a sense, the view was even more impressive. The amount of marine life which congregates and proliferates in this spot is simply beyond belief. In fact, we saw a massive shoal of striped barracuda and proceeded to herd them into a ball. Two went left, two went right, one went above and one went below and before we knew it, we had herded a whole shoal of the fish. We could go right up to them and they would not break – it was a truly amazing experience.
We also saw plenty of groupers and various other small fish, which were actually not that small by Malta standards and these included parrot fish, cawl and myriad others. After about 40 minutes of enjoying such beautiful surroundings, it was back onto the boat and we powered to shore. Needless to say, after two such dives we were knackered and nearly falling asleep on the ferry back to Malta. What a wonderful dive !

Videos Jason Fabri

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Billinghurst Cave and Reqqa Point

3 August

Me with the cave entrance in the background
Photo Jason Fabri
Today was my first dedicated cave dive at the Billinghurst Cave near Qbajjar in Gozo. It was an early doors start, catching the 8.15am ferry to Gozo. After landing, we headed off to Zebbug and wound our way down the precarious road and tracks to the Billinghurst Cave entry site, near Reqqa point. Getting to the Cave entry site is a bit of an operation and you have to be very careful to avoid falling onto the very sharp rocks. You cannot exit the water from there and you have to swim round Reqqa Point to get out of the water.
But back to the cave. Buddy check, inflate BCD, giant stride and a one-metre drop into the water. It was a relief in the 30 degree heat. A quick ok and off you go, a quick decent to 20-29 metres and the cavern opens up. You look down the 120-metre long tunnel and all you see is black. As I have mentioned, this was my first cave dive, but we had torches and the experienced Jason Fabri from Watercolours Dive School with us, so I wasn’t overly concerned. A good tip is that if you feel claustrophobic, just look back, there is a massive turquoise window that is very reassuring.
Coral in the cave
Photo il-Bagigu
It is worth noting that the cave tunnel allows for three divers to easily swim up to the cave side by side. At a squeeze four can do it.  It is a sandy bottom too and there is not much danger of silting either. If you look at the walls on your way in, there is a lot of coral and a lot of miniscule sea life, but more on that later, you get to see it in its full glory on the way out.
The journey into the tunnel is a bit eerie, and you do have to do some torch waving to ensure that your group sticks together. But, it is perfectly acceptable to use the torch in burst flashes rather than as a continuous beam.
There are also some reassuring lines which have been put in place to guide you in or out of the tunnel. It is also slightly deceiving as you do not all of a sudden come to the surface. The tunnel slopes up gently and after a final gentle bend to the right, you come across a tighter area where the height of the tunnel shortens to about five metres. You negotiate some boulders and that is your final cue. If you look up, you can see that you are near the surface.
Me in the Billinghurst Cave
Photo Jason Fabbri
There are no obstructions and the dome of the cave is more than big enough to allow you to surface without worry. Once you do, you look at the majesty of it all and realize that you are at sea level and that the roof of the cave is a good 10 feet above you.
A few deep breaths of air, blow your nose and turn on the torches and you are in a place where not many others have been before.  You feel elated, full of wonder and you realize that you must be directly under a hill because the dome is so high above sea level.  A couple of jokes and photographs later and it’s time to leave.
We decided that we would head back out without torchlight and just aim for the turquoise window. You do not see it at first because it is round the bend, but you do see a faint glimmer that is ‘round the corner’. A small word of advice – wear gloves and a full length suit if it’s your first time. You can kind of bump and scrape across a few rocks and you can get some cuts and grazes if not careful. But do try and fin and wave your arms – the bioluminescence show which you receive in return is absolutely spectacular.
Photo Jason Fabri
 On the way out, it's an even better treat as hundreds of fish, jellyfish and various other forms of undisturbed marine life come to literally, check you out. Groupers, mauve stingers, kahli; the range of life is incredible. Do keep a watch on your dive computer though, it's all to easy to forget that this has been two dives in one. The exit points can be a bit dodgy, especially if the sea is a bit rough. 
You might want to attach some rope to a couple of places, just in case it's a bit too difficult to get out. The swim round the drop off is quite fascinating and the underwater topography is quite stunning. This is a great dive. And it's unspoilt. Check out the videos by Jason, featured below.


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