The Maltese archipelago sits in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, 93 km south of Italy and 288 km north of Africa. It is composed of three islands, Malta, Gozo, and Comino, and numerous other islets. Historically, its central location between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East made it a strategic trading crossroads and naval base, resulting in a graveyard of more than 100 wrecks ranging from a 2,700-year-old Phoenician shipwreck to battleships and aircraft wreck sites from the Second World War.
A little bit of history and scene-setting (h3)
For years, the Maltese Ministry of Tourism has actively promoted this region to the diving community. This has brough support for more scuttling projects, attracting recreational and technical divers from all around the world. Consequently, Malta has earned the reputation of one of the top wreck diving destinations in the world.
Beyond wreck diving, few people know that the best word to sum up the Maltese archipelago is ‘limestone’. Limestone has shaped these islands’ stunning topography on the surface and made Malta an underwater paradise, surrounded by warm, clear waters and year-round temperate climate. Even fewer people have ever heard about the sister island of Malta, Gozo, known locally as Għawdex. Karst caves, tunnels, cracks and sinkholes create a spectacular landscape both above and below the surface. This makes Gozo a unique gem among the Maltese Islands.
The archipelago lies on a large carbonate platform and is entirely composed of compacted sedimentary rocks that were deposited during the constantly changing Mediterranean sea level over millions of years. These carbonate sediments were originally living organisms, such as coral reefs, shells, or very fine-grained plankton that compacted and eroded through waves and currents.
From 35-million-year-old lower coralline limestone to 7-million-year-old upper coralline limestone, a cake-like layer of sediments settled underwater to form the islands, which are just the tops of the rocks peaking above the surface.
Diving ‘Ghawdex’ (h3)
It only takes 25 minutes by ferry to leave the busy atmosphere in Malta before setting foot on Gozo. Populated mainly by farmers and fishermen, the atmosphere of Gozo is more rural and laid back. The island hosts 30,000 inhabitants, spread over a land of 98 square kilometres. Gozo is famed among divers who prefer to stay away from the hustle and bustle of the main island and enjoy a more spectacular underwater topography.
Even though this destination could theoretically be dived all year round, rapid changes in weather conditions during the winter make it safer to visit from April to November. During the diving peak season, Gozo welcomes guided and unguided divers. The Malta Tourism Authority, together with the Professional Diving Schools Association of Malta, maintain all facilities such as roads, ladders, buoys, and toilet cabins for divers to enjoy safe access to the water and a comfortable stay. Another benefit Gozo has to offer is its own hyperbaric chamber to treat mild DCS, when the severity of diving accidents does not require helicopter transport of patients to Malta.
Neither Malta nor Gozo have protected their fish stock well enough over the past years for the islands to offer as much marine life as they used to. Sharks, dolphins, and turtles are long gone. However, the development of artificial reefs and projects to create marine reserves in Gozo are still ongoing. Among the species that are still likely to be seen:
- small groupers
- various bream
- small stingrays
- moray eel
- red mullet
Most of the dive sites are located on the North, West, and South coast of the island. The vast majority of them can be accessed from the shore and the fairly small size of the island makes them accessible by a short ride. Even though the main road network of the island has been renewed over the past few years, some dive sites require crossing through fields or driving up and down steep roads. This makes the use of small Jeeps popular on the island.
Gozo offers a large variety of dive sites with entrances ranging from easy to more difficult ones that require good diver fitness and suitable weather conditions. Gozo truly has it all:
- wrecks for recreational and technical divers,
- shallow protected bays for beginners and training sessions,
- deep walls within a few meters from the shore,
- a unique topography of tunnels and caves.
Xatt L’Ahmar is one of the most popular sites on the southeastern coast because it hosts the three and only wrecks of the island. These wrecks are about 50 meters apart from one another on a sandy bottom. They were all scuttled close to the shore to a recreational depth of 40 meters to form an artificial reef. The entrance requires a short walk down from the parking lot and is accessible from two short ladders.
The 80 meters long MV Xlendi Wreck was the first wreck to be scuttled in 1999. Unfortunately, it sank upside down and the inside has been collapsing ever since, which makes her unstable and unsafe for any penetration. However, the two large propellers sitting in the shallowest part are worth the dive.
The MV Karwela followed in 2006. She sits perfectly upright and is about fifty meters long. She remains the most popular of the three wrecks among technical divers seeking rust in the deepest rooms and underwater photographers who never fail to shoot the majestic staircase leading to the three decks. The wreck is safe to penetrate because of the various openings and large holes cut along the sides before scuttling.
The MV Cominoland was scuttled the same year. She sits in an upright position on a sandy seabed and is about 35 meters long. Her two decks offer plenty of potential for safe penetration and exploration.
Recreational divers looking for easy access to the water favour the protected shallow bays of the southern coast.
The most famous one is Mgarr Ix Xini, a three-hundred-meter-long stretch of reef and sand leading to two caverns and surrounded by high cliffs protecting from the winds.
Xlendi Bay is another popular spot among recreational divers for its shallow easy entrance and technical divers for the deep wall at the end of it. Halfway through the bay, a 70-meter-long tunnel crosses through the cliff and offers beautiful lighting. Xwejni Bay, located in the north, offers unique underwater scenery where the limestone has been carved over years to create a small labyrinth of passageways in the shallows.
A few other shallow bays such as Hondoq or Red Bay are visited by beginners and for training purposes.
Deeper Walls (h3)
Deeper sites (+40 meters) can be found all around the island. On the Western Coast, Dwejra is the most popular scuba diving site in Gozo. It includes the Inland Sea, the former Azur Window remains and the Blue Hole which gives access to Coral Gardens Cavern, Crocodile Rock, Big Bear and Little Bear.
The 60-meters-wide shallow semi-circular lagoon of the Inland Sea opens to an 80-meter-long tunnel with vertical walls and a pebble bottom. Outside the tunnel, the seabed drops to 50+ meters to the south to the Blue Hole. On its northern part, San Dimitri cliffs offer a series of cracks and caverns, some within swimming distance, including Whale Cave and Tal-Barba Cave which offer about 120 meters penetration.
The Blue Hole can be reached after a 200-meter challenging walk over a rocky path. This sinkhole is about 10 meters wide and 15 meters deep. A beautiful archway opens to the remains of the Azur Window, a 30-meter arch that collapsed in 2017 into massive blocks of limestone which rolled down to 80+ meters.
On the South coast, Ras Il Hobz, also known as Middle Finger, is a pinnacle rising out from 80+ meters to 10 meters, which makes it a popular site among technical divers for its ease of access from the shore. The pinnacle is home to abundant marine life such as amberjacks, dentex and moray eels.
Apart from the Double Arch, a large formation located at 40+ meters that requires a long swim from the Xwejni Bay’s easy entrance, the North Coast cliffs offer mainly ladder entrances with direct access to 40+ meter drop offs around the Reqqa Point area.
There are numerous cracks, tunnels, and caves surrounding the island. Some of them can be challenging and disorientating though. Among the most visited caves that can be accessed from the shore, Billinghurst Cave is the largest, located around the Reqqa Point area in the North. At a reasonable depth of 25 meters, its 120-meter length leads to a pitch dark chamber with a gas pocket and unique squared formations on the walls that resemble some of the temples you can visit on land. Even though Billinghurst offers a wide Cavern zone (daylight zone), as one penetrates deeper into the Cave area, the loss of natural light and the distance to the exit of the Cave can potentially be risky for a single tank diver.
In the same area, the ‘Bottle Neck’ Cave is a demanding long ladder entrance for a deep technical dive. The cave, with a narrow entrance at 30 meters, lets little light in and opens up to a fairly large chamber decorated with fine coral. It can be exited at 60 meters on a sandy bottom with an appropriate gas mix.
Cathedral Cave is a larger cavern and yet a safer dive despite its difficult access by the highest ladder of the island. This site consists of a huge dome with access only below sea surface. Breaking the surface inside the cave, the dome is illuminated by sunrays shing through small openings in the wall. Any sound, word or wave echoes from the walls.
The Greek Legend of Gozo & Calypso (h3)
Whoever visits and dives Gozo is charmed by its calm and beauty and will surely plan a return or stay. Myths surround the island and there have been many debates about whether Gozo is the legendary island of ‘Ogygia’ referenced in Homer’s Odyssey, where Calypso enchanted and held Odysseus captive for seven years in order to make him her immortal husband.