Diving the Maltese Islands

The ancient Maltese Islands rise up like fortresses of sand-colored limestone from the cobalt waters of the remote eastern Mediterranean. Known for its craggy, low-slung cliffs and sea caves and its brush with Homeric legend, this arid three-island nation, with its eponymous island Malta and the lessers, Gozo and tiny Comino, is situated between Sicily and northern Africa.

Strategic to seafarers since it was first settled 7,000 years ago, Malta is home to a rich maritime history that includes reigns by Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, French and—until l961—the British. Circular limestone block "temples" that predate Stonehenge by a millennia dot the shores. Homer's hero Ulysses was shipwrecked here on Gozo—fictionalized as Ogygia. Seduced by the lovely queen Calypso, it took him seven years to escape. You may remember it as the setting for the little-seen Robin Williams version of Popeye.

Underwater, Malta is no less astonishing. The superb oceanic visibility and sub-sea grottos in addition to the endemic Mediterranean fish make it so. And there's the chance for near mythic encounters, too—from the prehistoric wrecks of Roman ships to giant pelagics like tuna, sharks, and sea turtles. And while no sightings have been reported by divers, a few years ago fishermen's long lines baited for scorpionfish off Ghar Lapsi produced a three-ton Great White Shark.

Most diving is done close to shore, along the edges of the underwater cliffs. Since the waters chill by winter, there are few coral species and no reefs. But the great viz and the odd, speciated critters more than make up for it—many of them as baroque as the medieval bas reliefs back on land. They include the ClingFish, the John Dory, the longspine snipefish, and the African armored sea robin. Octopus and sea stars are common.

Archaeologically, most discoveries—like Roman amphorae and great stone anchors—were made by sport divers. Ironically, many of those sites are now off limits; the government has become fearful about the plundering that has plagued other Mediterranean sites. As a result, you must report any artifact or wreck you find. Still there's excitement in all this—if you make a discovery, you can help Malta realize its deep history, while also enriching your own sense of adventure.

Beyond caves, critters and the hope of ancient encounters, the draw is modern shipwrecks, many of them from German bombing in World War II. Indeed, some of the sites even include Allied planes, like the Blenheim bomber, sunk in 130 feet of water off Xorb Il-Chagin. While many wrecks are in deeper seas, from 90 to 140 feet, others like the Carolita Barge lay on a bottom that slopes down from 18 feet to 75 feet, near Marsamxett Harbour.

PRACTICALLY SPEAKING

Since Malta is a former British Crown colony, you will find English widely spoken—good thing, because the Maltese language is a tongue-twisting sort of Arabic. Access is easy via regular Air Malta flights from London. Once here, you can stay at local downtown hotels with clean rooms (with bath) for $15 (U.S) a night, or fancier Brit-inspired digs like the Meridian, at $125 a night and up. There are nearly 50 dive shops on Malta and Gozo, and dive packages are available with multiple dives. (At the DiveShack, a single dive is $20 U.S.; a 10-dive combo is $175.) The Maltese are sticklers on qualifications: You should have an updated logbook (or at least a written summary of dive experience) AND a recent doctor's letter certifying you as good to go. If you don't have the latter, most shops can usually summon a local doc for a quick physical.

SUGGESTED READING:

Maltese Islands Diving Guide by Ned Middleton. Miller Guides. Malta.

Published: 8 Jul 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

Best Hotels in Malta

$102-$116
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The Palace
$110-$122
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Hotel Phoenicia Malta
$107
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Le Meridien St. Julians Hotel & Spa
$185
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InterContinental MALTA

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