Text and photography by David Oldale
The (Maltese) Armed Forces Marine (AFM) Patrol Boat designated ‘P31’ was scuttled off the small island of Comino on the 24th. August 2009 – some 2 years and 10 days after its identical ‘sister’ patrol boat ‘P29’ was put down on the seabed off Cirkewwa (Malta). Both vessels were built in Germany during the late 1960s and subsequently purchased in 1992 as unarmed patrol craft; light armaments were subsequently added.
The P31 is a Kondor Class boat designed and built on the Peenewerft, Wolgast, East Germany. Like the P29 it was primarily a minesweeper, but was also possibly engaged in fisheries protection, border control or formed part of the German Democratic Republic’s logistical fleet at the time. The vessel, which made up to a total of three Kondor Class boats purchased by the Maltese Government then served with the Armed Forces Maritime Squadron for over 12 years. Their main role was to assert control over Malta’s Continental Shelf, anti-contraband missions and numerous border control operations. After over a decade of operations the P31 became outdated and beyond financial repair, so it was decided by the AFM that the vessel be decommissioned.
The scuttling project was spearheaded by the Malta Maritime Foundation, (a local NGO that promotes diving around the Maltese Islands and acts as a pressure group for the diving industry). The Malta Tourism Authority provided technical and financial support for the project as well as arranging for the transfer of the patrol boat P31 from the AFM after decommissioning.
In accordance with EU directives and MEPA (Marine Environmental Protection Agency) approval the P31 was cleaned and stripped of all toxic, dangerous or polluting substances including the removal of all doors, hatches and engines. Approval of MEPA was also required as to the eventual location of the wreck – thus ensuring that there would be no detrimental effect to the inherent marine life in the proposed scuttling area!
With the past scuttling of a number of vessels around both the Islands of Malta and Gozo it was decided that the latest would take place off Malta’s third largest Island – Comino. The designated area also broke with the norm – following Dive Centres and divers requests that the P31 be put down shallower than in the past (plus 30 metres). A sandy area on the inside of ‘Lantern Point’ was chosen, with the maximum depth to the seabed being 20 metres – accessible to the majority of diver grades!
Early, on the morning of the 24th. August 2009 the Patrol Boat P31 was towed from the Marsa Dockyard of Cassar Ship Repairs to the designated wrecksite, whereupon it was secured by mooring ropes to concrete blocks that were already deployed on the seabed. Close by and on station was a salvage barge, dive support vessel and a dive tender with oil response equipment to provide the necessary assistance as needed. These craft were joined by the AFM Patrol Boat P32 (still active), the Harbour Master’s Vessel (from Valletta), RIBs and other small craft containing a plethora of local journalists, a television news team, local divers (who were just itching to get into the water) and a Helicopter from Malta’s Armed Forces.
At midday the seacocks were opened on the P31. By 1215 hrs a definite list to port could be seen with, as the minutes went by – a shift to starboard – a stern down position – to be followed by the vessel showing low in the water. At 1228 the bow and foredeck was awash – the bridge going out of sight at 1233 and the boat fully submerged one minute later as it left the surface in a cascade of bubbles.
As our own vessel left the area a number of divers could be seen in various craft hurrying into their dive-kit – it just looked like a mad scramble on who could be the first to dive Malta’s latest wreck. Me, I would wait until the following morning when all the detritus would have settled to allow perhaps a few pictures to be taken!
Within hours the word was out – P31 was upright on the sand at a depth of between 20-metres (bow) and 18-metres at the stern with the topmost part of the wreck at 8.8-metres – ideal, and the underwater visibility around and over the wreck – 20 to 30 metres!
Going back in time I had seen both the P29 and P31 Maltese Naval Patrol Boats just over three years before in the Marsa dockyards outside of Valletta. Both had been de-commissioned and were destined for scuttling as part of Malta’s ongoing ‘Artificial Reef Programme’ for divers and marine life. The P29 was scuttled a year later (14th. August 07) off Cirkewwa, Malta with its sister patrol boat the P31 to be scuttled off Comino very soon after – it didn’t happen!
Strangely enough, it so happened that I was in Malta during mid-July this year (creating a story or two) when the Malta Tourism Authority reliably informed me that the scuttling of P31 was imminent, perhaps even during my 12-day stay on the Island. Well, it didn’t occur – not quite! However P31 was going down within a few weeks and yours truly was asked to cover the event and of course dive the wreck.
Three weeks later and back in England I received an invitation by email from the MTA to attend the event – to which I obviously accepted (I had attended and reported on every scuttling in the past as exclusives for a number of diving publications).
My evening flight on Air Malta was destined out of London Heathrow to arrive just after midnight at Malta International. Not only did my flight take off on time, it arrived 45-minutes early! The flight and in-flight service was very good, however Air Malta have now discontinued the free 15-kilos baggage allowance for divers (which is now chargeable at €15 euros per single leg for a single bag, extra to the normal 20-kilos free bag allowance). I will mention that I had crammed dive equipment and clothes into one dive bag – total weight up to 24-kilos and it was not queried by the check-in staff on four Air Malta flights! Air Malta supply a free bottle of wine (one) and soft drinks on the flight with a free in-flight meal – I am sorry to say the food is rather disgusting, it really does taste like pooh! From the passengers I spoke to, the consensus of opinion was – get rid of the hot meal and supply a fresh filled-baguette instead and we don’t mind paying for it! Perhaps Air Malta should follow the route Monarch Scheduled has gone with regard to in-flight food (it’s good, it’s tasty, it’s fresh and it’s quite yummy but still reasonably priced)! Remember the flying time to Malta is only 2½-hours (no matter what it says on the ticket) so do you really need a hot-meal!
I have said it before and I will say it again Malta International Airport is the most efficient and possibly smartest airport in the World. Within just 30-minutes of landing I was out and looking for my transport to the Rui Seabank 4-star Hotel situated overlooking the waters of Mellieha Bay – and that included spending some time in Tax-Free Shopping!
I had stayed in the Seabank Hotel a number of years before, when I considered that it was a good average 4-star hotel but – in the intervening years the NEW Rui Seabank Hotel has been revamped and modernised beyond belief. My room on the fifth floor had just about everything – a superb seaview; no small balcony but a large terrace with tropical plants, two comfortable sunbeds, table and chairs and most important an extendable ‘device’ thatallowed the hanging of wet dive kit to dry! In my exceptionally clean and spotless room was a plethora of 3-pin English style sockets (so I could charge the mobile-phone and batteries for underwater camera and flash without the use of an adaptor); the usual satellite TV, refrigerator (which either could be stocked as a mini-bar (by the hotel) or used to put your own drinks in, telephone, table and chairs, air-conditioning and ceiling-fan, comfortable beds with bath-robes and awaiting my arrival were two bottles of mineral water (that arrived on a daily basis) with a fresh (various cheeses) salad – extremely welcome even in the early hours! The outside-pool area was nothing less than an eye opener, to compare with the best 5-star hotel anywhere. Over the 6-days that I spent at the Rui Seabank I found nothing that I could in anyway fault – the service was exceptional including the happy two-hours where one could enjoy a beer at the hotel bar for around £1 sterling a pint! The buffet-breakfast was nothing less than a feast – I wondered just how many eggs you could cram on top of 10 rashers of bacon, fried potatoes, 6 sausages, baked beans, tomatoes and ham together with freshly baked bread and rolls. I obviously went for the healthier option – I had 2-glasses of fruit juice (as well)! The Rui Seabank Hotel might well have been classified as 4-star but in my opinion it rated as a very good 5-star establishment, and I should know – as I have stayed in a great many of them!
As the P31 was not to be scuttled until Monday morning, I spent the Sunday just flopping around the hotel, with lunchtime spent at the Rendezvous Bar just up the hill in Mellieha. It was there I was to meet Ian and his Instructors from Aquaventure to watch the F1 Grand Prix (with English commentary) on the massive screen TV whilst enjoying a lemonade or three! I also had popped over the road (from the Seabank) to the Meldives Dive Centre (now under new ownership, h-mm!) to arrange a dive on the to-be-scuttled P31. I was informed by owner Herbert that they would be diving the wreck within minutes of it being put on the seabed and didn’t know whether they would be diving it on the Tuesday! That really was not a lot of good to me, as on the Monday (for most of the day) I would be aboard the VIP Boat with a number of Government Ministers, Officials, the Press and invited guests. And in reality I wanted the viz to settle down for a least 20-hours before I dived (to obtain the best pictures). So with no firm commitment – I ventured elsewhere to where a Dive Centre wanted to be written about! Ian from Aquaventure had warmly offered to take me out in the early evening of the Tuesday (to which I had gladly accepted) but I also needed to dive the P31 during the morning and early afternoon to ensure I would obtain a number of pictures. Good old friends Mike and Agnes (owners of Maltaqua) supplied a number of cylinders and weights, with Mel (the original owner of Meldives) putting his large fishing craft at my disposal (after MTA approval). I must point out that Maltaqua was more than happy to accommodate my buddy and myself on their boat but, as my dive buddy was Mel’s son Gavin (who was representing the Maltese Press) it made a lot of sense to go out on his dad’s boat and spend the day doing our own thing!
After witnessing the scuttling of P31 and hearing the news that the boat was on an even keel on the sand at a maximum depth of just 20-metres – I was just itching to dive Malta’s latest wreck first thing in the morning (Tuesday).
Out on Mel’s fishing boat and cruising over the general area of where the P31 went down we couldn’t find the wreck – well not for an hour anyway even with an array of electronic equipment searching the seafloor. By the time we had found and were ready to dive the wreck we had been joined over the site by boatloads of divers from any number of diving centres across the Maltese Islands. My Initial feeling was one of dismay when I considered the number of divers that would be over, around and in the wreck. However, below the surface that feeling soon gave way to one of satisfaction as the number of divers I could utilise as underwater models enhanced many of my pictures of the wreck!
The sea was calm and the viz – superb with Gavin and myself first making our way (both armed with Sea & Sea DX-1G cameras) to the point where the bow met the sand seafloor. I looked to my Suunto Stinger to confirm the depth – 20-metres – great!
There was a gap (between the bow of the boat and the sand) and just like a ‘red flag to a bull’ Gavin decided to pose with his neck in that gap! I don’t think he realised at the time that the boat had not settled fully into the sand. Well, nothing happened other than me getting the picture – not this time anyway but I am sure that he will not partake on this manoeuvre in the future especially after a telling off from Mel later!
A gentle rise over the bow and along the foredeck took us to the bridge with divers popping out of every orifice imaginable in the deck and superstructure. As I have mentioned, they made great models! Above the bridge the mast had been disconnected from its upright position to now lay horizontal, pointing towards the funnel so as not to cause a hazard to passing craft – even so the topmost part of the wreck extends to some 8-metres from the surface. I finned to the stern and dropped to the sand for a picture or two before carefully moving (so as not to stir up the soft sand) under the overhang to where the twin props would have been (both removed prior to scuttling) – another few pictures taken!
Cruising along the port-side I met up with Gavin who like myself was busily snapping away on his DX-1G before once again venturing back to our previous position at the foot of the bow – as I needed more pictures.
It was just when Gavin was close in to the bow and with his back towards me that I noticed a dark shape slowly cruising along the hull about 2-metres above the sand and close in to the wreck. Gavin had also seen it and had raised his camera; I held my breath not wanting to spook the creature that was bearing down on our position. I just could not believe our luck as a large Green Turtle seemingly ignoring our presence continued to approach. I held back and then held back even longer in depressing the shutter release (I needed the Turtle to approach so close and be above Gavin for that picture of a lifetime)! I knew the exposure would be right, I also knew the focussing was spot-on but also knew that I had only the one chance of a shot; because once the flash fired there would be no second chance as the Turtle would be gone in an instant. And then I had it all in frame – Gavin with camera aimed at the Turtle, the bow to my right and hull extending into the blue, sand and eelgrass in front and to my left, two divers way off in the blue and the Turtle close, so close and still coming on – I pressed the shutter release, the flash fired, the Turtle disappearing at a great rate of knots and on the screen I saw the picture taken just for a fleeting second before the camera switched modes ready for the next shot. I settled onto the sand – I needed to have more than a glimpse of that shot. I pressed the button – to gaze in wonder at the shot taken, I had it all! I zoomed in to make sure that everything was right – I think that the smile extended from ear to ear said it all. In the past on using film I would have had to wait some weeks to see the result of that picture, how I loved the digital format and especially the DX-1G!
An hour and ten minutes in the water, 74-pictures taken, 60-bar left in the cylinder and no-deco; it was time to surface. We spent our surface interval close by in Comino’s Blue Lagoon (a much-favoured spot for tourists who arrived from both Malta and Gozo by various craft. After a great lunch supplied by Mel we ventured back for our second dive but, the sea was not quite as calm as it had been in the morning – but not so bad as to cause us to cancel the dive – just a bit choppy! Below the surface there was one very distinct difference to the earlier dive – we were the only ones there! This time we entered the confines of P31, but whilst I had snapped happily away in the morning, on this dive I had to be far more frugal as my camera battery indicator was showing low on power. I had questioned on whether I should have replaced the battery prior to this trip as it seemed not to be holding its charge as it should have done – call myself a professional?
Back at my hotel I serviced my camera ready for the next early evening dive with Aquaventure, but it was not to happen – my camera battery was flat and the charger wasn’t charging – somewhat of a disaster! But, whilst I dived the P31 twice instead of three times I did manage to get some 136-pictures of the boat both above/below the surface and then of course there was that little incident with the Turtle! I think it could be said that I was more than happy.
Whilst I relaxed with a beer in my room Gavin on the other hand was busy at home until the early-hours picture editing and selecting a number of shots that had to be in print with one of the Maltese Newspapers within a few hours, to be followed by some pictures to be supplied to the Malta Tourist Authority as a matter of priority…
Dimensions of Patrol Boat P31 – Overall Length: 51· 98 metres; Width: 7· 12 metres;
Malta’s latest wreck is a boat dive, as it is not reachable from the shore. Whilst it is very similar to diving the wreck of the P29, the shallower depth makes it more or less available to all – including snorkelers. Most important, this is a No Decompression Dive. I dived the wreck in the morning for just over an hour – surface interval – and then dived the wreck for another hour in the afternoon with no worries on air (2 by 12lt cylinders) with no deco and managed to take about 120 underwater pictures in 30 metres clear viz!
Maltese Naval Patrol Boat P31 Kondor Class
Our Editor – Travelled from London Heathrow/ Malta/London Heathrow on Air Malta, which was arranged through the MTA. His stay was at the very comfortable and luxurious 4-star Rui Seabank Hotel, Mellieha Bay, Malta. Europcar supplied a self-drive car.
How to get there – Air Malta flies from a number of UK Airports – 20 kilos hold plus 5 kilos hand baggage.
Diving – Dive equipment was very kindly loaned by Mike and Agnes Upton of Maltaqua, Mosta Road, St. Pauls Bay, Malta. Tel: 00356 21 571873 email: email@example.com
Currency – The Euro
Climate – Central Mediterranean – hot & sunny from late May until late October – average 27° to 35° Celsius.
Tour Operators – Malta Direct Travel Tel: 0208 561 9079; Belle Air Tel: 0208 785 3222 (both part of the Air Malta Group).
With Very Special Thanks To – Sharon, Alexandra and Mark (MTA Malta); The Management and Staff of the Rui Seabank Hotel; Mike & Agnes Upton (Maltaqua); My very old diving buddy – Melovan Galea and my latest dive buddy (Mel’s Son) Gavin; and the Government of Malta.
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