Text and photography by David Oldale
I had seen both the P29 and P31 Maltese Naval Patrol Boats just over a year ago in the 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. Both were due to be put down at dates to be confirmed…
Arguably, the Maltese Islands most popular dive location is at Cirkewwa – to those not so familiar with Malta that’s the place where the Ferries arrive/depart on the shortest route between Malta and its sister island of Gozo, a journey of little more than 20 minutes. Why is this site so popular? Well, its got just about everything needed for a fantastic dive – excellent car parking, first class entry/exit points, a shallow and protected training area, caves, drop offs, the arch, the statue of the Madonna within a hollow on the wall, the wreck and anchor of the tugboat ‘Rozi’, great marine life and if that wasn’t enough NOW the wreck of the Maltese Naval Patrol Boat P29 Kondor-1 – and all accessible from the shore!
Whilst the majority of scuttling operations can be the subject of delays the P29 followed this trait with, at the last minute so to speak MEPA (the marine environment protection agency) halting the sinking due to concerns on the proposed site’s close proximity to seaweed! The proposed wreck site was altered – slightly, by some 30 metres. But, there was still a problem – in the last hours, concerns were raised about diver safety within the wreck – a survey was instigated and a report issued. No matter what, the P29 was going down on the 11th. August 07 – subject to weather conditions. Just hours before the scuttling the wind veered to the northwest and the sea exalted its venom across the wreck site!
Three days later, in the early hours of the 14th. August, P29 was seen on tow on its last journey from the Cassar Ship Repairs dock in Marsa to be anchored just over 150 metres offshore from ‘Susie’s Pool’ at Cirkewwa. Close by and on station was a salvage barge, dive support vessel, dive tender with oil response equipment, the Fireboat ‘Garibaldi’ and vessel from the AFM (Armed Forces Maritime Squadron Malta). These were joined by RIBs and small craft containing a plethora of local journalists, two television news teams, local divers (who were seen slipping into their dive equipment even before the seacocks had been opened), VIPs and yours truly (the only representative of the International Diving Press in attendance). On shore were more VIPs and senior representatives of the MTA (Malta Tourist Authority). All these were housed within a Gazebo complete with drinky-poos and bites – I was certainly in the wrong place!
There was a problem – whether due to a freshening breeze, current or a combination of both the P29 was noticeably shifting from its anchorage! Action was immediately undertaken – a TV crew was cleared from the stern deck of P29 and the seacocks were opened – time 1314 hrs. Some 24 minutes later I noticed a definite list to port. At 1347 the for’ward deck was awash – and still the boat was going down by its port side (I wondered if this was to be another ‘Xendi’ disaster) – oh yeah of little faith – Cassar Ship Repairs were in charge, it could only be the most perfect of scuttling operations. At 1349 hrs. only a small area of white foam and bubbles were visible on the surface – P29 was down, but the underwater viz would be around zero – for about 4 hours! Twin sets were on and local divers were readying to get in and get under, or so they thought! Cassar’s divers backed by the Authorities blocked this manourevre in one foul swoop – nobody was diving until a check was carried out by the professionals, flotation devices and equipment had to be removed – and only then would the okay be given that the wreck was safe to dive! I was in no such hurry – I wanted pictures – pictures of the wreck in good viz – I would be down there by 0900 the following morning – they might be the first to dive but I would be the first journalist to dive Malta’s latest wreck!
It was still early afternoon, the scuttling was completed and I was at a loss – what do I do now! I was certainly not going back over to Gozo (where I was staying at the Beach View Hotel in Marsalforn courtesy of the Atlantis Dive Centre). I cadged a lift – to Meldives (PADI 5 star IDC Centre) just down the road in Mellieha Bay (my other hosts for this trip and great friends for nearly 30 years). I seated myself on the patio outside the dive centre overlooking the expanse of Mellieha Bay with a lemonade in hand and just…vegged out! Within an hour the news was out – P29 was down on an even-keel, upright on a sand seafloor. Depth to the sand-seabed at the stern was 31 metres and to the sand at the bow 37 metres. I relaxed even more! Arrangements were made for diving the following day.
That night I serviced the cameras, had a curry in the hotel’s restaurant (they have an Indian Chef) and slept the sleep of a thousand.
After catching the early 0715 ferry from Mgarr (Gozo) I was at Meldives before 0800. Colin (Meldives Instructor), two customers (experienced divers) and myself were ready to enter the water at ‘Susie’s Pool’ before 0900 – we were the first there! Colin had been well briefed as to the direction to the wreck – and if that wasn’t enough there was a very temporary buoy (a white plastic container) bobbing on the surface affixed to the wreck’s handrail some 30 metres below by thin cord – it wouldn’t be there long!
In the centre of the training area we all descended to 10 metres for the long fin to the wrecksite. Well, that wasn’t quite correct, three of us dropped to 10 metres whilst the remaining diver did his own thing and dropped to 20 plus metres – against the instructions given on Colin’s pre-dive brief. Oh well, perhaps it was because he came from Belgium! Within 10 minutes the stern came into view. My first job after readying the camera was to drop to the sand right beneath the stern to confirm the depth – 31 metres on the dot. The wreck lay due west from the shore with the bow pointing straight out towards the open sea – it was completely upright. I rejoined the others on the aft-deck before as a group we set off – to explore the for’ard section. The bridge looked very inviting but this I ignored – I had another job to carry out, to check the depth to the sand at the pointed end – 37 metres; with the viz over the wreck at around 25 metres – not bad considering only some 20 hours had elapsed since the scuttling. I hovered in the semi open bridge area and was amazed that so much ancillary equipment had been left in place. There was the speaker system, the telephone, controls (which shifted easily) and a bank of gauges. This wreck was really interesting and not just a bare hull which is so reminiscent of many scuttled craft. Rear of the bridge extending upwards was the mast complete with radar booms – the depth from surface to the mast-top I recorded at 18 metres. Behind this was the square shaped funnel before the drop down to the large expanse of flat rear deck. I was enjoying this wreck! Then there was that inevitable signal from Colin as we had by now entered into deco – a slow rise, to 15 metres as we neared the drop-off close to shore. For seven very interesting minutes I cruised the shallows (3 to 4 metres) in the training pool – there was so much to see (in the way of marine life). But better was to come later that day.
Colin and myself waited until 1630 before we ventured up to Cirkewwa – there would be no one there as the dive centres would close between 1700 and 1730; boy were we wrong! We hadn’t counted on their instructors all wanting to dive the new wreck after work. It was just like the Monday morning rush hour in central London.
A different tactic this time – all the way to the wreck on the surface; at the temporary buoy we dived – with me, heading off in the direction of Tunisia – with the wreck very much behind! A quick ‘fart’ from Colin’s air-horn quickly had me back on track and onto the wreck. Another great dive as this time we explored inside the boat, which I found most interesting – where even banks of gauges and portholes had been left in situ!
Another deco-dive – we would be gassing-off for 16 minutes in the shallows. Ah! The shallows – if there was one place that Colin knew like the back of his hand it was within the training pool; depth between 6 and 3 metres. There were Scorpionfish everywhere and then he pointed out this strange fat ugly looking creature that measured some 30cm in length; it was pinky-grey in colour with black circular rings on its body and had a number of protuberances which stuck out from what I presumed was its head. It moved very slowly and with deliberation over stones and small rocks – a creature, the like of which I had never set eyes on before! I took a number of shots on the INTOVA digital camera. Later I was informed that this creature was known locally as a ‘Sea Rooster’ – well, that’s the English translation!
Back to the Meldives Dive Centre – all kit washed and put away, and then we were out and about for a couple of Lemonades and pastizzis (Maltese savoury cheese–cakes) before my journey back over to Gozo – again.
My mobile bleeped away at me – a message, ‘Hi Dave, your interview is on Malta Television tonight at 1945… A STAR at last I thought, until I had watched it – thereafter I kept a very low profile!
I visited the restaurant at the Beach View Hotel. That night I would not be gorging myself on a glorious Chicken Phal – just plain eggs and chips that I knew would not come back to haunt me at 30 plus metres the following day!
No Colin – I was in despair! He had been committed to taking a few holidaymakers out for try-its (yo-yo dives). I was teamed up with Mel and Mhairi’s Son Gavin. As he had yet to dive P29 I would be leading the dive… ‘God help us all,’ I thought!
Another different approach – ‘Susie’s Pool’, centre of training area, on the surface to the drop-off and then the descent to 10 metres on once again a bearing of 270°. Yet again spot on, straight over the stern section after about 5 minutes of finning. With both of us armed to the tooth with cameras we set about snapping away! Nothing out of the ordinary except after clearing the stern (on our return) by about 15 metres I noticed movement on the sand 10 metres below. I shook my rattle to attract Gavin’s attention and pointed to the Octopus that was gently jetting its way over the bottom and then – shook it with some venom to indicate the four Flying Gurnard that were circling not a metre away. Gavin dropped to the seafloor as I decided to watch from above – he got his pictures!
I rested very easily that night; I had photographed the wreck being put down and then dived it four times. I didn’t always have that much luck! With my last full day on Malta to follow I would take a later ferry over and spend an easy day at Meldives before returning my car in the late afternoon. To follow that – I wouldn’t get much sleep as my pick-up from the Beach View was – 0415 the following morning – ‘Ugh!’….
The Nitty-Gritty – The Vessel
Dimensions – Overall length: 51.98 metres; Width: 7.12 metres; Draft: 2.3 metres; Gross Tonnage: 361 tonnes.
Maltese Naval Patrol Boat P29 Kondor-1
Our Editor – Travelled from London Stansted/ Malta/London Heathrow on Air Malta, which was arranged through the MTA. His stay was at the very comfortable Beach View Hotel, Marsalforn, Gozo (recommended) Tel: 00356 21 563425
by Meldives Malta Tel: 00356 21 522 595 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
How to get there – Air Malta flies from most UK Airports – divers receive 20 kilos plus FREE 15 kilos dive equipment (on production of Dive Card at check-in) and 5 kilos hand baggage.
Diving – Both Diving Centres listed above looked after our editor’s diving requirements during his stay within the Maltese Islands. Both were chosen due to their excellence in customer service and satisfaction combined with SAFE diving practices.
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).
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