Mixing It in Malta

By Gareth Lock

   

I had just gotten back from a trip to Malta when my copy of Quest dropped through the door; imagine my surprise when in it was an article about deep mix diving in Malta! I, too, had an experience there that was spectacular; perhaps this added insight will be of some benefit, too.

In December 2008, I watched a video from Stuart Keasley (www.bottlefish.net) that depicted the bow of HMS Southwold lying in 68 meters, close to the coast of Valetta, Malta. From that moment I knew I had to dive the wreck. A brief search revealed a nearby dive center, Divewise (www.divewise.com.mt), which would provide all that Howard Payne, my regular dive buddy and model, and I would need in the way of cylinders and helium mixes. In addition to being a PADI 5-star center, Divewise is also a DSAT technical center; they also have Fundies Graduate Leo Hoogenboom as one of their IANTD Advanced Trimix Instructors; he joined Howard and I on our dives.

Whilst setting up the trip, Alan suggested that we should also dive HMS Stubborn, at 57 meters, and the Polynesia, at 68 meters, as these classic wrecks are “must dives” for divers who frequent the Maltese technical diving scene.

There is only one RIB that is set up for technical diving, and this is run by Owen from BarraScuba (www.barrascuba.com) in Valetta. Air temperatures were around the 26-30 degree Celsius mark but the water temperatures at depth were only 15 degrees. Consequently, we were dressed in warm under-layers beneath our dry suits to deal with a potential flood during the 90 minute run-times.

With the camera and strobes across my lap and the decompression stage clipped on, we rolled backwards into the water when Owen gave the signal. At 35 meters we could start to see the seabed 25 meters below us and at 45 meters I looked through my legs and saw a beautifully intact submarine lying on a barren white sand and shale seabed. I let out a whoop of joy at the sight!

It had taken us only two minutes to descend the shot line and, after a quick check to make sure everything was where it was supposed to be, we swam off to the front to get some shots of the three bow torpedo tubes. Swimming over this particular submarine, you would be hard-pressed not to recognize the features; the intact conning tower with the open hatches, the venting hatches, the sleek hydrodynamic bow section, and, finally, the large torpedo tubes set back from the knife-edge bow.

After taking some photos we made our way towards the stern, passing the conning tower and pausing to look down the hatch there. Howard signaled that he would like to go inside; I gestured something back to him about my thoughts of such an idea, especially as the hatch is only just wide enough to get a normally clothed man through, let alone a diver in a twinset!

Once back on the boat, we commented that this was going to be a cracking weekend if the rest of the wrecks were the same as HMS Stubborn.

The following day we had a massive five-minute transit to the mark of HMS Southwold and we started to get ready. I considered clipping three stages on whilst I held the camera as being too difficult, so Owen passed the third stage after I had rolled in. Again I led down the shot and at 45 meters I saw the wreck 30 meters below us — wow!

The shot was on the debris field of the break and as we moved down the port side we passed the superstructure and the four-inch shells that cover the deck area. Looking aft we could see the four-inch guns pointing out to port and just below them are the depth charges still in their racks. Dropping over the stern, we saw the props. As we ascended the shot and completed the deep stops, we could see the curtain of bubbles created by Leo and another diver and as we reached 45 meters we could still see them clearly 30 meters below us.

Later, plans for the following day were hatched and coaxed into workable dive plans. The wreck would be the Polynesia. Again, a three-stage dive and another long 10-minute transit to the site—this is what wreck diving should be like in the UK; great visibility, warm water, short transits, and lovely, intact wrecks!

Down the shot and this time we could make out that the current was running slightly, but nothing massive. I dropped into the lea of the wreck, having seen it from 30 meters above, and made my way towards the bow and the deck gun. Looking up from the seabed in front of the bow, I saw Leo and Howard silhouetted against the bright surface 68 meters above me; what a sight!

After taking some shots we swam over the deck and through what would have been the cabin areas and over the elevator shafts into the holds. The wreck is very intact and the options for penetration are great so down we went and had a lovely swim before coming back over the deck area. Both Howard and I looked over at each other as we exited this area with huge grins on our faces: this was an awesome dive–and not in the over-used American meaning of the word—it really was awesome!!

Back on the boat Howard and I agreed that this was the best wreck dive we had done ever and that we needed to come back out again and see more of it, next time using scooters to allow us to swim around the 155-meter beauty. The middle of August will find Howard and I back out again to dive the bow of the Southwold, the Polynesia, and the Schnellboot.

Pictures by Gareth Lock, www.imagesoflife.co.uk


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