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Project Ocean Vision, Expedition Ocen Vision 5 to Malta, April 2011.

EXPEDITION OCEAN VISION 5 - MALTA 2011


Expedition Ocean Vision 5 took the Project Ocean Vision Team to Malta for a mixture of underwater filming for our marine conservation videos, shooting footage and stills of the amazing and varied architecture and making a short video about the tourism and diving industries on the islands.

As independent travellers we flew with Air Malta and making all our accommodation, diving and vehicle rental arrangements with a local company, Paradise Diving, located at the northern most tip of Malta and who were very helpful. We based ourselves in the northern town of Mellieha (Mellieħa) for the duration of our stay. There is a link to our Video Diary at the bottom of this page.

We'll start with a brief section on Malta itself.

 

Project Ocean Vision - Expedition Ocean Vision 5 to Malta 2011

This page gives a summary of our expedition, with more detail on Malta itself. For a more detailed account go to Vox, Chapter 16.



Maltese Flag

 

MALTA

The Republic of Malta (Repubblika ta' Malta), is an archipelago in the central Mediterranean, 93 km south of Sicily, 350 km north of Libya. Malta covers a little over 300 km² making it one of the world's smallest countries. The Republic of Malta comprises 5 main islands: Malta (Malta), Gozo (Għawdex), Comino (Kemmuna), Cominotto (Kemmunett) and Filfla (Żurrieq); the last two of these are really large, uninhabited rocks, but notable diving locations. There are a number of smaller, named rocks. Malta is famed for its cave and wreck diving, but we shall examine the true extent of this later.


Malta's capital is Valletta, which, with a number of other towns, forms a single, large conurbation - the Larger Urban Zone - with a population of 368,250 (the vast majority of Malta's 413,000). Malta has two official languages, Maltese and English; Maltese is considered the national language. The Maltese language has substantial borrowing from Arabic, Sicilian, Italian, French and (increasingly) English.

Since it was first settled around 5,200 BC Malta's location has made it very important strategically. It has been ruled by a succession of powers: the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Sicilians, the Knights of St John, the French and the British - each has contributed to its rich architecture and culture. Malta gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964 and became a republic in 1974. It is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, the United Nations (1964), the European Union (2004) and the Eurozone (2008).











Maltese Scudo

 

Malta's economy is based on limestone quarrying, textiles, electronics manufacturing, shipping and, largely, tourism. Some 1.2 million tourists visit the Maltese islands each year, many for some of the best diving in the Mediterranean - again we shall examine the diving here a little later.

Before joining the Eurozone, Malta had a succession of currencies: the Maltese scudo (left) until 1798, the Maltese pound until 1972 and the Maltese Lira until 2008. Maltese scudos are still minted today and, although not recognized elsewhere as legal tender, it is fixed at about a quarter of a euro.

Maltese euro coins feature the Maltese Cross on €2 and €1 coins, the Maltese Coat of Arms on the €0.50, €0.20 and €0.10 coins, and the Mnajdra Temples on the €0.05, €0.02 and €0.01 coins.





The Maltese landscape is predominantly low, rolling hills with terraced fields enclosed by dry stone walls. The highest point on Malta is Ta' Dmejrek, at 253 metres above sea level. There are some small rivers at times of high rainfall, but there are no permanent lakes on Malta and only a few watercourses normally have fresh water running all year.

The main airport is at Luqa and the island has a substantial bus service as well as ferries between islands - more on both of these later. A number of airlines fly to Malta and the flight time from the UK is about three hours.

The state religion is Roman Catholicism and some 98% of the population is Roman Catholic, making Malta one of the most Catholic countries in the world. That said, freedom of religion is an important constitutional right. The crime rate is low and Malta is a safe place for travellers.

Malta has a long history of architecture, influenced by the many different Mediterranean cultures that have inhabited the islands over their history and, more recently, the British. Our Expedition Ocean Vision 5 video diary shows some of the amazing, diverse styles that make the islands so fascinating. [Expedition Project Ocean Vision 5 Video Diary]




EXPEDITION OCEAN VISION 5 - MALTA 2011 - EXPEDITION DIARY

Day 0: Thursday 31 June 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

We elected to pre-position near Heathrow Airport, staying in the Heathrow Sheraton, rather than face a rush and unpredictable traffic on the morning of our flight. This is our preferred option these days. Like our previous encounter with Sky Executive Cars when leaving for Expedition Ocean Vision 4 in November 2010, they were late. However, we'd left ourselves a bit of flex and were at the hotel in time for supper and drinks - a good job we weren't flying this evening or we would have been late.









Air Malta Airbus
Air Malta Airbus
 

Day 1: Friday 1 July 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

Fly to Malta.

Air Malta, Flight KM101, depart LHR Terminal 4 10:50, arrive Luqa 15:05.

We checked in around 08:00 - all very easy for a change, even security was fine. We had purchased the Air Malta sports baggage allowance for €20 (each way) for up to 32 kilos, which is pretty good and comes on top of their 20 kilos per person allowance - essential with all the dive and video gear involved with underwater filming.

Currency exchange, breakfast and shopping occupied the dead time before boarding. Again it was all remarkably easy, but our departure was delayed by a 'shortage of baggage handlers' - those that were there weren't exactly exerting themselves, I have to say - lots of standing around watching one guy idly throwing bags onto a conveyor.

Despite the very reasonable cost of our tickets with Air Malta, the flight was comfortable and pleasant and included a very acceptable meal. Arrival at Malta International Airport (formerly RAF Luqa, until 1979) was easy; it's a good little airport (operational since March 1992) and even has numbered arrival and departure gates, although these are really just doors that all lead out onto the same ramp where passengers walk to or from their aircraft.

Joe Borg (apartment owner and car rental) met us in his classic, black Mercedes. Forty minutes later we arrived at Sunflower Flats in Mellieha, a quiet, pleasant 'village' in northern Malta with a population of some 7,000 or so. Our flat was bright, clean, nicely furnished and very much larger than we had expected. We sorted out all our kit and ventured out search of somewhere to eat and drink.



Sandro Vella, Il Mithna, Mellieha
Sandro Vella, Il Mithna, Mellieha, Malta



Il Mithna, Mellieha
Il-Mithna Restaurant, Mellieha, Malta
 

Il-Mithna Restaurant, Mellieha, Malta

We soon found Il-Mithna, a delightful restaurant housed in a 16th century windmill, built by the Knights of St John. We met Sandro Vella, patron and head chef of Il-Mithna, who is charming, professional and attentive. In fact all of his staff were quite excellent.

Il-Mithna has a varied and interesting menu of both local and international cuisine and it is all superb. Some of our favourite example mains are Pork Fillet (€16.50), Rack of Lamb (€19.50), Barbary Duck Breast (€17.50) and Saddle of Local Rabbit (€16.50). Sandro's set menu at €15 a head is also worth looking at and comes with a glass of wine.

You can have a good meal at Il-Mithna, with a delightful little starter and a good bottle of Maltese red wine (we particularly liked the Palatino Merlot) for around €30-45 for two. Il-Mithna is relaxed and friendly, the food always perfect, the surroundings quite delightful, the prices very good and Sandro Vella is charming. It's safe to say the Il-Mithna became our favourite dining spot.

We chose to sit outside each evening because it's a great place to watch the world go by. There is a terrace along the front of the resaurant, a courtyard at the side and a beautiful dining room inside with a vaulted, stone ceiling. It is a popular spot, so it's worth making a reservation, but if you are just passing without a booking, it's worth asking if Sandro can fit you in.

If you find yourself in northern Malta, go to Mellieha, drive along the main street (not the by-pass) and look out for the old windmill tower (see photo, left) and go in and meet Sandro Vella and enjoy a wonderful supper. Il Mithna is open every night from 6 p.m. Il-Mithna is one of Malta's gems.


Carol Courtnage at Il Mithna
Carol Courtnage at Il-Mithna
Il Mithna, Mellieha, 1900
The Il-Mithna windmill in 1900, Malta



Day 2: Saturday 2 July 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

Down Day. Accommodation at Sunflower Apartments, Mellieha. Malta's Buses.

We found our local shop and stocked up on essentials (wine, cheese, corn flakes and salami), before setting of for Mellieha Beach. Now, today is a very significant day in Malta's history. For decades, since 1905, the islands have been served by a fleet of old, orange buses (xarabank karozza tal-linja); a hundred different makes and models, a huge part of the Maltese heritage and tradition. Many makes and models are in service here that are no longer operational anywhere else in the world and a lot of them are unique, having been extensively decorated, rebuild and modified by their owners. They were cheap to use and fairly reliable, although hot in summer. Fifty-three cents would get you a long way and one would usually be along every 20 minutes or so - I don't think there was actually a working timetable, as such. Drivers own their own buses and start work early in the morning and they often work late into the evening, although they have been known to stop the bus, tell everyone to get off and simply go home when they'd had enough. A bit of a law unto themselves.

But today's the last day of this wonderful, characterful service. Tomorrow it is to be replaced by turquoise, Arriva buses - all rather sad. So we had to go and ride, film and photograph their final day in service. We're told that the Maltese Government offerred drivers/owners a lot of money (€100,000) for the old buses - presumably a form of compensation for taking away their livelihood. Some, not all, drivers were offered jobs with Arriva, but there seemed to be a bit of bad feeling and (understandable) sadness around.

So today we rode on the last of the old Maltese orange buses, and a great experience it was too! See our video diary for a final memenry of these fine old chaps.

We enjoyed our day out and had another superb supper at Il-Mithna. We finished off our kit assembly and sorting, ready to check in with Paradise Dive Centre tomorrow morning. We decided to delay the start of our actual diving, originally scheduled for tomorrow, by 24 hours to ensure we were fit and ready.


 








Old Maltese Bus
One of the old Maltese busses on their last day of service, 2 July 2011
















Old Maltese Bus
Old Malta Orange Bus, 2 July 2011









Maltese Arriva Bus
Arriva Bus on its first day of service, 3 July 2011
















Paradise Diving
Paradise Diving Centre, Cirkewwa, Malta
 

Day 3: Sunday 3 July 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

We had our dive gear collected this morning to get it down to the dive centre so that we could catch a new Arriva bus and go to check in with them. We had a bit of a wait for a bus and got talking about Malta and the buses to some locals - mixed feelings here.

When a bus finally arrived, it transpired that all of Malta's new buses were free this day; not an introductory offer of goodwill, the ticket machines weren't working. Our driver didn't seem to know his route or how to drive a bus with working brakes and there were three supervisors wearing day-glo Arriva jackets watching his every move - presumably he was a foreign driver and they needed to ensure that he drove according to Maltese convention and never touched his indicators. As you can see from the picture (left), he wasn't doing too well!

Still, the buses were clean and smart and air conditioned and comfortable, the bus drivers were polite and welcoming and Arriva appeared to be taking care that (apart from some early teething problems) things were running safely.

And so, on to the Paradise Dive Centre. Cirkewwa is at the northwest tip of the island of Malta. On the western side is Paradise Bay and the Paradise Bay Hotel, overlooking the azure blue Mediterranean Sea. On the northern side is the Gozo Ferry Terminal. The dive centre is on this northern side overlooking the docks, its cranes and containers. The centre is balanced on a small beach of sand, grit and shingle with sun loungers and somewhat inadequate beach umbrellas. Set into the wall behind the beach we find a small café and some grey, steel doors that reveal themselves to be the entrance to Paradise Diving. There is a concrete terrace covered by large blue and white awnings that offer welcome shade, but no refuge from the gritty sand, which quickly covers everything.

I can't say we were exactly welcomed with opened arms, but we did our business there, arranged to start diving the following day and shaded ourselves from the sun. We left feeling a little 'uninspired', but with our usual optimism felt that tomorrow would be better.



Day 4: Monday 4 July 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

Diving with Paradise Dive Club

We rose early to make sure all the video gear was ready to go straight into the water. We felt this was important as our pickup from Sunflower Apartments was at 08:15 and the first dive at 09:00. What with getting to the dive centre, prepping dive kit, our arrival brief, dive brief and getting into their boat, we thought time might be tight. Arriving there at 08:30 or so, we found Paradise Diving closed. It then opened, but there were no instructors - or 'guides' as we prefer - to be seen. We rather needed these people to show us where the sites we wanted were. They arrived at about 09:30 (we do not think this is a regular occurrence). Not wishing to appear too critical, we found the organization and briefings at Paradise Diving somewhat minimal. Their operation appears perfectly comfortable, but customer care is nominal and we had to dig fairly deeply and persistently to uncover their safety and emergency procedures.

Carol has a lot of metalwork in her spine and right knee, which doesn't cause any significant problems, but we decided years ago not to risk putting unnecessary strain on either and so Carol generally kits up at the water entry point (dive deck, boat side, jetty or in the water, depending on the situation) to avoid carrying or wearing all that weight when it's not necessary. This meant that we had her kit to move down to and back from the boat in addition to all the video camera gear, so we asked for some help. This was flatly refused, so I had to make two trips to and from the boat each dive - apart from the extra effort involved, this meant that it took us significantly longer to prepare for each dive.

Paradise Diving use their two white speed boats to dive from; these double as passenger boats taking day trippers to and from Comino and the Blue Lagoon and are not ideal dive boats. They have occasional use of a larger, blue speed boat, owned by one of the boatmen, that is much better suited to diving.

Our first dive took us to The Arch, which is a short ride north of the ferry terminal, on the edge of the coastal reef. The Cirkewwa Arch is the entrance to a collapsed cavern, not far from the island of Comino. The Arch is at about 12 metres and the sandy bottom at about 20.

Carol got kitted up in the boat, but then found it very difficult to get up onto the side of the boat to do a backward roll into the water. Our 'guide' offered some fairly obvious advice on how to do it, but when this didn't work his response was 'Well, I don't know how you're going to do it', at which point he jumped into the water leaving us to struggle on ourselves.

We saw a lot of sea grass, posidonia oceanica, some sea weed and an arch. Not the most inspiring dive we've ever seen, but pleasant enough.

Our second dive started with another sketchy brief and, once again, there was absolutely no help with lugging kit - dive centre staff actually sat and watched me struggling past them with Carol's dive kit and the video gear, making two trips to and from the boat, without even offering to help to get it in or out of the boat. More sea grass and seaweed. After 20 minutes in 17°C water below the 20m thermocline (25° above it), we were really cold. We don't mind getting a bit cold if there's something worth seeing and filming, but there wasn't much here.


 


Cirkewwa Ferry Terminal
The Cirkewwa Ferry Terminal, Malta


























Carol Courtnage
Carol Courtnage diving at the Arch, Cirkewwa, Malta






Tugboat MV Rozi

Tugboat MV Rozi, Malta
The tugboat MV Rozi, Cirkewwa, Malta.









Carol Courtnage in the engine room of the tugboat MV Rozi, Malta
Carol Courtnage in the engine room of the tugboat MV Rozi, Malta



 

Day 5: Tuesday 5 July 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

Diving the Tugboat MV Rozi , Cirkewwa.

The MV Rozi is a 40 metre harbour tug built in Bristol in 1958 by Charles Hill & Sons and launched as the Rossmore. In 1969 she was sold to the Rea Towing Co and renamed Rossgarth. In 1972 she was sold to Mifsud Brothers (Malta Ship Towage Ltd) and sailed from Liverpool to Malta. In 1981 she was sold to Tug Malta and renamed Rozi. Tugboat MV Rozi operated in Grand Harbour, Valletta, until 1992 when she was sold to Captain Morgan Cruises to be scuttled near the Cirkewwa Ferry Terminal as an attraction for tourists in their glass-bottomed boat, a service that no longer operates, and is now a very popular dive site.

The MV Rozi sits on upright on the bottom at 36 metres, her deck is around 32 metres and the top of the superstructure at about 25 metres; her bow faces west. The engines and propeller were removed before she was scuttled, but otherwise the MV Rozi is intact and nicely encrusted. The location of the MV Rozi is marked by a large yellow buoy (on a bearing of 300° magnetic from the Cirkewwa lighthouse), and is a short surface swim of about 140m from shore.

We arrived at her stern, which offered us the chance to see and film her rudder and to explore her engine room (left). This has easy access as the deck plates above this area have been removed. The funnel sits forward of this space and then there is a short gap before the wheelhouse, which can be safely and easily entered. There are a number of hatches and doors below the wheelhouse and a large deckspace leading forward to the impressive bow, still dressed with its truck tyre bumpers.

We left the MV Rozi and headed back to the 'reef', which hosts some wildlife, but the wreck is definitely the highlight in this area. Our time on the MV Rozi was slightly limited so we wanted to come back later in the exped to do some more filming here. The MV Rozi is a good little dive site.



Day 6: Wednesday 6 July 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

Diving with Paradise Dive Club.

This morning we arrived to a closed, deserted dive centre, so we waited outside the large, grey steel doors. Once these were unlocked we set up our gear and did some more waiting. A lack of organization on their behalf led to a rush to move kit to their boat, again with no offer of help.

Our dive site was the Ras il-Hobz pinnacle, a 40 metre rock pinnacle that sits a few metres below the surface and just 12 metres off the headland (Ras). It is abundant in marine life and is a simple, but good dive. The light was good and the visibility around 20 metres, good conditions for filming and exploring.

I might just mention that Ras il-Hobz is the site of one of a sewage outfall that discharges at a depth of 80m, 140m from the shore. At the turn of the century, all of Malta's sewage discharge (2 outfalls on Malta and 3 in Gozo) was untreated. Under the 1976 Barcelona Convention, Malta was obliged to introduce treatment and from June 2011 the discharge of raw sewage into the sea was stopped. Ras il-Hobz became the site for the treatment plant for Gozo's wastewater. Today, Malta's treated sewage outfalls are at Ras il-Ħobż in Gozo, Ta' Barkat near Xgħajra and Iċ-Ċumnija near Mellieħa. Malta and Gozo generate around 61,000m3 of wastewater every day.


  Carol Courtnage
Carol Courtnage Diving at Ras il-Hobz, Gozo

Following our morning dive, Carol and I retired to a couple of sun loungers to consider our feelings about diving with Paradise Diving. We concluded that it was all very relaxed, possibly a little too relaxed and customers here have no idea what the emergency plan might be if a diver were to have a serious problem in the water. For example, what happens if a buddy pair has to surface without their guide? Where's the boat (often out of site behind a headland and we never saw a boatman watching for divers anyway)? What safety equipment do they carry? Who's qualified to use it? What help is available? We had the answer to some of these questions, but only after repeated enquiries. It seems the thrust of their plan is to call 112 on a mobile phone (I often dive without one) and be rescued by Malta's excellent search and rescue service - if you know the Maltese name for your dive site. The Paradise Diving concept of operations is that customers simply follow the instructors and let them handle everything - not for us to criticise, perhaps, but this is not quite our style of diving and we didn't find it all that well suited to filming for marine conservation videos.

On the plus side, the Paradise Diving Centre equipment was all in good condition and carefully maintained - the owner personally strips and resprays all the centre's air cylinders every winter and very good they looked too. We watched their operation quite carefully and I have to say that their instructors were very good with their Open Water students; they were thorough, patient and coped well with a number of languages. I think Paradise Diving, Malta, would be a good place to learn to dive and, if you're not filming, an easy place to go from the UK for a long weekend's diving.








Mdina
Main Gate to the Silent City of Mdina, Malta 2011













Mdina
Mdina , Malta 2011
 

Day 7: Thursday 7 July 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

Exploring and filming Malta - Mdina

The next phase of the exped was four days exploring the islands and getting to see some of the local culture. Our landlord, Joe Borg, called by this morning to drop off our car, a neat little Hyundai Getz, great for running around (with air con), but probably only on reasonably good roads. Today we're off to Mdina.

Mdina is a mediaeval, walled city, which used to be the capital of Malta until 1568 when the Knights of St John built the new city of Valletta after the Great Siege of 1565. Before that, the area had been inhabited by the Greeks, Romans and, probably, the Phoenicians in about 700 BC. The Romans called it Melita, which was also their name for the island itself, and it is known as 'The Silent City'. Much of the city wall is Roman and fortifications were added throughout the centuries by numerous occupiers, although a lot of Mdina was destroyed by a huge earthquake in 1693. Today is has a population of only 300.

We entered Mdina through the main gate, erected in 1724, replacing the old drawbridge whose outline is still visible to the right of the new gate and which used to span the moat - the edge of the outline is visible on the right side of the top picture for today's entry (above-left). The main street (Triq Il Villegaignon) took us to the northern bastion from where we were afforded a beautiful panorama of northern Malta, across Bugibba, Mosta and the Mediterranean beyond.

The place to eat here is Ciapetta in St Agatha's Esplanade. Beautiful shaded courtyards are filled with lush greenery and the food is wonderful. After lunch and some excellent local wine, we wandered the narrow lanes and breathed the essence of Mdina.

As it was becoming quite hot, we toured the remainder of the city in a pony and trap, which also took us around neighbouring Rabat.



Bouquet Garni

Carol and I tried Bouquet Garni, a small restaurant that had been recommended to us. We hadn't booked, but by going early we were able to get in - our friends advised us that it does get busy (it is very popular) so a reservation is a good idea. It is on the main street through Mellieha, Triq Gorg Borg Olivier.

We were met by Anton, the owner, who was friendly and helpful. After taking our drinks order, he bought a large plate of various fresh fish to show us what was available on his menu that evening. Fresh fish is their speciality - and very good it is too. If you're unfamiliar with the local species, Anton is very happy to advise.

The food, wine and service were all excellent and we would happily recommend Bouquet Garni to everyone visiting Mellieha. Bouquet Garni, 4,Gorg Borg Olivier Street Mellieha.



Day 8: Friday 8 July 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

Exploring and filming Gozo.

Our plan for today was to go across to Gozo on the ferry and to explore the most northerly of the Maltese islands. The Gozo Channel Line operates three large car and passenger ferries (M.V. Ta' Pinu, M.V Gaudos and M.V. Malita) between Cirkewwa on Malta and Mgarr Harbour on Gozo all year, including weekends, Public Holidays and a night service. A car and two people can cross both ways for under €25 and the service is good; gifts, books, food and drink are all available on board and they don't make a lot of unnecessary fuss about loading and unloading cars and foot passengers.

Steaming past the island of Comino, we were offered a good view of Malta's solution to its waters' lack of fish - fish farms. We have seen a lot of these all around Malta, which is not surprising as the Mediterranean has been fished for thousands of years and over-fished for decades. Yes, these are a means of raising fish for the ever-demanding Mediterranean market, but they are not an ecologically sound solution. Virtually no fish farm in the world breed their own fish - some are trying with mixed success - so fish farmers still have to catch all the stock fish and massive quantities of smaller fish either to feed directly to the stock or to be processed into fish granules.

Keeping large numbers of fish in such tight confines concentrates disease and parasites that affect the stock and local, wild fish populations - not that there are many of these left. Overfeeding clouds and pollutes the local waters. The lack of much else to eat causes large predators, mainly sharks, to be attracted to the pens, which they regularly damage or, worse, become entangled in. See my article on fish farming for more on this.

Gozo itself is very rural and, looking at its capital, Victoria, is in something of a decline. Talking to the locals here, the youngsters go to mainland Malta or abroad to attend university, but then find that there are no jobs or careers on Gozo that suit their qualifications or their expectations. The island is quiet, rather too quiet for the younger generation and, so, many simply move away to somewhere more exciting and with better prospects.

Tourism is by far the main source of income here and this means that the locals continually build hundreds of new apartments even though once beautiful older buildings are standing empty and starting to decay. The global recession (and, maybe, a false impression that Malta is somehow bound up with the troubles in Libya) means fewer visitors, so a lot of the new apartments also remain empty or stand unfinished. This does nothing for the appearance of many of the towns and villages.

Malta and Gozo don't have many sandy beaches so wherever a patch of sand protrudes from the sea it is immediately pounced upon and rapidly surrounded by a jumble of ugly, modern flats. The islands are quickly being ruined by careless over-development. And, I have to say, one doesn't have to look too hard to see that the building quality is not always that great.


 



The Gozo Ferry
The Gozo Ferry. Photo by Paul Courtnage














Gozo
Gozo













Cannon on the Cidadel Wall, Victoria
Cannon on the Citadel Wall, Victoria.
Photo by Carol Courtnage

We found ourselves atop the Citadel that dominates Victoria. It is a grand and very impressive fortified town, but even this is falling into disrepair. We didn't have to explore very far to find large areas of it that are derelict (much of it from a very long time ago) and overgrown with prickly pears, which seem to flourish wherever man has made his mark and moved on - or, in this case, moved away. Victoria has a population of roughly 6,500.

Formerly Rabat, the city was renamed Victoria by the British in 1897 for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee; many locals still call it Rabat. The Citadel dates back to Neolithic times and the first fortifications here were constructed around 1,500 BC. Like Mdina, it was further developed by the Phoenicians, Romans and the Knights of St John.

The walls contain an elaborate 17th cathedral (the Cathedral of Assumption), which is the work of the same Maltese architect that built cathedral in Mdina, Lorenzo Gafà.

Gozo means 'joy' in Castilian. It is the second largest Island of the Maltese archipelago, with a population of approximately 30,000. Gozo is distinctly different from Malta, more rural and simple, its culture and way of life rooted in fishing and basic agriculture.

Whereas Malta was blessed with natural harbours and defences, Gozo was totally exposed to any passing raiders. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the rule of the Knights of St John, Barbary corsairs and Saracens regularly raided the island and, in 1551, the Saracens captured almost the entire population for slavery. Gozo never really recovered from this and remained under-populated for centuries until the arrival of the Knights and the refortification of Rabat.

The inhabitants of Gozo have their own distinct style with noticeably different lifestyles, accents and dialect. We found them to be very friendly and welcoming.

We found a lovely bay on the north coast near Marsalforn, nestled between the hill-top towns of Xagħra and Żebbuġ, which made a pleasant resting place - ignoring the usual new apartments. But we were also pleasantly surprised to discover more about Maltese produce. We discovered throughout our explorations just how much of its own fruit and veg the islands produce (about 20% of its food needs). Given that most of the islands are covered by rocky scrubland or, in the case of southern Malta, a large conurbation, it is quite amazing how much produce comes from numerous, small fields and allotments. We saw tomatoes, vines, olives, figs, salad crops, citrus, plums, garlic, melons, pumpkins and onions. Long, hot days make great growing conditions as long as the growers add water, which brings us to our next point, water.

It rains a lot here in the winter months, but they don't seem to collect it for the long, dry, hot summer. There are no permanent lakes or reservoirs on the islands and we saw no rivers at all, just dried up river beds. So with a large population (maybe around 420,000 in just 316 km2) that is swelled greatly by 1.2 million tourists every year, they are forced to desalinate sea water. This is expensive and adds hugely to their, already massive, oil bill - oil is imported in vast quantities to generate electricity, which is also very expensive in Malta. Until the events of 2011, Malta had a great deal going with Libya who provided them with cheap oil. But the uprising and (I'm going to call it) civil war there meant that Malta had to buy it on the open market and energy prices and cost of living on the islands soared - a constant danger for any small place that is almost totally reliant on the outside world for its needs.






Valletta
Valletta




HarbourAir, Valletta, Malta
Turbine Single Otter Seaplane of HarbourAir, Valletta
 

Day 9: Saturday 9 July 2011 July 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

Exploring and filming in Valletta.

So, south to the Maltese capital, Valletta. This is a huge, impressive, baroque, walled city, built as a fortress by the Knights of St. John in 1568. The city walls are tens of metres thick, the gates are magnificent and ornate and, for the time being, the buildings are old, decorative and grand. The city has a good feel about it and is crammed with treasures: bars, restaurants, gift shops and historic buildings and churches.

We started our visit by taking a seaplane to afford us a bird's eye view of Valletta as well as the islands of Malta, Comino, Cominotto and Gozo and to capture some pictures of Mdina and the other places we had visited. This is an experience we would highly recommend as it allows one to take in most of this small country in a relatively short space of time; it's well worth getting to know the islands on the ground first as this puts the flight into better context.

Like the ferries, Harbour Air make it very easy to jump aboard their DHC-3 Turbine Single Otter with none of the rigmarole that usually comes with flying. Our pilot, Stephan, is a Canadian that had been diving up at Paradise Diving with us and, usefully, took us everywhere we needed to go.




HMS Ocean in Valletta
HMS Ocean in Valletta Harbour by Carol, Malta 2011









Valletta
The Centre of Valletta by Carol, Malta 2011
 

There are some great bars and restaurants on the front at the Grand Harbour, many of which had sprouted Union Flags, White Ensigns and Canadian Maple Leaves and the reason for this was revealed to us as the presence of HMS Ocean (Amphibious Helicopter and Troop Carrier, launched 1995) and the Canadian frigate HMCS Charlottetown (multi-role patrol frigate, launched 1994) in Valletta harbour. There is money to be made from two ships' compliments of thirsty, hungry sailors and, with the troubles in north Africa, they were likely to be around, on and off, for a while - the crews we saw looked pretty happy with that.

It's a long climb from the harbour to the centre of town in the summer heat, so worth taking it gently with regular stops to cool down and refuel. Republic Street runs the length of the town from the grand, main gate in the west to Fort St Elmo (now the Police Academy) at the city's eastern point. It was at the eastern end that we found the war museum, which wonderfully captures and preserves the hell that was Malta's lot during WWII as well as the amazing spirit and bravery.

Malta's important strategic position and its proximity to the Axis powers' shipping lanes made it a prime target during World War II when it was besieged (not for the first time) and heavily bombed and shelled by the Germans who, like the Knights of St John, were determined to own this strategically vital place. But the Maltese people held out bravely, only occasionally relieved by the Malta Convoys of 1941 and 1942 bringing urgent supplies to a starving island. This was of special interest to me as my grandfather (Harry Courtnage) was on HMS Manchester as part of the massive escort of Operation Pedestal's 14 merchant ships.



HMS Manchester 1942
HMS Manchester in 1942

 

HMS Manchester was a Town Class Light Cruiser. On 13th August 1942 she was attacked and torpedoed by two Italian Motoscafo Armato Silurante (Torpedo Armed Motorboat or 'MAS') off the coast of Tunisia and very badly damaged. Her captain, Captain Harold Drew, decided to scuttle HMS Manchester to prevent her radar and other equipment falling into enemy hands. While many of the crew were rescued by allied ships, many more, including my grandfather, were captured and imprisoned by the Vichy French in Tunisia - they were not well treated, but fortunately liberated by the Americans after some six months. As an aside, the wreck of HMS Manchester was found in 2002 and dived by a team of 10 British divers in November 2009 - she lies in 85 metres of water.

King George VI awarded Malta the George Cross on 15th April 1942. The image of the George Cross appears in the upper hoist corner of the Maltese Flag. This is not the same as the Maltese or Amalfi cross, which was the symbol of the Knights of Malta. The Maltese Cross is a national symbol.

We could easily have spent two or three days exploring Valletta, but we needed to move on - so much to do, so little time!



Day 10: Sunday 10 July 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

Marsascala

And so for a trip down memory lane for Carol. Some 35 years earlier, Carol had come to Malta on a family holiday. They had taken a villa on the south side of the bay in a place called Marsascala, a fishing village in the east of the island, just south of Valletta. We decided to drive ourselves there and this brings me to another point. There is something you need to know about driving in Malta; one or two things, actually. First be very relaxed about how people drive. We did see a couple of people out and about in driving school cars, but we couldn't easily surmise what they might be being taught or what the driving test might entail. Which side of the road do they drive on in Malta? The shady side.

Next, whilst there are some decent ('arterial') roads, don't expect to know how to get onto or off them just by looking at the road signs. You need a good map and careful concentration (not to mention a fair wind a good luck) to avoid getting sucked into the centre of many small villages or finding yourself on a minor road, many of which are 4x4 territory and not for the faint hearted. I have no satnav, but I do have a Carol, who is an excellent navigator, but we still found a few challenges on the Maltese roads.

And that brings me to my third point about using their roads: don't get onto the minor roads in a little car (the ones marked in yellow or just an outline on the map). The potholes, ruts and bumps will try to break your suspension, the hills will probably exceed your engine's capabilities and there's every chance that you'll simply run out of road. But it is an adventure.

With all the above in mind and the random removal of some roads that were clearly there on the map, it took us a fair part of the morning to arrive in Marsascala. The best place I could find to park was a pedestrian crossing, so we abandoned our vehicle and went in search of refreshment.

Marsascala was no longer the quaint little fishing village of Carol's younger days, it was overgrown with holiday apartments and scruffy bars. Unlike other places we had seen in Malta, it looked like the 'new' building had started much earlier, probably about 30 years ago, so the buildings that had sprung up since Carol's previous visit were now looking sad.

No one had bothered to get a paintbrush out for the last three decades so the whole place had taken on the appearance of a run-down seaside resort. Why they felt the need to knock down the old, pleasant, stone houses to make way for breeze blocks shedding flaky, faded paint, I cannot say. It's such a shame.

We think we found the villa that Carol as a youngster and her family had inhabited and we found the spot where she had bravely launched herself on a cross-harbour swim. The only other landmarks that were still there were the church and tower, an old fort (these are everywhere in Malta) and the salt pans where men evaporate seawater to make sea salt, well, sea salt mixed with other contents of the Med along with a quantity of donkey droppings and insects. Seriously, Carol has seen it done!

I can't say that we were that impressed with Marsascala. Returning to Mellieha, we discovered that we much preferred the north of the island. It seems less spoilt and more rural. It has a better feel.



Day 11: Monday 11 July 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

Tourists.

We wanted a day at the beach so we decided to catch one of the new Arriva buses down to Mellieha Beach.

Now, the buses had been running for just over a week, good time to sort out the early problems of the new service. But they hadn't really. In fact, things had gone from bad to worse. A lot of drivers had left, gone on strike or been sacked and the number of buses running did not seem to be up to the job. Buses passed packed bus stops without stopping because they were almost full and drivers feared they would be unable to stop a surge of angry travellers forcing their onto the bus. Other buses passed by empty, apparently on their way to the start of their route. They could easily have helped clear some of the backlog on their way. People became increasingly frustrated and Arriva's reputation sank ever lower. At least they had fixed their ticket machines so they could take people's money.

We had our day at the beach and, after that, joined a long queue for a bus home. It didn't look good. After four buses passed without stopping followed by a 40 minute gap with no bus at all we decided to leave the baking sun behind and find our favourite beach bar, have a cold glass of wine whilst waiting for a taxi. Our driver took us right to our door in comfort for only a little more than Arriva would have charged us for an interminable wait and a jerky stand on one of their buses.

But now, every little village on the island had its own bus service to the airport. Not that anyone in the little villages ever want to go to the airport. Still, the buses on those routes run very efficiently, exactly on the timetable with no passengers at all, which is why those routes run so smoothly.

On the rest of the routes, the locals, the tourists and the drivers were all unhappy with the new service. On day one, some 60 drivers simply didn't show up for work. Arriva had to get more drivers from the UK. Things weren't going well.

The Arches Restaurant

We dined at what must be Malta's top restaurant, The Arches, run by Anthony Pace. If you come to Malta, you must dine here at least once. The Arches Restaurant is more expensive than the average in Malta, but everything about it is excellent. The food is outstanding, the service is exemplary and Anthony Pace has the largest wine selection that we know of in Malta - he was very enthusiastic about showing us around his cellar. Everything about the experience is delightful, from the moment one walks in. We really cannot recommend The Arches highly enough.



Day 12: Tuesday 12 July 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

Diving with Paradise Dive Club

Back to diving and filming today and I have to say that we were much more impressed with Paradise Diving than we had been before. What's more is that the dive sites improved dramatically. In the morning we dived the wreck of the P29 and in the afternoon we went across the channel to eastern Comino to the Comino Caves.

The 51 metre P29 was originally built for the East German Navy as a Kondor class Minesweeper and later transferred to the Maltese Armed Forces as a Fast Patrol Boat. She was scuttled for diving on 14th August 2007 and sits upright in around 35 metres of water, the top of her mast is at about 12 metres. The P29 was the sister ship to the P31, also later sunk for diving nearby.

The P29 is a straightforward dive. She has a single rudder and a flat deck at the stern, part of which is cut away to give easy access to the empty engine room. Forward of this is the funnel and then the superstructure and bridge, which is very open. The forward deck is also flat.

This is a good dive and you should really take your time to make the most of exploring the wreck carefully. The P29 is just beginning to get a good covering of flora and is home to many fish.

Malta has a reputation as a destination for cave diving and, whilst it is true to say that it has quite a number of overhead environments, most of these are little more than swim-throughs or, at best, caverns (in that you can always see an entrance and daylight, unlike true cave diving). That said, Comino Caves (or Santa Marija Caves) make a very interesting and beautiful dive, generally between 6 and 12 metres. There are a number of swim-throughs and lots of saddleback bream that are very happy to swim with divers.

Inside the caves, there is very little sediment (the bottom is mainly rock) and there is not much in the way of life either. But these caves have a beauty all of their own. The longest of the caves has a hole to the surface half way through, illuminating that section from above casting dancing rays through the darkened waters. After this the cave descends through a narrow gap to a 'moon pool' lit from below with vibrant blue light. These are visually stunning in the afternoon. A torch is useful, but not essential; I found it really good to have lights off and let my eyes adjust to the dim blue to enjoy nature's atmospheric mood lighting.


 






P29
The Wreck of the P29 by Courtney





Courtney on the P29
Courtney on the Patrol Boat P29 by Carol





P29
P29 by Carol, Malta 2011













Per Andersen
Per Andersen on the Tugboat MV Rozi by Carol, Malta
 

Day 13: Wednesday 13 July 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

Final Day with Paradise Diving - The Wreck of the Rozi.

Since we arrived in Malta the temperature has risen steadily. Now we were seeing 38°C in the morning and the sun was baking hot. Even the locals were complaining about the heat. Today was our last day of diving on this exped and we were very keen to finish off our filming on the tugboat MV Rozi , which we dived last week.

We arranged to dive with our Italian friend Giuseppe Capparella and our buddy from Denmark, Per Andersen, who had just come back with his girlfriend Annette from a weekend of diving and playing music at home. He is a great musician, as you will hear from his website www.perandersen.com - for non-Danish speakers, the music is on the page called 'Lydclip'.

Our dive on the MV Rozi was great. The light and water conditions were wonderful, perfect for filming. We did the wreck in the opposite direction this time (bow to stern), which gave us the opportunity to cover the areas we couldn't do thoroughly last time. Most importantly for me, we managed to get some wonderful video of the wreck of the MV Rozi for our expedition video diary.

This was a really good way to finish our diving here.


Carol Courtnage and Per Andersen
Carol Courtnage and Per Andersen diving on the Wreck of the Tugboat MV Rozi , Cirkewwa, Malta


Per-Andersen
Per Andersen in Denmark
From http://www.perandersen.com

 

We invited Giuseppe and his wife Marina, Per and Annette to join us for supper, so we all decamped to the Arches, which was as wonderful as ever. Unbeknown to us, Giuseppe very generously and naughtily paid the bill. Such good friends.

All that aside, we had a good day with great friends, excellent food and loads of delicious Maltese wine. We crawled into bed in the wee small hours and slept well.



Day 14: Thursday 14 July 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

Tourism and Packing Up.

For our final day, we had a couple of things we wanted to do as well as washing all our dive gear; that was job one so that it would all dry for packing up later on.

We wandered up to the big church in Mellieha, standing atop impressive cliffs as do so many churches and fortifications in Malta. It commands a fantastic view to the north and east, overlooking the north of the island, Comino and across to Gozo. After exploring the cloisters, we found a small, local café with an equally impressive view, where we stopped for lunch. We pondered what it must have been like for soldiers stationed at one of the numerous, remote forts we could see from our perch, back in the days of the Knights of St John. What did they do for food and water? What did they do when they spotted unfriendly ships heading their way? How quickly could support be deployed when needed? What if somebody was ill? What did they do to pass the time on a rocky, dry, scrubby island when they weren't besieged of fighting?

Walking back from the magnificent church and our little café, we came across two older gents who were rebuilding a 500 year old house that was carved out of the sandstone cliff. They invited us to view their work, which was wonderful. The basic shapes of the rooms were hewn out of the bedrock and extra walls, vaulting and stairs constructed from massive, beautifully cut stone blocks. At the rear was a further recess, carved into the cool rock, that had been the family air raid shelter for one of the gents during his childhood. This had been his family home and now he was making it beautiful for him to live in.

A narrow, steep, spiral staircase led us up to bedrooms above the main living area and small windows cut out of the rock lit it dimly. It was wonderfully cool inside and we fell in love with it immediately.

The old boy described that his wife, parents and brother had all died here and told us, without sadness, that he intended to do the same. 'Not soon', we wished to him. They had been as thrilled to show us their place as we had been to see it. It was a real work of art and a labour of love.

Then it was onward for the highlight of the day, something we very much wanted to try out. Getting down to Mellieha Beach involved the now usual lengthy wait for a bus that would stop for us - the service wasn't getting any better. We arrived at our favourite beach bar and enjoyed a glass of wine, while Courtney went off to rent us a jet ski for the afternoon. This was a frivolous indulgence, but enormous fun.

We didn't even bother trying to catch a bus home and went straight for the taxi option. We wined and dined for the last time on this trip at Il-Mithna and said our goodbyes to Sandro and his crew. We wandered home to our apartment for the last time with a small sadness in our hearts, having made many good friends and warmed greatly to the islands of Malta. It is very Mediterranean, but the huge mix of cultures that its history has bestowed upon it makes it quite unlike anywhere else. We like it. We like it very much and shall miss it greatly.


 




Mellieha
Mellieha, Malta 2011








Courtney
Courtney, Malta 2011








Carol Courtnage
Carol Courtnage, Malta 2011


Day 15: Friday 15 July 2011 - Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta

Return to UK.

We made ourselves a simple lunch of local produce: wine, cheese, bread, ham and tomatoes. We left for the airport at about 2:15 and took the little country back lanes as far as possible in order to take in as much of the rural landscape as we could; our last taste of Malta - for now.

There are a lot of small farms to be seen all over the island if one gets off the beaten track; it really is very deceptive from a distance. Malta grows a lot more fresh produce than many people think.

Malta International Airport is very good. Signs on its entrance doors boast that it was voted European Airport of the Year in 2010. And I can believe it. Despite a considerable volume of traffic and the handling of some 3.3 million passengers each year, there is very little in the way of queues for check-in, security or the departure gates. Again, everything to do with travel is done without too much unnecessary fuss or bother or inconvenience to the traveller - you know, the mug that's paying for a service and ends up being treated like cattle or 'self-loading cargo' as we have been described by certain members of the business. But not so much here. The whole place is new and bright and clean and the people are nice. The toilets are clean. They even have a Hard Rock Bar - so we stopped for a glass of wine.







Carol Courtnage
Carol Courtnage, Expedition Ocean Vision 5, Malta
 

Air Malta charged us £50-something for a seat on one of their eleven aircraft (5 Airbus 319s and 6 Airbus 320s). Let me digress for just a moment. With just 11 airframes, they fly something like 150 flights per week and manage to cover 35 airports in Europe, The Middle East and northern Africa. That's pretty efficient. Anyway, for the price we expected a seat (each) and not much else. But, no! A good little in-flight meal and a drinks service (with a smile and at very reasonable prices). There was even tea and coffee, if you like that sort of thing when you're travelling. Personally, we preferred a glass of their Pjazza Regina Maltese white wine. There is the occasional video screen to be seen, but I couldn't tell you what's on them. At slightly under three hours flight time to London, all one really needs is an MP3 player (my choice) or an Amazon Kindle (Carol's) or, if you remember paper, a book.

We met a lot of people in Malta that claimed to use EasyJet or RyanAir to save money, but we could see neither why you would want to make your journey with such grim organizations nor, really, how they are cheaper - especially once you pay for some baggage and some food. If you ask me, book early and fly Air Malta every time.
















Malta Mdina, Malta









Paradise Diving
Paradise Diving, Cirkewwa, Malta










Maltese Cross
 

Summary and Conclusions

Our exped to Malta involved a simple plan and our filming and photographic requirements were modest and easily met. We were also keen to find out more about diving in Malta as well as familiarizing ourselves with the Republic of Malta, its people and culture.

It is widely known that diving in the Mediterranean is not in the same league as many of the seas we have dived, but we are sure that Malta has some of the best that the Med has to offer. It has gained a reputation for wreck and cave diving, but it is probably fair to say that this is slightly overstated in the sense that the wrecks are generally small and many scuttled deliberately for diving and the caves are mainly swim-throughs or caverns rather than the more technical penetrations that we would expect from actual caves where one does not have constant access to or sight of an exit. Once we have drawn this distinction, the area offers a lot of interesting sites in these classes and most are suitable for less advanced divers, without redundant equipment.

Our exploration of Malta was a great success from a personal perspective and we found that Malta is unique in the region, distinct from any of its neighbours, but embracing many of their cultures. It is a small nation, steeped in history and the locals are generally friendly and welcoming, if not a little reserved at times. We warmed greatly to the islands and their people and this, combined with its easy access from Europe, makes it a very worthwhile holiday destination for those that are not necessarily looking for the more traditional beach and nightlife holiday. There is plenty of great food and the local wine ranges from good to excellent.

Whilst we only dived with one dive centre in Malta (Paradise Diving), we did contact, visit and investigate others in the north of Malta, and regarded the considered opinion of a fellow PADI professional who was diving with us at times. Generally, the dive operations in Malta are small scale and well-suited to divers that are happy to be led around various, local dive sites with minimal responsibility, involvement or choice. We found some concerns about safety procedures and customer care, but it appears that Malta has a good overall diving safety record. Its advantage is that European divers can easily come south to warmer, sometimes clearer, waters for a few days' diving with relative ease. But if you're looking for bright colours, abundant sealife, access to more exciting sites and high standards of professionalism and customer care, I'm afraid you'll have to travel further afield to places such as Egypt, Thailand or Australia. Paradise Diving is fine, but it doesn't really suit our style of diving and, in particular, taking professional video equipment into the water. I don't think they are really set up to cater for people that were there for a reason other than simple, instructor-led diving. We believe they would probably be a good outfit with which to learn to dive and they appear to cope with a number of European languages.

Overall our expedition to Malta was successful; we returned with the video footage we required and the experience we wanted. Our highlights were Mdina, Valletta, HarbourAir, Il-Mithna Restaurant, The Arches Restaurant, diving the Gozo Caverns and the wrecks of the P-29 and the tugboat MV Rozi. We liked Air Malta, their airport at Luqa and the charming Maltese culture.

Courtney and Carol Courtnage,
July 2011



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