Around half an hour after take-off from Malta on the way to Heathrow - and at 30,000 feet, we went past the Italian Island of Sicily with a clear view of the iconic Mt.Etna - she sits there fuming volcanic ash. The ash is heavier than air so there is usually no problem flying above, and so that is some sort of good news for air travellers in case she does wake up.
No doubt that she's a killer though (in 1987 two tourists were killed by an explosive eruption which came out of nowhere)- which means that she is likely to wake up when you least expect her to (I would never venture there...and those of you who seek to explore 'nature' around Mt. Etna...I wouldn't if I were you!).
On a slightly good note, Sicily is highly popular with tourists (the Chinese love it there, and May or June are the best months to go in!) who cannot resist it's charming 'out of this world' food; and proud Italians will always be the first ones to tell you that it's big (relatively big, yes) and the perfect destination for a road trip. If you decide to pick just one place, like Palermo, then all the better!
So, go on...book a week or two in Syracuse. there's something magical about going somewhere like Sicily.
Upon my graduation from Loughborough University, I was offered a job in the Republic of Malta (commonly known as just Malta), with ST Microelectronics, at that time one of the biggest employers in the country. However for one reason or another fate took me to Hong Kong to work for Philips Semiconductors. It was one of those difficult choices that you sometimes have to make in life. I wanted to live and work in Malta, but also in Hong Kong too! With a pinch of salt I made the decision to settle for the latter because it was farther away and somehow seemed more of an exotic destination than Malta (I take back my words now that I have been to Malta!). Ever since that day I had always wanted to visit Malta, but for some reason or another (and due to the pressures of a busy life I suppose!), I just never had the chance to go. That opportunity came in early October when suddenly I got an invitation from the Malta Tourism Authority to come and experience Scuba Diving in Malta.
Even before any training started I had to pass the full medical exam. Because Diving is one of the more dangerous sports around, so it is absolutely imperative that anyone taking part should be fully fit and healthy (i.e. have no exposure to Asthma, Epilepsy, Migraine Attacks or any lung problems). Initially I feared the worst because I do have a minute history of Asthma; however considering that my last Asthma attack was almost 12 years ago, so thankfully I was given the all clear by the doctor.
Prior to going to Malta, I attended a two day full immersion Diving Training course in London. This was arranged by BASC (British Sub Aqua Club), the UK’s leading dive club that provides an internationally recognized qualification for divers. The intensive pool orientation training was completed at the Shell Centre’s swimming pool in Waterloo. This included the basics of Diving, safety demonstrations, practice of balancing underwater, Snorkeling (which is easy!) and lots of practice related to the equipment and gaining confidence under water. The training was in preparation to qualify as an Ocean Diver where one can dive up to 20 meters deep under the guidance of a qualified Diver Manager.
Considering that I had never done any Diving before so this was a truly unique opportunity to try something adventurous. I was anxious because when you are carrying so much equipment on your body (especially the 10Kg cylinder at the back!), you do question yourself that once you are in the water, “What happens if I sink!?” But it’s all very safe and controlled. The Diving instructors are very professional and high training individuals so there was nothing to worry about- just needed to carefully listen and follow the instructions! The next step was to go to Malta and commence the three-day open water training that combined shore-based instruction with five open water dives with the instructor. The good thing about diving is that you don’t need to be a good swimmer- in actual fact its so easy that you don’t need to know any swimming at all because the flippers, along with the weightlessness in the water, do all the hard work for you. All you need to do is flap your feet gently and counter balance the air in the tank so that you don’t have too much or too less either. On Earth at least, Diving is probably the closet you’ll get to experience the affects of weightlessness in Space. It really is a remarkable feeling being underwater- quite surreal too, because all you hear is your breathing, and the hollow echoes of the surrounding water.
With over 40 dive centers across the Maltese Islands, for Europeans and North Africans, Malta is a great place to go diving because it’s reached well within a couple of hour’s flight time from any major European city, the waters are clean and clear (especially at Comino Blue Lagoon) and the weather is great- warm (ridiculously hot in the summer though), with clear blue skies for most of the year. I went in late October and even then we were welcomed by warm waters.
Voted the third best place for Diving in the world, the Maltese Islands are also a heaven for night diving, there are many beautiful sea life that come alive and are more vibrant during the night. Colors appear almost fluorescent by torchlight. Although I must admit that the thought of diving at night time is fearful and dangerous, because if you get lost or you lose your diving buddy then I suppose the only option left is to quickly accelerate yourself to the surface and send a distress signal. Therefore it is safe to conclude that Night diving is for experienced divers only.
The mornings were spent carrying out the open water training; while the afternoons were free to explore the cities and their restaurants in detail. Sliema, Valletta (the Capital city of the Maltese Archipelago), and St Julian's are Malta's modern, most happening and built up areas. It is where one will find the majority of the top hotels, rental apartments’, restaurants, bars, shops and clubs. The remainder of the Island is usually silent except for the few restaurants and bars that are open till midnight.
Malta is also a popular country with many Hollywood directors who decide to shoot scenes here. Because of the presence of yellow limestone buildings and the general calm feel that resembles a typical middle eastern village, if one is watching a movie filmed in some parts of Malta, it can be easily confused with, say, being in Iraq or Qatar. The Maltese Islands have been home to Hollywood movies such as Gladiator, U-571, Rules of Engagement, Troy (The highest tower on Comino is featured in the opening scenes), Munich and many others.
Places where I went diving:
The wreck of Lady Davinia, Sliema Creek
The Maltese islands are home to numerous purposely sunk vessels, scampered deliberately for the purpose of diving. The Lady Divinia is one such wreck located around 15 meters deep in the harbor. The Lady Divinia was formally known as the Zuara when it was with the Libyan Navy in the 1960s and also HMS Greetham prior to this when it was with the British. The Engine room and wheel house is in pristine condition, complete with a telephone. There are a myriad of large wine bottles and bits of complete cutlery scattered around on the harbor bed. Plenty of shiny silvery fish can be seen as well as some large groupers. We even came across a large lobster. The views down at this wreck are truly breathtaking.
X127 wreck, Manoel Island
Prior to this dive we carried out some useful diving exercises’, and also to get used to the surrounding waters. The Lighter X-127 is accessible from Manoel Island in Marsamxett Harbour. To reach the wreck, it takes about fifteen minutes, and divers have to swim in a south-westerly direction at any depth of around 10 meters. The greatest difficulty I had over here was balancing myself on the seabed, especially with currents pushing you away from your standing position, and also with the rather muddy seabed around the wreck is muddy! Dave, our instructor showed us around the wreak of the X127. The most amazing part of the dive was when we went through the wheelhouse and came out the other end, and also the huge torpedo damage at the stern of the vessel. Around the wreak there are meant to be lots f sea life lurking around, such as octopus, small groupers and thousands of small silvery fish.
Qawra Point, St Paul’s Bay
Qawra Point is located at the southern tip of St. Paul's Bay. The dive profile here drops slowly at first and the repetitiveness of the meadows gives way to a steep slope that goes down to a depth of 40 meters. As trainee divers we only went to a depth of around 20 meters and carried out underwater safety exercises such as taking your goggles off and putting them back on again (without taking your mouthpiece off of which somehow I managed to take off twice!! I can reassure you that it’s not a nice feeling swallowing all that salty water- and definitely not recommended!). The steep slope of the valley continues underwater. The bottom is scattered with sharp ended rocks- much to my unpleasant surprise when I tried to balance myself by putting my knees on the rocks. Hence there is very good reason why someone should wear a full body wetsuit when diving (apart from protecting yourself from the cold water)! We did not come across any interesting Crabs; Lobsters…guess they must have been hiding during the day!
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