A propeller on the Xlendi ferry, but is bow or stern

WORKING ON A SKETCH of the Perrone off Devon, I asked fellow-divers on the boat if they had any input to provide. One diver, who I would have expected to know better, looked at my sketch and commented: The shot was at the stern. I didnt see any of the rest of the wreck. The key issue was that the shot was at the bow - a very obvious bow with a point, anchors, anchor-winch and no rudder or propeller.
What has this to do with Gozo As I dive the wreck of the Xlendi ferry, it comes to mind that this is the ideal wreck for my challenged friend. It has a rudder and a propeller at each end. Below the waterline, it has two sterns. Above the waterline the doors close to a rounded point at each end. Above the waterline, it has two bows.
Its a sort of push-me-pull-you of wrecks (though I always wondered how Dr Dolittles push-me-pull-you was able to reproduce). I suppose the crew must have had a convention for which end was really the bow on a double-ended car ferry.
Sunk as an artificial reef in 1999, the upturned hull is now well coated with Mediterranean turf, a mixture of algaes, hydroids and bryozoans. Clouds of small brown damselfish flit above.
Seeking bigger life, dive guide Werner leads me to the seabed, where the superstructure is crushed and compressed by the weight of the hull.
A large moray lives in a hole here, but is unfortunately out for lunch.
Malta and Gozo have probably done more than any other country in Europe to care for divers. Air Malta looks favourably on our luggage.
The multitude of shore dives have convenient parking, and ladders where the exit could be difficult. The bigger island of Malta already has a growing collection of artificial reefs. For smaller, more laid-back Gozo, the Xlendi ferry was the islands first.
But on 12 August, 2006, the passenger ferries Karwela and Cominoland were scuttled close to the Xlendi at Ix-Xatt l-Ahmar. Plans are also afoot to sink a couple of maritime patrol boats in Malta and Comino, while in Gozo an archaeological site with Roman marble pillars could soon be opened for tourist diving.
Xlendi is pronounced Shlendi and Ix-Xatt L-Ahmar something like Ishat Larmar, though my ability with languages is on a par with my friends talent for distinguishing bow from stern.

BOTH KARWELA AND COMINOLAND used to be operated by Captain Morgan, a Maltese company running tourist trips round Malta and to Comino. The vessels were decommissioned four years ago, then prepared for sinking by Cassar Ship Repair in Malta.
Both were cleaned up in a month, and no chances were taken with the new wrecks turning turtle. Dozens of air-filled drums were fitted to their upper decks to keep them upright during a slow, controlled scuttling.
A narrow road winds down the hillside to a levelled parking area, overlooking the entry points for all three dives. Other divers are already entering and leaving the water, their bubbles revealing an even spread between the wrecks.
By the time we reach 42m on the Cominoland, we have it to ourselves.
The drums and cables were recovered and the decks are now clear. The wreck is pristine. As well as opening up the derelict ferry and clearing out all machinery and cables, the paint has been scoured off the upper part. I have rarely seen a cleaner preparation of an artificial reef.
The removal of the paint is part of an experiment to test its effect on colonisation of the wreck. If it works, the growth of algaes and sessile animals will be promoted and the Cominoland will soon be no cleaner than the Xlendi.
With the wreck at 30 to 40m, its easy to slip into a few minutes deco, even when swimming well above the seabed between wreck and reef. Crossing the blue, a trio of jacks pass by, and while decompressing we see a pair of barracuda.
The Karwela is the middle of the three wrecks in both location and size. My buddy is Dino, an instructor who used to work for St Andrews Divers Cove and is now just visiting. He hasnt dived here before, so we follow the instructions and head out to sea.
Hanging in the blue, I can just make out the seabed and what looks like a lost pouch from an integrated weight system. To my right, Dino points further to the right and the wrecks bow.
I surmise that down the reef and straight out meant straight out from the line of the shore rather than straight out from the line of the reef.
Anyway, we are on the wreck and will know the way next time. Unlike Cominoland, Karwelas blue and white paint scheme is intact.
The ferries are only tens of metres apart, at the same depth and sunk on the same day, so Karwela is the control part of the experiment.
The 50m vessel has more decks, so the top deck is shallower and suited to less experienced divers, while lower decks provide considerably more to explore inside.
Someone has also parked the shell of an old Volkswagen Beetle on the sun deck, complete with pink furry wheel-arches. Perhaps Louise Trewavas could stop by and iron the fur some time.
Back on the reef and decompressing, almost every rock has a small scorpionfish hiding beneath it. Then, on a flat shelf, a clump of something moves and a small moray eel reveals itself.
There are plenty of divers in the water and a queue at the exit ladder, but the wrecks were not crowded. Gozo seems to have got it right, placing the wreck park at the south-east of the island to provide diving sheltered from a north-west wind.
I visited Gozo on my first overseas diving trip more than 20 years ago. Our club had such a good time that we went there in mid-winter two years running. Seeking diving sheltered from a north-westerly storm, we got one of our cars stuck on a gravel track that, back then, provided access to Ix-Xatt L-Ahmar.
These days, cars rented to divers are Indian-made Maruti 4x4s that climb the improved concrete road with ease.
Xlendi is not only a ferry name but a nice little inlet in the south-west, a popular evening spot with locals and tourists, though in late season by no means crowded.
Restaurants, cafés and bars run along the waterfront and back streets, offering the usual Mediterranean fare ranging from pizza and pasta to seafood and steaks.
On Saturday night a rock band sets up on a corner, jokingly referred to as Pink Floyd by my hosts, though the only similarity is a wild interpretation of The Wall. Much of their material dates back to the era of my first visit.
These days diving is no longer limited to places where we can jump off the rocks. In 2006, dive centres have boats.
St Andrews boat Divemania takes me to Ras il-Hobz, (Russell Hobbs), a headland to the south of the island, and just off it the submerged pinnacle Middle Finger. Outside it we hit 40m and cant see the bottom, reported to be at 60m or so. We spiral back up, circling the finger two and a half times before crossing the gap back to the reef.
Nostalgia returns when we dive Reqqa reef at Gozos northernmost tip. This steep and deep wall was the site of my first overseas dive and is as good as I remember it, if not better. I just swam round and stared at the visibility back then, but now I pay attention to all the small stuff living there.
Nearby at Billingshurst cave, our group once placed a visitors book in the dry part at the back. The cave had been discovered by Billingshurst BSAC only shortly before our first trip.
Mark Busuttil, one of the owners of St Andrews Divers Cove and also on the artificial reef team, tells me that the book survived until a few years ago.
If it was still there I would have insisted on diving Billingshurst cave again, just to see who had signed it. As it is, my craving for caves is relieved at Dwejra, with a dive through the tunnel from the Inland Sea and then a jump off the rocks above Coral Cave and a swim back to exit at the Blue Hole.
Following a few days of westerly wind, visibility inside the Inland Sea is near zero, quickly clearing to the usual clear deep blue as we enter the tunnel to the open Mediterranean.
Asked if the fish life on this dive is as good as I remember it, I respond that it is better. I cant remember seeing as many small grouper before, or shoals of jack coming in from the blue.
Perhaps it was the time of year - or maybe its down to the rumour that non-Maltese nationals caught spear-fishing are now to be prosecuted.
Coral Cave is still well worth a look, though its delicate lacy formations are actually ryozoans. My last dive, by boat to a series of caves beneath the cliffs at Ta Camma, shows that these bryozoans are not unique to Coral Cave. Where surge conditions exist, other caves are similarly decorated.
Ta Camma opens up a taste for a corner of Gozo thats new to me.
The wait for my next visit will be nowhere near as long.

Exiting at Xlendi Bay after a shore dive.
VW Beetle with furry pink wheel-arches on the Cominoland.
Companionway on the Karwela
Scorpionfish at the Blue Hole
orange cup corals at Reqqa reef.
from the Blue Hole to the shelf above Coral Cave at Dwejra
stern winch on the Cominoland


GETTING THERE: Air Malta flies daily from Heathrow. Divers get a 35kg allowance provided it is booked in advance, though baggage-handling restricts this to 32kg in any single bag.
DIVING: St Andrews Divers Cove is in Xlendi, www.gozodive.com, 00356 21551301. Nitrox and full equipment rental are available.
ACCOMMODATION: John Liddiard stayed at the four-star St Patricks Hotel in Xlendi.
when to go: Diving is available year-round but water temperature varies from 3mm shortie in summer to 7mm wetsuit or drysuit in winter.
MONEY: Maltese pounds (LM) are worth about £1.65. Malta is set to adopt the Euro by 2008
PRICES: Flights start at around £90 return, B&B from £14-£23 per night depending on season. Accompanied dives cost around £14 each with tank, weights and transport, and discounts for multiple dives. Experienced divers can conduct their own dives; cylinder and weight rental is £56 for six days.
TOURIST INFORMATION: Malta Tourist Office, www.visitmalta.com; Gozo Ministry, www.gozo.gov.mt; Gozo tourism www.discoveringgozo.com