The Mediterranean island of Gozo crams a huge amount of geological interest into its pocket-sized landmass from the smooth space-age rock formation on Marsalforn’s western side, best viewed across ix-Xwejni bay and the age-old salt pans on the coast road, to the large limestone arch, fifteen men tall, that juts out into the sea less than a mile from our flat.
The blue seas that surround the island, buffering bays and abutting monumental cliffs hide equally impressive topography and scenic rock-scapes and – unless you have gills or a submarine – the only way to explore them is caked in neoprene with an oxygen supply.
It was time for me to become official below the surface, to make an honest woman of myself and dip flippered* toes firmly into the water of PADI, the internationally-recognised dive training organisation. Following on from seven or eight previous underwater forays with a tank strapped to my back either on a family try-dive or in the unregulated waters off Northern Cuba, I planned to finally become a certified underwater rubber wearer, qualified to dunk down below the water line anywhere in the world, and only then would I be able to explore Gozo’s cuffs and sea-caves.
And so last week I booked in to complete the PADI Open Water Diver certification, spending four full days at Moby Dives in Xlendi, a professonal and friendly dive school tried, tested and highly-rated by both long term Gozo residents and The Significant Other. They are also the only Dive Centre on the island to have a training pool to reassure even the most nervous learner.
It was a brilliant and intense few days, laced with the occasional deep-breath before I undertook some of the tougher tasks required to progress as a PADI diver. With expert good-humoured yet meticulous one-to-one coaching, my instructor Reg (aka Gozo Scuba Tec) pulled me through the practical challenges of the confined dives and the emergency drills of the open sea with aplomb. He also led me through an underwater cave in Xlendi bay to a pinnacle rock formation where, over fields of sea grass bigger fish glided stately in silver-grey, darting smaller species flashed colour joyously as they passed, and a plate-sized starfish loitered rust red on white sand. I loved it.
During the four days I also had my first ‘diving’ injury – raw knuckles from pulling on a wet wetsuit tight enough to have been a medieval method of torture which engendered a notable lack of sympathy from my nearest and dearest; I discovered that Cool bar, one block back from Xlendi’s sea front, do a mean burger and coke for only €3.30; and I learnt that the Carrot Cake flavoured ice-cream at the ice-cream bar is to die for. On land. The feedback on my burgeoning diving skills included ‘Great buoyancy and trim’ and that was a particularly wonderful surprise to be described as trim after the oversize ice-cream, even if I did have to be virtually vacuum-packed into thick sculpted rubber to achieve it.
I was then officially qualified (to 18m), a competent small fry among the Big Fish of experienced divers.
However, last but not least came an unexpected photo shoot for my PADI diver’s card nestled among the Mermaids painted on the wall of The Captain’s Table bar, affectionately known as Boobies on account of the (tastefully) scantily-clad inhabitants in the mural. And Moby Dive’s Sue laughingly shot the picture just after I had emerged from the sea, whilst I still sported salt-encrusted raggedy-frond hair (yes, even worse than usual). Therefore, quite aside from the opportunity to explore deeper stunning underwater scenery that surrounds the island, the wrecks and the marine life, I now need to progress to Advanced Certification as quickly as possible if for no other reason than to get a replacement photocard. With sleek hair.
(*Sorry Reg, I just couldn’t resist. Everyone else, they’re fins not flippers.)