Travel: Enchanting underwater world of Gozo in the Mediterranean

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Bruce Willis Ruins All Films - that’s what I say to my partner as we get ready to see the glimmering emerald sea in the beautiful Maltese island of Gozo.

We’re not debating the acting merits of the hunky Hollywood superstar, but rather making vital checks for our final diving adventure at Xlendi Bay.

Before taking the plunge, we need to carry out pre-dive safety checks for Buoyancy, Weights, Releases, Air and ‘Final okay’ - and that’s where the mnemonic comes in (sorry Bruce!).

It sounds complicated, but it’s actually quite a simple task - even for someone like me, who’s never even had a swim at the beach, let alone descended 18 metres below the water’s surface.

Equipment thoroughly examined, we head off to the bay for the final dive. As we slowly descend, an unseen enchanting world emerges before my eyes.

Thousands of colourful fish of all shapes and sizes gently weave through this captivating underwater garden: amberjack, bream, red mullet and parrot fish are some of the many species that form Gozo’s incredible marine life population.

Hundreds of bream, shimmering in the water with silvery translucent bodies slowly glide past as we gradually move deeper. A spiky sea urchin slightly startles me as it scatters its spores into the ocean; we also sight a sea cucumber, fireworm, cardinals and a bright orange starfish resting on the rocks.

Our instructor Richard Salter spots a tiny octopus tucked away beneath the green seaweed - I can hardly believe my eyes.

The entire experience is an amazing technicolour dream come to life - I feel like I’ve swum into the exotic, magical world of Finding Nemo.

After touching our deepest point at 18.5 metres and negotiating a rocky tunnel, I realise how breathing through a regulator and moving weightlessly has become second nature in only a few days.

We have enrolled to take part in a PADI dive course with St Andrew’s Divers Cove in Xlendi. The programme aims to provide beginners like me with the basic skills for dives to up 18 metres.

St Andrew’s is a friendly dive centre, and a magnet for divers from around the world. The centre not only has 11 instructors but is just a few steps away from Xlendi Bay, which is perfect for newcomers like us, who are staying at St Patrick’s Hotel nearby.

As a first-time diver, I have my apprehensions.

Thankfully, Richard immediately puts us at ease, reassuring us that diving is actually one of the safest sports - providing you follow the rulebook, have reliable equipment, and you never dive alone or beyond your experience.

“Diving is fun and amazing, but being complacent about your gear could get you into trouble,” Richard warns us. With more 6,000 logged dives, he knows a thing or two about what could go wrong.

“Diving is not a contest,” he tells us in one of our training sessions. “The slower you move, the better diver you are.”

During training Richard takes us through the basic theory and science of scuba diving. We learn about the effects underwater pressure has on the lungs and why it’s important never to ascend or descend too quickly..

The trick is not to panic, which is easier said than done - especially when we are removing our regulators and masks underwater, simulating real-life scenarios, such as running out of air or losing our masks.

The experience feels strange at first, but once we start trusting the equipment, we are hooked. I can’t wait to get my PADI Open Water Diver scuba certification.

Seeing the world underwater is a dream for many people, and I consider myself fortunate I did not have to travel very far.

A little over three hours away from London by flight, Gozo is pretty much on our doorstep.

Home to more than 60 dive sites, Malta and Gozo have been awarded the second best diving destination in the world by Diver magazine last year (Egypt came first), because of their range of exciting wrecks and diversity of marine life.

While Gozo has one of the most incredible underwater environments, there’s lots to do on this tiny island if you want to stay on land.

Xlendi itself is a popular tourist destination, brimming with restaurants offering local fish and Mediterranean cuisine - and the secluded bay is the ideal place to unwind and catch the sunset.

Gelateria Granola in Xlendi, I am told, is one of the best ice cream shops in Europe and the tiramisu flavour I order is absolutely delicious.

Further afield is the Azure Window (or Tieqa Zerqa in Maltese) - a limestone arch near Dwejra Bay, popular with scuba divers as well as visitors. The site has featured in many films and television series, including Game Of Thrones.

Mgarr Ix-Xini, a breathtaking, peaceful strip of blue water between two cliffs is also worth a visit. At the entrance to the bay are the crumbled remains of a coastal tower built by the Knights of St. John in 1658.

Malta and Gozo may be diminutive islands, but they’re priceless little gems floating in the Mediterranean, captivating us with a wealth of amazing, exotic attractions - on land and underwater.

TRAVELFACTS

Nilima Marshall was a guest of Regaldive (www.regaldive.co.uk; 01353 659 999) and Air Malta (wwwairmalta.com).

Seven nights at the St Patrick’s Hotel in Gozo costs from £447 per person, including flights, transfers and B&B accommodation.

A PADI Open Water course costs from £279 per person.

For further information on Malta and Gozo, visit their website at: www.visitmalta.com

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