A niche in a niche
Gozo may be considered a “paradise” for the diving community, but schools on the island are not resting on their buoys and stopping at the success of the standard form of the subacqua sport.
The growing trend worldwide is technical diving and three out of its 12 dive schools have cottoned on, catering for divers who want to sink to deeper depths (from 40 metres on a normal dive to 100 metres) and remain underwater longer (from about 45 minutes on a normal dive to three hours).
Atlantis Diving Centre in Marsalforn is one of these, having invested heavily in the required equipment, aware that interest in technical diving has been growing year on year.
“While standard diving has reached a sort of saturation point and is not booming as it did in the 1990s and early 2000s, the growth of technical diving is much sharper,” says the diving centre’s owner and instructor Brian Azzopardi.
Technical diving requires the use of four tanks: a twinset on the back for the bottom dive; one on the left with the travel gas for descending and ascending; and one on the right with decompression gas for the last stage of the dive.
The addition of helium and the way the gases are mixed allow divers to extend their bottom time and depth in a safe manner, Mr Azzopardi explains.
Gozo can capitalise on the trend because it offers many deep-dive options – and right from the shore. This means it is easy for training in that divers do not need to go out on boats, which pumps up the costs, to reach required depths. Even Maltese technical divers head to the sister island for training.
“Overseas, you would have to sail out for miles and miles to get to a 100-metre drop. But in Gozo, you have these right from the shore,” Mr Azzopardi points out.
Ras il-Ħobż on the southern coast is one example. The development of the sewage treatment plant at this site was one of the government’s main projects to improve the sea quality, turning filthy areas into top diving sites. It is now popular for both standard and technical divers, with a shallow reef and a drop-off that can cater for both.
In the north, Reqqa Point also hits two birds with one stone, offering great dives for the experienced to the technical from 40 to 60-plus metres. Railings have been installed at these sites, easy access being important, especially for technical divers, who are burdened by four tanks.
Lying at about 40 metres, wrecks around the island are accessible to experienced divers and there is no need to be a technical diver to explore them. The latter can stick to and enjoy the “great walls and drop-offs”, although Mr Azzopardi would not mind having a Costa Concordia scuttled off the Gozitan coast.
“If the wreck is seriously massive, unusual and unique, it would be great; otherwise it would not be worthwhile. The gases for technical dives cost a lot and you cannot expect a diver to pay €100 for these alone, just to visit a small wreck. It would not be attractive enough.”
Summer is not the ideal for technical diving and the idea is to use the sport to attract foreigners to Gozo at the start and the end of the season, away from the peak, when the schools are anyway busy with others divers.
The complicated mixing of gases requires dedicated time and attention, and the dives need meticulous planning. Only one technical dive can be carried out per day as opposed to three by experienced divers, and it could take hours to organise it properly, due to the filling of tanks and necessary calculations.
“Moreover, in summer, it is so hot on land and so cold at these depths that divers have to wear dry suits, which means they enter the water sweating, so the preparation is most uncomfortable. On the fringes of the season, it is cooler and less busy, so we can cater for the technical divers.”
While the growth in technical divers is substantial, the numbers remain small compared to standard diving, Mr Azzopardi points out.
“If we have 300 diving courses a year, we’d have 10 for technical divers. But the year before, we would have had five, while standard diving would have remained at 300.”
Although profits are minimal, especially considering the amount of work involved in these dives, investment is substantial and the proportion of technical divers is relatively small, it is not a niche to be ignored and a means to attract divers off peak, Mr Azzopardi believes.