The Island Where You Can Dive Into the Eye of a Skull
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
An underwater jungle awaits … if you can get past the big plunge.
Diving has many draws: shallows with schools of fish, brilliant coral reefs and breathtaking underwater cliffs. But my favorite underwater plunge is the Blue Hole in Gozo, one of Malta’s jewel islands. It’s like jumping straight into the dark eye of a huge skull jutting out of the rock. And it can be just as scary as that sounds.
The eyehole is actually a wide inland sea pool that leads into a large crevice and through to the open sea (and also sat below the famous Azure Window rock arch, which collapsed in March). And the water … it’s crystal clear. But the deeper you get, the darker it gets. Depths can reach 35 meters — recommended only if you have passed a deep-dive exam that provides you with the skills and know-how to reach 40 meters. Goose bumps (not just from the cold water, which, despite being 73 degrees Fahrenheit in September, can feel chilly) and an adrenaline rush are guaranteed. So, yes, you’ll need stamina and guts. Two years ago I spent 10 minutes exhaling deeply and slowly — and psyching myself out — before I could dive into the 32-foot-wide crater.
Watch for moray eels hiding in crevices, octopuses lurking behind stones and lobsters scuttling across the sea floor.
But immediately following that heart-pounding plunge, the distraction of a stunning underwater landscape is likely to bring back some calm. First you swim along a natural rock arch with perfect visibility. Next comes the tricky part, especially if you’re a bit claustrophobic. It’s a tight squeeze through a tunnel-like cave, but the payoff lies in the vibrantly colored rock formations — purple, yellow, blue — sponges, anemones and swarms of aquatic life. Parrot fishes and barracudas swirl around you. Watch for moray eels hiding in crevices, octopuses lurking behind stones and lobsters scuttling across the sea floor.
And the best is still to come. Once out of the tunnel, you slowly swim toward the reef wall and pass through a large vertical crack dubbed “the chimney.” A word of advice: “Swim slowly, using just your legs,” says Joseph Brendon, an expert diver from England who visits the Blue Hole at least three times a year. If you move around too much, you’ll use up your air more quickly, he warns, and “you’ll be forced to interrupt the dive” early. Which would suck. Also, too much movement — like your fins scraping the sea floor — stirs up the sand and can make visibility nasty.
Next you’ll find yourself traveling up toward a coral garden at 4 meters, right into the open sea. This was my favorite part, being caught in shimmering light beams penetrating the water. If you don’t feel like totally resurfacing in the middle of the big blue ocean, you can turn back to fully enjoy the cave and take in all of its eye candy — it’s like having an underwater jungle to yourself.
However, there is no such thing as going solo at the Blue Hole. You’ll need to go with a diving center, at the average cost of around 40 euros (about $42) per dive. Gozo is reachable by boat from Malta, and there are diving groups available at both destinations, many of which offer 10-dives-plus-hotel packages. The best time to travel is June to September, with August being the peak month. The water will be warmer then, but there will be more divers.
Still, even with the crowds, it’s an experience that rewards both expert and amateur divers with different experiences and depths. Not to mention a little drama.