A team of technical divers from the UK and Malta set out to locate, dive and document the wrecks of armed and merchant vessels sunk during a pivitol event of World War II - Operation Pedestal. Join these true 'Wreck Detectives' as they explore the deep waters around Malta...


Landing at Luga Airport min Malta on Sunday morning at around 1am, I was greeted by a stream of text messages from various members of the expedition team inviting me to join them in one of the local watering holes. After dropping my bags off at the hotel in Paceville, I walked the short distance to the bar to join the team for a light 'pre-expedition' tipple. Diving operations weren't scheduled to kick off until Wednesday so the team took the opportunity to let their hair down and make introductions before the serious business of diving would take over...
Many of the Project Pedestal team members are active IANTD Instructors so most of Sunday was to be taken up with an instructor update and evaluation process with IANTD UK Training Director Phil Short. All IANTD UK instructors up to IT level are required to do an annual re-evaluation which evaluates their in water teaching skills, classroom teaching and also brings them up to date with the latest IANTD Standards and new courses. It's a great idea which helps to maintain the high standards that are the cornerstone of IANTD and to ensure that everyone is teaching on the same page.
Pedestal team members Al Wright, Paul Toomer, Phil Short and Howard Payne


As Monday arrived, we collected Grahame Knott from the airport. For those of you who don't know Grahame, he's probably one of the best - if not the best - Wreck Hunters and Dive Skippers this country has ever produced. His past successes speak for themselves: The M1 Submarine, HMS Limbourne and HMS Charybdis and the list goes on. He looks like something out of a Hemmingway novel: the perfect combination of a lifetime's experience and calm wisdom, but an unexpected positive energy and humour that carries the whole team through during the more frustrating moments that are inevitable with this kind of exploration diving. When you're more than 100m deep and several hours from the surface, it's a good feeling in the back of your mind knowing he's taking care of things on top.

Graham would be working with the founder of this project, Stuart Keasley, to research and target marks for exploration as we move forward on what is likely to be a 3-5 year project.

Monday and Tuesday were spent at our base of operations: Divewise in Paceville. Divewise is run by Alan & Viv Whitehead and is one of the biggest dive centres on the Islands.

The gas logistics for this kind of diving can be a nightmare, but their fill station is brand new and state of the art with constant flow Trimix blending, banked Nitrox 32 and a brilliant panel. Fills were literally only an hour every day.

Likewise for convenience, Alan now owns one of the best dive boats on the islands: the ex Owen Buhagiar 10m RIB Diversion, which is now moored 50 feet from Divewise's front door super convenient with so many bottles, rebreathers and scooters to lug backwards and forwards. Many thanks to Owen for all his help and support with finding us marks and skippering so many previous trips out to Malta

The boat had literally just gone back in the water on the Monday, so Graham took most of Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning ironing out a few little bugs and getting things to his satisfaction. He was particularly fond of the "120 Lidl Fishfinder" which we were expecting him to use to identify and shot 100m plus marks.

Grahame Knott prepared the decompression trapeze system

Divewise were kept very busy pumping enough trimix to refloat the Titanic!


Before the team could hit the water, we needed a better idea of what we were dealing with. To give the team the information they needed, famed skipper Graham Knott would spend most of Tuesday running over the marks with the sounder - of the three marks surveyed, Grahame pronounced the last of the three to be "***** huge".

We had previously been told the marks we were diving were in around 80-100m of water, so it's always refreshing to see 115m on the screen when you're armed with nothing but a set of 12's on Open Circuit. The CCR guys were particularly supportive in this regard with many helpful comments on gas costs and the size of my gonads.

Alan Whitehead and myself opted to dive 10/65tx in the twinsets with AL80's of 18/40tx travel gas plus 40/10tx and 80%. The gas margins were tight but doable. We had to use custom mixes because the gas volumes just didnt work with my preferred choice of 21/35tx, 50% & O2. We opted to overstay the gas switches doing more of the deco at a high PPO2 with back gas breaks before the two shallower switches.

The CCR team consisted of Paul Toomer, Phil and Al Wright on a JJ-CCR and two VR Sentinels respectively. The rebreather divers ran 8/65tx diluent with 8/65tx bailout plus 20/30tx, 70% and O2, employing a team bailout strategy which gave them a ton of gas. To wind everyone up, Al Wright rocked up in his lucky Britannic 97 baseball cap :)

To ensure maximum standards of safety, all bottles had be double checked by a second team member when analysed and then clearly marked in a clear, consistent manner. In addition, orange and yellow bag protocols for agreed for support diver Jason to follow in the event of something going wrong. To aid hydration, isotonic sports drinks were staged on the trapeze at 6m to stay as hydrated as possible on deco - a move that proved particularly welcome by all team members!

Back on board I had brought a complete medical kit including IV Fluids, Advanced Airway Management and Defib. We had called the chamber at Mater Dei hospital near Valetta and spoken to the super helpful DDMO Steve Muscat to advise him what we were doing, and agree a rendevous point at a known jetty should we have to bring one of the team back in a hurry. In short nothing was left to chance, but fortunately, none of the precautions needed to be put into action.

One aspect of the expedition that would prove not quite so successful was getting stills and video footage of what the team had found at depth. Despite using top quality housings rated for such extreme depths, none of the AV equipment would work so, sadly, we were unable to capture footage. This is one area that we'll certainly be addressing when the expedition resumes later in the year...

Grahame Knott surveys the area above the marks identified by the team.

The team's medical kit - IV fluids, advanced airway management and defib kit

Alan Whitehead admires the team's superb Fourth Element Halo3D undersuits


Wednesday arrived and it was pretty rough, but Graham reckoned doable. The shot had gone in late the day before so we could avoid faffing around too much on the dive day itself. Graham had reshot the wreck three times until he was happy that it was well in. His love affair with the Lidl Fish Finder was growing stronger by the day and by this stage he had christened the RIB "Denise".

We were fortunate to have Jason Reynoux, a French IANTD cave instructor now working with Alan at Techwise, to help us with support diving. On arriving at the site, we helped the CCR boys kit up and clip bottles, whilst Jason went in to attach the deco trapeze to the main shot.

We put the CCR teams in the water first with an old orange toilet ball cock attached to Phil's butt D ring, for use as a pellet to confirm shot in, game on. Apparently the ball cock imploded with a huge bang at about 65m and scared the crap out of everyone. Fortunately the legendary Short steel gonads took the full force of the explosion, and no harm was done to any of the team or the units.

The CCR team has planned a longer 25 min bottom time, so we delayed the OC Team's entry into the water by about 40 mins to try and sync the runtimes of the two groups. This worked well and meant that both teams exited the water within about half an hour of each other avoiding a lot of waiting around.

It also enabled us to detach the deco trapeze and drift gently, watched over vigilantly by Jason. Although there's relatively little current and no tide in Malta, it's nice not to be fighting even a gentle current and it certainly made the long stay decompressing at 6m a little more fun.

Runtimes were a little under 3 hours for myself and Alan on OC and around 3 hours for the CCR guys. We ran VPMB +2 modfiied using ratio deco principles, whereas the CCR guys were running the proprietary VGM on the Sentinels. Alan had similar on a VRX Computer, set for our OC gasses, and I was surprised to find it mimicked the VPMB+2 cut profile, almost to the minute.

With Graham's help we identified the wreck as a previously dived converted Mine Sweeper although the name as yet alludes us. Al Wright recognised it from some video shot by Scandanavian divers on a trip the previous year.

The second mark - which was the one Graham had identified as being the largest - was of more interest. Even with the sub-optimal echo sounder, Graham believed we had found something important and everyone was fired up. Sadly the weather refused to co-operate for the next 48 hours and we had to sit on our hands waiting.

Ropes off, the Pedestal Project team head out for their first dive

Phil Short prepares to hit the water on his Sentinel rebreather


As Friday arrived, we saw a weather window opening for a dive the following day, so we took the boat out in less than optimal conditions to get a shot in. Eventually Graham was happy and we were game on. Again 115m so I opted for a bottom stage and an extra bowl of Shredded Wheat. With 4 AL80s each, swimming was out of the question, so we decided to use scooters which proved to be effortless at depth, comfortably towing 4 large bottles without breaking a sweat.

By this stage, Lanny Vogel had joined us to give Jason a hand and having two support divers to remove dead bottles and take scooters made the deco a lot more bearable.

Sadly the wreck was not what we'd hoped, but a large, impressive cargo ship nonetheless and a cracking dive. Viz at depth was around 10m with reasonable ambient light so she was quite a sight. Our efforts to identify her continue.

Clearly it's not often that you get dive gurus of this stature together and there was much discussion throughout the week on the philosophical issues that have been bugging the world of technical diving for some time: Issues like: "If a Tech Diver doesn't like AC/DC are they a real Tech diver?".

One thing that wasn't in dispute was that "The Big Blue" is definitely the best diving film of all time. Every time Phil surfaced, he would echo Jacques Mayol to our resident Frenchman: "Put me back in the wateur Jasonne it is a betteur place!"

Phil flies literally hundreds of thousands of miles a year training people on VR Technologies CCR's and it was great to see him chilled out and enjoying some diving for himself for a change.

Both the Sentinels and Paul's JJ-CCR performed faultlessly. It was interesting to see the temp stick indicators on the Sentinel scrubbers showed that the stacks were only between half and two thirds used after what was such a big dive a true testament to the superb design of these state of the art units!

Phil took some time to show us through the new Opticom electronics on the Sentinel which uses redundant infra red rather than hard wired cabling for transmitting data within the unit. A very neat solution which makes everything much more modular should a part need replacing or service. With the new Apeks BOV and first stages it feels to me like the unit has evolved in some very interesting ways recently.

The view as the team head out of the historic port of Valetta

Grins all round as team member Paul Toomer gets back onto the boat!


So an excellent if slightly frustrating week came to a close. Graham and Stuart are now researching the next batch of marks for us to dive on our planned Autumn trip. The Project will also delighted to welcome new members and IANTD instructors Rich Stevenson and Clare Pooley as we move forward.

If this is starting to sound like something of an Instructor's pet project, to an extent, that is true, but we've also been very clear right from the start that any diver who wishes to be involved who has the right skillset and team approach will be most welcome. We are also very keen to involve some local Maltese divers and expertise where possible and have been speaking to renowned local wreck hunter Emi Farrugia to help in this regard.

We will be presenting a fuller roundup of the Project thus far at TEKCamp 2011 which is to be held at Vobster Quay in July 2011 for those that are interested in more of the details.

We would very much like to thank our sponsors: IANTD UK, Fourth Element and VR Technologies who's generous support helped ease some of the costs of getting the Project started.

Likewise huge thanks to Alan, Viv, Jason and all the team at Techwise who worked tirelessly behind the scenes handling the considerable logistics without fuss, and to Paul's Diving Matrix who provided additional logistical support.

Last word goes to Jacques from the Big Blue:

"You go down to the bottom of the sea, where the water isn't even blue anymore, where the sky is only a memory, and you float there, in the eternal silence"

Meet Grahame Knott - Wreck hunter and dive skipper extraordinaire


The Pedestal Project is constantly looking for new team members with the right experience and skills to bring to the project. If you think you've got something to give to the project, get in touch with project coordinator Howard Payne: techfoundations@hotmail.co.uk