Malta’s most iconic underwater attraction has been blessed by none other than the Pope.
The Maltese Islands are consistently rated as the top dive site in Europe, boasting visibility of up to 40m, and with sea temperatures hitting 27 degrees in summer and dropping to no less than a civilised 14 degrees in winter. And, if the clear waters of the Mediterranean were not enough to entice you to explore Malta’s underwater world, we’ve added a few extras to spice things up.
In the first of our series of underwater wonders we explore the story behind the statue of Christ of the Sailors, or as we affectionately know it in Maltese, Kristu tal-Bahhara.
Standing 3m tall with benevolent arms outstretched, looking up at all sailors on the surface 25m above him, the statue of Christ has become a symbol of Malta’s diving tradition. So iconic is this statue that it even has its own Facebook page, and a small replica is now home to sea urchins and other marine life in the Malta National Aquarium in St Paul’s Bay.
But this statue was not meant to be just an attraction. It is an emotional votive of thanksgiving for the beauty of nature, and has received the highest religious blessing from Pope John Paul II himself.
The brainchild of avid diver Raniero Borg, the statue was conceived to commemorate the first visit of Pope John Paul II to Malta in 1990. Modelled on the bronze Christ of the Abyss at San Fruttuoso in Italy, the Maltese Kristu was designed by celebrated Maltese sculptor Alfred Camilleri Cauchi. He had less than five months to make the concrete covered fibreglass statue.
Building an underwater attraction like this was an entirely revolutionary idea for Malta at the time, but it soon captured the imagination of the island. So much so, that once the statue was completed, it was put on display on the Granaries in Floriana, just outside Valletta, for everyone to marvel at.
On the morning of 26 May 1990, hundreds of boats congregated by St Paul’s Islands to witness the momentous sinking of the statue in the presence of the Pope. The uninhabited rocks that form St Paul’s Islands are traditionally considered to be the spot where the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked in AD60, so positioning the statue of Christ beneath the islands could not have been more significant.
Amidst a cacophony of horns, Pope John Paull II sailed into Xemxija bay on board a catamaran on his way back from Gozo. The statue was placed onto a floating platform decorated with flowers. Before the sinking, Mr Borg presented the Pope with a miniature replica of the statue carved out of a single piece of granite rock chosen by the sculptor from St Paul’s Islands.
Months of hard work and hours of meetings pouring over complex technical details came to a climax as the eight tonne statue was slowly guided down underwater by a team of 10 divers and positioned on its plinth on the seabed, while the Pope watched from the deck of the catamaran.
But before you set sail for St Paul's Islands - wait - a decade later, the statue was moved to Qawra Point, as the visibility in the water there had deteriorated, and fewer divers were visiting that site. Today, Kristu lies at a depth of 25m next to the wreck of former ferry and cargo ship Imperial Eagle, which was scuttled in 1999. The dive site is a 15-minute boat trip out, where a buoy marks the fixed shot rope which guides the descent to an underwater valley and a tunnel full of coral and soft sponges. Also look out for the 16th century anchor lying nearby!