Juggling childcare and scuba diving on the Maltese island of Gozo

Published by Diver, April 2018, with the headline “Child’s play in Gozo”.

A scuba diver is photographed in front of a channel through a cliff in Gozo
Diving the Inland Sea © Steve Pretty

Our daughter has spotted us coming out of the water, and I can see her reaching for me as we walk back to the truck. I rush to put down my tank and peel off my dry suit as she squirms in my babysitting brother’s arms – she’s suddenly desperate to be reunited after my short sojourn beneath the waves.

My partner and I get changed and pack our gear into the truck, passing the baby girl between us and back to my brother when faced with tasks requiring two hands. We strap her into her car seat, and she’s asleep before we reach the main road.

On days like this, diving with a baby in tow feels like a breeze.

It’s all pretty new for us. This trip to Gozo is only the second time we’ve been diving since our daughter was born 14 months ago, a follow-up to a week at Somabay in Egypt when she was seven-months-old.

For that first dive holiday we travelled with some friends with a baby, and tag-teamed babysitting and diving so we were able to buddy each other some of the time.

Here in Gozo we’re trying another childcare option. My 19-year-old brother Yoji is babysitting in exchange for us covering his accommodation and transfers. My partner and I had assumed that we would leave Yoji and the baby behind in Marsalforn while we dived, but dive guides Denis Marin and Georgia Mainente – in charge of Atlantis Diving Centre while owners Brian and Stephania Azzopardi are out of town – were quick to suggest that they come with us in the dive truck instead.

I shouldn’t have been surprised really – the team had already organised us an apartment with a cot and high chair, and the dive centre is equipped with a big pile of toys belonging to the Azzopardis’ daughter.

Somehow we’ve stumbled upon the most family-friendly dive centre in the world.

A baby sits on the beach watching a scuba diver come out of the sea
The baby girl waits for us on the beach after a dive © Yoji Caird

We picked Gozo partly because it’s one of the warmest winter dive destinations in Europe, but also because I’ve been itching to come back here since learning to dive in Xlendi Bay just over 10 years ago.

I never made it to the island’s star underwater attractions on that trip – awesome geological features like the Blue Hole, Inland Sea and Cathedral Cave – and it’s high time to tick them off the list.

Coming here in November, and for just a week, is something of a risky move, but it’s the only time we have, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed for good weather.

We get lucky – after two weeks of strong wind, the dive sites on the north and west of the island are open for business again just in time for our arrival.

We start in Dwejra, at the Inland Sea, gearing up on the stony beach alongside tourists waiting for a fishing boat to take them out through the 80m channel through the cliff. It’s an easy entry off the jetty and, after a short swim on the surface to the opening of the tunnel, we make our descent over shallow boulders home to bearded fireworms and green spoon worms.

It’s dim and narrow here but as we step down a series of shelves to 24m, the channel widens and is flooded with beautiful blue light. Apparently infinite visibility makes this a treat of a first dive.

We turn left out of the channel and follow the algae-covered wall until we reach a narrow cave that cuts deep into the cliff, only accessible when the conditions are right. Pulled gently to and fro by the swell as I make my way in, I can see why you wouldn’t want to try this in rougher weather.

There’s a big shoal of damselfish mobbing the entrance to the channel and a few juvenile parrotfish and scorpion fish here and there but in terms of flora and fauna, this site (and Gozo in general, I’ll learn over the next few days) is really one for algae and sponge enthusiasts.

A carpet of bright green, red and purple covers the walls, providing ample grazing for the handful of nudibranchs dotted around the place.

We’re back at Dwejra bright and early the next morning to dive the Blue Hole before anyone else gets there. There are hardly any other divers around anyway – most of the dive-centres in Gozo are closed for the winter, in fact – but Denis is taking no chances.

His caution pays off – we have the place to ourselves and the entry is an astonishing experience as a result, the surface of the water perfectly still, giving way to the brightness of an archway on one side and the darkness of a cave on the other.

A man and a woman look out at the view at Dwejra in Gozo
Denis tells us what to expect from our dives at Dwejra © Steve Pretty

We explore the cave (which, at just 14m down and with a wide opening, is accessible to all), finding conger eels and shrimp hiding in gaping horizontal cracks in the rock, before heading out through the archway.

Turn right, as we do now, and you find the ruins of the Azure Window, once Gozo’s most famous photo opportunity, but since March 2017 just a pile of massive boulders on the seabed.

The collapse of the arch in a heavy spring storm was a real blow for the island, but fortunately sightseeing’s loss was diving’s gain – this is now a truly brilliant dive site.

There’s not much life here yet – just a faint fuzz of green algae on the sun-bleached rocks – but that doesn’t matter because the area is a veritable maze of swim-throughs, offering endless routes to explore.

Heading back past the Blue Hole, we head up the Chimney, going nearly straight up from 20 to 12m, then up again to 7m to find ourselves in the Coral Gardens. It’s great fun, and beautiful too, the walls of the passageway lined with yellow anemones that give way to yellow-green algae up top that glows bright in the sunshine. Coral Gardens, we discover, is sheltered and shallow, perfect for beginners.

We finish our dive in the Blue Hole – all by ourselves once again. During the safety stop, I watch tourists peering in from the rocks above and a few tiny fish skittering around just beneath the surface. If I had to choose one way of finishing every dive from now on, this would be it.

The walk back to the car park, around slippery rock pools and along a path carved into thefossil-packed coralline limestone, is arduous but nothing compared to the route we take to Crocodile Rock – another of Dwejra’s dive site –  the following morning.

Snug in my dry suit and undersuit, I’m seriously warm by the time we’ve made our way gingerly across the moon-like expanse of spiky limestone pools, and it’s a relief when I can finally step into the 20° water. I can’t imagine what this walk must be like at the height of summer.

We swim on the surface towards the massive outcrop of Crocodile Rock for a few minutes before descending to discover that there’s much more of the rock underneath the water than there is up top.

Keeping it on our left, we gradually make our way down to 39m, to find boulders littering the sea floor but no sign of the large groupers we’re told sometimes hang out here.

Up above us, all of a sudden, are hundreds of barracuda shoaling in an enormous underwater valley between two steep peaks. They pour over the sheer edge of the rock towards us, circling our group before disappearing into shallower water. It’s a mesmerising sight.

After a couple of days playing with the baby on the beach of the Inland Sea, my brother is keen to see some other areas of the island. So after one more dive at the Blue Hole, Denis takes us to the Salt Pans, location of a handful of dive sites to suit various tastes and levels of experience.

To reach Dwejra from Marsalforn you have to drive into Victoria, the main town at the centre of Gozo, and out again, a journey of around 25 minutes, but the Salt Pans are just a short hop along the coast.

Gozitans have been harvesting salt from shallow pools on this beautiful patch of shore since Roman times. In the summer you have to be careful not to step in the pans on your way to the water, but it’s not an issue in the winter, so we stomp straight through.

The Blue Hole in Gozo, photographed from under the water
The Blue Hole © Steve Pretty

Our first stop is Reqqa Point, right at the far end of the pans, necessitating a slow, bumpy, off-road drive that I feel sure is going to end in disaster, but somehow doesn’t.

Steve is looking after the baby girl this afternoon so I’m buddying Denis, while Yoji takes the opportunity to do some snorkelling along the rocks above us.

Denis and I turn right after a giant stride in, descend 10m and duck down, feet first, into a chimney I would never have spotted on my own.

Popping out at the bottom, we double back to Reqqa Point and follow a sheer algae-covered wall west.

Denis points out the entrance to Bubble Cave, a favourite with technical divers, at 36m, before leading me to the top of a sea grass-covered plateau, from which we “jump” off into the blue.

There’s quite a swell at the end of the dive and the rocks below the exit ladder are slippery with algae so Denis signals for me to put my fins around my wrists and get ready. An unceremonious shove from below and I’m sliding up the rocks and grasping the ladder with both hands – not exactly a graceful way out of the water, but a whole lot of fun.

A scuba diver in shallow water, with Crocodile Rock in the background
Exploring the shallows at the end of a dive at Crocodile Rock © Steve Pretty

The next day we all return to the Salt Pans, Yoji and the baby playing in the rock pools in the sunshine while Steve and I dive Double Arch with Denis.

The arch itself is stunning – appearing out of the blue to one side of a large natural amphitheatre – but doesn’t warrant the tedious 10-minute swim on the surface to get there from the shore.

If you’re going to make an effort to get to a dive site in this part of Gozo, save your energy for Cathedral Cave. There’s supposed to be a ladder at the far end of the Salt Pans that puts you in just the right spot for the cave, but it’s been washed away by the time of our visit and won’t be replaced until the spring.

Which means that the only way to get there is down 100 steps cut into Wied il-Ghasri gorge, followed by another 10-minute surface swim – this time in rather more picturesque surroundings.

Under water it’s the usual mix of juvenile scorpionfish, nudis and algae, until all of a sudden I get lucky and spot a little octopus hiding in a hole in a wall. From then on it’s marine life a-go-go, Dennis pointing out a slipper lobster and a Swiss cow nudibranch, while a cuttlefish lurks in a crack at the opening of the cave.

Cathedral Cave is enormous, both above and below the water, entirely justifying its name. A small window lets in fresh air and enough light that we don’t need our torches to see by, and when we duck back under the water to make our way back out, the mouth of the cave is bathed in blue.

On the swim back to the gorge, the waves are smashing powerfully against the rocks above us, a sign of the arrival of a weather front that means that this will be our last visit to Gozo’s famed north and west coast dive sites this week.

The climb back up the gorge is exhausting but I’d do it all again in a shot for another glimpse of Cathedral Cave.

Close up of a flounder in the sand in Gozo
Close up of a flounder at Mgarr ix-Xini © Steve Pretty

We head to the south of the island for our final dives, trying out the sheltered bay of Mgarr ix-Xini and the scuttled passenger ferry Karwela. The wreck-dive is nothing special – with its deck at 33m down, there’s not enough time to explore properly on a no-deco dive.

Added to that, Karvela is dived so frequently that there’s barely any life there, even after 12 years submerged.

The opposite is true of the marine meadow area we pass over on our way back to shore, where I spot no fewer than four octopuses, plus my first ever long-snouted sea horse.

Mgarr ix-Xini, meanwhile, hosts a riot of cuttlefish and flounders, an opportunity for Steve to get his macro lens out after days taking spectacular wide angle shots, and a suitably rewarding spot for my brother to give diving a go for the first time.

Needless to say, he’s hooked, and keen to come along on another diving/babysitting trip the next time we need him.

It’s all been a resounding success. My partner and I have both dived a little less than we would have if we’d been travelling without our daughter – nine dives each over the course of the week, rather than the 12 you might hope to pack in – but that’s OK.

Taking things a little slower has given us the chance to relax in a way that we don’t normally get to do on a dive trip. We’ve even got to see something of Gozo’s topside attractions, checking out the ancient temples at Ġgantija, the impressive Citadel that overlooks Victoria, and pretty Xlendi Bay.

We’ll be booking our next dive trip with the baby as soon as we can work out where to go. And who we can persuade to babysit for us of course.

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Direct flights to Malta from multiple UK airports with airlines including BA, Jet2.com and easyJet. Taxi or bus to the ferry terminal at Cirkewwa, then ferry to Mgarr in Gozo.
DIVING: Multiple dive centres operate in the two resort towns of Marsalforn and Xlendi – Jo highly recommends Atlantis Diving Centre in Marsalforn, atlantisgozo.com
ACCOMMODATION: Basic apartments near Atlantis and five-minutes’ walk from the centre of Marsalforn are cheap. Atlantis has a lodge and can arrange villa accommodation.
WHEN TO GO: Diving is possible year-round, though strong winds can be a problem between November and February, and it can get very hot in midsummer.
MONEY: Euro.
PRICES: Return flights from £130 (May), Atlantis Lodge costs 60-80 euros per room per night (two sharing), a 10-dive package with Atlantis costs 220 euros pp.
VISITOR INFORMATION: visitmalta.com

Questions to ask before booking self-catering accommodation for you and your baby or toddler

A baby crawls along a corridor in an old house, past some shoes
The baby girl on one of her frequent journeys up and down the corridors at Sackville House, a beautiful 16th-century property in East Grinstead where we stayed when she was 15-months-old.

The first thing to check before booking an apartment or villa is whether babies and toddlers are welcome. Weirdly, not all property owners like the idea of small people puking on their sofas and slamming toy cars onto their coffee tables, and it’s better to find that out sooner rather than later.

It’s worth mentioning the fact that you’re travelling with children in an email so if it comes to it later, you’ve got a paper trail. The baby girl’s grandfather fell foul of an incompetent letting agent recently and it was only because he could prove that he’d notified them that the baby girl would be coming along with us that they refunded him his deposit and found us another property at a discounted rate when the mistake was discovered several months later.

Ticking the ‘family/kid friendly’ box when searching on sites like Airbnb can be a time saver, or you can book via a dedicated family friendly letting agent – I haven’t tried any yet myself but there are lots available online. This is a good option if you like the idea of staying somewhere that provides absolutely everything, from baby monitor to nappy change station.

The next question to ask is what equipment they provide for babies and toddlers. This is less of an issue for UK bookings, as it’s not that much trouble to pack a travel cot and high chair, but for foreign trips you want to avoid lugging lots of stuff with you if possible.

As far as essentials are concerned, cots are usually available, though quality can vary. If your baby is very particular about where she sleeps, consider bringing your own travel cot. High chairs are less common, but not difficult to get hold of, if requested. It’s a good idea to bring a fabric chair harness with you, just in case – they’re very light and don’t take up any space in your luggage.

Less important, but extremely useful nonetheless is a microwave for warming up bottles and baby food, and a bathtub. We usually bring a mini inflatable paddling pool with us just in case it turns out that only a shower is available – more on this in my ‘essential kit’ post.

It’s worth asking about the layout of the property. If it has stairs, are stairgates available? This is a deal breaker for a lot of parents – whether or not you think they’re necessary depends on you and your child. Other safety concerns are fireplaces and wood burning stoves, which most likely come with a fire guard of some kind but perhaps not one robust enough to keep a curious toddler out of harm’s way.

In terms of access, how easy will it be to get in and out of the property with a pushchair? And once you’re in, is there somewhere to store it without folding it? If you’re renting a flat on an upper floor, is there a lift, or can you leave the buggy downstairs?

Stairs aren’t the only layout consideration. If you don’t usually share a bedroom with your child, how do you feel about doing so on holiday? Getting an additional bedroom is the most obvious solution, but such a choice usually has cost implications. A bedroom with a well ventilated walk-in wardrobe or ensuite bathroom can work almost as well if you don’t want to fork out for a separate room for your child.

Parents of very noise-sensitive babies and toddlers might want to enquire as to the location of your little one’s bedroom in relation to the street and to the room where you’ll be hanging out most of the time. You really don’t want to spend your evenings whispering and tiptoeing around the place while you’re meant to be relaxing. Parents of very light-sensitive sleepers will find it most convenient to pack a travel black-out blind in case the curtains aren’t up to scratch.

In terms of the local area, it’s handy to have a shop that sells milk and other essentials nearby and, if you’re staying somewhere for a while, a place to play. This could be a park with a play area, a local library, a beach or a child-friendly museum.

All that said, while the presence or absence of certain features in a holiday let might make your stay a bit easier, it’s not like it’s going to make or break your time away. Ask the right questions before you book so you know what you’re letting yourself in for, make sure you’ve got essentials like a cot and high chair, and the everything else will work itself out in the end.

A man and a baby walk down a tiled corridor in an apartment.
Slippery floor tiles in our apartment in El Hierro made walking practice that bit more difficult, but the baby girl took it all in her stride.

 

Baby and toddler hotel room hacks

Self-catering accommodation is almost always going to be preferable when travelling with a baby or toddler, but if you need to stay in a hotel or bed and breakfast, here are some tips to make the best of the situation.

Amenities

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The baby girl napping in her tent in our hotel room in Egypt

Before you book, get in touch to find out what the hotel or B&B provides in terms of in-room amenities. A kettle is very useful for warming up baby food or milk, and a fridge for keeping it cold. If they’re not available – more common in a B&B – ask if you can use the management’s kitchen.

If there’s an option, and you can afford it, always go for a room with an en suite bathroom. It’s easier for baby bedtime, means you can keep dirty nappies separate from where you’re sleeping, and serves as a nightlight if you leave the door open a crack. Also, you don’t want to be traipsing to and from the communal bathroom when you realise you need to pee after you’ve got up to feed or soothe the baby. Ask for a bathroom with a tub; if there isn’t one available, pack a small inflatable paddling pool.

Washing and sterilising bottles is more challenging without a kitchen, but perfectly doable in an en suite if you’ve packed the right paraphernalia. You’ll need a bottle brush, a bit of washing up liquid (though I used shower gel last time and it was fine), cold sterilising tablets, and a Tupperware box with a lid. I’ll do a separate post on this another time.

Many hotels will provide a cot if you request it in advance, but bear in mind that it might be rubbish – the hotel we stayed at in Egypt didn’t include mattresses in theirs. So if you can handle the extra luggage, bring your own travel cot. If not, pack some bedding just in case – this has the added benefit of smelling like home, thereby making your child feel more secure in a new place. The baby girl kicks off her blankets so we use a sleep bag instead (it also comes in handy on planes).

The first few trips we did with the baby girl she slept in the carrycot bit of her pram. When she outgrew that we moved her into a little pop-up tent, which packs down very small and is super light. The other benefit of the tent is that it’s its own contained environment so your baby isn’t distracted by her surroundings. Whichever style of travel cot you opt for, have your baby nap in it a couple of times at home so it’s familiar when you go away.

If your child needs darkness to sleep, consider packing a SnoozeShade to cover the cot. That way you don’t need to worry too much about chinks of light coming in between the curtains, and can have a light on in the room after your baby has gone to sleep but before you’ve gone to bed (I find the buggy model of SnoozeShade invaluable too). For co-sleepers, bring a travel blackout blind instead, which you can sucker onto the window. They’re a bit of a faff to use, but worth it if your baby is very sensitive to light. You’ll want to buy head torches too if you’re co-sleeping – ones with an infrared setting won’t wake the baby but are bright enough to see your way around and to read by.

Choosing a room

A pushchair with a sleeping baby in it on a country road in the mountains
The baby girl snoozing in her pushchair on the way to the Wasdale Head Inn in the Lake Distract for dinner after doing ‘bedtime’ at Burnthwaite Farm B&B

Noise-wise, you want to position the cot as out of the way as possible in the hotel room so you’re not having to walk past it all the time. Depending on your destination, it’s worth asking about the cost of a suite compared to a standard double – in a lot of the big US hotel chains there often isn’t much difference, and you’ll be grateful of the extra space to stow not just your sleeping child, but all their stuff too. If that’s not an option, a large cupboard can work nicely, assuming there’s adequate ventilation.

Whatever size room you’re in, white noise ­can be helpful to cover the sound of your creeping around after baby bedtime. There are various white noise smart phone apps available, plenty of them for free. If you’re worried about the noise from other guests and hotel staff, ask for a room at the end of a hallway but away from the lifts or stairs (this trick works the other way around too – the further you are from other guests, the less bad you’ll feel if your baby cries in the night). And remember to put the ‘do not disturb’ sign out if you’re staying in for nap time.

The most annoying thing about staying in a hotel or B&B rather than an apartment is that you can’t really leave the baby by themselves, so your own bedtime (or at least your sitting silently in the dark time) is dictated by your baby’s – not exactly the ideal holiday scenario. If you’re in a hot place, getting a room with a balcony is an excellent work round: it can’t compete with being out on the town, but at least you can have a beer and a conversation at a reasonable volume. If your hotel does room service or is okay with you bringing in a take away, even better.

The alternative is to do bedtime at the hotel – bath, book, pajamas, etc – but put your baby to bed in her pushchair (this only works if your baby will sleep in a pushchair, obviously), and take her out with you for the evening. If she’ll stay asleep while you transfer her from buggy to cot at the end of the night, do that. Ours always wakes up if we try that, so we just leave her in the buggy, in our room, until she wakes up of her own accord, and transfer her then.

For those times where you are confined to your room after baby bedtime or during naptime, I can’t recommend bone-conducting headphones enough.

Finally, consider packing a roll of duct tape for emergency child-proofing. Use it to secure drawers, tidy cables or pad corners of low tables. Just make sure you test your tape on an unseen area first to make sure it’s not going to take off the paintwork or leave a mark.

I’m sure there are lots of brilliant tricks I haven’t discovered yet, so comment below with your own hotel room hacks, or tweet them to me using the #babyadventuring hashtag.

Essential kit, part 2: wireless bone-conducting headphones

Trying to get a baby to sleep can be tedious at the best of times. Throw in an unfamiliar location, early starts, late nights, missed naps, hot weather and jet lag and it’s probable that you’ll be spending more hours than you’d like at the start of your holiday pacing around a dark hotel room with a baby in your arms, or sitting next to a cot soothing a grumpy toddler.

Your child will settle into their new surroundings at their own pace, depending on various factors (stay tuned for posts on how to deal with jet lag and hot weather), but in the meantime, a pair of wireless bone-conducting headphones can provide some relief.

Initially developed for military operations, and now used by some cyclists and runners, these headphones sit just below your temples (see picture) and send the sound through your cheekbones to the inner ear, bypassing the ear drum altogether. With nothing in your ears, you can hear the world around you – including the baby being rocked to sleep in your arms – while keeping your brain occupied listening to podcasts, music or audio books. The fact that they’re wireless means no cord to get tangled up in.

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My partner bought me a pair of these headphones when I was pregnant and I’ve used them practically every day since the baby girl was born. They came in particularly handy those first few months when I was still feeding her frequently at night and needed something to keep me awake (I recommend getting an Audible account too), but these days it’s when we’re travelling that they’re really useful, whether we’re heading off long distance or just around the local area.

It’s possible to push a buggy one-handed while having a conversation on a mobile, but it’s safer and easier to use wireless headphones instead, and bone-conducting ones mean you’re still aware of traffic noise. I don’t generally listen to podcasts when I’m with the baby girl unless she’s sleeping, but there have been a couple of occasions when I’ve broken that rule, like on the four and half hour train journey back to London after a month at the Edinburgh festival, when I hit a wall of tiredness and had to keep my mind occupied so as not to nod off. It was only by listening to BBC World Service documentaries that I was able to stay awake for yet another round of take-things-out-of-all-the-bags-and-hit-them-against-the-table. I stand by my choice.

At around £100 a pop, these headphones aren’t cheap, but they’re definitely worth it.

What’s on your list of essentials for travelling with babies and toddlers?