If you are looking for an adventurous summer vacation plan, how about a scuba dive to an underwater religious shrine?
A number of the most popular dive sites around the world have religious shrines. These shrines include statues of the Virgin Mary or Christ in underwater grottos with plaques or crosses. It may be divine intervention, but these sites always seem to make it to the list of suggested top-diving sites around the world.
While in the Mediterranean island nation of Malta for Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic visit, I learned of Father Silvio Bezzina, a Maltese priest and rector of St. Paul’s Missionary College in Malta, who is involved with a truly unique apostolic activity. As a member of Malta’s Amphibians Diving Club, Father Bezzina and a group of more than 20 divers commemorated the anniversary of the placement of a statue of the Madonna in an underwater cave. The location of the shrine is at the northernmost part of the island near the picturesque harbor called Cirkewwa.
Reflecting on the special dive, Father Bezzina said, “Blessing the statue of Our Lady at Cirkewwa was a special occasion and of great significance to the diving community. For me, it was a moment of prayer and a blessing over all divers. As divers swim past the blessed statue, they will be reminded of God’s great gift of nature and life, and feel secure that God is present and protecting them even at such a depth.”
The group, who formed in 1983 with a number of scuba-diving enthusiasts, placed the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1987. Since the placement of the statue, the dive has become a very popular attraction for tourists.
Malta, which continues to increase in popularity with international divers, is known to be one of the premiere diving destinations of Europe. The Madonna shrine is listed among the islands’ most popular and sought-after dives. I’ve also seen the dive cited in tourist guidebooks, some suggesting divers say a prayer during their visit.
To visit the shrine, the diver goes 20 meters (or nearly 66 feet) underwater just outside of a colorful sea cave. There, you will find the Mary statue with a new commemorative plaque that recognizes the Malta dive club as the shrine’s patron.
Charles Azzopardi, the club’s chairman, said, “Our club is proud to have taken the initiative to place the Cirkewwa Madonna so many years ago. It has now become one of the most frequently visited underwater landmarks in this important dive site. The marine life that has grown on and around the statue renders the shrine [with] interesting underwater features. That has led to the publication of numerous photographs of this location in many local and overseas dive websites and publications.”
When asked about his experiences praying underwater, Mark Baluci, a longtime diver with the club remarked, “I thank Our Lady for making it possible for me to carry out this one more dive and also thank her for safely guiding me through all my diving adventures over the past 26 years. Sometimes I find that these are moments of deeper reflection than those I normally experience. Maybe this is due to the fact that when diving one is immersed in another amazing world where you can really appreciate God’s wonderful creation, away from the usual worries and distractions on land, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.”
Although the original aim of the club was to help promote scuba diving and provide an opportunity for not-so-experienced divers to practice their sport in a safe and enjoyable way, the club has also spawned interest in Our Lady in the most unlikely of places. The club regularly organizes various shore events: dinners, barbecues, cultural tours, hikes and first-aid training for landlubbers.
Not an experienced scuba diver? Many of the more popular resorts near dive sites offer introductory classes of Snuba. This is the newest and safest method for learning to scuba dive. While being connected to a 20-foot oxygen tube, beginner divers submerge with an expert guide, making it possible for everyone to jump in and experience the thrill of underwater exploration.
Here are some of the underwater shrine sites I researched that give holy water a whole new meaning:
Location: Approximately six miles northeast of Key Largo in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Site: “Christ of the Abyss,” a lovely bronze sculpture of Our Lord with outstretched arms
Neat Facts: The 9-foot bronze statue stands 25 feet underwater. It is the third from an original mold of “Il Cristo degli Abissi,” an underwater shrine created by Guido Galletti in the Mediterranean Sea off San Fruttuso between Camogli and Portofino on the Italian Riviera. It was installed in 1962 by the Underwater Society of America.
Average Depth: 32.8 feet
Location: The Chankanaab Reef of Cozumel Island. This world-renowned dive site is located only a few hours away from Cancun in the Caribbean Sea.
Site: An excellent shore dive to a 14-foot statue of Christ. Nearby is a smaller statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by amazing coral heads.
Neat Facts: The site is teeming with marine life: sea turtles, rays, grouper, angel fish, tangs, moray eels, toad fish, crabs, lobsters, amberjacks and more.
Average Depth: 20 feet
Location: Mediterranean island nation of Malta. Cirkewwa is located at the tip of the island and looks onto the other Maltese islands of Gozo and Comino.
Site: Virgin Mary statue in grotto with plaque
Neat Facts: This dive site is listed among the top 10 to be visited in Europe. The Maltese archipelago is also noted in the Bible: St. Paul was shipwrecked here.
Depth: Approximately 60 feet
Location: On the French Riviera, the beautiful and famous city of Nice has about 30 dive sites.
Site: “Our Lady of the Seabed” statue is approximately 9-feet tall.
Neat Facts: The statue of the Virgin Mary was placed by Nice’s fire brigade divers in 1968. This shrine is also routinely listed as one of the top 10 dive sites in Europe.
Depth: Approximately 50 feet
Jennifer Roche writes from Malta.