Scuba Instructor Death: The Tragic Dive of Christine Gauci in the Mgarr ix-Xini Cave

Scuba Instructor Death: The Tragic Dive of Christine Gauci in the Mgarr ix-Xini Cave
Incident LocationDiver Full Name
Malta, Gozo, Mgarr ix-Xini CaveChristine Gauci

Tragedy struck on January 18, 2020, when Christine Gauci, a remarkable 35-year-old technical diver, scuba instructor, freediver, and Afghanistan veteran, met an untimely fate in the midst of what should have been another routine dive. The incident left many with unanswered questions, and the case grew even more perplexing after her longtime diving buddy, Arthur Costello, found himself confronting involuntary homicide charges.

The Gozo Diving Disaster of 2020

Subsequent to a comprehensive post-accident analysis conducted by the Maltese police, this is the story of the Gozo diving disaster of 2020. Born on September 3, 1985, Christine Gauci was a sincere, energetic, and adventurous woman. In 2005, she defied the odds by becoming the only female accepted into the elite armed forces of Malta. Her path wasn’t easy, as a knee injury sidelined her from basic training, but that didn’t dampen her spirit.

After her recovery, Christine’s determination led her to complete the recruitment. Her sights were set higher, dreaming of serving in the British army. She succeeded after a grueling six-month selection process in the UK and excelled in basic training, specializing in air defense. Her training journey took her to the Minden Battery 12th Regiment Royal Artillery, where she honed her skills, being promoted as a Lance Bombardier. From there, Christine was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, where she earned the prestigious Afghanistan Medal for completion of her tour of duty.

After deployment, she returned to her homeland, Malta, rejoining the Armed Forces of Malta in 2012. Christine faced new challenges, including responsibilities at Malta International Airport, training in compass searches on female personnel and vehicles, VIP protection, and rapid response to aircraft accidents. But Christine’s ambitions didn’t stop there. With a passion for sports diving, she harbored a strong desire to pursue a career in underwater bomb disposal, enrolling in the rigorous B3 diver course offered by the Explosive Ordnance Depot. Her ultimate aspiration was to make history as the first female member of the esteemed EOD unit, proudly serving her nation beneath Maltese waters.

The Charms of Malta and Gozo

This determination and dedication mirrored the spirit of Malta itself, a nation with a population of about 500,000 people formed by two main islands: the larger island of Malta and the smaller Gozo. Each has its own unique charms. The bigger island is more developed and boasts a greater number of attractions, while Gozo offers a more relaxed and natural feel. The dive took place in Mgarr ix-Xini, situated on the south of Gozo.

Access to the quaint fjord-like bay is through a long windy road starting near a farm between Xewkija and Sannat, overlooking the valley. Vehicles can be conveniently parked at the water’s edge, enhancing the accessibility of Mgarr ix-Xini as a favored and easily reachable dive site in Gozo. The bay slopes down gently to 6, 10, 14, and eventually 70 meters, where it leads to the open sea to the south and to the Tarxien Temples’ sinkhole outlet to the west. Notably, the bay features two small ocean caverns on its right side that are often visited by divers.

The Fateful Dive

On the crisp morning of January 18, 2020, Arthur met up with Christine and the rest of the team composed of four other divers as they prepared to dive the picturesque bay. Christine had admitted to Arthur that she had been awake for 20 hours preceding the dive due to a long work shift. For that reason, Arthur’s girlfriend had attempted to talk her out of doing the dive, but Christine dismissed the suggestion, stating that the cold water would revitalize her senses.

At around 8:30 a.m., the group set out, with Arthur pairing up with Christine’s diving buddy. Christine was equipped with open circuit back-mounted doubles and a decompression tank of 50% oxygen, while Arthur was diving a closed circuit rebreather. They incurred mandatory decompression on the approximate 28 meters or 92-foot dive. An expert witness stated that Christine was using a dry suit that was too big for her, causing it to trap too much air. The suit was also defective, and it should be noted that Christine had not been trained on how to use a dry suit or maintain its buoyancy.

Buoyancy Issues and Uncontrolled Ascent

Buoyancy control issues on descent necessitated the intervention of Arthur between 16 to 18 meters’ depth. Arthur helped Christine deal with difficulties by dumping gas. He suggested aborting the dive at that point, but she signaled to proceed with the dive. Subsequently, upon arriving at 28 meters’ depth, Arthur again had to physically assist her by holding her down and releasing gas from her buoyancy control device.

Buoyancy issues on descent should never be overlooked or disregarded. According to diving experts, insufficient weighting is never a problem that goes away during a dive; it only amplifies as more gas is consumed during the bottom phase of the dive. Christine and Arthur entered a small underwater cave, where Christine’s flipper became entangled in a discarded fishing net. Thankfully, Arthur assisted in cutting Christine free of the net, and when asked, she signaled her intention to continue the dive.

Tragic Outcome

Following the exit from the cave, Arthur directed that they should ascend to a shallower depth for the return swim to shore. As they arrived at 15 meters or 49 feet, Christine again suffered issues with positive buoyancy. Arthur donated two kilograms of his own weight to her, but that proved insufficient. He then found and gave her a heavy rock to hold. Again, when asked, Christine signaled her intention to continue the dive.

Almost immediately after addressing her buoyancy issues, Christine experienced an uncontrolled ascent. Arthur was looking away when she lost control but observed that Christine had given her plummet past him. Her uncontrolled ascent separated her from Arthur. He then ascended with the intention of completing a two-minute mandatory decompression stop at five meters. However, that proved impossible due to him having donated two kilograms of weights to Christine shortly before.

Aftermath and Lessons Learned

Arthur’s conviction caused an outcry among the Maltese scuba diving community, who feared that the judgment set a precedent that would lead other divers to consider diving without bodies and could potentially have a deleterious effect on Malta’s dive tourism industry. During the trial, it was established that Christine had consumed 70 bars of her primary gas within the first 20 minutes of the dive at a depth of only 10 meters. This indicated an incredibly high gas consumption rate.

On February 22, 2023, the Court of Criminal Appeal cleared Arthur of criminal responsibility for Christine’s death, ruling that he had done everything he could have reasonably been expected to do in the circumstances. The tragic death of Christine Gauci serves as a bitter reminder that divers don’t always get away with deviating from ideal judgments or the best practices they were taught.

Sculptor Charles Spiteri-Miceli, the creative force behind Jezer’s Art Studio in Hal Qormi, crafted a mesmerizing bronze statue that immortalized Christine. This heartfelt tribute came to life and was unveiled on a significant day, Friday, September 3rd, which marked Christine’s birthday. The statue now stands proudly before the very house in Victoria, Gozo, where Christine herself once grew up. Today, this transformed residence is known as Dar Christine, a haven of solace and support for children grappling with the painful challenges of parental alienation.

Besides this monument, as a result of the initiative of our Armed Forces colleagues, another commemorative monument has been placed on the seabed at Mgarr ix-Xini, where Christine drowned. Christine’s passing remains a mystery, and her tragic death serves as a somber reminder of the importance of adhering to diving best practices.

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What is Mgarr ix-Xini Cave?

Mgarr ix-Xini Cave is an underwater cave located in Gozo, Malta. It’s a popular diving site known for its unique underwater features.

Where is Mgarr ix-Xini Cave located?

Mgarr ix-Xini Cave is situated in the region of Gozo, which is one of the islands that make up the nation of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea.

What happened to Christine Gauci at Mgarr ix-Xini Cave?

Christine Gauci, a diver, tragically lost her life during a dive at Mgarr ix-Xini Cave. Her story highlights the risks and challenges of underwater exploration.

Why is Mgarr ix-Xini Cave popular among divers?

Mgarr ix-Xini Cave is popular among divers due to its picturesque underwater landscape and ocean caverns that can be explored. However, it also presents challenges that divers need to be prepared for.

Is Mgarr ix-Xini Cave safe for diving?

Diving in Mgarr ix-Xini Cave requires proper training, experience, and equipment. It’s important for divers to adhere to safety protocols and have a good understanding of the underwater environment before attempting a dive.

Patrick Broin
Patrik, a seasoned cave diver, shares his first-hand experiences and expert insights on the treacherous world of cave diving accidents.
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