Malta’s renowned marine biologist Alan Deidun did not mince his words when he expressed his fears that changes in the Mediterranean marine ecosystem are impacting our native marine species and when this happens it creates what he called “a domino effect” leading to the extinction of many forms of marine life.
Over the years there has been an increase of thriving new species that have found their way from the Red Sea, via the Suez Canal, into Maltese waters. Much the same can be said from the Atlantic via the Straits of Gibraltar. These include invasions of jelly fish, strange fish and even an increase of sharks and some whales most uncommon in the Mediterranean.
Added to these are the great perils of plastic pollution, hundreds of tons choking sea life, particular turtles.
From an early age I was a habitual bookworm, reading everything that was readable. Road signs, displayed adverts, street notices, newspapers, magazines, books and what have you, and I still am today, rarely bypassing anything readable without reading it.
With a childhood spent in England from the age of seven onwards, there were many late winter nights spent propped up in bed, a small reading lamp beside me, cascading rain splattering the window pane and the wind howling at the door – yet all so far away and isolated from me as I engrossed myself with The Coral Island, Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson and my all-time favourite, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a book I have read a hundred times over and a film I have seen a hundred times over.
Late nights followed early mornings as I shook off sleepy eyes a few hours before school to continue my reading which I had reluctantly put down just a few meagre hours earlier, dreaming of marine adventures, swinging coconut trees, golden sands and billowing tropical seas.
Having been born on an island in the centre of the Mediterranean, the sea was always in my blood, my lifeline, as it is in all of us born here and my most dreaded times were spent living inland in England with many months passing before catching a glimpse of the sea and a whiff of its saltiness. As a substitute, living on the outskirts of Bedford, I often popped down to the city centre to see the flowing River Ouse and watching its ebb and fall as it trickled its way down to the sea even though a remote semblance of the brilliantly blue sea of my earlier childhood in Malta.
And where is all this leading to? Well, yes, we live and learn particularly when I came across a news item some five years ago that left me spellbound and wondering and also put me on a road to discovery about something I had no concept of.
Malta had set a new depth record for the finding of precious red coral! This resulted after two separate expeditions carried out surveys of the deep sea surrounding the Maltese Islands in 2015 and 2016 – part of a LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project. Deep sea underwater robots equipped with a video camera were used to explore the depths and surprised watching scientists by revealing numerous colonies of precious red coral (Corallium rubrum) growing at depths of over one kilometre, that is 200 metres even deeper than the previous record which – surprise, surprise – was also held by Malta.
The scientific team operated from the NGO Oceana in conjunction with the University of Malta’s Biology Department and undertook the surveys with the University analysing all the collected data. The findings were presented during the 41st Congress of the International Commission for the Scientific Exploration of the Mediterranean (CIESM) held in Kiel, Germany in September of 2016.
The University’s Professor Patrick J. Schembri explained that red coral colonies are usually found at depths of between 300 and 1,000 metres and thus caused surprise at being found in depths exceeding one kilometre.
“This record was a surprise to us all” said Professor Schembri, “but it goes to show just how little we know about the sea which surrounds our own islands.”
There were other surprises too. These included the discovery of a fossilised sponge reef at a depth of 300 metres, deep-water caves at 450 metres as well as a great number of sand and mud habitats inhabited by a number of marine communities including some very rare and threatened species.
Never one to let sleeping dogs lie, I had to investigate further. I knew that red and black coral existed around Mediterranean coastlines, particularly off Tunisia and also around Sardinia and Corsica. In fact during a holiday in Sardinia I had bought several red coral necklaces and pendants for my wife.
What I never knew or anticipated is that such corals existed at depths in Malta, and thankfully at depths because it would long ago have been pilfered by divers!
Another scientific paper published by Marine Biodiversity Records, co-authored by Maltese marine biologist Alan Deidun, revealed other details hitherto unknown to me.
On information compiled mostly from various writings and via interviews with Maltese fishermen and former directors of the Mediterranean Coral Fishing Company, established in 1984, shows how more than a ton of the red coral and over 250 kilograms of black coral were taken from Maltese coastal waters between 1984 and 1987.
Apparently, before a clampdown, there was also an active smuggling trade of red and black coral lifted from Tunisian waters making its way illicitly to Malta – but then that’s always been the characteristic of our small Mediterranean Islands whether it is the smuggling of coral, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs or whatever.
It is simply horrendous to dwell on that many of these marine forms are facing a considerable threat and that unless international action is taken all round, we are facing a grim situation.
And with that, I prefer to continue with my dreams of young Jack Hawkins, Ben Gunn and Long John Silver and his parrot squawking “Pieces of Eight, Pieces of Eight” still living and active in my memories of my beloved Treasure Island – the stuff of my boyhood, as well as the Maltese Islands of my boyhood – crystal clear blue waters teeming with marine life.
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“The fool is he who takes me for a fool”