Continuing my theme in recent past weeks, I once more base my contribution this week on the assertion made by international film star Russell Crowe about a month ago that in Malta every corner has a thousand stories to relate.
As I have often stressed previously, Malta is a treasure trove of historic heritage remains that must surely make it one of the most precious historic sites throughout the world, given its size as one of the tiniest inhabited islands from around the globe.
I expand Crowe’s assertion to Malta’s surrounding blue Mediterranean Sea, another vast and surprising treasure trove that have made it one of the most popular diving sites in Europe.
Sadly, this has been placed under threat not only from climate change but also through the dumping of millions of tons of plastic rubbish in every corner of the world.
However, this has not prevented some curious developments. From my boyhood days I cannot recollect the presence of any whales around Malta. My only connection was to read about them in books, such as Moby Dick and that they thrived in the cold North Atlantic Sea and the north and south polar poles.
However, I was astounded by a recent report drawn up by Malta’s Environmental and Resources Agency that confirmed a strong presence of some whale species as well as dolphins around Malta.
Dolphins I was familiar with as they were present aplenty when we crossed from Malta to Gozo and back across the Gozo Channel. These would gambol around the prows of the vessel and draw gasps of excitement. However, with the increase of sea traffic, these became rarer and rarer and virtually gradually disappeared.
However, this recent report revealed they are teeming again although albeit further offshore. The species are Risso’s Dolphin, the Common Dolphin, the Striped Dolphin and the Bottlenose Dolphin, the last three being the most abundant.
So dolphins – welcome back to Malta.
Yet, the more astounding was the strong presence of four types of whales, these being the Fin Whale, the Sperm Whale, Cuvier’s Beaked Whale and the Long-Finned Pilot Whale. So – welcome too!
Thankfully the Agency is closely monitoring these species to ensure the security of their presence around our islands.
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 recently I came across a news item that left me spellbound and wondering and also put me on a road to discovery about something I had no concept of.
Malta 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.
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. 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 coral, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs or whatever.
Now, yet another discovery; on the sea bottom east of Malta a coral formation has been discovered that is almost half the size of the island of Gozo, the size of Gozo being 67 square kilometres.
What is special about this approximately 33 square metre area of coral spread is that whereas coral beds are normally flat, the coral here has grown to a height of five metres in a sea depth of 100 metres. What is more important is that the coral is teeming with life – beyond all expectations.
More excitingly there are many more areas that have yet to be properly explored – and who knows what will or could transpire?
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“When it arrives – open the door and let it in”
Useless to ward off the inevitable – it will happen anyway.