Thursday, November 4, 2010

Seabed cleanup at il-Foss

As soon as my mates Jason (Chubbie) and Patrick asked if I would help take part in an underwater cleanup of the Foss dive site in Valletta, I immediately accepted.
Jason and Patrick run the Watercolours Dive Centre, which has a school in Sliema and another in Valletta. It was a few years ago that I began to dive and these two fellows were my instructors.
The cleanup was scheduled for a Saturday morning, but the weather was absolutely savage. There were high winds and the island was lashed by storms the night before. It would have to wait. In the event, it was moved forward by a week, with the hope of there being some better weather.
On the day, it was raining and cloudy, but it was very muggy so it wasn’t going to be too cold, especially seeing as there was steaming hot tea, coffee and biscuits available.
I was to take part as a buddy team leader. I know the site very well, having been my learning ground and having a fair amount of dives under my belt, I was to lead a team of four. The Foss area is a harbour dive, and although it is at the mouth of Marsamxett, there is a remarkable ecosystem which thrives.
Flat fish skim the sand bed and bury themselves there, their only giveaway being two tiny beady little eyes. Seahorses cling onto algae for dear life as they sway in the current while Scorpion Fish lurk in dark holes and against reefs, where they are almost invisible. Fireworms crawl around the fissures, while colourful nudibranches attach themselves to anything which doesn’t move. Octopus, cuttlefish, sea urchins, red mullet and many others can all be found in this area.
Of course, one must not forget the HMS Maori – a real WWII wreck lying half buried in sand at a depth of 14-18 metres. She is one of those old, old ships that looks like she belongs to her environment. Brown and rusting, she is home to myriad life forms, and a lovely relaxed dive to boot.
During the briefing, Jason explained to the whole group that one has to be careful in picking rubbish off the seabed. We have seen octopi living in kettles, spider crabs living in broken glass bottles and shrimps in any little nook and cranny that they can find. Scorpion fish love to settle themselves into crevices and metal poles and tubes can make quite a nice home for them.
The cleanup team needed to understand an important point – on a cleanup, it is important to not cause more harm to wildlife than good. You cannot lift a piece of debris out of the water if it has significant life on it.
Briefing done, we entered the (shockingly) cold water and buddied up into our teams. I checked with the four other divers and they were ready to go… all give the okay, thumb down and off we go.
As soon as you equalize and get to the seabed, which is only at about six metres in depth, the volume and array of rubbish really does hit you. Of course, what would be an easy task on land soon becomes a complicated problem underwater. Trying to get hold of swollen cigarette butts and lighters is a completely different ball game – add a bit of a current and busy divers to the mix, and it soon becomes a bit congested.
Within minutes, we had picked up countless fag ends, plastic bottles, broken glass bottles, bits and pieces of plastic and more. My find of the day was a rug which had been dumped into the sea.
Knowing that it might be full of life, I unfolded it – again, no easy task, and shook it out as best I could and handed it to the snorkeling team at the surface, to take it to shore. Though I tried my best, there was still one spider crab hanging on for dear life by the time the rug made it to the rubbish pile, but someone spotted it and put it back into the sea.
By the end of the afternoon, we had collected a substantial amount of  rubbish ranging from a car alternator, bar stool, a carpet and a set of dentures. This is to be taken in the context of another cleanup having been held some three weeks earlier.
Another big problem is detritus and rubbish which is left on the foreshore. If it is windy, or rainy, all that goes into the sea.  The sea is our collective heritage, as mankind. This was put forward as a resolution to the United Nations by Malta. The resolution was passed, but the reality is that the seabed is “out of sight, out of mind”. We, as an island people are intrinsically linked to the sea. We should protect it and that means stopping overfishing, shark finning, dumping, drilling and much, much more. We have one world, one home; we need to preserve it.

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