sea life?

”]”]I was nine years old and I stood on the rocks at the edge of the sea a little way out of Bugibba. It was a fishing village then, now I understand, like most of Malta, it’s a tourist town. I had a new mask and snorkel on my face and flippers on my feet. I didn’t know they should be called fins and I didn’t care. Flippers were fun. Swimming was something I had only recently embraced. I had nearly drowned when I was five and it took a long time to get used to the water again. I hadn’t mastered the breathing routine though. I still haven’t. I still swim doggie paddle with my head held high like some septuagenarian woman fresh from having her monthly hair-do done. It was snorkling that captivated me, having my face under the waves, seeing everything and still being able to breath with ease. With snorkel, mask and flippers I had leap-frogged over the other kids who only did normal swimming, I could never understand the attraction of being able to swim fast rather than lay still in the water for minutes at a time, face down, scanning the depths.

That day on the rocks in Malta was very special. It was the last afternoon of our holiday and I had spent my money on the new kit I wore. Yet even though I had been in the water every day that week and loved it more each hour, standing on these rocks looking in made me nervous. It was clear to the bottom, and the bottom was deep. The fear of drowning was still fresh. The little boy was afraid, but he was going to be brave.  I had to be brave, the fish were too tempting. They were everywhere. And I had my first pair of flippers on my feet. I stepped off into a shoal and even my splash didn’t make them all disappear. I remember that day so precisely, it is as if I had spent it in my own rock lined tropical fish tank. The water was warm and clear, the mask, snorkel and flippers fitted like a new skin and the fish were all around me.

That was more than thirty years ago. A lot has changed. Not my love of being under the water, I still adore it, though these days it’s a regulator in my mouth and fins on my feet. I don’t mind the deep now, I have a very keen respect for every metre above my head, but I have been deeper than I should have and liked it. What has changed is not so much me, but the sea. It seems insane that in that time there has been less change in one frail human than the whole Mediterranean Sea, but it is true. Walking along the shoreline in Mahdia the other evening, staring down into the clear, calm water, it was hard to spot fish. Diving on a reef just off the coast yesterday confirmed it. The schools of my boyhood plunges have gone, swept up into nets that have been too hungry for too long. The diving was, as always for me, a deeply relaxing, yet intensely focusing experience, flying through an alien world, with limited safeguards and huge potential for harm, yet, with an otherwise unattainable sensation of freedom. The fish were missing though. There were some, but isolated or in small groups they seemed more like lost wanderers in a barren land. There was only one shoal and even that was patchy and diluted compared to the density of those from my marine-boy memories. And not just against the rose-coloured childhood memories either, these shoals were sparse compared to others I have seen in protected marine parks elsewhere in the world.

Two years ago the European Environment Agency said that over 65 percent of all fish populations in the Mediterranean are below safe biological limits. Overfishing, pollution, coastal development, irresponsible tourism: none of it has helped the marine environment in a sea that is an island surrounded by land. When I took my mask off after the dive, a sad and cynical play on a film quote ran though my mind. Anything else would have been too heart breaking to say. “The Med’s Dead Baby, The Med’s Dead”.

Will any other boy ever stand in new flippers and mask and jump into this sea, teeming with fish? Oh, I hope so.

Originally a post on the overlanding blog, www.thelongandwinding.co.uk

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