At Sea

August 5, 2014 5:07 pm

We are now halfway through summer, the days are long and hot and nights only bring little relief in our sweaty August routine. The breeding season of the Scopolis shearwater is still going strong, and the newly-hatched chicks are getting fat in their burrows on the cliffs. During this time, adult shearwaters close their days at sea by gathering on the water, a few kilometres away from the cliffs, and waiting for nightfall to go back to the colonies.

Watching the shearwater rafting, as this behaviour is called, is one of the most impressive wildlife experiences Malta can offer. I am quite excited to put on my blue BirdLife Maltat-shirt and make my way to Marfa, where two boats will sail to the Gozo Channel to show the rafts to a group of lucky guests. There are blue jellyfish in the water as we leave the jetty in the late afternoon. As an islander, it always surprises me how small a portion of the Maltese coastline is actually accessible, and being back on the water has an immediate soothing effect.

Participants seem to be excited as well, and they are asking questions about the seabirds and sharing stories of their travels and encounters with wildlife. After a few minutes sailing on the strait we start seeing the first solitary birds, flying low on the water and almost touching the surface with the tip of their long wings. Cameras come out and children go wow as the birds fly right next to our boat.

We keep sailing as the sun slowly sets to the west, giving the water a golden tinge, and we reach the rafts. The shearwaters are not at all bothered by our presence, and keep peacefully floating just a few meters away from us. A few birds lazily fly in circles around the raft before landing on the water. The boat turns quiet, everyone is just admiring the birds, taking photos, and asking questions about their stories – where do they nest? Where do they go when they leave? Who takes care of the chicks?
The sun dives into the water, it’s getting dark, and the birds start to take off and fly back to the colonies. The captain turns the motor back on, and we start making our way back to the harbour. I am leaning on the railing, talking to one of our guests and not looking at the sea, when I hear a sudden wow and see somebody standing up. I already know in my head what’s happening before I see anything.
Dolphins. About thirty meters away from the boat, a pod of seven bottlenose dolphins is leaping out of the water, powerfully swimming in our direction. It’s almost dark now, but the little remaining light gives us an amazing sight of the animals. Six adults and a young calf, jumping and breaching the water. I run to the captain, ask him to stop the boat for a bit. Sea mammals are not easy to see, and being able to observe them in the wild is a gift. People are deeply touched by dolphins and whales, and we seem to relate to them in a different way than with other animals.

The boat stops, people go quiet again, except when the pod jumps out of the water and we can’t help but express our wonder. Me? I am in tears, my hands wrapped around the back of my head as I keep tracking their movements underwater and their graceful, sudden leaps. After a few minutes the pod changes direction, start swimming towards the northern coast of Malta and disappear into the night. The captain starts the boat again, we are only fifteen minutes away from the harbour. I go quiet, others need to share their feelings and start talking, rapidly, with each other. Everyone is happy when we reach land. We say goodbye to our guests and make our way home. It’s been a good night.


Nick Piludu is the Development Assistant at BirdLife Malta. 

Photos by Paulo Lago Barreiro, Holly Forsyth and Ella Beeson.

To find out more about Malta’s Seabirds, you can visit the website of our Malta Seabird Project