On monday evening, 60 guests, including foreign ambassadors, Maltese government officials, eco-tour operators and environmental NGOs, joined BirdLife Malta and the Malta Seabird Project team on a Sunset Shearwater Boat Trip, as part of the European Maritime Day 2013. The activity was organised to demonstrate to potential for sensitive coastal wildlife tourism in Malta to complement and support marine wildlife conservation efforts on and around the islands.
Just after 6pm, we embarked on the small boat from the breakwater at Ramla Bay, in Marfa, and headed out across the Gozo channel, past Comino, to where we would be able to admire the gorgeous flocks of Scopoli’s Shearwater, Calonectris diomedea diomedea, rafting on the sea in front of the colony at Ta’ Cenc, Gozo. The hour before sunset is the best time to see large numbers of these birds gathering together on the surface of the sea close to the their biggest breeding colony in Malta. After the sun goes down, adult birds that have been out at sea foraging and feeding for days at a time return to their cliff-side nests, where they relieve their mate and take their turn incubating their single egg (Socpoli’s, like other shearwaters, only have one egg each year).
We were rewarded with an hour of spectacular and intimate sights and sounds of Scopoli’s Shearwaters (and a few smaller Yelkouan Shearwaters in amongst them) as the glided impossibly only inches over the water, following the ever-changing contours of the waves, and gave their eerie call (that some describe as being like a baby crying) as they congregated on the water. Then, all of a sudden, one bird would take-off- running across the surface of the water as it spread and flapped its wings to get airborn- followed by another and another, until there were more than a hundred shearwaters were in the air at the same time- accompanied by gasps from the suitably impressed human onlookers.
The attraction of these birds for anyone interested in wildlife-watching is obvious, but the threats they face from human activities may be less so. The main threats to the species in Malta are development close to the colonies, disturbance and persecution by humans, light and noise pollution and fishing by-catch. Light and noise pollution are the biggest factors in disturbing the birds close to their breeding colonies, and Malta is one of the most light-polluted countries in Europe.
Out at sea, by-catch becomes an issue, but it is difficult to quantify the effect this is having on the populations of these birds.
Wildlife tourism has the potential to help raise much need awareness about Malta’s enigmatic seabirds, but it must been done in such a way as to minimise any potentially negative impact on the birds being observed. BirdLife Malta has produced two leaflets (designed specifically for this activity) to try to promote better appreciation of the sensitivity of shearwaters to disturbance by humans and to encourage good practice on the part of boat operators to minimise disturbance to the birds at their breeding colonies.
This activity will be repeated in July, when the number shearwaters gathering on the water next to the cliffs before sunset will be at its peak and the spectacle will be even more amazing. Keep an eye on the BirdLife Malta facebook page for announcements of future boat trips.