Summer: a time to explore our sandy shores

Get your family to explore the shallow waters with its array of sea creatures this summer. Snorkelling is the best way to do this and it’s a hobby that could save our marine life.
Photo: Victor Falzon

With school well and truly over, summer is the time to catch up on quality time with your child.

Forget that barrage of brochures for organised summer clubs, schools and other tantalising enrolments that promise to keep your idle child out of your hair.

Instead, carve out some personalised time this summer to discover the delights of our shallow, sandy shores with your family.

Not only does the beach come without a price tag, but it also presents the perfect opportunity to rescue your child’s brain from falling into a summer stupor.

Different shores will have their own denizens, so have a few favourites and do the rounds. Rather than lounge on the beach while your child plays in the shallows, unleash your inner scientist together. Kit yourselves out with swim mask, snorkel pipe and, if you like, flippers.

Add a child’s underwater camera to that and your hobby will go home with you after you shake off the sand.

When choosing sunscreen, go for a mineral-based one that doesn’t have nano-particles. You can surf “eco-friendly sunscreen” to make sure you’re making an informed choice that keeps you and the sea safe from harmful chemicals.

Layers of life

Sandy beaches may seem pretty low on sea life when compared to our rocky shores, but think in “layers” instead of rocky profile. A sea animal that’s equipped for speed will roam the open sea, singly or in low numbers, suddenly accelerating in bursts of speed as it changes direction in search of prey.

Younger individuals of predator fishes like amberjack or blue runner will often hang around in sandy bays, looking for shoals of anchovy or sand smelt.

Blue runners chase a shoal of European anchovy. Photo: Victor Falzon

Learn to spot the sudden appearance of the silver-tinged dark blue sides of the blue runner or the distinctive head stripe of the amberjack. Getting a good snapshot of these bay sprinters is high on bonus points in the marine photographer’s list.

Notice the shape of the fish you see in shoals in the open water, closer to the surface. Their streamlined, silvery sides flash past if you reach out to them, but hang indolently close to the surface if you keep a respectable distance. Approach slowly and they will allow a decent photo shoot.

Refresh your child’s memory of food chains, and notice how groups of mullets seem to be “eating” water near the surface. They are actually hoovering up plankton: millimetre-sized plants or animals that fuel the marine web of life.

A young amberjack with distinctive head stripe. Photo: Desirée Falzon

High five

If your children are under 12, stick to shallow water and explore the sandy bottom from above. You may be able to make out the sea star. There’s something magical about finding a starfish, even if it’s the well-camouflaged greyish sand sea star most commonly found in sandy bays like Mellieħa Bay. If you have an older child, you may train nose pinching and equalising ear pressure to get a closer look at the next layer.

A sand sea star in perfect camouflage with the sandy bottom. Photo: Desirée Falzon

But before you set your sights on the sandy bottom, check the ropes marking the swimmer’s zone for goose barnacles. Try to approach this quirky relative of the crab without touching the rope and you might catch it with its feathery arms out.

Devilishly difficult to photograph, barnacles make pretty pictures, rather like a hand happily high-fiving. Since their arms are filter feeding plankton from the water, they latch on to objects in a current. Challenge yourselves to getting a good snapshot with no camera shake for the album.

A barnacle filters the water current for plankton with outstretched arms. Photo: Desirée Falzon

Life down under

Just above the grainy bottom, look for striped seabream – medium-sized fish with steep forehead and barred sides. Watch how they seem to be nibbling sand and leaving a trail of gouges that are so characteristic, you can tell the shoal has just been foraging and is still close. But what’s so tasty about a mouthful of sand?

That sandy bottom is teeming with life. Without the cover of rocks, caves and boulder overhangs, sandy sea floors would be death traps for prey species like worms, crabs, shells and similar animals. Solution? Dig deep and forge a life down there. Many of these animals never emerge from their subterranean burrows, others crawl out and forage, only to dive back in at the first sign of danger.

One of these is the small hermit crab, whose scientific name contains a reference to “boxing” due to its enlarged left claw, rather like a boxer’s glove. See if you can find this enigmatic crab crawling over the sand in shallow water. Watch how it stabilises itself with its larger claw while walking.

Other shells, like the grooved razor shell, will never grace you with an appearance, but their tell-tale double siphon “holes” give away their presence. Get too close to these siphons and they will vanish in a split second as the animal below senses danger and pulls in its precious feeding/snorkel tube.

The tell-tale holes of a grooved razor shell buried in sand. Photo: Desirée Falzon

Rearranging the common order

One spectacular animal that is skilfull at pulling sand dwellers out of hiding is the common stingray. One of the best places to see its unmistakable diamond shape  is Golden Bay, where you can safely look down and watch it glide smoothly over the bottom, often shadowed by one or two flounders hanging by for scraps.

A common stingray’s mouth grabs prey from the sandy bottom while its eyes sit in a turret scanning for danger from above. Photo: Desirée Falzon

These curious characters, like the wide-eyed flounder, have evolved to life off the seafloor, having eyes that migrated to the top of their horizontal bodies and a sideways mouth, in position to snap up prey. Flounders ambush small fish and invertebrates.

Bottom-hugging fish such as flounders are hard to make out as they throw in all the camouflage tricks in the book, not only matching the sand-grain palette, but also obscuring their shape thanks to feathery fins that break up their outline.

Life-saving hobby

Snorkelling is a wonderful, easy, and relaxing family hobby that your child need never get bored of. But there is a darker side to the bucolic scene painted in this article. As we avoid the heat and scramble for the shore, shore life creatures scramble for safety.

Malta’s population has grown unsustainably over the last decade or two. People crowding out wildlife and life at our shores are no exception. Together with our urge to catch, kill, play with and carelessly disregard the dignity and beauty of other life, we are driving many of our coastal species to extinction.

Our new-found restaurant preference for animals like razorshells and sea urchins has created a troupe of “enterprising” harvesters who comb our shores with impunity, unchecked by laws or regulations to make a quick buck from harvesting the beautiful animals.

A bagful of razorshells, freshly robbed of their life, place in the ecosystem, and our children’s marine life discovery journey. Photo: Desirée Falzon

Our increasing plastic litter fouls the water. Our ever-increasing assault of sea craft wage a war of attrition on our fragile shore ecosystems.

This summer stoke the scientists in your family, take up snorkelling. Get a budget underwater camera and let them experiment. Take your photos home, build a scrapbook of sea memories. Jot down the date, weather and note your exciting finds.

The book Fishes and Other Marine Animals by M.A. Falzon & P.J. Schembri is a handy, easy-to-use reference guide. Leave creatures where you find them and take memories not lives. Snorkelling may well be the hobby that saves our marine life.

Desirée Falzon is a naturalist and field teacher with BirdLife Malta.

Join BirdLife Malta

For more nature experiences for you and your children, join BirdLife Malta’s family events at www.birdlifemalta.org/events or become a member and join their family of nature lovers at https://birdlifemalta.org/become-member/.

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