Dolphins of the Inland Sea
MANY UK DIVERS WILL BE familiar with Dwejra. The area draws thousands of divers to the small island of Gozo, and many will have dived the tunnel at the Qawra, the Maltese name for the Inland Sea.
This is a shallow, semi-circular pool of sea water about 100m across and only some 5m at its deepest. It is connected to the sea by a narrow tunnel passing through a cliff face, navigable only by small boats.
More than 30 years ago, between 20 June and 1 July 1984, a unique event occurred in Dwejra, Gozo. Two dolphins were stranded in the Inland Sea, apparently unable to return to the open ocean.
I received a call from Tony Lautier, a good friend and a champion of the marine environment.
Tony ran the dive-centre at the Comino Hotel and we often buddied up to dive around the island on his day off. So it wasn’t surprising to hear from him on a Saturday; I expected him to have plans for a couple of dives over the weekend.
What surprised me was that he was thinking of a rescue attempt for the Dwejra dolphins. They had been in the news all through late June, and by then had been trapped for 10 days and become a considerable tourist as well as local attraction.
Several groups had tried to rescue them, including the Armed Forces of Malta Task Force and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but the dolphins had merely danced around the would-be rescuers.
The unfortunate aspect of this accidental circus at Dwejra was that the dolphins were showing increasing signs of distress, ignoring the dead fish that some kind-hearted people had been trying to feed them.
I assumed that everyone would jump at a chance of trying to find a solution, so I called Mario, another dive-buddy, and asked if he would like to join us.
His response was as enthusiastic as mine had been, and we promptly drove up to Marfa, where Tony was waiting with his aluminium dive-boat.
We might have had noble intentions, but what we needed was a plan. How could we get a pair of dolphins out of the Inland Sea while causing the least possible stress to the animals?
I came up with a “brilliant” idea. We would dive at night and illuminate the way out with our underwater torches. The dolphins would just follow us through the passage to the sea – piece of cake!
There was just one tiny flaw in this plan. Wild dolphins are not pet dogs that trot along in your wake. It was worth a try but my hopes were dashed when we got under water and all we could see were a couple of swirling grey shapes in the distance. They refused to come anywhere near us, let alone follow us to salvation.
We reverted to plan B. Tony had made a net from stout nylon rope and, using this, we tried to herd the dolphins towards the passage to the outer sea.
I held one end while Mario, Tony and several snorkelling volunteers held up the net at various points.
Of course, the dolphins were unco-operative, running circles around us. They swam below the net, above it, and around the sides. Well, at least we were providing them with an evening of entertainment – how painfully slow and ungainly divers are under water!
WE GAVE UP SOME TIME around 1am. We were cold, exhausted and getting nowhere. The torch batteries had given up, so we were working in the dark, and it was getting increasingly dangerous.
The snorkellers had started getting cramp too. We retreated to the pebble beach and slipways, got out of our wetsuits and hung them up in the vain hope that they would dry before morning.
I remember waking at 6am, still tired and aching from having slept on a pebble beach, but I must have been made of sterner stuff in those days.
I wondered how mosquitoes had managed to get inside my sleeping-bag to drink half my blood.
Gazing across the Inland Sea, I was surprised to see the dolphins playing with the floats that buoyed the net that they had so masterfully avoided all evening. I pointed this out to Tony, who was making coffee, and he just grunted.
Saviour, one of the snorkellers, had slept on the slipway of one of the boathouses and was trussed up like an Egyptian mummy. He must have suffered from mosquito bites as well, and had drawn the zip of the sleeping bag all the way over his head. Two elderly gentlemen stood over him.
Tony handed me a cup of coffee and asked the fishermen why they were waiting. In hushed words, they explained that they were waiting for the young man to get up so that they could get their boat down the slipway, because they didn’t want to disturb him.
Tony went off towards his boat and returned with a pressurised air horn. He opened the sleeping-bag zip, inserted the trumpet, closed the zip for maximum effect and let loose a blast that echoed between the cliff walls of the Inland Sea.
I have heard of people’s hair standing on end when they’re startled, but poor Saviour’s beard was also standing on end.
Up like a shot, he was too stunned to speak and hurl abuse, but he really didn’t appreciate this wake-up call.
AFTER A QUICK improvised breakfast we were back in the water. Tony had extended his thick net by weaving another few metres, and we hoped this would make all the difference.
At this point a fishing-boat entered the Inland Sea and we asked the fishermen if they would deploy their fine-meshed trammel net and help us to corner the dolphins. This net was paid out, but I was upset to see that there were a couple of large holes in it that would have allowed the dolphins to escape.
I freedived down, and as I was trying to tie up the edges of one of the holes I could hear the high-pitched calling of the dolphins. The trammel net had separated them, and they were getting restless.
One of them approached the net, and I dived down to place myself, spread-eagled, in front of the gaping hole.
The dolphin merely sidestepped me and tore through an intact part of the net with no apparent effort. I couldn’t believe it – I still remember the zipping sound as the net tore away.
I was awestruck but also felt foolish.
We were dealing with wild animals, after all, and this dolphin could easily have head-butted me out of the way. It avoided hurting me and risked getting caught in the net. I had thought it impossible for me to respect dolphins more, but this took it to another dimension!
SOMEHOW, WITH ALL THE SPLASHING, nets, boats and swimmers, we managed to herd the dolphins into the shallow waters on the northern side of the bay. Confined to shallow water, we realised just how big they were.
We didn’t measure them, but we do know that one was smaller than the other and that both were female.
This tended to support the explanation of how they got into the Inland Sea. We were told that one of the dolphins had become entangled in nets and was towed behind a fishing-boat into the Inland Sea.
This would have allowed the fishermen to wade in the shallow water and release the dolphin without tearing their nets. The other one had just followed the boat, possibly because they were mother and daughter.
With the dolphins effectively corralled, we devised a plan to tow them behind Tony’s aluminium boat on a half-inflated dinghy. While preparations were being made, I had the privilege of holding the larger dolphin’s head in my lap as I squatted on the gravel beach.
Mario took care of the other dolphin – we held them so that they wouldn’t thrash about against the nylon net or scrape their skin on the gravel.
I kept splashing water on “my” dolphin’s back to keep it cool and shaded its eyes. I also stroked it gently to reassure it, bearing in mind that excessive handling could cause damage to the protective film over its skin.
I could also monitor its heartbeat on my thighs; the initial 160 beats per minute came down to 80bpm after 10 minutes, and subsequently stabilised at 120 beats.
ALL THIS I REMEMBER as if it was yesterday – not 30 years ago. They say that smell is the sense that sticks most readily in the memory. If that’s the case, the smell that characterised the dolphin’s exhaled breath still monopolises a large part of my memory. Its blowhole was just under my face and, as it breathed out, I kept getting a heavy dose of fish-breath!
Meanwhile, Tony got a pair of pliers and cut away some rope and fishing-lines that had got caught at the base of his dolphin’s tail flipper.
These lines must have been there for some time, as they had left deep scars.
Preparations completed, we gently moved the dolphins onto the half-deflated dinghy and started towing them out through the passage. Tony asked me to film the final release, and handed me his Eumig underwater Super8 movie camera.
I put on my scuba gear and headed outside the tunnel into the open sea. The water is pretty deep there, starting from 32m just outside the tunnel and dropping off to 60m just a few metres further out.
I had to watch my depth, and hovered in open water just 5-10m below the approaching boat with the dinghy in tow.
It was a wonderful sight, and I eagerly switched on the camera. I framed the boat against the surface and waited impatiently for the first dolphin to be released. Unlike modern video cameras, film lasted only for a few minutes and I wanted to save it.
It was the larger dolphin that was released first, and it headed straight at me as I kept filming.
IN THE INLAND SEA they had kept a healthy distance, but this dolphin now circled me within touching distance, sometimes rubbing against me. I would like to think that she recognised me as the fellow who was cradling her head on the gravel beach, and realised that we were only trying to help.
Meanwhile she was communicating with the other dolphin and I could feel their high-pitched calls resonating through my body. The second dolphin was finally released and “my” dolphin rose up to greet her. Then they were both by my side, circling me a few times as I kept filming. I was in underwater heaven!
It was over far too quickly. They both dived and disappeared from view but, from my location 10m under water, they seemed to have headed back towards the Inland Sea tunnel. My heart missed a beat.
We’ve all heard about beached whales and dolphins heading back towards the beaches from which they’ve been saved, and on surfacing I asked the boat-crew if they had seen the dolphins again.
We even went back into the Inland Sea to make sure they had not returned, but were eventually satisfied that they were now free in the open sea.
We were elated. As we headed out of the Inland Sea again, we saw a small flotilla of boats travelling from Malta to see the dolphins. Some of the crews were quite upset with us for having released them, and let us know all about it.
I was still so happy that I didn’t care. In fact, I was even more convinced that we had done the right thing. All those propellers in a restricted pond were a recipe for disaster. Sometimes our love for dolphins comes at a heavy price for these lovely creatures.
There is an epilogue to this event.
Tony was on the way to a dive-site about a week later when two dolphins approached his boat and kept pace with him for some time.
He recognised them from the scars that one of them had at the base of her tail-flipper. I like to think it was their way of saying thank you.