Saturday, June 28, 2014

And now the bad news

Some Maltese stats from the CIA World Factbook

Median age:
female 42.1 years (2014 est.)

Total Fertility Rate:
1.54 children born/woman (2014 est.)

They've got the European Disease.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Gold and azure

Here's some pics I stole from Buzzfeed that show that golden heavenly radiance thing I was mentioning.

We were taken out to dinner by some Maltese friends in Rabat, and then took a stroll through the gates of Mdina, the ancient capital of the medieval nobles.

Which really does look like this:

And this:

And we rounded a corner to see this:

Here it is in the not-so-dry spring, with the wild mustard in bloom all around.

(In case you're wondering why I'm not using my own photos, I actually... well... forgot my camera. Yep, that stupid.)



More of Dwerja.


Close to heaven

I wasn't sure I would like it. I grew up surrounded by this:

So I was anticipating not really liking this too much:

All the pics and videos I looked at made me wonder the same thing. Are there any trees at all in this place? I've never lived in an arid or semi-arid climate. My American friend who came with me said that of course, as a Canadian, I would find such a desert-y environment a bit of a shock, and it was. But the photos and videos don't do justice to the place. And yes, there are trees, but not as many as I'm used to, and with so little water they don't grow very tall. The umbrella pines I'm used to seeing here only grow about half the height of their Italian counterparts, but still taller than me and enough to create oases of shade. But it's true that Malta makes even dry Lazio look lush.

But one of the first things that hits you when you land is the colour. At first it strikes you as a bit monochromatic. The entire place, every single thing built by the hand of man, from palazzos to highway retaining walls to garden sheds is made of the local honey-coloured limestone that they quarry in several spots around the islands. It's very soft, coming off on your hands and clothes as a fine dust, that makes everything you expose to the air gritty within minutes.

The lady who gave us the tour of the Knights of Malta hospital told us that when you want to paint on it, either just housepaint or frescoes, you have to treat it with oil to seal it first. And I spent a lot of time wondering how you dealt with the dust at home, which must simply pervade life in Malta. If you wanted to set up a business in Malta, a good venture would probably be a vacuum cleaner repair shop, since I bet the stone dust clogs em up pretty good.

The few things that are painted really stand out because nearly everything is left its native, glowy honey colour. We travelled all over the islands by bus, and I think we saw one green house and one pink house. And the indication that the Maltese really love that stone is that in many cases, when things are painted, they're painted to match the original colour. It's obvious that things often get painted, apparently only with a really heavy, enamel style coating, just to seal it and keep it from coming off on your clothes.

When you first see photos of Malta it seems a bit dull, this single colour for everything. But when you get there, you find immediately that it just makes the whole place glow with a warm light, that it takes the harsh glare of the sun and turns it into a kind of heavenly radiance. Someone needs to do some kind of psychology study on the effect of the Maltese limestone colour on the brain. It can't help but have some kind of calming, cheering effect. There's no way that colour isn't good for you.

And you better get to like it because, especially in Valletta, you are entirely surrounded by it. They make the sidewalks, the buildings and the roads, out of it. All the churches, all the palaces, your hotel room... everything. Walking through the little narrow streets of Valletta, that often terminate in stairs, you are walking along in your glowy golden dream, and glance down the street and get a glimpse of the deep azure of the harbour...

It makes you understand suddenly why gold and azure are used in icons to depict heaven. And when the sun slowly sinks and the light calms, the colour warms your very soul.


Oh yeah, and we went swimming and snorkelling here:

Dwerja and the Azure Window, where the water, directly under that stone arch, is terrifyingly deep.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Going native

Dear Italy,
I'm really starting to come around on this whole air conditioning thing. Stomping around in the searing heat of Valletta on Wednesday, then a couple of hours in an airconditioned airport and plane, and PRESTO! my back has totally seized up, like Greenland pack ice.

Last year, a Chinese doctor in Toronto told me that lots of people flying back from warm Hong Kong in freezing cold airplanes to Toronto, wake up the next day and can't move.

Get used to the heat. It works better and you'll be healthier.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

The octopus report

Saw another one. I'd gone for a late afternoon swim (late afternoon is still lovely and warm and sunny, but the UV won't try to eat me) and seen nothing much of interest. Just in it for the exercise after a couple of days at home. By the time I'd come back to the spiaggia libero, the shade of the buildings had almost covered the beach, so I decided to take a long walk to the other end, and catch the last of the evening rays.

When I got there, I'd only intended to sit and read my book and bask a little, but the water just looked irresistable, so I went for one last splash of the day. I had just walked in to barely waist deep and slid under and there it was right in front of me. This time it was a wee one, it's "head" not much bigger than my hand, and its legs all coiled up under it so it looked like a rock. One of its legs, though, was turned over and I spotted the telltale red with a row of white suckers.

They're amazingly hard to see when they don't want to be, but I hung there in the water looking down and slowly its shape resolved into its big baggy head-thing, with the siphon holes pulsing water in and out, and a pair of eyes watching me with undivided attention.

It didn't move. I decided to try to outwait it, but it still didn't move. I was starting to get cold, so after diving down a few times to get a closer look, I thought I'd see if it would react if I were closer. I carefully placed my foot a few inches from its hiding spot under a rock ledge. I didn't move, and ever so slowly, it uncurled a single tentacle and reached delicately out to take a little taste. The tiny tip of the arm touched the toe of my neoprene footie, felt around to see if it was something good to eat and then withdrew.

It was SO cute! I got out of the water with a sense of having accomplished a feat of interspecies communication.


Oh yeah!?!! Come at me, see what happens...

Just had the following via that aptly named app.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

I've FINally figured out what Twitter is for

Adam Baldwin and William Shatner arguing over the correct use of "whom" in a sentence about punching bad guys.

Also, this

I've died and gone to internet heaven!


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Jam-jar naturalist

Brought a big hinge-lid jar to the beach today and brought home three mature Dog Whelks in it. They're incredibly cool when you can observe them without being interrupted by the sea.

And they're festooned with eeny weeny bryozoans.

When I'm done looking at them, I'm considering popping them in the steamer to see if they're any good for lunch.


Life in the Med

Sometimes when you see a fin coming at you, it's not a shark.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Clams got tongues?

Yep. (FF to about 1:50)

That's it. I've GOT to try this. I'm going to go bring some whelks home and take some pics. Right now.


Apparently this is a whole Internet Thing.

So, let's find out of whelks got tongues too.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Amateur Naturalist Curiosity Death Spiral

Octopuses (yes, that's the correct plural in English) are amazing, cool and awesome. But they're also terrifying and creepy. Being face to face with one the other day made me realise that the sense in which humans are Top Predator is strictly limited. That was, in fact, the exact thought that ran through my mind while floating there looking at it, wondering what it was going to do. Only it was more like, "What the hell am I doing? That thing can move fifty times faster than me, has eight legs and is looking. right. at me."

I mean, even on land we're really only so-so hunters; even our house pets can catch stuff better than we can. But in water we are at a big disadvantage. First, of course, we can't breathe. That's a big one when you're either hunting something or trying to run away from something hunting you. We are also one of the slowest movers in water. How many times have you had a scary dream in which you're trying to run away from something but your legs feel like they're dragging through water? Awful, isn't it?

Under water, we've really only got one advantage and that's our inconveniently large forebrains. But what if you're looking at something, something that might actually be good to eat, but that might also be thinking the same thing about you? And what if it's doing the thinking not with this big land-adapted cerebellum thing, but with each and every one of the hundreds of powerful suckers on the ends of each of its eight ferociously strong legs? They're not just smart, they're adapted to be smart in a radically different way from us, a way that has made them uniquely suited to catching big dumb floating meat-packages without even really trying.

Octopuses are fascinating to us, I think, because they are at the same time like us and radically different from us. It's the samedifferentsame that makes us use the word "creepy". They can do things that we usually think a mollusc isn't suited to doing. Like solving complex puzzles and reasoning. Then there's the whole fit-your-huge-multi-legged-body-through-a-hole-the-size-of-a-quarter thing. Which is something we really, really can't do, but kind of want to.

So, I was thinking about all of this yesterday and decided to go have another look to see if I could find another one. Sadly, no luck.

Oh, I mean, yay! Didn't get eaten.

And that more or less encapsulates my feeling about being a (halfassed) amateur naturalist. As you might have read here before, I was raised in an environment in which the question, "Mum, what's this thing?" was always taken seriously and answered using our household Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life and a big book that was what a taxonomic key was before they invented the internet. And every time we looked something up, we found out other things about it that would lead me to go out again and look for other stuff.

What happens now is something like this: I go to the beach and swim around the shallow water and I find something. I grab it and put it in the net bag and take note of where I found it. Whether it was on a rock or sand or attached to seaweed. If it's something weird or inexplicable, I take it back to the shore and sit down in the shade of the umbrella and take a closer look at it.

When I go home, I use the Palantir to see if I can figure out what it is. Describe it in Google and go to images and scroll down until I find something that looked like it. Then I put the Latin name in and read all about it. Sometimes that tells me some more interesting things and I go back the next time to look for other stuff that I've picked up on in the research.

That's the Amateur Naturalist Curiosity Spiral. You read something about some weird thing you've seen and you learn something even weirder about it, so you go back out to look for the even weirder thing... etc. You find yourself asking questions like, "I wonder what it's range is. How far does that octopus explore from its cave? I wonder if they like to hunt at night and that's why I don't see them. I wonder if it likes warm water or the cooler water where it's deeper. I wonder if all these empty crab shells are because of octopuses. I wonder if they like sea urchins. (Probably not, since there are rather a lot of urchins, but you find their shells empty only rarely.)" It makes you want to go out and see if you can find something else.

It's a good idea to lie in the water looking down on one spot for a long time. A lot of the animals are camouflaged and if you're just swimming around and passing over the rocks looking for the more colourful things, you will miss whole worlds of interesting things that are hard to see until you've looked straight at them for a while. That's how I found the Sea Hare.

For instance, I have noticed that in the shallow water close to the shore there are a LOT of whelks. Lots and lots of whelks. Some of them are as big as my fist. A lot of the smaller whelk shells are occupied by non-whelks, so it seems like it's pretty hard to grow up if you're a whelk. If you hover over a patch of seaweed, you will see a lot of little shells moving in an almost sprightly fashion... well, sprightly for whelks. If you look closely enough, you will see a long red feeler reaching out from the opening. These are hermit crabs and when you pick them up, you can see them hiding way back in the little shell cave: "You can't see me... you can't see me...please go away..."

The bigger whelks are obviously years and years old, the winners of what has to be one of the world's most brutal elimination races. The internet tells me that the type of whelk I've been seeing are Dog Whelks, or Nucella lapillus. These whelks reproduce by implanting zillions of teeny baby whelks into little protein envelopes all connected together in big sponge-like masses like this:

Yesterday, I found a large mass of a whelk egg capsules. I'd seen them on the beach regularly, washed up and drying in the sun. But this was the first one I'd seen in the water and the biggest I'd seen anywhere, about the size of my two fists together, so I brought it out to have a poke at it. Sitting under the umbrella later, I tried opening up a few of the capsules, some of which were pinkish and others orangey. I was thinking maybe they'd have teeny whelks inside, but the translucent capsules were surprisingly tough, and it was hard to get one open just with my fingernails. When I did get one open, one of the more orangey ones, it had in it an orangey pastey stuff. I got a little of the orangey stuff on the tip of my finger, and looked closely to see it was actually a whole lot of extremely tiny orange specks suspended in a viscous liquid.

Now the Palantir tells me that these are actually whelk embryos.

So, now I want to go back and take a closer look at what the whelks are doing. At first, before looking them up, I had figured they were grazers. There are two kinds of animals in the sea, grazers and hunters. I had only seen whelks on seaweed beds, so I figured that's what they were eating. Now it turns out that they are hunters. They eat other molluscs. But being snails, as you would think, they mostly eat the attached molluscs like barnacles and mussels. Yesterday I picked one up and discovered it was eating a smaller whelk. Whelk life is literally whelk-eat-whelk.

Now that I know these interesting things about whelks, I'm more eager to go out again today to see if I can see them doing something else. Now this is fine with whelks. They don't swim very fast (or at all, really) and they don't have eight legs with hundreds of tiny smart brains attached, capable of bringing down a shark. But I really want to know, and know in a real-life non-internet sort of way. So I'm going out again today.

And that's the Amateur Naturalist Curiosity Death Spiral. I think I've known about the ANCDS since I was a kid. I would go to the beach with my grandma, and one of the fun things to do was lift up the bigger rocks near the shoreline to see what was underneath. What was underneath was nearly always crabs. I wasn't actually scared of crabs - knowing that their pinchers weren't really pinchers but just more like forks for eating - but they looked like spiders. In fact, they looked, moved and were about exactly the same size range as the horrifying wolf spiders that used to infest Grandma's house every year in the autumn and of which I had been reflexively terrified from infancy.

I knew those crabs were under there and I wanted to see them, but I knew they would send the terror-response through my brain. But I couldn't help it. I was hypnotically drawn to the rocks and the little crevices in the bedrock in the sea. Curiosity.

So, whelks and beach crabs... ok. But I can imagine it just getting out of control. Think about it next time you watch a documentary on sharks in which some guy gets into a cage to get video of those teeth. Or (and I've seen this) when a geologist wants to study lava and just marches out to the lava flow in jeans and Star Wars t-shirt with a heat shield made of a bit of corrugated roofing, and, wearing an asbestos glove, scoops lava into a coffee can using a claw hammer...

People think scientists are nuts. But they're not. They've just let their ANCDS get the better of them. Curiosity beats fear.


Friday, June 13, 2014



I had been out snorffeling around the rocks near the far markers, and had seen nothing more interesting than a couple of big red starfish and some brightly coloured fish-fish and was thinking I ought to get back to work, so started back to the shallows. I had interrupted my writing day to go because I could see that it was looking like clouding over, and we're supposed to be in for a couple of days of cooler weather and rain, so I got out there for a quick splash.

Every time I'm out there, I'm always on the lookout for an octopus, which I consider the coolest and perhaps most scary and interesting of all the local fauna. I know there are lots of them out there, and the scubies are always bringing in buckets full to sell to the supermarkets or to put in Mamma's stew pot.

But in all this time, I'd never seen one. I was beginning to think that maybe I was looking in the wrong places, or maybe that they were mostly nocturnal or something. A friend had said, "Oh, you're seeing them, you just don't know it."

Of course, we've all seen that video...

So I figured at some point, I'd just ask one of the divers what they do to find them.

And at the same time, I was kind of scared of seeing one. I mean, they're pretty rugged individuals, and they seem to be very little afraid of the dumb two-flukes.

But for the most part, I was looking for them. I know they hang out in the rocky parts, and that a trick is to look for their caves where there is a cleared space near the opening and a lot of shells and things. I figured that you have to be sneaky, maybe not splash around too much, and just hang out in one spot so they don't notice you're there. Or something.

But anyway, today the swells were a little pushy and I had to get back to work so I was heading back. I had taken a little detour to look at some rocks I hadn't checked out yet. Sure enough, I'd seen a big fish, much bigger and ... more finny than the usual little seaweed grazers I'd been used to seeing up til then. It was just sitting in the shelter of some green reeds, and I snuck up on it, and clapped a couple of times to flush it out so I could get a better look at it. It scooted off a few feet, and settled down again. I did this a couple of times, and then the fish suddenly just took off in the opposite direction, so fast I couldn't follow, so I turned around, figuring I'd got as much as I was going to get out of the day and there it was.

It looked straight at me, and was already bright red all over, with white spots. It curled several of its legs at me in a way that said, "You know, I'm really not interested in eating you right now, but come at me, see what happens."

I didn't move except to reach down and grab a rock to hold myself steady while we sized each other up. We were in water that was no more than three feet at most, but man, I was scared. And elated. And excited. And really just damned impressed.

It scooted off, elongating itself to full length of about three and a half feet long, which is pretty big for these waters, and I followed it for a few yards, but realised that I'd had about as much excitement I wanted for the moment.

It was ...


(And this weekend I am TOTally going to go price underwater cameras!)


Santa Marinella in summer

Yesterday, I swam (what I thought of as) way far out from the shore, and sat down on one of the big boulders, all covered in a soft layer of seaweed and sponges, and looked back at the town, with the warm water lapping gently all around me. Now and then it hits me hard, this feeling of utter astonishment.

I live here? Seriously? How did that happen?


Sunday, June 08, 2014

Aplysia fasciata

Yesterday, Maria and I went to the beach, and I had a nice snorkel in the shallow water and came across one of these. The water was seriously no more than about 20 inches deep, and I was directly above it. But it was so perfectly camoflaged, just grazing on the seaweed, I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't just happened to look straight at the right spot.

I don't remember ever being so excited by something I've found in the wild. It was so beautiful and perfect, and so... I want to say 'important'...though I'm not sure why.

I truly don't remember ever wanting to take something home in a jam jar quite as much as that sea slug.

In real life, it is a dark reddish brown, mottled with iridescent pink spots, and about as long as my hand. I poked it gently and ran my finger down its dorsal fluke thing... It ignored me.

It took hours, but I have identified it as Aplysia fasciata. I thought at first it was an unusually large kind of nudibranch, but it turns out it's a different sort of mollusc that is commonly called a "Sea Hare".

My kingdom for an underwater camera!