A walk in Gozo’s Natura 2000 site – 22nd September 2018 @ 09.30
Whenever one mentions Comino and its islets (Kemmunett, Il-Ħaġriet ta’ Bejn il-Kmiemem and L-Iskoll ta’ Taħt il-Mazz), the first thing that inevitably comes to mind is the Blue Lagoon, marked by its distinct aquamarine sea. Yet, Comino’s presence goes beyond the immediate definition of sea-enjoyment and extends to its ‘role’ as part of a sustainable context that involves managing pressures on its ecosystem, both on land and at sea. This tour is an invitation to gain a first-hand experience of the conflicting challenges the area is facing (e.g. visitor capacity, unregulated camping and soil erosion), whilst recognising its biodiversity and ecological value improved by several conservation approaches. After a 30-minute boat trip around the area (pick up from Santa Maria Bay and drop off at Blue Lagoon), you will have the possibility to visit key spots on land, besides meeting the principal custodian and nature keeper of the island, Salvu Vella who is also one of Comino’s three remaining residents.
The tour will take place on Saturday 22nd September, morning to afternoon and will take around 5 hours.
Book a space through the form below
Comino, with an area of around 2.8km2 and a shoreline of 7.5km, together with its smaller islets (Kemmunett, Il-Ħaġriet ta’ Bejn il-Kmiemem and L-Iskoll ta’ Taħt il-Mazz), is a Natura 2000 site, a Special Protection Area (SPA) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The area is a Bird Sanctuary and a Nature Reserve whilst the sea around the site is also a Natura 2000 Marine Protected area. The site falls under the responsibility of Għajnsielem Local Council in Gozo although it is not under the Council’s jurisdiction.
In the past, Comino channels were quite active with corsairs and pirates attacking from all sides so it was essential to have several coastal forts at close range to demonstrate that the island was well guarded. Yet there is a calm and tranquil environment which invites different crowds for a variety of reasons to the area, especially nowadays.
Throughout its history, Comino was either sparsely populated or abandoned entirely mostly due to its harsh environmental conditions and lack of defensive measures. Some key buildings dating from the 16th and 17th century for instance were built. Probably the population was largest during, and immediately after, the French occupation (1798-1800) when the island served as a place of exile and imprisonment for criminals and opponents of the regime of the day. During the late 19th century it was a quarantine station and later on in 1926, the population reached to 65 persons. It was found by a number of researchers that ancillary activities such as a bakery, on all-purpose shop, an elementary school and a basic postal service were established, mostly within the island’s largest building at il-Palazz. Today only 3 persons live on the island on a permanent basis.
Comino is also a sanctuary for bird-lovers and as a resting area for migratory birds. In Autumn one can see Starlings whilst Song Thrushes and Sky Larks hunt for food in the open garigue. During Springtime the Giant Fennel flowering all over the island is an indicator for observing the Woodchat Shrike and Whinchat. On the island one can also find the Maltese Toadflax (referred to locally as Papoċċi ta’ Malta, literal translation: Slippers of Malta) which is listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List as a vulnerable endemic protected plant that can potentially be spotted in Spring and can also be found at the Cittadella fortification in Gozo.
The geomorphology of Comino and its islets is characterised by horsts (raised blocks) and grabens (depressed blocks). Following the Marfa Ridge in mainland Malta, the next graben is the South Comino Channel which is underwater, which is followed by the highest mark of the next horst – Comino. The North Comino Channel is the subsequent graben on the other side (Gozo’s side) which is underwater. Around Comino one also finds a number of underwater caves and diving wrecks. One can definitely see from this vintage point the rugged landscape, formed by Upper Coralline Limestone that makes up Comino.
Across the Malta-Coming channel, aquaculture is practised outside the management plan area, approximately 330 metres from Comino.
Friends of the Earth Malta is working together with Salvu Vella, principal custodian and nature keeper of the island for over 60 years, to create better collaborations in reducing impacts on the island of Comino. Salvu took part in the Friends of the Earth Europe project, called Keepers project. This consists of a photography exploration by a member from the Friends of the Earth Croatia as one of the nature keepers who takes care of natural sites and embarks on protecting and restoring ecological areas. Salvu is hence responsible for all the maintenance required on the island such as the monitoring of the water extraction pump amongst others duties.
As we commence the walking tour of Comino, one needs to be aware of the changes on the landscape due to human impacts. Besides visitor attractions such as the bays and cultural spots, several outdoor activities such as rock climbing, bouldering, walking, diving, have also impacted (and still are) the landscape/seascape and the present ecological value.
Littering, planting invasive and non-native trees, use of quad bikes, dust and erosion from tracks, which induce soil run-off, grazing by rabbits and rodents, trampling due to lack of use of proper paths and tracks are some of the pressures Comino faces. Consequently, habitat and wildlife disturbance and loss is on the rise. In the case of hunting and trapping, these are prohibited all year round. Water use on the island which is extracted from the underlying mean sea level aquifer is primarily used for agricultural purposes. Water is also used in connection with touristic activities.
During the 20th century (1970s and 1980s) a number of afforestation projects took place and several trees were planted, amongst which were Olive, Fig, Acacia, Tamarisk, Vine and the Aleppo pine. Grazing pressure nowadays has slowed down however the succession within the habitat structure is improving though at a slow rate. The latest afforestation move was carried out last April and 3,100 indigenous trees (composed of 8 species) were planted.
Along the way you might notice remnants of electricity poles and wiring, some of which are present above-ground e.g. in the vicinity of the pig farm. Despite the extensive electricity distribution network some parts of it are outdated. Due to impacts from trenching on the garrigue that happened in the past, the policy today is to route any such infrastructure underground through existing roads or tracks.
Upon arriving at Blue Lagoon, Il-Ħaġriet ta’ Bejn il-Kmiemem (meaning between cominos), the cluster of activity is immediately noticeable, with umbrellas, deckchairs, kiosk(s), tourist boat and ferry operators. Earlier this year the Comino Master Plan was issued by the Environment Ministry, and further berthing arrangement are envisaged, however no further development was indicated. The garigue area is cordoned off with wooden bollards. The bollards indicate that no beach furniture is permissible in those areas.
Across the lagoon there is Kemmunett which is found less than 200 metres away. The islet has a shingle beach which is scheduled as level 1 as site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI).
The next site is called Il-Bejta tal-Fenek (literally meaning the rabbit’s nest) and is also called as Crystal Lagoon. Moving along the area, one can notice the presence of increased garigue vegetation with low shrubs such as Lentisk shrubs. The Maltese wall lizard can easily hide and rest here. Given the name, this area is known for its wild rabbits which can be easier to see here than on the main lands. Additionally even the back Western whip snake can be spotted here. There are four types of snakes in Malta and they are not considered to be poisonous.
Il-Wied ta’ Skalanova (the valley of the new port) From Il-Bejta tal-Fenek – Crystal Lagoon the path goes close to one of the few valleys of the island — Il-Wied ta’ Skalanova.
As we approach l-Għar ta’ bla saqaf (the roofless cave) one finds a huge hole in the rock of about 20 metres width. This collapsed limestone cave forms a natural arched entrance now home to several wild pigeons. At sea level there is a small concealed pebble cove which was used as a backdrops to the film The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) whilst the Château d’If was the nearby Santa Marija tower.
The huge stack we now see is called Il-Mazz (a stack) and the shore area near it is called L-Iskoll ta’ Taħt il-Mazz. From this part the land offers views of the Santa Marija tower and the cliffs. The Mazz, the stack would likely have been a natural arch which eventually collapsed and a stack remained. The valley is one of the few sheltered pockets of this windswept area and is a good hiding place not only for rabbits or reptiles but was also a good hiding place for soldiers in wartime.
Il-Palazz (the palace) served as an extended isolation hospital during British colonial times for plague and cholera victims. Between 1918 and 1960 the building was inhabited and was transformed into a small self-contained hamlet. The road constructed by the Knights then takes one from the palace to the Santa Marija Tower which links it with the Santa Marija Battery built a century later.
On the way to the Santa Marija Tower one observes the yellow Shrubby Kidney Vetch in Spring, whilst the high and exposed plateau is enlivened by minute Scarlet and Blue Pimpernels.
Most of the land today is largely abandoned — some areas which were under cultivation are slowly being taken over again by wild plants but in many areas the discontinuation of farming has resulted in soil erosion as dry stone walls lacking maintenance collapse and lose their soil retaining role.
The tower was commissioned by the Order of St John in 1618 (by the Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt – the coat of arms is on the facade) with the aim to guard the Gozo- Malta Channel. In 2004 restoration works were completed by Din l-Art Ħelwa which are also responsible in managing the tower and opening it to the public. The tower is scheduled as level 1 for its significant military architecture.
The tower as already pointed out, also featured prominently in The Count of Monte Cristo as the Château d’If.
A small track with a few trees to the right leads down to the small bay of Wied Ernu which used to serve for a while as an unloading jetty.
The Battery on the South-East side of the island was built in 1715 by the Order of St John. It contains seven gun emplacements and faces the Wied Musa Battery at Marfa on Malta. Restoration of the Battery commenced in 1996 by another NGO, Din l-Art Ħelwa.The battery is scheduled as level 1 for its significant military architecture. Behind the Battery/redoubt a disused and abandoned pig farm can be found. The pig farm which was of commercial scale was developed in 1979 due to a swine fever epidemic which had wiped out most of Malta’s pig population.
On approaching the southern part of Comino, crossing the South Comino Channel, we come across a part close to the Battery called il-Ħnejja (an arch) which juts out into the sea and one can find a rich vegetation beneath it.
As soon as we turn towards the Eastern part of the island we find an area called id-Darsa (the tooth). Above the tooth, further inland one finds Wied tal-Bieqa, an area known as tal-Liebru. The coastal cliffs and boulder scree around the site are considered to be of high landscape value.
Moving further towards the North-Eastern part of Comino there is the spot which is called Elephant rock or Elephant leg, and perhaps you will have the possibility to see why! This spot also featured in the Count of Monte Cristo.
There are no specific plans for the development of agriculture at Comino. At this moment agricultural land is mainly found in the Wied l-Aħmar region, but most fields are abandoned.It is dominated by low intensity dry farming cultivations. Small scale apiculture and some cultivation of crops is carried out by Salvu Vella.
The Comino Master Plan proposes that the possible agricultural reinstatement in abandoned/derelict land within the site should be of small-scale, to be compliant to agri-environmental regulations and favour organic farming. The habitat variety created could eventually increase the site’s biodiversity value.
Santa Marija caves and bay
The caves called Imnieri caves, are located along the Northern coast near Santa Marija Bay just before the cliff starts getting steep, one of the caves can be reached on foot though you would need a torch and the area can become slippery, so it can be dangerous. Inside one finds a natural indoor pool which connects with the sea on the other side of the cliff face through an underwater opening used by divers.
The Santa Marija bay which is fast becoming popular, though quieter than blue lagoon, is increasing with sun-beds and also has an eatery. Further in from the bay an area has been earmarked as a campsite and one requires a permit in order to camp on site. Without the permit it is deemed as illegal camping. Before this campsite development, the site used to be a marshland and a reed bed. In fact waters from Wied l-Aħmar flush into the marshy area where now the campsite is located. There are small sand dunes in the bay and one can find the Tamarsik trees and the Sea Daffodil which flowers during the warmest months. The vegetation here is halophytic (able to withstand saline conditions). The area is scheduled as an Area of Ecological Importance and Site of Scientific Importance.
Midway down to Santa Marija Bay a small room and reservoir to the left used to house one of the island’s boreholes for pumping up water from the aquifer — today it houses a ringing station operated as part of an international research project by volunteers from BirdLife Malta.
The Santa Marija medieval chapel overlooks Santa Marija bay. It is dedicated to the Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. Records indicate that the chapel dates back to the mid-thirteenth century. The chapel experienced several reconstructions throughout the years most notably in 1667 and 1716 were the chapel was enlarged. Regular masses are still organised for the local inhabitants and visitors. The Santa Marija chapel used to celebrate its feast, dedicated to The Sacred Heart of Jesus, every 24th of July. The last feast was celebrated in 1949.
Seaside Ox-Eye Daisy in Spring and Aleppo pine trees can be seen across the street which then takes you to the Bakery.
Il-Forn – the Bakery
Further in from Santa Maria bay and past the Chapel, we find the bakery, il-Forn in Maltese. The bakery used to provide bread for Comino’s residents but then was abandoned and left derelict given that the population of the island dwindled into nothing.
The bakery as you can see is a complex of rooms, and Friends of the Earth Malta is collaborating with the authorities as well as making arrangements to give it new life. The aim is to use the building as an interpretation centre for Comino to promote sustainable and eco-friendly tourism. It would also mean that the centre would offer other forms of environmentally conscious activities beyond what Blue Lagoon area offers.
Our initial areas of work will be related to renewable energy, environmental building, energy efficiency, organic farming, alternative waste management and eco-tourism. Thus the purpose of the centre an educational and awareness-raising one, demonstrating ecological technologies, and promoting sustainable tourism and lifestyles.
The same footprint of the building will be used, whilst aiming to use original material from the collapsed sections wherever possible. Plans for the building have already been submitted to the Environmental and Planning Authority.
The interpretation centre will be open to the public and for visits from organisations interested in environmental sustainability, as well as school visits, ecological talks and walks around the island. It will also house a small number of people for longer stays in simple, low-impact accommodation, opening the site for national and international conferences, scientific research and seminars.
Friends of the Earth Malta already has the planning permission for the interpretation centre, it is still negotiating an agreement with the Land Department to acquire guardianship of the site.
A walled cemetery is located on the western side of Comino. The cemetery was built in 1912by the British Empire and is currently in an abandoned state.
On the other end side of the Blue Lagoon, the northern side, there is a small bay at Għar Għana where bulbs of the plant Sea Squill can be found over the rocky terrain and which also is home to the Wild Thyme. Following that there is San Niklaw bay (St. Nicholas bay), where the Comino hotel and bungalows which have been in existence since the 1960s are located. There had been talks of further developing the hotel however to date this has not happened.
The tour’s objective was to help you in familiarise with the landscape and challenges found on Comino and its Islets. Some of the pressures might reduce during shoulder months because less people visit during Winter for example though if not well-maintained exposed terrain might further erode soil. The Winter landscape can be different and you may be greeted by other species which do not thrive in such a warm season, for example scented French Daffodils. Although this used to be a very common plant on Malta it declined extremely rapidly. Nevertheless the goal of Friends of the Earth Malta is to raise awareness of the value of these rocks and steer lifestyle on Comino towards a more sustainable one. This initiative follows a series of events that Friends of the Earth is producing in Gozo as part of the Let’s Nature project. This initiative has been supported by the Ministry for Gozo NGO Assistance Scheme, a funding programme for Voluntary Organisations on the Island of Gozo.