The guy had been to Sharm el-Sheikh. Red Sea. World-renowed diving site. But he didn’t go diving. So I had to ask why.
“I did a bit of snorkelling that’s all. I don’t really like the sea. It’s such an alien environment. It’s best left to the creatures who are designed for it.”
Seemed a terrible waste of one of the world’s best diving locations but yup, the sea is an alien environment, which is precisely why it’s endlessly fascinating. I can’t go into space, I can rarely go into the sky, I can’t climb mountains but the sea is always there. In the sea, you can feel like an explorer in a largely unknown world.
I’m first to admit that snorkelling is the softie option. You can’t go far wrong on the surface but one day I will take the plunge. This time, I almost signed up for PADI taster course this time but they wouldn’t let me wear my own prescription facemask so, being somewhat short-sighted, there was no point in wearing theirs. If I have a moray eel zooming at me with evil intent, I’d quite like to notice before it’s gaping, needle-toothed jaws are two feet from my face.
Which is why it was so good on hols at Olu Deniz exploring the lagoon, hoping for turtles, being astounded by the variety and diversity of the marine life and just loving the scenery; the way shafts of sunlight penetrate and illuminate what lies below.
Some of the passing fish and the irridescent blue-silver shoals that turned and swooped in perfect synchronisation, I recognised as the same species I’ve seen before in Cyprus but the sea around Cyprus, although mostly clean, especially around Cape Greco (excellent for snorkelling – No2 son played tug of war with his first octopus) isn’t a patch on the water at Olu Deniz – truly turquoise and very, very clear.
Among upwards of twenty different species there were several varieties of friendly-looking sea bream, tube-like garfish, grey mullet, reclusive scorpionfish (wise to be respectful of them) and a couple of varieties of wrasse – ornate and rainbow.
I like wrasse – they are colourful, curious and always on the look-out for something interesting. So when one is investigating sea worms, sea cucumbers, anemones, crabs, et al, they are always there or thereabouts, keeping an eye on things – ready to dart in and take any tasty morsel that presents itself.
It reminded me of playing grandmother’s footsteps. I’d be absorbed, transfixed by the sight of a lime-green brittle star making its delicate way over a rock and turn to find a couple of wrasse behind my shoulder, watching and waiting.
I gave the area a pretty thorough look but there was no sign of turtles – not that I minded too much. It was entrancing suddenly encountering a jellyfish, pulsating gently like a diaphanous parachute of finest silk, the only other feature visible a single thin ring of day-glo pink.
There was plenty of action; dozens of little hermit crabs begin to busily shift, climbing over each other and obscenely massive sea cucumbers that look more closely related to a brown leather boxing glove than any living creature; an aquarium-eye view of a shoal of shubunkin-type carp with sparkly bulgy eyes passing over three different varieties of sponge.
You get my drift. So much to see. Photography was a challenge – especially with the Kodak instant underwater camera. By the time you had what you wanted in the viewfinder, it was gone. But perseverance always pays and the shots taken after swimming out into the bay were moderately different. Got my eye on a Panasonic Lumix TS10 for next time, though.
Typically, as any amateur photographer knows, it was when I’d finished up the films on two instant cameras, and was exploring the edges of a rocky island that I came across something special; the rare Aegean sea pasty.
The body was about nine inches long and five inches high – humped like a pasty with the curved, fluted pastry edge running along the crest of its back. Only it didn’t look much like pastry; the ruffled edges, floating in the shifting current, looked more like chiffon. The creature was cream with dark brown blotches and circles. At the front, it had a snail-like head about three inches long and two inches high – similarly patterned in cream and brown with four sensitive ‘horns’ – the top two much longer than the lower pair.
It was browsing on the algae-covered rocks three or four feet below the surface. I poked the pasty gently. It gave slightly, like a good-quality soft leather handbag. It was continued munching, unperturbed. I decided not to further distract it and swam back to base to report to DT man.
“You will never believe this but I have found the rare Aegean sea pasty!”
He looked up from his Wilbur Smith.
“Ah. You’re back. I don’t think they do pasties at the beach caff. I was thinking maybe a doner kebab roll and a salad?”
I explained more about my find; an astonishing creature – hitherto unknown – bearing a remarkable resemblance to the Cornish tinworkers’ lunch but quite a long way from Cornwall. I drew it including the “floaty frills.”
He humoured me briefly.
“…Talking thrills, this book is good – a real adventure. Old Wilbur hasn’t lost his touch.”
When I returned to the sea pasty habitat later, it had gone.
When we got home I obviously had to look it up. But how? Can’t beat a standard Google search… “aegean” “pasty” “underwater.”
Hallelujah. One single result. A query from a lady enquiring about a strange creature she’d seen while diving off Rhodes that looked remarkably like…wait for it… but I expect you guessed….oh alright then I’ll stop messing about since you’re getting irritated…. “a pasty!”
The rare Aegean Sea Pasty turned out to be a Spotted Sea Hare – Aplysia dactylomela – a type of sea slug, so-called because in a certain position, it resembles a sitting hare.
It’s a fascinating creature. The floaty frills on the back are the edges of folded “wings” which it uses to flap gracefully through the water – no doubt a sight to behold. When irritated, it exudes a cloud of toxic purple ink; a kind of defence mechanism. It is hermaphrodite. Sea hares form mating chains. They are thought to give off pheromones into the water that attract other sea hares for mass mating sessions, resulting in thousands of eggs which hatch out into larvae. It can have mass births but it also sometimes suffers mass die-offs.
Its penis is on the right side of its face, which must, in some circumstances, be somewhat awkward.
Enthused and armed with all this information, I was ready to record my discovery at the Sea Slug Forum, a gathering place for sea slug enthusiasts from all over the globe. I was sure they would be quite jolly interested in my sea hare report.
Tragically, after many years, the on-line Forum shut up shop back in June.
I should have expected it, really.
A classic case of hare today, gone tomorrow.
Good sea hare image here
woo. scary creature.