One of the world's most extraordinary marine environments
risks being destroyed by its popularity. The interior of
Grotta Azzurra, "Blue Grotto",
at Palinuro in the far south of Italy's Amalfi coast, is
pitch black because of the narrowness of the cave's
entrance. Yet the grotto's waters teem with exotic marine
life, including giant sponges, oversize mussels and
lobsters, and luridly coloured coral.
The reason marine life can survive inside the cave is
because of the sulphidic springs that pipe hydrogen sulphide
into its water. This provides a source of energy for the
marine life, as it is a viable alternative to sunlight.
"In the pitch dark there is an explosion of life such as you
can see in no other cave, a unique vision," said Professor
Francesco Cinelli, a marine biologist at the University of
Pisa who has been studying the grotto's ecosystem for the
past 15 years. There is only one other place in the world,
the experts say, where this phenomenon has been observed: in
the black depths of the sea at the Galapagos Islands, at a
depth of about 3,500 metres.
It was long thought impossible that life of any sort could
be found at such frozen depths. But oversize, monstrous
marine life like that at Grotta Azzurra is to be found there
- for the same reason.
Professor Cinelli said: "To observe this sort of phenomena
the Americans have to go down to a depth of 3,500 metres.
But it's all right on our doorstep, here in Italian waters.
Yet we are doing everything in our power to destroy this
valuable and unique patrimony."
Palinuro's peculiar marine paradise has been studied
intensively by Professor Cinelli and his colleagues over the
past decade. But the site has also become a must-see for the
tourists who flock to this coast every summer. And that is
where the trouble starts.
Professor Silvano Focardi, president of Icram, an Italian
marine research institute, said: "There are no controls on
tourism in this area. Whenever there are enough tourists who
want to go and see the caves, the boats set out."
They bring bright lights, noise, carbon dioxide and sweat,
and they leave behind whatever they happen to throw
"An initiative to protect the cave is desperately urgent,"
Professor Focardi said. "But that in itself is not enough,
we must do more. What is required is a large scale
monitoring of our coasts so we can keep a close eye on the
situation in the most sensitive areas and at the same time
Professor Cinelli is launching a petition and plans legal
action to halt the devastation of the cave.
How to minimise damage caused by visitors
The challenge of tourism in ecological hot spots such as the
Grotta Azzurra - which is home to sea life including
colourful sponges, pictured - is to strike a balance between
access and preservation. At present access to the caves by
trippers, brought by boat from nearby resorts, is completely
State authorities have yet to act on the issue but diving
organisations in the area are taking the lead in trying to
inculcate a more responsible approach to exploring the caves
which dot Italy's west coast. Gordon Mackie, whose firm
Tuscan Divers has a base in Basilicata, in the far south of
Italy, said his customers brought up all sorts of rubbish
discarded by tourists over the side of their boats.
"It's strange but whenever tourists go into a cave in a boat
they seem to feel they have to throw something over the
side," Mr Mackie said. But divers can harm the caves too.
"We discourage people from touching things," Mr Mackie said.
"If you touch a stalactite you can leave sweat on this thing
which has taken thousands of years to reach this state.
Ideally you should do less harm than a fish passing
Published: August 14, 2007