Monday, October 30, 2017

Albania's Blue Eye

Ever since my first visit to Niagara Falls, in the summer of 1988, I have become increasingly fascinated by hydrodynamics. (This is a branch of physics which deals with fluid motion and its resultant forces.) For the past ten years, a considerable proportion of my research work has involved a sub-branch of hydrodynamics, namely microfluidics, which appertains to the behaviour of fluid moving within extremely confined spaces, such as biological tissues. It is not quite Niagara Falls, but the same scientific principles still govern its behaviour.

Natural water phenomena have become a healthy obsession. The laws of hydrodynamics might be simple enough to define and describe, but their consequences can be extraordinary. My latest preoccupation is a magical place called Syri i Kaltër – Albanian for ‘blue eye’ – which is a natural water spring within a lake in Southern Albania, near to the Greek border. From above, the centre of the spring appears dark (like the pupil of an eye), whereas its larger outer area is a lighter blue (reminiscent of its iris) (Figure 114.1). Around its edges, green vegetation almost resembles eyelashes. It really does look like a huge blue eye.

Figure 114.1: The eye shape is not captured perfectly from this angle, but the contrasting blue colours are evident.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

It is known as a Vauclusian spring, which means it originates from an underground cave. Crystal-clear water, perfectly drinkable, is pumped continuously to the surface at a rate of 18 litres per second (Figure 114.2). The cave is an example of a karst landscape. This is a piece of land consisting largely of limestone (calcium carbonate), which is highly soluble in water. As rainwater seeps in, it erodes, leaving cavities within the remaining structure. Subterranean caves are an inevitable consequence of limestone dissolution, as are underground streams and surface sinkholes.

Figure 114.2: This photograph provides a better ‘eye’, and bubbling can be seen at the centre.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

The surrounding area complements this captivating natural water feature. Mature oak and sycamore trees line the lake (Figure 114.3), and there is a covered wooden veranda for food, drinks and photography.

 Figure 114.3: From the shallows to the abyss

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Ten metres in diameter, the cave’s depth is unknown. Divers have descended to fifty metres, but a definitive measurement has yet to be made. The first dive, undertaken by an intrepid ecologist called Xhemal Mato (Figure 114.4), took place in 1984. Mato recalls the difficulties he faced:

‘I remember the current of the water coming out of a dark tunnel. Inside, the current was so strong that my diving mask was swept away from my face, so I was forced to keep it with my hands. The deeper I went the stronger the current became until I reached a depth of 20 metres, where I felt I could not go further as the pressure of a strong river flowing out of the tunnel was unbearable.’

Nonetheless, he has inspired a generation of similarly brave and inquisitive divers.

‘I left a piece of rope which would help the other divers to plunge into the waters of this spring as well as a plastic notebook where the divers could sign. After two years, we noticed that a full page of this notebook was filled with signatures by various divers, thus encouraging underwater tourism.’

Figure 114.4: Since 2004, Mato has led an environmental organization called Ekolëvizja, which is, simply, Albanian for ‘eco-movement’.

Copyright © 2017 Shendëti

The ‘blue eye’ lies approximately 20 miles east of the Albanian coastal town of Saranda (Figure 114.5).

Figure 114.5: Syri i Kaltër is easily accessible, either by road from Greece or boat from Corfu.

Copyright © 2017 Ionian Seaways

I suppose I just love the endlessness of flowing water.

‘Men may come and men may go, but I go on forever.’
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92)

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery