The island of Filfla presumably gets its name from the Arabic word, filfel, which means chili pepper. Several thousands of years ago, Filfla was attached to mainland Malta. Then, the Magħlaq geomorphological fault formed the islet and the nearby rocks. Its isolation led to the island’s unique ecosystem, with its 60-metre high cliffs and a 60,000 sqm limestone plateau.
Filfla is situated in the Congreve Channel, named after H.E. General Sir Walter Norris Congreve; a British Governor of Malta who was buried in the channel. Filfla looks mystical and mysterious and somehow it fascinates a lot of people. The island lies in harmony with the nature, and the scenery around this area is breathtaking. Its cliffs seem as if they are rising out of the Mediterranean, while the froth generated by the ascent swirls around the island and disrupts the blue calm of the deep, pristine sea with its waves of white water. At sunset it is a site to be seen as the orange “ball of fire” that warms our planet sinks below the horizon.
On Filfla, there once stood a small chapel dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady, built inside a natural cave by local fisherman in 1343. This chapel used to offer refuge for seamen (as well as pirates who operated in the area) caught at sea during storms. Water, wine, and wild rabbit would often be left on the island for any storm-stranded fishermen. An earthquake destroyed the small chapel in 1856.
During the 19th century, the islet was inhabited by Ġanni Attard and his family for some time. The Attards secluded themselves on Filfla during the plague which hit the Maltese islands between 1813 and 1814.
In the spring of 1987, a 7-metre great white shark was caught off Filfla by a local fisherman, Alfredo Cutajar. He claimed to be the new world record holder, but, later, further investigations, revealed the precise length of the shark uncertain. Inaccuracies of the original measurements cast doubt on the record (still, be it 7 metres or 7.13 metres – it is gigantic!). The size of the creature was never in doubt since the vessel had to re-route its course into Marsaxlokk Harbour so the shark could be set onto shore. Photographic souvenirs of the shark including some of Alfredo with his head inside the (dead) shark’s mouth can be purchased in gift shops at Wied iż-Żurrieq.
British and NATO’s bombings
The island of Filfla was used for target practice by the British Armed Forces, and later by NATO forces, for over two hundred years. Bombing between 1945 and 1971 reduced and shaped its size and caused damage to wildlife and accelerated the damage done by natural erosion and changed the physical makeup of the island. The islet is now protected under Maltese law, and it has been recognised as a nature reserve for the protection of wildlife since 1980.
Those tourists or locals who wish to visit the island will have a difficult time securing access. Since 1988, access to the island has been strictly prohibited so as not to disturb birds and their nests and to protect the endemic and endangered natural wildlife. The Filfla Natural Reserve would make an ideal ornithological haven for bird watching, but landing on the island requires permission. Today, only researchers and scientists are permitted to visit the island. One must contact the local authorities with a valid reason in order to obtain a permit to visit this heaven on earth. For those less lucky, the only opportunity to get a taste of Filfla would be by taking a sneak peep, either from the Blue Grotto, the Megalithic Temples or Għar Lapsi Cave.
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