Our coral reefs are now under threat not only from the global warming, pollution and exploitation but also by the conduct of divers in these sensitive areas. The reefs are now calling for our protection both when we dive and as contributors to the ongoing struggle to preserve these unique ecosystems for future generations.
The tropical coral reef is the most complex of the marine ecosystems on this globe. International marine researchers came recently to the conclusion that future medicines against cancer and HIV most likely have to be found among marine creatures such as tropical sponges and corals.
Furthermore, the tropical coral reefs act as an important eatery for people in third world countries. Fisheries on coral reefs represent, on a global scale, an industry with a turnover that runs into tens of billions of Euro. The coral reefs are also, to a growing extent, being used as much by popular recreational areas. Finally, the coral reef is a central ecological system being closely integrated with other systems for which reason the destiny of one system has a profound effect on the others.
Nonetheless, the tropical coral reefs are among the most threatened of all the marine ecosystems. We have visited coral reefs in the Northern part of the Red Sea as part of scientific expeditions undertaken since 1993, and in 2002 with the specific purpose of investigating the ecology of fish in the Red Sea. In this capacity, we also had the opportunity to study the environmental impact of these fragile ecosystems in close range.
The northern part of the Red Sea includes the coastlines of Egypt, Israel and Jordan as well as substantial parts of Saudi-Arabia. Hence, one could designate the Red Sea as the Arabian region of the Indian Ocean, or Indi-Pacific.
The Red Sea has several unique features. For instance, the bay of Aqaba in the northern end is unusually deep, in places up to 2,000m (6561 ft).
Furthermore, the Red Sea is partially isolated from the rest of the Indian Ocean. This results in an unusual set of physical parameters. The salinity is somewhat higher, from 40-43%, as compared to the 35% average in the world's oceans. The significant depths also make for brilliant visibility – 50-plus meters are not unusual.
This is quite a lot in comparison with colder seas where the visibility is often only a few meters – like a glass of mineral water compares to a cup of tea. The great visibility in the Red Sea is also due to the near total absence of rivers flowing into the sea. Therefore, the effects of the usual huge amounts of silt-laden freshwater, a factor which usually results in very poor visibility, is not seen here.
The special physical circumstances in the Red Sea makes some species of coral grow very well, among others the beautiful soft coral of the genera Dendronephtya and Scleronephtya. Another of the Red Sea’s ”assets” is the lack of research facilities, surveillance and environmental investigations. It has essentially been left alone.
For those scholars who wish to do research, it is practically a self-serve buffet. Very few biological aspects of the coral reefs in the Red Sea have been scientifically investigated in contrast to coral reefs in other parts of the world.
Reef Etiquette: While local dive guides are doing a commendable job guiding new divers, much more can be done to teach divers how to dive coral reefs without damaging them
Tropical countries with coastlines with reefs have in the recent years became very popular tourist destinations, and in the case of the Red sea, very popular with sun-starved northern Europeans. Especially in the northern part of the Red Sea where the coastal towns of Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh are located, there are hundreds of thousands of European and Russian tourists visiting each year.
The number of hotels in Sinai along the very fragile coastline has experienced an increase of 1100% within a decade. But how are all the reefs holding up with all the thousands of new swimmers, snorkellers and divers?
And what about all the wastewater from the hotels and the new industry that has shot up as a result of all the new visitors? How are the local authorities handling the pollution and the huge increase in the pressure on the reef's vulnerable ecosystems?
While the tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheikh was nothing much more than a tiny dusty coastal village with a handful of hotels just a decade ago, the situation today is radically different.
The sheer number of new hotels is an awesome sight. More than 15km (10 miles) of coastline is now densely developed. And the construction still goes on. This new situation is well illustrated by the difference in doing a dive trip to the sublime coral reef of Ras Nasrani, about 10kms north of Sharm el-Sheikh, in 1993 and one today.
Ras Nasranu is still, by many connoisseur divers, classified as one of the best tropical dive spots in the world. In 1993, we had a hard time negotiating the big sand dunes in the desert in order to reach Ras Nasrani. In 2002, we had to pass dozens of hotels before having to fight our way between hundreds of aerobic performing tourists on the beach.
While in 1993, we were able to kit up with the accompaniment of only the wind whistling in the sand, we were this time surrounded by a significant amount of trash on the beach, a stench of sunblock and a lot of noise from techno music being broadcasted by big loud speakers that were placed directly on the beach
While loud music is probably harmless (probably... as it hasn´t been investigated yet) to the coral reef, and most damaging to one's eardrums, the untreated wastewater from the many new hotels is lethal to the reef at Ras Nasrani. Even though the reef is still an unusual gem amongst the local reefs, in reality, we are talking about a dying patient.
Strong growth of choking algae was seen in many locations in 2002 both at Ras Nasranin and many other local sites. In 1993, we haven´t been able to see any algae growth at all.
Too many tourists are only one of many problems for the region. The development in the northern Red Sea has been more than just hard. Coastal and marine environments in the whole area of the Arabian region, which has coastline tangent to the Red Sea, are facing increasing pressure from the rapidly growing population. This has had a devastating effect in many places. Oil, domestic and industrial wastewater are amongst the main and most disturbing sources of pollution in the Red Sea.
Everywhere, the sea is used as a dump. Wastewater is being let out into the desert where it slowly seeps down into the porous underground. From there, it finds it way into the Red Sea. This pollution can result in strong growth of algae as well as an outbreak of the coral-eating starfish, Crown-of-Thorns or Acanthaster planki.
The Crown-of-Thorns starfish has been a significant problem for several years and bigger outbreaks are expected in the years to come. Collection of data and surveillance of primary sources of pollution only occur sporadically on the starfishes' effect, and in many cases, not at all. How the present explosive development in the Red Sea is going to affect the ecological systems in the future is something we, in reality, know very little about.
Coastal zone management, research into environmental issues and surveillance, as we know it from the industrialised world, has yet quite a long distance to go in Egypt if it is to help the coral reefs.
A step in the right direction was the founding of a little local environmental center in the year 2000. In time, this center will coordinate coastal zone management, administration, surveillance and research. It will provide expertise on the coral reefs to the northern Red Sea region and its rural areas.
The center is located in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, and is led by Europeans. It is sponsored by the European Union. It is, however, quite sparsely staffed. There are less than 20 employees to deal with an area the size of France.
In an effort that should be commended, Jameson et. al., recently published the first scientific study of the effects of too much tourist traffic on the coral reefs.
We have, however, been puzzled by certain aspects of the centre, which we hope can be explained by initial growing pains. For example, there was no system of communication with people who see coral reefs every day and know about their condition, the professional dive guides.
It is mandatory for all dive boats in the Red Sea (as well as many other locations all over the world) to have such dive guides in place when diving on coral reefs. These experienced specialists are, unfortunately, very often completely overlooked by various consultants, researchers and authorities.
The dive guides in the northern Red Sea are generally very careful in briefing all divers before dives and take great care not break any corals. Those who happen to do so nonetheless, often get subjected to an immediate correction, often underwater as the dive guides often carry bangers, bells or other signalling apparatus.
It is our view that an efficient dive guide can reduce the rate of reef destruction by managing divers, thereby significantly reducing the risk to coral reef ecosystems. It should be noted, however, that we have only dived with English and Japanese dive guides from local dive centres in Sharm El Sheikh.
Our fellow Scandinavian divers
Even Scandinavian tourists can´t always claim that their conscience is clean. It saddened us in 2002 to witness the behaviour of our countrymen, when they pushed, pulled and yanked around and even kicked one of the big protected turtles that one occasionally encounters in the northern Red Sea. This happened during an interval where the dive guide, unfortunately, was busy dealing with another student diver elsewhere.
The Australien investigations into the environment have been conducting research into tourism's impact on the coral reefs over many years. They were one of the first to be able to demonstrate that sea turtles may indeed kill themselves if they are being harassed by divers.
Turtles are prone to panic. Hence, they may wound themselves mortally when they get confused and scared and flee among the sharp corals. (fig. 8)
All physical contact with marine life on the reefs is banned in Australia today. Unfortunately, these “turtle hunts” and wrecked corals are just the tip of the iceberg.
While Scandinavian divers are quick to point out to others what high levels of safety and good skills they have acquired from being trained in that part of the world (the Scandinavian training organizations do deserve praise for this), there is an equal and shocking lack of education and awareness about responsible diving on coral reefs. (fig 9)
And this continuing despite the fact that thousands of Scandinavians venture each year to tropical destinations. The overwhelming majority of divers trained in Scandinavia will – sooner or later – come to dive on tropical reefs. Many will dive only in these warmer regions regardless of what the Scandinavian training agencies falsely assume – that their students will dive only in Nordic waters.
Diving on tropical reefs is not part of the curriculum, a grave error in judgement on the part of educators. A significant number of corals and marine animals could be spared just by appending to the curriculum at least a theoretical insight into how one should behave while diving on a tropical reef.
But when will agencies change their courses? How many corals and marine creatures must be hunted to death before it happens?
Globally, there does not exist a responsible and sustainable utilization of resources in coastal zones and coral reefs with the rare exception of certain American, Australian and Israeli centres.
Coral reefs are primarily found in the poorest part of the world where ”sustainable coastal zone management” is nothing but a long bunch of words in a fine person's dictionary.
Paradoxically, it is these very same countries that are the most dependent on tourism and fishery as a source of income. Egypt, for example, doesn´t have any significant sources of income other than tourism, and unlike a number of other Arab countries, it doesn´t have any oil.
It would, therefore, be disastrous for these countries if these reefs were destructed. And it looks like more than 30% of coral reefs will disappear within a few years due to the lack of counselling, surveillance and research, as well as the aggressive growth in population, overfishing, destructive fishery, practises and various wars.
The problem can only be alleviated if these areas get prioritized by the world in a completely different manner than they are today. Among other things, the EU should commence supporting conservation efforts both financially and in terms of expert knowledge on a far bigger scale than is done today. One small environmental centre with 20 employees for the entire northern Red Sea region does not suffice.
This region is in desperate need for a larger more comprehensive environmental centre with at least 500 employees. It should be dedicated coastal police with jurisdiction to crack down on crimes against the environment. It should have access to considerable economic funding for the restoration of damaged reefs and countering pollution. Large scale research into the influence of tourist divers upon the Red Sea's environment and animals should be a matter of course.
The need for economic and scientific help is very acute. The economic boon that the northern Red Sea region and the tourist sector in many European countries are enjoying right now can very likely dry up in just a few decades due to the total absence of protection schemes and funding to protect the environment.
Since the majority of visitors in the northern Red Sea are Europeans, it is us who as tourists have played a leading role in the drama unfolding with the coral reefs, a quickly dying patient. With the rate of the present development in the region, only the bleached skeletons of the corals will be left to view along the coast of Sinai. ■