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We are all very proud to announce that Phase One of our Coral Restoration Project has been completed successfully. The project, carried out in partnership with our friends at the Ras Mohammed national park, began with a day of much action on the high seas – and ended happily with various species of coral re-grafted onto our artificial reef in front of the College.

We present our award to Dr Mohammed

The attaching process begins
(click on image to enlarge)

An experimental project began in south Sinai recently with a day of much excitement. From the early morning the race was on for teams of Scuba divers to remove some large clusters of coral from a soon-to-be salvaged wreck just north of the Straits of Tiran. They were then to be transported, by boat, to their new home re-grafted onto the artificial reef in front of Red Sea Diving College in the heart of Naama Bay, Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. For the best chance of survival, this would need to be completed before darkness.

Dr Mohammed Yasser and the Red Sea Diving College team

The project is part of the contribution of the Red Sea Diving College toward the International Year of the Reef – www.iyor.orgWe had learnt from other of such projects that the “out-time” of transplanted corals had to be kept to a minimum. The longer the corals are out of their natural habitat, the more likely they are to experience the stress that can lessen their survival rates significantly.Since the late winter days of March give way to darkness before 5pm it meant that to get the initial project completed by nightfall a very tight operation would be needed. To add to the excitement, on the way to retrieve the corals, our project partners from the Ras Mohammed national marine park apprehended a boat that was caught illegally fishing within the protected area of the park.

The Million Hope

Look closely to see the corals starting to attach themselves

The original plan had been for the project team – from both the Red Sea Diving College and the Ras Mohammed national park – to cruise northwards out of Naama Bay and up to the wreck of The Million Hope near Nabq on the Sinai Peninsular. The Million Hope – a 175 metre long wreck – is soon to be removed by a salvage company and officials from the national park had given us permission to attempt to remove some corals from the vessel, which sunk after hitting the reef in 1996. 12 years has been enough time for significant coral growth to develop on the wreck.
7.00am. Our 16 strong team of divers arrives at Naama Bay jetty some a little bleary eyed, but all on time for an early departure on one of the College diving boats, Habiba 2. None are too tired to notice the wind and ominous looking swell just outside the protected bay – several of the team look like they regret responding to that early alarm ring.The northerly wind whips up the sea as soon we leave the protection of Naama Bay. The project appears doomed before we can even start as a strong wind from the north at Sharm nearly always means northerly gales up toward Nabq. Since we would need to conduct a very delicate operation to remove the shallow corals whilst worrying about diver safety, we had to postpone the journey to The Million Hope – bouncing up and down on a shallow area of the wreck in a big swell could have been quite dangerous.

Alternative arrangements

Such a scenario had already been anticipated – not as hard as it sounds as the winds in Sharm are always stronger in the winter months. Earlier in the week we had discussed this problem with Dr Mohammed Salem, our project partner and head of the Ras Mohammed national park. He had revealed to us that a few days previously a small rescue operation had to be carried out by the coastguard after a boat had hit the reef in a protected area of Ras Mohammed national park whilst illegally fishing. The boat owner has been fined US$23,000 for the damage they caused to the reef – but the damage has provided us with an alternative plan for the day – This was to be our plan B if the winds were too strong.
We explain the new plan to the project team and off we head southwards down to the very tip of the Sinai Peninsular and beyond to our new more wind protected destination.The small boat had hit a shallow reef in the national park near the Alternatives dive site. Dr Mohammed had explained to us that large colonies of broken coral were strewn around the reef and were being destroyed by constant wave action – if left as they were, they would die within days. The drawback from our point of view was that the coral cover on the Million Hope was very diverse compared to the colonies on the new target area – mainly composed of various branching species of the Acroporidae family.
Strong coffee revives us all and we start to put together the equipment. We have brought plastic-lined dive crates, gloves for all those handling the corals, buckets, rope and cable ties and thin chisels. Dr Mohammed has kindly brought the heavy duty equipment including the water pump, small Honda generator and a very large white container. It certainly looks like a Jacuzzi but this is no luxury liveaboard holiday – it is a water holding tank to be used to continually replenish the plastic-lined crates once the corals are on board. We also have with us Yasser Awadallah from the environmental research department at the Ras Mohammed national park. He has been involved in a similar project, in association with the University of Essen in Germany. Project members have have been taking small coral fragments from the reefs near Nabq and re-grafting them, with some success, in Marsa Bareika in the Ras Mohammed national park.On route we have a detailed planning meeting and guidelines for the handling and transportation of the corals are laid down by Dr Mohamed and Yasser.

Illegal fishing

Caught red handed – Illegal fishing

9.30am. Not long after we make the turn to go round the tip of the Sinai a boat comes into view. As we approach we can see that the crew has illegally anchored onto the reef. We are in the heart of the Ras Mohammed national park, set up by the Egyptian government to protect the area in 1983. Laying anchors is certainly illegal and so is fishing – these rules have helped keep the national park in the excellent condition that it remains in today. As we approach the boat – Marine 2 – we see a couple of guys quickly pulling in fishing lines but we get the photographic evidence. We pull up alongside the boat and details are taken. We ask Dr Mohammed and he tells us that boat owner will receive a fine of around $3000 and unless it is paid the boat will not be able to leave the jetty. The Divemaster on board may also lose their Red Sea licence.
10.00am. We leave the offending boat and move onto our target destination. An hour later and a GPS reading gives us the general area but two snorkelling teams search for 20 minutes to find the exact location.

Reef Restoration, Concepts and Guidelines

Dr Mohammed has directed us towards some incredibly useful guidelines for such projects. Entitled Reef Restoration, Concepts and Guidelines, this academic paper guides project managers through the do’s and don’ts of reef restoration using 5 case studies. This paper jointly written by Alasdair Edwards from the University of Newcastle and Edgardo Gomez from the University of the Philippines should be the first port of call for the managers of similar projects.
Transplanted corals need a “resemblance of conditions” compared to their original positions. For example, there is no point in attempting to move corals that exist on a wave beaten reef crest into a calm lagoon. Similarly there is no point in trying to move a current evolved gorgonian fan coral to a protected bay with no current.The paper recommends finding “reference ecosystems” and seeing which corals flourish in the vicinity of the area where the corals will be re-grafted. Depth, salinity levels, sedimentation and the level of light penetration are also important. Specific corals, of course, have evolved to suit particular conditions. The 5 case studies from various parts of the world reveal plenty of useful information.The paper explains that Acroporidae are fast growing but survival rates tend to be lower than other species – and they are sensitive to the stress of transportation and disease and once in place, to global warming induced bleachings that can eventually kill the coral. But what have we to lose, the corals will die where they are if they are not securely fastened to a hard substructure.The late winter months are some of the best times for coral transportation. This is because in summer the intense Red Sea sun would make it very hard to keep the water temperature of the plastic-lined dive crates to tolerable levels during transportation – the corals could quickly heat up and bleach.
The Reef Restoration paper makes another very valid point. Although coral reef restoration is still in its infancy some things are clear. There is no point in trying to restore a degraded reef when the conditions that led to the original degradation still exist. If industrial run-off has smothered the reef, then it is necessary to deal with the cause – merely re-grafting coral into such an area would be a waste of energy.How does this fit into Naama Bay? Coral cover in the bay has never been prolific compared to other local reefs. The question is why? Here, industrial run off from hotel building may play a part but of course there are much deeper environmental reasons for the relatively sparse coral cover in the sandy bay.
The south Sinai Desert has very little annual rainfall but is subject to the very occasional deluge of Biblical proportions – every 6 years according to Bedouin folklore. These floods have channelled and moulded the desert landscape. Naama Bay sits at the bottom of a large wadi, an Arabic term for a usually dry river bed. The south Sinai desert landscape is composed of high jagged red granite mountains (at sunset they really do look red) and flat alluvial coastal plains. Millions of years of erosion and floods have brought large amounts of sand, sediment and water down to form these wide coastal plains. These plains themselves have deep channels that periodically bring large amounts of flood driven sediment down into the sea. I personally remember the flood of 2002 when heavy rains saw hotels in Naama Bay in inches of water. The most catastrophic flood in living memory was in 1979, less destructive were those of 1993, 1996 and 2002. As a result of this, three dams have been built above Naama Bay to divert and break up these rare torrential rains – if you look closely you can spot the dams from the Sharm ring road.As a by-product these dams now also prevent large amounts of sediment from entering the sea. Getting back to question of why it is that there so little coral growth in the bay the answer becomes apparent. Hindrances to coral growth are both fresh water and large quantities of sediment that can literally smother a reef.Human development here, if in few other places of the globe, may have created better conditions for coral growth than before. However, it will take some time to test this theory – most corals grow extremely slowly.

Damaged corals found

Collecting the damaged corals

11.30am. Yasser from the national park finds the shallow furrow dug out by the boat that hit the reef. A four metre long gouge has destroyed much of the coral cover. But colonies of table coral and other branching species mainly from the Acroporidae family lie around, still in pretty good condition.
We have organised ourselves into three teams. One to collect the coral, the second to transport it in crates back to the boat and the third, overseen by Dr Mohammed, to settle the coral into the seawater-filled crates once back on board. We plan for the corals to be out of water for a maximum of two minutes.Where the coral – despite being damaged – is held reasonably fast on the reef we leave it. Some of the damaged corals we wedge back into place to give them a chance for survival. We take only the corals that are clearly being swept about by the swell – they otherwise will have no chance of survival.

Race back to Naama Bay

Strange Cargo

1.30pm. All the crates have been efficiently filled with coral and we are ready for the race back to Naama Bay to get them bedded in before nightfall. Another alternative plan is hatched by one of the team, Georgia, who suggests that if darkness beats us, and we cannot reattach the corals before nightfall, then at least we can carefully lower the crates into a more natural environment in the sea in Naama Bay and then reattach them at dawn the following morning. We all know however, that getting the corals reattached securely that evening would give the project a much higher chance of success. The abrasion caused by loose hard coral rubbing together can easily damage them.
1.45pm. Once all are on board we quickly fill the water holding tank and we’re off. As expected the corals start to produce milky toxins that will, unless removed, kill them. Therefore we organise a rota to take turns to replenish the crates with new water from the large holding tank every 10 minutes or so. We are lucky as the wind has calmed enabling us to travel home at full speed. The occasional stop to replenish the holding tank with clean sea water slows us a little though.Looking closely at the species Dr Mohammed tells us that they are predominantly corals of the family Acroporidae and from the genus Acropora. To determine the species level it would be necessary to study the corals under a microscope. We have also retrieved a large colony of Porites attached to a large rock.

Corals attached

Re-attaching the corals in twilight

4.30pm. Just before twilight we arrive in Naama Bay and position the boat above the artificial reef, 200 metres off-shore. We have dispensation from the coastguard for this unusual behavior. A few bemused tourists look on from shore, probably thinking that we are smugglers.What was left of the daylight enabled us to get the corals bedded in. One team of divers ferried the crates down to the seabed as another team began the attaching process. As recommended we used cable ties to hold the corals as securely as possible to the metal structures that were laid down last year.
Coral species have been kept apart and each re-grafted coral has been given room to grow. The reefs are at between 7-10 metres depth and designed to be too deep for the sometimes damaging footsteps of snorkellers. As it was impossible to attach the Porites colony to the artificial reef, we attached it to a small natural reef nearby.The case studies suggest that we will be lucky if 40% of the coral survives. We plan to monitor the corals with the use of time-lapse photography. Many of these kind of projects are reasonably funded. However, we have operated on a very tight budget and used the dedication of staff from both the Ras Mohammed national park and Red Sea Diving College and a few resources provided by both organisations.

One section of the artificial reefs

We all hope that this project will help to increase local understanding of coral reefs. Shallow depths mean that all Open Water students as part of the free National Geographic upgrade provided by the College, are taken to the reef to examine the corals and have the project explained to them. We are also working closely with Project Aware in their Coral Watch programme.The winds tend to calm after March. So new plans are being made to remove and re-graft some of the corals from the wreck of the Million Hope – On 22 April it is Dive for Earth Day which promises to be the biggest splash ever. Volunteers will not only raise conservation awareness for Earth Day but many organisations will also make their actions count for International Year of the Reef 2008.

New visitors

The attaching process begins

Post Script: 28 March

– Latest examinations show many of the branching corals already attaching themselves to the metal structures and some macro photography shows the polyps out in a healthy state. Various species of puffer fish seem to have found a new home although a couple of multi-coloured parrotfish have also found a new grazing ground and have been seen chomping on the coral – we can’t complain, that’s what they do!Some of the algal growth may need to be removed soon and some of the table corals are doing less well. Yet it appears, at present, as if the survival rate will be higher than 40%.
Many thanks to:
Dr Mohammed Salem, Yasser Awadallah, Victoria Akhmedianova, Karim Tayeh, Karen Bruce, Georgia Connolly, Andy Dawson, Kay Stewart, Elena Dementeva, Douglas McPherson and Victor Polishchuk.
Reef Restoration, Concepts and Guidelines can be downloaded at www.gefcoral.org
International Year of the Reef www.iyor.org


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