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Ras Mohamed National Park, Sharm el Sheikh, Sinai, Egypt

Research Vessel "Red Sea Discovery"

by Mark Fraenkel

The Red Sea, which fills the deep fissure between Africa and Asia, has fascinated travellers since biblical times and has been the subject of much scientific research over the last 150 years. Now the sea is to have its very own research vessel dedicated to solving some of the mysteries of this narrow stretch of water that Jacques Cousteau once described as his “corridor of marvels”.
Funded by the EU (European Union) and able to operate throughout the length of the sea, the scientists aboard the aptly named Red Sea Discovery will concentrate on important marine research mainly in the Egyptian waters of this complex and unique ecosystem.
A major issue for all those who want to protect the Red Sea, is to understand the impact that relatively new mass tourism has had on the environment. Since the 1980s the once sparsely populated south Sinai - with its occasional Bedouin settlement - has been over shadowed by large scale tourist developments. The built up area, known collectively as Sharm el Sheikh, now hugs the 30 kilometre stretch of coastline between the Ras Mohammed National Park and the Nabq Protected Area to the north.
The long term implications of these developments will now be closely scrutinised by teams of scientists directed by Dr Mohammed Salem, Head of the South Sinai Protectorates.

The South Sinai Protectorates are a series of mainly marine based national parks around the Sinai Peninsula that are heavily regulated by a series of pieces of legislation enacted in Egypt beginning in the early 1980s. Fishing is banned within these areas and tourists attempting to take coral fragments home can be fined up to US$1000 by Egyptian customs officials for doing so. Probably the most famous of these protectorates is the Ras Mohammed National Park – known as one of the best areas in the world for scuba diving. The famous wall at Shark Reef is studded with multicoloured hard and soft corals. At certain times of the year you can see massive shoals of schooling barracuda, snapper and jacks with occasional sharks coming in to feed. The aim of the legislation is to protect these areas – European environmentalists would look enviously upon many of these laws.
Many other important issues facing the Red Sea environment need researching. Serious studies need to be undertaken to understand the impact of mass tourism on the reefs and on water quality in the Red Sea, which is as yet unknown. The local scuba diving community has long debated as to where, if anywhere, do the school of scalloped hammerhead sharks - found in the Straits of Tiran in summer - migrate to in winter? The new ship will begin a shark tagging operation that will help scientists better understand these animals’ patterns of migration.
It is also thought that the exceptionally prolific Red Sea plankton bloom this year brought whale sharks to the South Sinai in much larger numbers than usual - but the reasons for these unusually large plankton blooms are unknown and need further research.
The Red Sea is almost cut off from the Indian Ocean by a very shallow sill at its southern end - this relative isolation encourages the evolution of new species. There are still many new fish species being discovered in this western extremity of the Indo-Pacific fauna, including a recently reported new species of a lionfish and moray eel.
I interviewed the remarkable Dr Mohammed at the Ras Mohammed National Park headquarters in Hadaba in Sharm el Sheikh. He is an unassuming man whose eyes light up when asked about the traditions he comes from. He spent several months working with the prestigious Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in Townsville, Australia and in 1992 completed his PHD at York University in the UK. He has dedicated his life to promoting and protecting the marine environment in Egypt. Dr Mohammed is one of the little known and small but growing band of Egyptian marine biologists who are fighting to keep the Red Sea in good health.
He told me of his main inspiration, Professor Hamed Goher (1907-1994). Dr Goher was the first Egyptian oceanographer and marine scientist - he used to present, on Egyptian television, the programme “The World of the Seas”. His study entitled “The Partnership between Fish and Anemone” was published by the British Journal Nature as early as 1934 and his efforts were later recognised by Cambridge University with a Doctorate of Science for his research on soft corals in Hurghada.
His other inspiration is the Australian coral scientist Dr Charlie Veron, who is described by Dr Mohammed as the “father of corals” for his work in discovering new species. It is perhaps ironic that at a time when the world’s coral reefs are in such danger from threats such as global warming, that new species are continually being discovered.
Dr Mohammed is extremely proud of these traditions and the way the parks have developed over the years. There are now park rangers whose job it is to enforce the environmental legislation and I have myself, on occasion, been with Dr Mohammed when transgressors have been caught at sea, brought to book and fined. The most common cause of complaint are those of illegal fishing or boats hitting and damaging the reef.

Previously, one of the main problems was that park officials did not have enough boats to patrol the protected areas. To be supplied by the EU, with the Red Sea Discovery research vessel, will be 5 jet boats for use by the park rangers.

The team of scientists who work with the staff at the Ras Mohammed National Park are very excited at the prospect of having their very own research vessel – Dr Mohammed explained “we recently found a species in the Red Sea unknown to us previously. We sent details of it to Dr Veron and he confirmed the only other place it has been found is in south Asian waters around the Indonesian Archipelago, it belongs to the genus Madracis”. He continued “there are around 220 verified coral species in the northern Red Sea, there might be double that if we manage to conduct serious research into the full coral diversity of the region”.

Picture of Boat The new 2 million Euro boat is 20 metres long and is equipped with 10 state of the art communications systems which include GPS, radar, echo sounders and NAVTEX - which is a satellite-based early warning bad weather communication system. The boat can sleep 12 and has a desalination unit and large fuel tanks meaning the boat can be out at sea for over a week without support. The EU has been helping fund such projects since 1989 and has also supplied the boat with scientific equipment that helps make it a floating laboratory.
Dr Mohammed explained to me that the boat’s operating and maintenance costs should become self-funding - for 6 months of the year it will be used by the South Sinai Protectorates and for the remainder of the year it will be available for international marine research institutions.
With the potential to carry out serious research this boat will help develop environmental policy for the region. Alongside the development of more and more protected areas and with the resources to police this “corridor of marvels” perhaps here is the germ of an unusually positive environmental story. But there is still much to do.


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