Protecting what could be Earth’s last reef

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In the Red Sea waters of the Gulf of Aqaba off Egypt, a unique and delicate ecosystem has evolved that attracts divers from all over the world.

While climate change wreaks havoc on reefs elsewhere – notably on the Great Barrier Reef off eastern Australia – this system, so far, is thriving.

And while the outlook for other reefs is bleak, researchers are holding out hope that this system may one day be used to re-seed other reefs lost to bleaching.

Swiss and Israeli researchers from EPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne), UNIL (Université de Lausanne), Bar Ilan University and the Israeli Inter-University Institute of Marine Sciences have been studying this system, and have found that after exposure to stressful conditions over a six week period, the corals here do not bleach – a promising sign.

But that’s not to say the reef here doesn’t face threats, which is where marine biologist Nour El Sawy and former diving instructor Amy Johnson come in.

Through their citizen science venture “Project Azraq”, the two are working to educate people about the reef, and help preserve its delicate life forms.

“So it’s very important with this influx of humans to keep awareness high, and you know most of the town relies on the dive industry, so being part of that, seeing what needs improving and what we can do to actually bring more awareness about the ocean and the corals” explains Johnson.

Today the Project Azraq team is at the Canyon dive site to perform a monthly reef-monitoring survey.

They’re following guidelines laid out by AGRRA (Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment), an international non-profit organisation working to protect coral reefs worldwide.

Through AGRRA, volunteers can participate in citizen science drives like this one, aimed at surveying the health of this beautiful landscape.

“At the moment we’re monitoring three sites within Dahab,” explains Johnson.

“And basically we collect data on fish, invertebrates, coral and coral diseases. All the data we collect gives us an insight into the health of the reef. The species we monitor are chosen specifically because they’re indicators of reef health.”

Carrying out the survey involves laying a 6 metre long line, and then logging all the nearby inhabitants.

El Sawy gives an example of what the divers are looking for:

“One of the things we look for are Damselfish. They are very small and are “reef-associated”, which means they live in close proximity to the coral reef,” she says.

And on this dive, there are plenty of Damselfish fish out and about.

It’s a good sign.

“The role of the Damselfish is that they eat the algae. They are farmers. So they make sure the corals are clean, can breathe and are not suffocating from algal growth. That’s an example,” El Sawy explains.

The information being collected here will be included on AGRRA’s database, which also contains records of similar reef dives in the Western Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.

Through the database, survey information is made available upon request to researchers.

Meanwhile back on land, things are busy here in Dahab’s Masbat Bay.

While all these tourists crowding into town is good for business, the signs of the influx underwater are sometimes less positive.

In response to mounting volumes of debris, some dive centres here are now collaborating in monthly “reef-cleaning” trips.

Today, while tourists go about their daily activities, Project Azraq and a group of divers from the Scuba Seekers club are going under to pick up the trash.

“For Dive Against Debris we pick up as much trash as possible underwater and once we get out we separate them according to their kind. So the bottles, plastic, bottle caps, cigarettes are all separated,” says El Sawy.

On this dive alone, 173 cigarette butts were collected from the sea bed, as well as bits of cloth, plastic cutlery, food wrappers and more.

The results of the debris dive are logged, so researchers can get a sense of the risks to the reef.

The dives are helping build a picture of the reef’s overall health.

“We count all these items and at the end we upload the figures to PADI’s data base, we do a pie chart and this tells us what items cause most problems in the sea,” explains El Sawy.

Since January 2019 Project Azraq’s Dive Against Debris programme  has collected 1,845 cigarette butts, 575 plastic bottle caps, 235 glass and ceramic fragments, 8 car tyres, 5 spray cans and 52 tin cans, among many other things.

In addition to these activities Project Azraq also provides marine biology presentations, open to dive instructors and tourists keen to learn more about local marine life.

The coral reef is the backbone of tourism in Dahab, so its wellbeing is essential in order to attract divers and snorkellers from all over the world.

And with reef systems similar to this one in other parts of the world under threat, the beautiful biodiversity under the sea here has perhaps never been more precious.

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