Saving the Red Sea, one block at a time

A team of Israeli and Jordanian scientists hope that a newly constructed artificial reef off the Eilat-Aqaba coast will create a new attraction for divers, steering them away from the damaged natural reefs that need saving.

red sea 88 (photo credit: )
red sea 88
(photo credit: )
Take a dive off the coast of Eilat these days and you're liable to find yourself swimming around a huge yellow concrete and wire construction that stretches four yards up from the seabed, is four yards wide, and is full of holes. No, this isn't some strange new structure left behind by an alien race, or cargo dropped from a sinking container ship, this is the first artificial coral reef in the Red Sea. The reef - developed by the Israel Nature Parks Authority along with a team of academics from the National Center for Mariculture at the Eilat campus of Ben Gurion University, as well as an NGO named Shunit (Reef), the Inter-University Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat, the Hebrew University and the Marine Science Station in Aqaba - is a unique new approach to conservation in the Red Sea and part of a joint co-operative project between Israel and Jordan Coral reefs are one of the most varied forms of life on the planet, and the range and richness of the species found there are comparable to that of the tropical rain forests. In recent years, underwater diving has become an increasingly popular sport and the breathtaking reefs of the Red Sea area, which are different from any other reefs around the world, have suffered dreadfully as a result. "The number of visitors is large and the size of the reefs is limited and too small," explains Dr. Nadav Shashar, the supervisor of the research project, and a marine biologist at Ben Gurion University's Marine Biology and Biotechnology program. "Because of the increase in the number of visitors, the coral reefs are unable to overcome the damage caused and are beginning to die out. If we don't act quickly, it's only a question of time before the excellent breeding conditions in the north bay become barren. Many bodies are aware of the problem and are seeking a way to solve it." Part of the problem is novice divers. "They kick up the sand, or damage the corals by accident. Multiply that by 100,000 people and that's considerable damage," says Shashar. "These people don't mean to harm the reefs, but they just don't know how to dive properly." The developers hope that the artificial reef will create a new attraction for these divers, steering them away from the natural reefs, reducing the pressure there and enabling them to recover from some of the damage inflicted on them over the last few years. At the same time, the Tamar reef, which is located near Coral Beach, also provides the researchers with a unique underwater laboratory, enabling them to observe and unravel the development and growth of this unique and complex ecosystem. "Our task is to understand which factors bring about the development and proliferation of coral reefs, to understand the growing processes of the coral and fish populations and to put this into practice in establishing artificial coral reefs that will attract tourists," Shashar says. Shashar and his team - which includes Prof. Zvi Abramski from the Department of Life Sciences, Dr. Ariel Diamant of the National Center for Mariculture, student Omer Pollack and the Israel Nature Parks Authority - are funded by the United States USAID-MERC program and the British Whitely Fund for Nature. The reef was first installed in May this year and has already attracted a great deal of marine life. There are now 25 species of fish swimming through or living on the reef - two-thirds the number normally found in the reefs of the Red Sea. These include bass, sea goldfish and butterfly fish. Sea urchins, fan worms, tunicates, and tubeworms can also be found there. At present, no coral has been planted on the reef, and that's why some of the fish are still missing. If the scientists were to let nature take its course, it would take between 80-100 years for the corals to flourish. Shashar does not want to wait that long so the team has a nursery in Eilat where they are growing 13 different types of coral. These corals will be planted in the specially prepared holes in the reef structure and the work begins in the fall. There are 1,000 colonies to plant, and this will be the first time in history that a team has tried to do this. Shashar is very excited at the prospect. "This gives us a very unique opportunity to understand what makes a reef and how the corals interact with each other," he explains. "In the natural world corals grow in a certain order, replacing one another in a specific sequence until they reach the climax community, which you find in mature reefs. We want to discover if we have to plant the corals in that order or whether we can go straight to the climax community." The team plans to plant a wide variety of corals. "There's a general acceptance that to get a high diversity of fish, you need a high diversity of corals. We will be checking this," says Shashar. The idea of creating artificial reefs in the Red Sea was first mooted some years ago, but it took time for the project to find its feet. Work on building the reef began in December last year. The Israeli company, Ocean Brick System (OBS), was founded specifically to deal with the engineering side of the project, carrying out a range of simulations. While this is not yet the largest artificial reef ever built, the know-how to reach immense sizes is already available. By using modular units, which are similar to Lego blocks, any shape or size one wants can be constructed. Building a mould, such as the one used in Eilat, was problematic, as was finding the right type of concrete that would be suitable for the development of oceanic invertebrates. Then 1,000 holes had to be drilled in the rough surface so that coral can be planted and marine life can attach easily to the structure. "The whole structure has to be extremely strong because it will last for decades and is constantly exposed to sea water," says Shashar. "We have to ensure that it won't erode, and also make sure that it will be safe. We can't have a kid being trapped in there." The openings of the reef have bars to prevent divers and swimmers from entering into unsafe areas, and to preserve the reef. In six months more artificial reefs are slated to be built - three on the Jordanian side of the Red Sea and two more on the Israeli side. Improvements and modifications are planned for the next reefs. "We are trying to improve all the time," says Shashar. Since the reef was put in, diver interest has been high. Shashar says that about 200 dives take place at the reef daily, almost double the number of dives that occur at nearby natural reefs. "People like to dive here, especially novice divers, because they feel more comfortable in an artificial environment," says Shashar, a world-renowned expert in the field of polarized sight, who discovered that polarized vision in locusts enables them to avoid flying over large bodies of water. Shashar, who got his PhD at the University of Maryland and has spent most of his life studying marine life, is eager to discover how many divers visit the site. "We need to know from an economic point of view how attractive a reef like this is, and whether it will be more appealing when we add the coral," he explains. The reason for this is that interest in the artificial reef has already been expressed from various countries around the world. For some it's a question of necessity. In the Pacific Ocean, for instance, there are many islands that have been protected from storms for years by their coral reefs. With global warming, these coral reefs are now being damaged and destroyed leaving the islands wide open to the sea. "They came to us two years ago looking for a way to protect their barriers and create new ones," says Shashar. "It would be easy to say build a wave barrier and put that on your natural reef, but that would have a huge impact on the environment. Instead it could be very interesting for them to add a new reef structure that could protect them and be of viable interest." In other cases, it's a question of tourism. A hotel in Hawaii, for instance, may want to ensure a steady stream of visitors by adding an artificial reef to the sea nearby. This would be an additional attraction for tourists. "Within a year we will estimate whether the whole thing is a success or not, and we will go on from there," says Shashar. "If all goes well then we will go to places where reefs used to be and actually build major large-scale artificial reefs there. We are trying to design a new environment. All over the world reefs are being damaged and broken down, we are trying to add surface area. So far it looks like a great success. The fish are coming, and so are the people." (Israel21c/