Saturday, August 02, 2003

Damaging The Reefs

Time can get away from me sometimes. I think of things that I want to comment on and then find that a week has gone by....or maybe two. I'm back in Sharm for a few days before my daughter goes back to college. August may seem like an odd time to go to Sharm el Sheikh as it is the hottest month and Sharm is only cooler than Aswan by virtue of the wind off the sea. But it is one of my favourite months. The Perseid showers come at the end of August and light up the skies with falling stars. The sea is so warm that it feels like a hot bath for the first ten centimetres or so. Snorkeling has a sensation like drinking coffee with ice cream in it. The sun is burning, the water is bath warm to about half way down the ribs and the cold water chilling the front of your body. Amazing.

Not all of the aspects of snorkeling are wonderful though. If you've never been to the Red Sea, it is an unforgettable experience to be swimming among brilliant fish of every size and shape. But it was even more incredible when I came here the first time over 10 years ago. The last time I was here I went snorkeling at Ras Um Sidr, near the Sharm lighthouse. The reefs are greyer than before, the product of the dust that has blown into the sea as the building has taken over the shore. Sand and dust kill coral. Tumbled stands of old fan coral lie like Roman ruins along the edge of the reef. Looking for some of my favourite fish, the clown fish, was disturbing because I didn't see a single pair. Neither did I see any anemones, the territory of choice for clown fish. Today I looked for clown fish along our reef at Coral Bay. I only found one pair. Not good.

There are some signs of hope, however, even though they may be somewhat tenuous. Last year I saw millions of crown of thorns starfish along the beach hiding under rocks and coral outcroppings. This year I can find none. Crown of thorns starfish eat coral and are a serious pest. They are also rather creepy looking with long, snake-like spiny arms. One of the difficult things about collecting these predators of coral is that if you should accidently break off a piece of one arm, the piece can regenerate a whole starfish. Where those starfish have gone is a mystery. As my snorkeling buddy noted, they might simply have moved to another bay having exhausted what they wanted to eat here.

Another sign of hope is rather more heartening, however. Among the dead corals there are new soft corals growing and some new hard corals as well. Soft corals are less spectacular than hard corals, but if you take the time to examine them closely they are lovely. Some are shaped like bells that open and close with the current. Others are pastel colours, long like grass or short as velvet. Hopefully now that the building boom has slowed the reefs will have a chance to come back.