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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Nine new dive sites for Red Sea

So, the end of the year was not a happy one for parts of the Red Sea and our thoughts remain with the families of those injured and killed in the shark attacks.
Sadly, it would appear that sharks are now fair game in the region.
Despite calls for there not to be a cull, a number have been plucked from the waters.
However, the authorities are claiming there is no licence to kill - it's just unfortunate a number of sharks have died after being caught. Oh, that's okay then.
But on to some other Red Sea news........

Nine new dive sites are to be opened in the Ras Mohammed national park to ease the pressure on local dive sites that are being deluged by divers.
But it could mean the closure of popular easy sites such as Ras Katy and Near Garden. For many new divers to the Red Sea, these two sites may have been their first sight of the wonders of the Red Sea.
But it also means that they are suffering from overuse.
As the port of Sharm El Sheikh has grown into a major tourist destination, making it easier than ever for divers to experience the delights, it also threatens to be its downfall.
However, such a spectacular growth also carries sensitive environmental challenges.
It is an unpalatable fact that the biggest threat to the area is the very group who love it so much. Yep, that’s us divers.

Experienced Red Sea guide and Instructor Francesco Germi said more thought needed to be put into how the environment was used.
It is clear that natural resources are finite and cannot resist unlimited use.
He argued that there is a limit – a ‘carrying capacity’ for human use – which has to be embraced to ensure that natural resources are not destroyed.
In an article in Blue magazine, he wrote: “Many observers and industry experts already point to the deterioration of the environment in South Sinai, and in particular the coral reef system and marine life, as the single largest threat to the long run growth of tourism.
“The marine ecosystems have a limited carrying capacity, and there are indications that this carrying capacity has been exceeded, exhibited by a deterioration and loss of coral habitat due to: (1) marine pollution from raw sewage discharge from boats; (2) coastal development and construction; and (3) tourist related activities themselves (diving, snorkelling and boating).
“How much each is a contributing factor is not clear, nor is the degree of deterioration over time.”
With tourism representing Egypt’s biggest earner, he said it it would be prudent to make every effort to mitigate the causes of coral reef deterioration,
in other words to protect ‘the goose that lays the golden egg’.
Coral reefs are not able to support an indefinite amount of recreational use.
The damage inflicted by divers or snorkelers consists mostly of breaking fragile, branched corals or causing lesions to massive corals.
He wrote: “Research indicates that reef communities can tolerate a certain level of degradation before irreversible changes in ecological structure occur.
“The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recommends a sustainable carrying capacity of 5,000 to 6,000 dives per site per year as a general principle. However, recent research by the National Parks of Egypt showed that some sites in the Sharm el Sheikh area were receiving up to 60,000 dives per year, with an
average of 15,000 dives per year across all sites in the area.
“In order to address this bottleneck, a realistic strategy is needed to plan the development and management of recreational reef use. It is clear that the current number of divers and snorkelers per site cannot be increased without incurring ecological degradation.”

Maybe the only answer is to see the rotating closure of popular dive sites to help relieve the pressure on them and that is something we as divers should encourage if we want this wonderful natural resource to remain.
Which brings us back to the new dive sites.
Francesco was involved in the three day survey in a stretch of coast between the Travco marina and Marsa Ghozlani. The sites are perfect for training or introductory dives with sandy bottoms peppered with coral pinnacles.
And the team recorded a wealth of marine life, including eagle rays, morays, blue-spotted stingrays and barracuda.
So if in the future your favourite dive sites are closed, don’t moan. It is for all of our goods in the future.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Latest on shark attacks in Sharm el Sheikh

THE experts called in to examine the Jaws-like drama in Sharm el Sheikh have suggested two sharks were involved in the attacks, according to the CDWS.

In a statement, the organisation said scientists had indicated that their findings, up to now, suggest one oceanic whitetip shark and one mako shark were responsible.

And they have suggested four factors which may have contributed to the behavioural change in sharks involved in attacks. They include the following:

*One or more incidents of illegal dumping of animal carcasses in nearby waters

*Depletion of natural prey in the area caused by overfishing

*Localised feeding of reef fish and/or sharks by swimmers, snorkellers and some divers

*Unusually high water temperatures in Sharm el Sheikh

The statement continued: "The three international shark experts are continuing to work with authorities in Egypt to determine the causal factors involved in the spate of shark attacks in Sharm el Sheikh.

"The team is progressing with its scientific research and is verifying available data, as well as evidence gathered through eye witness reports from people both in the water and at the shore at the time of each of the five attacks on snorkellers.

"CDWS would like to make it clear these are NOT the final conclusions, and that the investigation is still ongoing. The CDWS would also like to underline that it has NOT been, or will be, involved in any shark hunts.

"The scientific work is currently in phase one: the diagnostic phase. Once this is complete, phase two will involve the exploration of options to deal with the factors of the diagnostic phase. The third phase will be the implementation of chosen options. Phase four will cover the long-term measures that will be taken."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Is this the killer shark?

The BBC has broadcast an image of what is believed to be the oceanic whitetip shark behind the attacks in Sharm El Sheikh.

Diving operations in some parts of the area were starting today as the authorities continued the hunt for the shark.

Now there has been a lot of comparisons between this episode and the move Jaws and it's fair to say the similarities are pretty amazing but before the powers that be get Flint in to start pulling out sharks from the sea lets get things in a little bit of perspective.

Yes it has been without doubt tragic for the victims and their families and ones thoughts are with them at this difficult time.

But we have to accept that the shark has been attracted to the area by man, whether it be over-fishing or the dumping of dead animal carcasses from a cargo ship.

More than 70 million sharks a year are killed by humans and they are an essential part of the marine ecosystem so I hope we don't see the authorities landing dozens of sharks just to appease the tourist industry. We have to remember the devastation we are doing to the underwater world.

The BBC has a good piece on the attacks here.

In it David Jacoby, who specialises in shark behavioural ecology at The Marine Biological Association of the UK, agreed that if animal carcasses had been dumped, it was likely to be a significant factor in the sharks' behaviour.

"Pelagic, or oceanic, species of shark often feed opportunistically because the open ocean can be a sparse environment for food," he said.

"Both species [white tips and makos caught last week] rarely encounter people as they spend large amounts of their time in blue water - open ocean."

Oceanic whitetips are a Red Sea species but are not normally seen in Sharm. Instead they are typically found in the southern Red Sea. And this time of year, the northern Red Sea has been emptied of its pelagics as they head south for warmer waters.

Ian Fergusson, a shark biologist and patron of the Shark Trust, a UK conservation organisation, said it was very rare for shortfin makos to be found in the Red Sea - and exceptionally rare to find them close to shore.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Shark Experts called in over attacks in Sharm

Three shark experts from the US are flying to Sharm el-Sheikh where a tourist has died and four others were badly injured in attacks during the last week.

The majority of areas in Sharm el Sheikh will be open to diving activities for the Chamber of Diving and Watersports (CDWS) members and their clients tomorrow (7 December), but all snorkel activities and other watersports remain suspended in the whole of the Sharm el Sheikh coastal area.

Qualified divers with a minimum 50 logged dives were permitted to dive in Tiran and all sites south of Naama Bay but diving remained suspended in the area between Ras Nasrani to the north of Naama Bay where the Ras Mohammed National Park teams are currently working.

In a statement the CDWS said: "Following discussions with sharks experts and a series of exploratory dives, it was decided that the areas to be opened, which include the Ras Mohammed National Park and popular sites such as the Thistlegorm, were safe for experienced diving activities.

"CDWS is working with four world-renowned shark experts at this time. Three of the experts will be arriving over the next two days in Sharm el Sheikh to form an advisory team to try to assess and advise on the best course of action following the four shark attacks in areas north of Naama Bay this week."

Dr George H Burgess, the director of the Florida Program and curator of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History for Shark Research, was flying to the resort today (MONDAY).

Arriving on Tuesday are Dr Marie Levine, head of the Shark Research Institute in Princeton, USA, and Dr Ralph Collier, of the Shark Research Committee and author of Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century. Shark behavioural expert Dr Erich Ritter is assisting from his research centre based in the USA.

A Swedish research vessel is currently surveying the topography of the ocean around Sharm el Sheikh in order to supply data to shark experts to assist their work. CDWS enlisted the help of this vessel to carry out the topography survey and secured all the relevant permissions.

Another shark attack in Sharm

The Foreign Office has warned holidaymakers in an Egyptian resort to be on their guard following a string of shark attacks that have left several people seriously injured and one woman dead.

An elderly German tourist died after she was attacked by an oceanic white tip shark in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh a few days after three Russians and a Ukrainian tourist were badly mauled in similar attacks.

Officials said the tourist died immediately after her arm was bitten off by the shark while she was swimming at the resort.

In response to the attacks the Foreign Office amended its travel advice for people visiting the area.
A statement on its website read: "Attacks by oceanic white tip sharks are extremely rare and shark attacks of any kind are very unusual in the Red Sea.
"If you are considering diving or snorkelling in any of the Red Sea resorts be aware that safety standards of diving operators can vary considerably.
"A basic rule is never to dive or snorkel unaccompanied."

Egypt's Chamber of Diving and Watersports (CDWS) sent an urgent message to its members in Sharm el-Sheikh, instructing them to clear the water.

"Following reports of another incident in Middle Garden local reef, CDWS is calling for all its members in Sharm el-Sheikh to stop any snorkelling activities happening from any boats or shore. Please tell all your boats to immediately recall any snorkellers who may be in the water," it said.

Jochen Van Lysebettens, manager of the Red Sea Diving College thought the same shark had been responsible for all the attacks. He suggested it may have been drawn to the coast by dead sheep left in the water. "I have no idea why this shark is behaving so aggressively," he continued.

"This must have been triggered by something in the past. Unfortunately in this case he is now looking at snorkellers."

One Rolf Schmid, manager of the Sinai Divers’ Centre said the sharks could have been drawn to the coastline by dead cattle – being brought in for the Islamic feast of sacrifice, Eid al-Adha – being dumped in the water.

"It is unusual to have four attacks in a week,’ said

"A possible reason for these attacks is cattle and sheep imported from Australia die on the long voyage and are thrown in the water before the ships reach the harbour."

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fourth Element launch 3D Wreck Maps

We’ve all experienced it at some time or another.
Jumping off the back of a boat and landing somewhere on the wreck, only to wonder exactly where we are and what we are looking at.
Guidebooks and drawings have been a big help, and there is nothing better than experience for helping to crack that problem.
But thanks to dive gear manufacturer Fourth Element, that may be a thing of the past.
Their new project has created 3D maps of some major wrecks, giving divers chance to explore some of the world's top dive sites from the comfort of their own homes.

Fourth Element has started the project with four well known wrecks, the Thistlegorm, the James Eagan Layne and the Um El Faroud, The fourth wreck, the San Francisco Maru was documented and recorded by Team Divers Pete Mesley and Leigh Bishop, whilst leading the fourth element expedition to Truk Lagoon. The 3D visualisation of the San Francisco Maru is part of our wider Truk Lagoon project.

The interactive 3D wreck maps offer a vast amount of visual information allowing divers to create memorable visual landmarks in their minds giving them visual clues to navigate around a wreck.
The 3D models are carefully generated using precise architectural software, and transferred into rich media web applications to allow you to explore the wreck interactively. Photos are then plotted onto the maps along with labels to give the greatest level of information to divers.
Having dived the James Eagan Lane a number of times, it is fair to day the map provided me with the first complete understanding of the wreck.
Check out the site here.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Two sharks caught off Sharm El Sheikh after attacks

REUTERS news agency and other are reporting on Thursday night that Egyptian conservation workers hunted down and captured two sharks that attacked four people in the space of two days at Sharm El Sheikh

Environment Ministry staff said the sharks matched descriptions made by divers who rescued the three Russians and one Ukrainian after the attacks near Sharm El Sheikh on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"The predator shark is 2.5 metres in length, of grey colour and white abdomen, characterized by sharp teeth ... and by a partial cut to the dorsal fin," a ministry report said.

So it looked like a shark then.

The Environment Ministry said the 12-member conservation crew caught the first shark near Sharm, which draws divers from across the world to explore its clear waters, abundant coral and exotic fish.

The second was caught later by local state environmental officers.

Sadly for divers who use this area, the sharks were captured and KILLED. So much for the 'catch it and release it somewhere else policy'.

Initial report suggested one oceanic white-tip was responsible so how they have come to land two sharks is a bit of a mystery. I just hope the authorities can control themselves and fishermen and leave it be now.

As divers, the chance of seeing a shark is an amazing opportunity. They are already disappearing in numbers as illegal fishermen in the area reduces the food supply.

While it is a tragedy for those individuals who have been injured or maimed, let us not use them as an excuse to commit further atrocities on the shark population in the Red Sea. They are facing enough threats as it is without a gung-ho attitude from the authorities.

A swimming ban along part of the coast remained in force.

Egypt's Environment Minister Maged George said the sharks would be examined for research purposes and embalmed for display at a visitor centre in South Sinai.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Scuba diving sites closed in Sharm El Sheikh after shark attacks

WATERSPORTS bosses in Sharm El Sheikh have closed the beaches and suspended diving after four people were mauled by a shark.
A hunt is under way to track down a shark responsible for maiming the Russian tourists one of whom remains in a critical condition.
In the first attack on Tuesday a man's legs were torn by the shark and the woman sustained injuries to her legs and back and had to be resuscitated after rescue.
On Wednesday there was a further attack, believed to be by the same oceanic whitetip shark, on a woman snorkelling on Ras Nasrani north of the city's Na'ama Bay. Her arms were bitten off, and she was flown to Cairo for emergency treatment.
"We are monitoring the situation very closely and working together with all authorities to ensure the safety of all members and visitors in the Red Sea," said Hesham Gabr, chairman of Egypt's chamber of diving and watersports.
Diving instructor Hassan Salem said he was on a dive at the same time of the attack and was circled by the shark before it went for the couple.
"I was able to scare the shark away by blowing bubbles in its face, but then saw it swim to a woman and bite her legs," he said.
Mr Salem described how the water turned red with blood from the attack and he rushed to take the diver he was training out of the water.
Attacks by oceanic white tip sharks are extremely rare and shark attacks of any kind are very unusual in the Red Sea.
More so at this time of the year when the pelagics have left the northern part of the Red Sea by Sharm and moved further south. Whether this is a shark that has lost its way or been drawn in by other sources souch as illegal fishes remains to be seen.
Richard Peirce, chairman of the UK-based Shark Trust, told the Guardian: "Since records began in the late 16th century there have been only nine recorded attacks on humans by an oceanic whitetip.
"It's abnormal behaviour; this shark hasn't just decided to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – there must have been a specific activity or event that brought it there."
And before we get all gung-ho about killing sharks, let us remember they are apex predators whose own survival is under threat as that are being killed in great numbers mostly for their fins.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Blue Light Night Dive: Flourescent corals in Egypt

Underwater, the Red Sea offers a kaleidoscope of colour, but I never expected blue, orange and inky black to produce the most fluorescent greens I have ever seen.

Yet this was the result of the most unique of night dives.

I had seen the sun-bleached poster at Sinai Divers, and thought the Blue Light Night Dive would be a different Sharm experience.

I was handed a blue torch - yes a torch with a blue beam –and had an orange visor cable-tied to my mask.

Trudging to the water’s edge, the bright lights of Na’ama Bay illuminated the skyline.

But they were about to be dimmed by a unique ‘glow in the dark’ underwater perspective, normally invisible to the naked eye.

Now, we all know that the reef changes come nightfall and a pinnacle that looked spectacular in the sunlight would be almost unrecognisable in the darkness as the coral burst into life from its daytime slumber.

But cruising above the sandy bottom of the bay just a few metres beneath the surface, a lone anemone signalled what we the sea was about to reveal.

Most divers would most likely glide past the lone animal. But illuminated by the bright blue torch beam, and filtered through our orange visors, the tips of the fronds glowed a brilliant green as they wafted in the gently swaying water.

This was not just any old green, but a bio-fluorescent green brighter than the dials of our gauges.

Now the science bit.

Studies have found some corals fluoresce, thanks to a physical and chemical reaction involving proteins in the animal. Researchers believe many cnidarians fluoresce in green, blue, yellow and red colours and this gleaming originates mostly from special protein structures.

This is normally invisible to humans, because it operates on a wavelength beyond what our eyes can typically perceive. So we adapt.

During fluorescence, special pigments (proteins) absorb short wave, energy rich (UV-) radiation (the blue bioluminescent light)and redistribute it nearly simultaneously – however with a higher wavelength which lies in the visible spectra and seen as green through the orange visor.

The Green Fluorescent Protein was first discovered in bioluminescent jellyfish in the 1960s. Half a century later, scientists are still trying to work out why.

But are they acting as sunscreen, protecting the coral from the sun’s harmful rays? Or converting the energy of the sunlight into light that can drive photosynthesis? Are they providing a beacon to coral life that can detect light?

Researchers have found that certain zoooxanthellate (algae housing) corals are able to thrive below the euphotic zone through auto-fluorescence. In the Gulf of Aqaba, the zooxanthellate coral Leptoris fragilis has been found living at a depth of 145 m – depth in which no photosynthetically active light can penetrate. Though, specific pigments in the coral tissues catch the remaining UV light. These UV radiations are shifted / diverted into photosynthetically active radiations which can be used by the zooxanthellae (algae) for photosynthesis.

But back to the dive.

My enthusiastic guide, Slovak Jan Karpis, told me it would be a darker night dive than normal. It took a few minutes to get used to the reduced visibility as the orange filter removed the ambient light.

But once we arrived at a coral block it didn’t matter.

As our specially made blue torches flicked across the reef the illuminated certain corals with a brilliant green. The favites was so bright, it looked like someone had switched a light on inside.

As the tentacles of an anemone swayed in different shades of green, an occasional flash of dark moved between them. Apparently this was the fish but because not all fish fluoresce, we were told that we would see very little in marine fauna. There only trace was as they crossed in front of the beams of our lights.

But who cared when the coral gave off such tremendous colour?

If this was on land, this ‘glow in the dark’ treat would be the tacky neon streets of Las Vegas, but underwater, the beauty of the reef was tremendous.

And it wasn’t just green. Some of the corals glowed a stunning orange or red.

The luminous green also helped find the critters, tiny nudibranchs became easy to spot as they flashed brightly.

A coral pinnacle that one would glide across at daytime kept our attention for the full 50minute dive.

But beware, even though we were using blue lights, lionfish were still attracted to us.

Lifting the visor away long enough they could be spotted swimming just beneath us, piggybacking divers to help with the hunt and hoping the light would illuminate a passing fish for lunch.

Afterwards, I asked Jan for his thoughts on the natural wonder. He admitted that the whys didn’t matter to him, it was the wonder that kept him jumping back in the water every Friday night.

And with this wonderful light display, who could blame him.