The Red Sea
- Niamh O Riordan.
"All aboard the night train!" said our guide, George Gray. It was after dark and we were heading back to Dahab on the coast of Sinai after a night dive. Beneath the surface of the Red Sea, torches brought the reef to life for scuba divers and cast an eerie glow on the waves.
Looking at Dahab from the shore, it is an idyllic resort town, a paradise. Palm trees. Canopies. Azure waters. From the other side of town, it is bedouin through and through. Men in traditional dress pass the time on the footpath. Goat herds roam the parched streets. Camels live in tidy enclosures on either side when they are not ferrying tourists along the beachfront.
We promised ourselves a week of rest and recouperation after the months of preparation for All About Africa and Dahab was it. The town was originally a bedouin fishing village but most of the Egytpians we met were from elsewhere. Most had families at home and travelled to them when they could. Once again, the friendliness of the people here could not be faulted. We were taught arabic over dinner by the waiters and discussed Egyptian politics and culture with the hostel management.
The Red Sea is a gulf or basin of the Indian Ocean between Africa and Asia. In the north is the Sinai Peninsula, the Gulf of Aqaba and the Gulf of Suez (leading to the Suez Canal). It was called the "Arabian Gulf" up to the 20th century. Some say the name "Red Sea" signifies the seasonal blooms of red-coloured cyanobacteria Trichodesmium erythraeum near the water surface. Others suggest that it refers to the mineral-rich red mountains nearby. The name could also be a mistranslation of what should have been the Reed Sea. The sea is the habitat of over 1000 invertebrate species (without spines) and 200 soft and hard corals. From the earliest recorded history, the red sea has been a trade route and with the emergence of Islam in the sixth century, it became even more important as millions of pilgrims crossed it on their journey to Mecca.
At every dive site, large signs warned divers to treat the reef with respect. Corals are animal rather than plant and are major contributors to the physical structure of coral reefs that develop only in tropical and subtropical waters. Coral is sensitive to environmental changes and is generally protected by environmental laws. A coral reef can easily be swamped in algae if there is too much nitrogen in the water. Coral will also die if the water temperature changes by more than a couple of degrees beyond its normal range or if the water salinity drops. A combination of temperature changes, pollution, and overuse has led to the destruction of many coral reefs around the world.
As divers, our actions would have serious consequences for the coral reef and the aquatic life we encountered. Corals grow approximately one inch per year so the slightest contact with the corals would do enormous damage. We have an enormous responsibility as stewards of our planet to care for and maintain it. George's attitude was admirable. He would not touch anything, would not interfere with anything and kept a careful eye on us in our underwater clumsiness so that we did not endanger the reef. Not all instructors would be so responsible. He instructed us to "...take only pictures and leave only bubbles".
Our most interesting dive was called a 'naturalist' dive. We were taught to recognise the types of plant and animal life we saw and were introduced to symbiotic relationships in the reef. We identified types of coral based on their appearance: brain coral, finger coral, trumpet coral. We identified different types of sea urchins and fish. Our favourites were anemonefish or clownfish, affectionately referred to as 'Nemos' by George. These fish exist in a symbiotic relationship (one of mutual benefit and dependence) with the anemone. The activity of the fish, immune to the stinging tentacles of the anemone, living within the safety of the coral attracts prey for the anemone itself.