By Dan Connell
SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt — The stark, rugged mountains of the Sinai desert and the kaleidoscopic undersea world just offshore appear to form one of the most serene spots on earth.
Yet a hidden conflict pits the hordes of tourists now flocking to the Red Sea against the very marine life that draws them here. It is a conflict waged on many other fronts from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific. The marine life is losing and there are no winners.
At stake is the existence of the centuries-old coral reef that feeds a diminishing array of rare tropical fish. If both the coral and fish disappear, not only will the world lose a precious, non-renewable natural wonder, but the tourist industry will perish.
Local dive guides warn that damage to Egypt's stunning reefs from unchecked tourist growth and unregulated diving may soon become irreversible. Local business leaders worry that uncontrolled expansion may soon threaten their livelihoods. Damage to the reefs ranges from coral breakage by careless divers and boat anchors to increasing pollution from dive boats and rubbish and sewage from the growing numbers of hotels and dive shops.
Last year, the hotel and dive shop managers established the Sharm el
Sheikh Water Sports and Tourism Association in an effort to combat the growing threat to the marine environment.
Hisham Gabr, who heads the association, is calling for comprehensive studies to determine what level of growth the fragile environment can stand and how to regulate growth to minimise environmental destruction. He argues the reefs are an international resource and that a portion of Egypt's foreign aid should be earmarked for environmental projects. So far, only Citybank and the German embassy have donated funds toward reef preservation.
When it formed 40 million years ago, the Red Sea was fed by the Mediterranean at its northern end, but continental movement closed this gateway and opened a shallow link to the Indian Ocean, 2000 kilometres to the south. The result is a nearly self-contained environment with a singular mix of Indo-Pacific soft and hard corals and Mediterranean marine life. Ten per cent of marine life is unique to the Red Sea.
Majestic man-rays two and three metres across glide by at a depth of 15 metres while a dozen or more bullet-shaped barracudas swim past in tight formation. Brilliant green hump-backed wrasses, known locally as "Napoleonfish", grow to as big as 200 kilograms.
As playful as puppies, they often follow divers for a handout, though feeding the fish was recently banned, both to protect them from becoming tame and to stop inattentive tourists losing fingers.
The main fringing reefs at Ras Mohammed were recently designated a marine reserve, and a set of rules for divers and operators has been drafted, but guides and dive shop managers warn that this is not enough, because rules are not enforced.
Dive master Hisham Hassan worries that a piecemeal approach without solid government funding cannot succeed. "The government needs to recognise income comes from tourists and why the reefs need to be protected just like the pyramids and the sphinx", he said. "If this protection program is not started soon, the reefs won't last."