13 Apr 2018 - The streets of Aqaba, Jordan, are dotted with falafel stands and seafood restaurants touting the day's catch. Locals sit along the sidewalks at small tables, taking in the afternoon sun whilst smoking grape- and mint-flavored shisha tobacco.
Julia Adriana Tapies walks by a tourist shop, selling assorted trays of Arabic pastries and bath salts from the Dead Sea to the north. But Tapies has been drawn here by a much livelier body of water. A self-proclaimed scuba fanatic, the Spaniard has always dreamed of diving the Red Sea, a place "full of life and colors you can't find elsewhere."
But unbeknownst to many of the 12,000 scuba divers who traveled here last year, some of the vibrant coral reefs they came to explore have been artificially planted.
A LATERAL MOVE
As urban development increases along the Gulf of Aqaba, some popular dive sites will no longer be accessible. To meet touristic demand, and to protect the area's marine life, certain coral reefs were relocated by the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority in cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
In 2012, corals from the southern region of the coast and the Al Derreh area were placed in baskets by a team of divers working on the project and transported almost two miles north, while continuously submerged underwater. The corals were then replanted at damaged reefs and a cave site using marine cement, metal structures, the latter of which was created solely for the translocated coral. Smaller coral colonies were moved to a nursery site. After a protection period ensuring the transplants' success, the new sites, just in front of the Aqaba Marine Park, opened to the public in 2018.
The effect of the relocation process on the marine ecosystem is being closely monitored, according to Nedal Al-Ouran, head of the Environment, Climate Change and DRR (Disaster Risk Reduction) Portfolio at the UNDP and one of the scientists behind the coral relocation.
Aqaba’s delicate 6,000-year-old corals aren’t just surviving in their new homes, but also regenerating, Al-Ouran says. In the last four years, the replanted coral has steadily grown up to two inches per year, with a survival rate of more than 85 percent, compared to the average of 60 to 65 percent.
Many of the 127 coral species found in the Gulf of Aqaba are particularly resilient to high temperatures, an adaptation that may spare them the worst of the bleaching many reefs experience as oceans become hotter and more acidic. If they’re able to survive local pollution, these corals may even one day be used to re-seed dying reefs in some parts of the world.
EYE ON THE DIVES
To alleviate scuba divers’ impact on reef health, alternative dive sites are also being opened. In November 2017, a decommissioned Royal Jordanian Air Force plane was deliberately sunk as part of an initiative “to create new dive sites interesting enough” to attract divers and unburden reefs, says Omar Madain, an experienced local diving instructor.
The Gulf’s joint efforts are paying off. After her first day of diving, Tapies couldn’t bring herself to leave—in fact, she decided to spend the entire month in Jordan.
"I really felt at home there" she says of her time in the town of Aqaba and “its beautiful underwater world."