This is the blog from the first joint University of Bremen & University of Oldenburg Coral Reef Ecology excursion to the Egyptian Red Sea. The excursion is led by Prof. Dr. Peter Schupp from University of Oldenburg and Prof. Dr. Christian Wild from University of Bremen & ZMT with support of Dr. Sven Rohde
(University of Oldenburg) as well as Dr. Malik Naumann, Dr. Sebastian Ferse, and Ines Stuhldreier from ZMT. In total, 14 students from University of Bremen and 8 students from University of Oldenburg join the excursion. At this place, we will regularly inform about our experiences during the excursion.
The last two weeks have been very busy, and time was rapidly passing by. That is usually a very good sign!
We are all happy that after the very tough start (strike at Hamburg airport, severe problems to reach our flights, missing diving equipment and private bags) this excursion then went smooth and successful. We are both impressed by the students that showed great enthusiasm and interest for coral reef ecology and the related projects. Particularly nice to see was that the two groups from the Universities of Bremen and Oldenburg more and more grew together over time and yesterday then also linked and presented their data together in a comprehensive way.
Overall, there were more than 100 beautiful submissions for our final excursion photo competition, and here are the winner pictures:
With these last impressions from the Red Sea, we would like to complete our blog.
All the best from Dahab,
Peter Schupp (University of Oldenburg) and Christian Wild (University of Bremen and ZMT)
The last day of our excursion started with mixed feelings. We were quite excited about the last ‘Dream Dive‘, but also sad to leave this beautiful place soon. But before we started thinking about packing our stuff, we enjoyed the usual breakfast buffet, dominating our plates with freshly made banana-pancakes and omelets, as those were our favorites throughout the last two weeks. After a short morning meeting we loaded the jeeps with tanks and our diving equipment and headed towards the ‘Dream Dive‘ site Islands, just at the southern tip of Dahab. This time two of the Oldenburg snorkelers were joining the divers to get an impression of what is down there at greater depths.
As Murphy's Law is always present at special events, we too had to face some problems before getting into the water: „Where is my weight belt?“, „I can‘t open my tank!“, „Where is Sebi?“ (as he was forgotten at the Hotel), two large snorkeling cruise ships approaching the dive site, and not forget to mention that three people were trying to zip up Christians wet-suite. Unfortunately the latest did not work and our professor could not join the last dive.
Once in the water, all the hassle of the morning was forgotten and we enjoyed this special dive in a reef dominated by large blocks of Porites. The formation of castle like structures gave us the feeling of diving through a sunken city. In between we sighted small barracudas, a group of flute fishes, a masked pufferfish as well as carnivorous snails feeding on the few Acropora corals in the shallower part.
Back at the Hotel we took care of our equipment, going through the water basins like at a cleaning station, just without the help of the cleaner wrasses. The afternoon was very relaxing. People tried out the refreshing pool, had some lunch and were preparing their pictures for the upcoming photo-contest. Well, a bit of the time had to be invested to evaluate the results of the last days projects, but sitting close to the beach and having a fresh juice helped to do so.
The evening meeting was dedicated to sum up our findings of the last days. As we all had expected, a gradient in general reef health (regarding to coral and algae cover, structures of fish communities and abundance of herbivorous invertebrates) could be seen from the northern dive site ‘Blue Hole‘ to the southern spot ‘3 Pools‘. Reasons for that are complex combinations of top down and bottom up factors including fishing and tourism pressure as well as a high nutrient intake by the city of Dahab and its large hotel complexes.
We allowed the day to wind down with a tasty egyptian dinner and we all fell to bed, looking back to some beautiful two weeks in Dahab!
Florian Roth (Uni Bremen)
All the good things must come to the end, and the end of our Dahab excursion is surely approaching. Today we went to 3 Pools, south of Dahab, to do our last project dives/snorkels. After visiting one of the world’s best dive spots in Ras Mohammed, we came back to 3 Pools, one of the most damaged sites in Dahab according to our hypothesis.
Even though we missed some sunshine in the morning, the water was absolutely calm and there were very suitable conditions not only for the divers, but also for the snorkeler’s, who usually had to fight against the waves to do their projects. The snorkelers though, had to face another disturbance today, namely tourists. During our lunch break, more than 30 “tourist” snorkelers entered the water, and they intentionally removed and tied together the transect lines. So the Oldenburg snorkelers had to place the transect lines all over again.
Most of our observations of today matched the hypothesis, that ther were fewer fish (mostly damselfish), more large sized sea urchins (blueback sea urchins) and more turf algae coverage overall. But even in this bad coral reef situation, some of the organisms excited the divers. A less than 1 cm big baby frog fish (found by Sebastian) fascinated us, and some saw an electric ray, a flatfish, an octopus, and a tiger flatworm. Again, we recognized how important coral reef ecosystems are as habitats for high biodiversity.
Some of us are looking forward to the night dive tonight, because of the favorable water condition, and the others are recharging their energy for our last “dream”-dive/snorkels.
Flavia Höring and Riki Nakajima (University of Bremen)
What a nice day!
But well, let’s start at the very beginning. The alarm went on quite early to be ready to head for Ras Mohammed National Park at 7am. Even though being tired, we were looking forward to one of the world’s most famous dive and snorkel sides. Ras Mohammed lies at the southernmost point of the Sinai Peninsula. It was a very beautiful day, the sun was shining and there were no clouds at the sky. Already by entering the park we enjoyed the fascinating hilly desert landscape, mainly without garbage, different from the other places we`ve been to so far.
In general, the sharp contrast between the scarce appearance of the desert and the flourishing biodiversity under water impresses us. Our first dive and snorkel took us from shark reef to Yolanda bay: Breathtaking drop offs down to 800m, inhabited of colorful Nephtheidae soft corals and astonishing numbers of fish. The lucky ones even saw a close up of a Hawksbill and a Green Turtle. Concerning the massive giant moray eels (~2,00m) we weren`t too keen to get a close up, still remembering the pictures of the dangerous animal talk of Peter. One of the dive guides enthusiastically described the nest of a Spanish dancer by a very obvious pantomime.
Later on we entered Anemone city, consisting of huge anemone houses with Clownfish and Three- Spot-Dascyllus inhabitants. Afterwards, the divers met the crocodile fish together with the snorkeling group. They saw several blue spotted sting rays, large Acropora table corals in the shallow, a big grouper as well as a jack, black corals, Tubastrea and the Nephtheidae. Fortunately, the announced possibility of strong currents for snorkelers and divers were not present, so that everybody had a relaxed time. During lunch prepared by the Bedouins, the most striking difference compared to our other lunch breaks was the absence of straying cats. Nobody was there to take off our left overs…
In the afternoon our second dive / snorkel took us in the opposite direction along the reef crest to place Shark Observatory. Instead of sharks we observed schooling divers and their associated air bubbles. Through the bubble curtain both groups saw big Gorgonians and black corals. The snorkelers also observed a Napoleon wrasse. Some of us sighted a big Crown-of-Thorn starfish leaving traces of dead corals. When looking up we saw the shape of the overhanging reef crest against the sunlight, illuminating the swarms of Anthias. Just amazing! The divers finished the dive by exiting the reef through a special chimney being welcomed by an electric ray in the lagoon and the Bedouins to pick us up. This beautiful trip ended with a detour to the shark observatory uphill and a spectacular panorama view of the Gulf of Suez, Gulf of Aqaba and the main Red Sea. What a beautiful day ending in the bright light of the full moon!
Sophie Krause (University of Bremen) and Michaela Raschke (University of Oldenburg)
Yesterday in the evening the Oldenburg snorkelers decided to go for their first night snorkel. Everyone was very excited and eager to jump in their wet wetsuits again. While snorkeling along the reef crest, the Oldenburgers saw a sleeping parrot fish, a beautiful basket star and some big puffer fishes. Furthermore, they experienced bioluminescence and sighted a lot of collector sea urchins on the reef flat. The exit was not easy due to some wave action, but all snorkelers arrived with happy smiles on their faces.
Today started with a short morning meeting followed by our second project day at Blue Hole. Thanks to an improved time and air consumption management, the divers completed their transect work more efficiently compared to yesterday. Luckily for the snorkelers there was not as much wave action as yesterday so they did not have to struggle with finishing their transect work either.
Among the highlights of the divers was a hawksbill turtle approaching them curiously, whereas the snorkelers encountered an electric ray near the most southern transect. Moreover, some students were lucky to see a guitar ray, a large Baracuda and a giant Napoleon wrasse.
Regarding the results of today, all fish groups observed a high abundance of Anthias fishes counting more than 500 individuals per transect, and the fish species diversity was higher than at Lighthouse. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that they minimized their observer bias significantly compared to the last days. The results of the cryptic invertebrate group indicate that there were less rock boring sea urchins, but the group in 7 m water depth noticed larger fishes. Additionally, the snorkelers observed a decreasing number of sea urchins along a gradient from north to south.
Moreover, in 3 m water depth, the benthic assessment group found slightly less hard coral cover, but more soft coral cover and almost as much algae as at the dive site Lighthouse. In contrast, in 7 m water depth the divers noticed a slightly increased hard coral cover and fewer algae than at the dive site yesterday. However, our results indicate some disturbance and imbalance also at Blue Hole. We finished the day with our routine: the evening talk where we presented and interpreted our findings.
Ann-Kathrin Thöne (University of Bremen) and Friederike Peiffer (University of Oldenburg)
After another beautiful night dive yesterday that left the divers amused with diverse sightings, the eager students started a fresh morning with the usual meeting. During breakfast, the night divers told us about their smooth entry into the water and how beautiful it was to spot a Spanish dancer, some beautiful Gorgonians, a camouflaged Scorpion fish, and a Red Sea top shell crowning a coral. Again we discussed how each group should handle the transects and we headed towards our central dive site, the “lighthouse”. There, each group entered the water one after another, while the Oldenburg snorkelers were busy with their shallow transects. Despite the rough waves, the snorkelers were able to handle the situation. Interestingly enough, the snorkelers noticed that the fish size was bigger at this site when compared to the previous ones.
Both groups were occupied in improving the work on their transects after yesterday’s night meeting which revolved around contributions to enhance our performance with handling the transects. In the afternoon, we went back to the hotel to gather the data and get a first glimpse at our findings for today. After that, we headed again towards our site for collecting more data. It was more efficient work on our second visit to the site since we were more energized.
Generally the fish divers found that Anthias and Damselfishes were abundant relative to the rest of the fish groups inspected and this came parallel with the observations of the fish snorkelers. The benthic divers noticed that there were many turf algae and they found that at this site there were cyanobacteria, while the benthic snorkelers noticed a high hard coral cover. The herbivorous invertebrates divers marked that the rock-boring sea urchins were high in numbers, but the snorkelers’ transects almost double what the divers observed.
Carla Sardemann (University of Oldenburg) and Nada El Shanawany (University of Bremen)
The first day of our project week started with a sunny sky and a calm sea. The morning meeting dealt with the selection of our favourite project topics. We could choose between three different groups: fish, benthic communities and herbivorous invertebrates. During this week we will try to approach our working hypothesis that a hotel complex in the South of Dahab increases nutrient input into the sea and therefore has a negative effect on the coral reef and its inhabitants. We will investigate this hypothesis on three diving and snorkling spots: Blue Hole (North of Dahab), Lighthouse (downtown Dahab) and Three Pools (South of Dahab). On each location, we will assess three transects of 50 m in 7 m depth for the divers and three transects in 2 m depth for the snorklers.
To standardize our working methology, we met in our groups to discuss how we will operate as well as the characteristics of the diverse species which we might see under water. Finally, we prepared our gear to accomplish our transects. At 2 pm, the tide was high enough to start our first trial at the House Reef, right in front of our hotel, in order to get confident with the transect work.
The divers as well as snorklers adapted quite fast to the new method, and no large deficits could be reported. Several parrot fish, wrasses, turf algae and rock-boring sea urchins were documented.
After the dive/snorkel we met in groups again and discussed what we observed as well as which improvements for tomorrow should be made so that the real project work will be a success.
In the evening meeting each group presented their generated data which was followed by an interesting talk of Malik about the previous CORE data sets from the area.
Stephie Simon (University of Bremen) and Steffi Fokken (University of Oldenburg)
The first day of the second week started at an unusual time. At an early breakfast at 7 am the night divers told us about their previous experience. Due to strong waves they had some difficulties at the entrance and exit, but then they had a magnificent view of coral fluorescence which they could discover with the help of a blue light lamp.
After the breakfast we got our snorkeling gear ready and headed to the blue hole where the camels were already waiting for us. With mixed feelings we climbed the desert ships and started our tour in a long caravan along the escarpment to Ras Abu Gallum. Entering this beautiful place takes 2,5 hours by car, but fortunately with a camel you can use the short way which only takes 1,5.
After we arrived, we directly got ready for our first step into the turquoise water. Snorkeling along the again stunning reef we saw many trigger and different parrot fishes, flute fishes, feather stars and eggs of the Spanish dancer snail. Afterwards, we got lunch with the bedouins to get energy for our second round. This time we entered the site along a steep riff and were also able to enter a centered lagoon. We discovered that overall there were fewer different hard coral colonies and some hardly damaged ones, but also some quite large colonies e.g. Lobophylia sp., and some of the Oldenburg snorkelers discovered their first moray eel and we were overall surprised about the many sponges present.
After a nice day at the camp, we got ready for our ride back and some people decided to better stay on their feet. Even though some of us were in pain after the second ride all of us arrived back at the blue hole with a smile on their face.
Back home we enjoyed the free evening.
Irina Köster (University of Oldenburg) and Meike Kern (University of Bremen)
We started the day with the typical morning meeting where we got the great news that the last four missing pieces of luggage have arrived. The second great news of the day: we will go diving to the beautiful diving place called Blue Hole.
We were so enthusiastic that we forgot two people in the hotel, but after a call from them we drove back and picked them up. Once there, we started with the first dive and snorkel activity.
The dive was wonderful for everybody and we could see big smiles on the divers´ faces afterwards. We found flute fish swimming very near to us. We came across nudibranchs, cleaning stations that literally cleaned our mouths, parrot fishes and two enormous napoleon wrasses.
For the snorkelers this day was like holiday after the adventure yesterday. We saw a lot of small orange fishes called Anhtias and some jelly fishes. A lot of fun we had with the air bubbels from the divers, because it felt like a whirlpool on the surface.
As usual we had lunch in the bedouin camp and after a nice rest having a sun bath, we went to the top of a hill to see the amazing fossil coral reefs.
Full of energy, we put our diver and snorkeler gears on. In this second dive, we enjoyed again the beauty of the reef. It was full of healthy corals including hard and fire corals, leather corals, gorgonians, giant clams and the amazing Tubastrea corals with a huge abundance of fishes living in them.
Also the snorkelers enjoyed their second trip. We saw a lot of blue and brown Acroporas. The only negative point was the masses of plastic in the water.
At our evening meeting we heard a talk by Maike about Ocean acidification and after it a small group of Bremen divers went for a night dive.
Susanne Frenzer (University of Oldenburg) and Nur Garcia (University of Bremen)
Today, we went to Umm Sid about 1 km south of dive site Three Pools. None of us had been to this site so we didn’t know what to expect and if the reef would be in such a bad condition like the ones we saw the days before.
The divers were all positively surprised of the beauty and biodiversity of this reef so they spontaneously decided to do the afternoon dive also at the same spot. Besides the blue-spotted stingray that was observed before, some more animals were seen that weren’t found at the more destroyed reefs. Such organisms were the feather stars, the seldom black coral, gorgonians and wire corals. Some divers had also seen a big titan trigger fish and others had the opportunity to come across a tiger flatworm and nudibranchs. Especially nice to watch was the field of garden eels.
Unfortunately the snorkelers struggled with the current and therefore decided to go back to Three Pools. There, they snorkeled into the opposite direction than the day before. They saw a lizard fish feeding on another fish and examined a sea cucumber presenting its intestine and another one showing its tentacles. In the afternoon the snorkelers took another try at Umm Sid by doing drift snorkeling going southward with the current. This was easier, but still an adventure especially finding the exit since it was only a very small reef gap and it was very wavy. This made it difficult to get safely out of the water. Nevertheless, they had the chance to observe clown fish guarding their eggs. Last but not least three more pieces of luggage arrived and now only one more is left that still needs to find its way to Dahab.
Nina Monte (University of Oldenburg) and Steffi Meyer (University of Bremen)
Today after breakfast and the distribution of our snorkeling and diving equipment and everything getting sorted, we left the INMO-Hotel to get an impression of the reefs at the “Three pools” diving site which is only located a little bit South of the site where we went yesterday. We got picked up with typical Egyptian vehicles meaning pick-ups and small busses giving us the feeling of each bump we passed. So the ride along the Red Sea was thereby its own adventure before the actual work even began.
Once we arrived, we already got started to get into the water for the first of the two dives which were set for today. The snorkelers saw apart from a blue spine unicorn fish and an octopus also a swarm of yellow fin barracudas, whereas the divers discovered lots of slate-pencil urchins, collector urchins, lion fishes and a napoleon wrasse. While we had our lunch break, the Bedouins cooked pizza and rice as a snack and we could talk about all that we had seen under water.
After being recharged, we went back into the water. The Oldenburg snorkelers checked several transects from the beginning of the reef crest towards the slope for the health status of staghorn corals showing that corals were in a better condition at the crest. In the meantime, the divers observed that the reef was in a very poor condition exhibiting lots of algae and dead corals. While working on the transects, a blue-spotted stingray was a highlight for the snorkelers, whereas an octopus, a stone fish, and a not so shy scorpion fish were watched and observed by the divers.
In the evening we listened to a talk about toxic animals by Peter Schupp at the end of a very interesting day, where we all learned and gained more experience.
Sabrina Schmalz (University of Bremen) and Yusuf El-Khaled (University of Oldenburg)
The following morning the freshly arrived diving gear was distributed among all so that we finally were ready for our first dive in the afternoon. We went to moray garden, an easily accessible dive site in the south of Dahab for a check dive to get everybody back into diving. After a short safety briefing we were eager to enter the water to finally start our first dive in the Red Sea.
The dive started with a couple of safety exercises and was followed by a tour along the reef crest. Sadly the reef we observed was in a poor condition; low coral cover and abundant soft corals and macro algae indicating anthropogenic influences. Despite the overall low density of fish, some of us spotted a tiny blue spotted stingray, lionfish, angelfish and most important a Napoleon wrasse. Additionally we had the opportunity to observe the behavior of animals like parrot fish feeding on corals. Interestingly we found a single arm of a sea star re-growing new small arms illustrating the amazing regeneration abilities of asteroidea. In the end everybody enjoyed the dive and was eager for the next opportunity to dive.
The next day started promising with some rumors about our luggage. Inshallah (so god will) it should arrive that same evening. We gathered in the morning to distribute our snorkeling gear into three small busses and headed for the Nabq national park. After a partly rough ride through the amazing Sinai desert, we arrived at the world’s most northernward mangroves. As these mangroves live at their distributional boarders, the small patchy forests consisted of only one species, Avicennia marina, inhabited by some birds and crabs. We spotted an osprey, a striated heron and a cattle egret.
Beneath the water surface, there was not so much to see for the snorkelers as the turbidity was very high. But the famous upside down jellyfish that spends its life pumping on the seafloor was very abundant and easy to spot despite the bad visibility. After the snorkeling trip in the mangroves we were picked up to get lunch at a small Bedouin camp. Although we were offered to eat fresh parrotfish, we decided to go for chicken to ease our conscience. And it was very delicious! We got some rest in the shade and went to the first larger reef to discover its beauty snorkeling.
There we could easily apply our newly gained knowledge on corals and spotted a wide variety of fish and invertebrates. The reef was mostly inhabited by corals of the genera Stylophora, Acropora, Turbinaria and Porites. The lucky ones among us did not only see the colorful common reef fishes but also a blue spotted stingray, frog fish and a yellow margin moray. Once everyone was back from the reef, those still without luggage couldn’t wait to finally make their way to the airport. Over there it became obvious that most but not all of our bags had arrived.
After realizing that only 6 out of 30 bags arrived, and only 2 out of 8 diving bags, it became obvious to us that we could not go diving on the first day. So we did some basic shopping for toothbrushes and swimsuits and went snorkeling in a sea grass bed at the Dahab lighthouse instead. Despite the fact that this meadow was directly in front of the town, it was quite diverse.
Among the highlights we saw some fearless common lionfish and a grey moray hiding among some rocks, watching us skeptically. In the sandy areas we watched a bunch of red sea goatfish seeking the sediment for food accompanied by some whitespotted puffer. The worm sea cucumbers looked a lot like large ropes on the sea ground. As February is the coldest month in the Sinai, some of us got cold after a while whereas others continued snorkeling toward a small patchy reef. Those who did were rewarded with a first impression of the richness of Red Sea reefs. Red sea anemonefish were bravely protecting their host anemones against us invaders, while some Lyretail anthias were joyfully playing above the massive coral formations.
In the evening Christian Wild gave a talk about cnidarians, highlighting the ones we are most likely to see during our stay. After the talk we had a little quiz testing our newly gained knowledge on corals by identifying them on pictures.
Franziska Kupprath, Ann-Kathrin Seiz and Nils Rädecker
Dahab, Egypt; air temperature: 22 °C, water temperature: 21 °C
None of us expected how difficult it would be to go to Egypt. Only yesterday afternoon, we were told by the travel agency that there is a strike of security staff at Hamburg airport. The advice was that we should already go to the airport early this morning at 0:00 to make sure that we do check in and security control well before our departure time at 6 am. Very tired, we arrived at Hamburg airport to find out that everything would stay closed until 4 am. When we waited for checkin, a large crowd had already developed in front of the security check. Only two corridors out of ca. 20 in total were available for hundreds of people. The velocity of our progress towards security check therefore resembled that of house gastropods or koala bears.
Consequently, at boarding time we all (24 people) were still far away from being even close to security check. In addition, announcements told us that we should be at our gate now and urgently. This did not really make us happy and calm, because we knew that if we would miss our flight this would also mean the definitive end of our excursion before it had even started.
Fortunately, people in the line understood my request to try to hold the flight for the group at the gate and let me overtake them without too many complaints. A couple of minutes later at the gate, I saw that boarding was already in progress. I did my very, very, very best to convince the staff at the gate how important our excursion was and how catastrophic it would be to miss this flight. I finally could arrange that they approved a maximum of 30 more minutes of waiting time just for us.
Unfortunately, after this time, still none of the 23 other members of our group had arrived at the gate due to further delays at the security check. Now, the staff started to become impatient and doubted that my estimations for the group arrival were correct. I knew from SMS that by now only the tip of my group had arrived at the security gate, but told them that security check is now in progress for all members of my group (little lie, but fully justified in my opinion;-). Luckily, 5 min later the first student arrived at the gate running and thereby helped me to increase my credibility in front of the staff. However, at the same time the gate staff told me that they now would do the de-icing procedure for ca. 5 more minutes, afterwards would open the door for 5 min only, but afterwards not let any people in.
In this moment, my last hope was gone, because I knew from SMS that there were some more delays in security check procedures, and only one third of the group had been through the check. To our luck, there were some delays in the de-icing procedure, so that we were around 10 people at the gate when this was completed. However, when the staff then asked us to enter the plane, three students from Bremen and 5 students from Oldenburg were still missing. We were able to get a few more minutes by pretending that we did not really understand, and happily by then at least the missing Bremen students joined us with red faces from running so that the entire Bremen group could completely enter the plane.
I then again did my very best to convince the staff at the doors of the airplane to wait for the missing Oldenburg students, but they said it is too late and they would close the doors immediately. Luckily, I was able to get permission to leave the plane one last time to see if they now had arrived at the gate, and this was the case! But the gate was already closed, so that we could only see us through the locked glass doors. From both sides of the doors, we now tried to convince the staff to make a last exception for us…and finally we were successful! It was a great moment to see everybody then finally in the immediately leaving airplane…hope, our luggage could also make it into the plane…
We know that this was an exceptional combination of luck (despite the bad luck with the strike), helpful airport and airline staff (many thanks from all of us), and efforts of everybody (who knows what would have happened if we had not been running). Several times, we were very close to complete cancellation of the excursion. The whole situation was surely very stressful and exhausting for all of us (and all of this happened after a long night without sleep in the very early morning), but the great thing now is that we have a happy end for all of us…
…well, not all of us, because the supervisor from University of Oldenburg, Sven Rohde, that had booked another flight from Hamburg, was unfortunately trapped in security check and missed his plane. We hope that he can find alternative transport soon!
Finally, today in the afternoon we safely arrived at our destination Dahab at the Gulf of Aqaba Coast of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. It is good to be here again and to get some sleep, too. Unfortunately, most of our luggage did not make it to Dahab, but this does not seem to be a serious problem anymore after such a day;-).
Christian Wild, WG Coral Reef Ecology (on behalf of all excursion participants from Bremen and Oldenburg)