Signs of coral development... Fred the eel near reef balls Image Credit: Supplied

In simple terms, a red tide occurs when there is a spike in the number of algae in the sea. The water gets discoloured taking on the shade of the algae which is often red.

Red tides can affect coral reefs decimating their numbers and even affecting other marine life. (According to an expert who was quoted in Gulf News last year, the red tide on the East Coast seriously affected coral in the Dibba Marine Protected Zone.)

Of course, red tides are not the only factor to blame for the destruction of coral. Oil spills and other pollutants too play their part. But the red tide phenomenon which occurred some time after Cyclone Gonu struckOman in 2007 affected the corals in the region.

Protecting marine life

Coral reefs play an important role in preserving and propagating marine life as they are home to nearly a third of the world's fish and other marine living organisms. Realising the importance of protecting this important marine wealth, ecologists and conservationists are busy working on projects to restore natural reefs and repopulate the underwater world.

One such project which has begun showing success was initiated by the Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort in Fujairah, with the participation of Al Boom Diving off the Fujairah coast.

"The eastern coast was hit with oil spills and red tide following Cyclone Gonu a few years back which was not doing good for the marine life,'' says Patrick Antaki, general manager, Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort.

Keen to set right the imbalance, experts developed an innovative project - they introduced 35 man-made reef structures in the affected area in June last year. It was part of an international project to rehabilitate the world's ocean reef ecosystems and to protect the natural reef systems.

The extensive project began in June 2009 with 14 reefs and was inspected in February this year by divers from Al Boom Diving and volunteers from the resort. To their delight, a definite proliferation of a variety of marine species was found around the reefs. To date, more than Dh100,000 has been invested in the project, going towards importing the reef block structure moulds, fabrication, transport, deployment and related activities. Al Boom divers, assisted by staff from the resort, have also donated their time to the project.

"This project reflects our dedication to the research into aquatic life on the East Coast and is a key platform to our environmental programme," says Antaki.

"The project was implemented last summer. We think it is important to preserve and conserve the marine beauty around this area and the project was designed for just this.''

The project utilises moulds imported from Reefball Foundationin the US. "The reef balls are made of a special cement. The material used to create these structures is scientifically tested to attract marine life. Now the marine plant life has started to cover the reef ball structures as would happen in a natural reef. It is a slow process and we are happy with the results,'' says Antaki.

"We are following the tried and tested formula that the reef ball organisation has developed, researched and implemented in over 80 countries. We could use the best process, procedures, and materials with the help and support of our sponsors as well as the local authorities.''

Elaborating on the process of placing the reef balls in the water, Samantha Joffe of Al Boom Diving explains: "The complex project involved using a crane to move the reef block structures, each weighing between 500kg and 2.5 tonnes, onto lift bags floating in the water.'' Boats then tugged these structures into the ocean.

"These reef ball structures will take about five years to mature and develop into full-fledged coral reefs. Many fish species are already thriving in and around the reef structures. Crabs, cuttlefish, bannerfish, hammour, jacks, snapper and also a large eel were spotted on and around the structures.'' Joffe points out that it is too early to take an official count of the fish colonies thriving around the reefs.

Developing marine life will add to the beauty of the coastlines of the UAE and also will offer more options to enjoy diving and snorkelling. The partners in this project hope this is the first of many projects to come and look forward to witnessing similar initiatives from other corporate entities who will be running them as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes.

Says Antaki: "The reef project will certainly be expanded and sponsorship is welcome. Schools, dive groups, families, and companies can link sponsorship to their social responsibility, education and sport initiatives. More details can be had from Al Boom or Le Meridien Al Aqah.

"We look forward to hearing from more organisations that are willing to do similar activities on environmental conservation and development. Each one of us is socially responsible to give back our share to Mother Nature in one way or the other.

"We will be continuously monitoring the development and do the needful to protect and conserve it. This is one of the several environmental initiatives the resort has partnered including planting trees at local schools, partnering with Unicef in their ‘Save the children' campaign, tying up with Emirates Diving Association on underwater clean-up campaigns every year on the East Coast among others. We are happy with the success of the project and our partnership with Al Boom and look forward to being more active and socially responsible over the coming months," Antaki says.

Rainforests of the underwater world

Coral reefs often dubbed as the ‘rainforests of the underwater world' date back to prehistoric times and marine experts point out that they are made of coral polyps.

While the animals within the polyps die and calcify, forming the hard exterior of the ever expanding reefs, the living ones generate food with the help of sunshine and carbon dioxide sourced from water.

Even as marine biologists are working on projects to restore natural reefs and repopulate the underwater world, innovative conservationists are looking at sinking artificial reefs to serve the same purpose.