Updated: Mar 6, 2022
In early August 2021, I discovered The RED SEA PROJECT™ . As a keen environmentalist, studying geography at university and having worked with several different organizations, from the IUCN, Think Pacific on the marketing strategy for The Fiji National Ocean Plan and My Carbon Zero, an NGO tackling carbon emission, I was excited at the opportunity of going to work in the field of marine conservation. Speaking to the director of RED SEA PROJECT™ in the weeks before my arrival, he talked me through the activities and research we would be doing, explaining each aspect of the project in detail and giving me the background information needed for someone who had never traveled to Egypt before.
Sophie Jones - Junior Researcher | RED SEA PROJECT™
Boarding the plane from Geneva, Switzerland, I was both nervous and eager to arrive in Egypt. Flying into Hurghada, Ahmed Fouad - Director of RED SEA PROJECT™ had made the three-hour drive to the big city to pick me up. Launched immediately into the heat, culture and working environment, we drove directly to the National Institute of Oceanography where I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Mahmoud A. Radi Dar - Director of National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries - NIOF. Located right on the coast, he talked about incidents of illegal fishing and the need to tackle conservation in the Red Sea through a holistic management and collaboration. Within the current climate of high competition between the environmental organizations working in the different regions of the Red Sea, he emphasized the need to work together with a range of stakeholders in order to achieve successful, effective conservation. Dr. Mahmoud had spent his life working hands-on in marine conservation, dedicating time, energy and effort to grow the environmental and conservation sector; in order to protect the diverse range ecosystems and key species of the Red Sea – many of which are endemic to this part of the world. After our meeting, Ahmed took me to visit the NIOF Aquarium and the Hamed Gohar's museum next door.
Visiting an exhibition showing the oldest marine biologist in the Red Sea’s work and equipment, with specimens dating back to 1933. All I can say is that I am glad we did not dive with the same equipment as in the mid-19th Century!
Old photo from Dr. Hamed Gohar's collection of Egyptian fishermen hunting Sea Cow
Photo courtesy of the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries - NIOF | Hamed Gohar Research Station
A little unsure of what to expect, driving through Hurghada, stopping off to taste Egypt’s specialty (traditional falafel served with Egyptian bread and vegetables) we soon emerged from the bustle of cars, street vendors and people into the desert. To my left, the sea stretched for miles and to my right, small rolling sandy mountains. Even the smell of the air was different. Once the sunset, millions of stars and the Milky Way emerged above our heads. We made it to Marsa Abu Dabab, the RED SEA PROJECT™’s field station, a small bay 30km North of the small town of Marsa Alam later that evening.
Having travelled the world, the Abu Dabbab Divers Lodge I was to be accommodated in seemed luxurious to me, with small, individual bungalows and friendly staff, it was only two hundred meters from the beach.
The beach, I was to discover the next morning, was situated on a natural U-shaped Bay, with crystal clear turquoise waters and reefs on either side offering the perfect protection and habitat for the diversity of species we are working to conserve and protect. On my morning swim I was happily surprised by both turtles and sting-rays – something I hadn’t expected to find within five minutes of entering the water.
Transect line and bottom survey workshop and hands on data collection of sea-grass surveys
Although for some, three weeks here may have felt extensive, both Ahmed and I realized it was not very long to learn and research all that I had come here for. We both wanted to make the most of my time which meant learning everything I could about how the organization works and helping with the diversity of tasks they seek to perform on a daily basis.
From hands on data collection of sea-grass surveys, turtle measurements and recording sightings (both personally and from visitors) to working alongside local hotels to educate both local employees and visitors. Though everyday was a learning experience, I found these particular activities boosted my understanding and awareness of how the organization works in terms of in the field action, as well as deepening my interest and excitement about the marine environment.
Marine turtle monitoring in Marsa Abu Dabbab
One of the most important day-to-day activities undertaken by the RED SEA PROJECT™ team is the data collection on turtles in the region for the RED SEA TURTLES PROJECT™. This involves taking photos or videos of the resident (and visiting) turtles in Marsa Abu Dabbab, or wherever we are diving. These are then uploaded to the Artificial Intelligence program for identification. This is done by recognizing the individual patterns on turtle’s body. Noting when and where they were sighted (depth and time), the gender, size and species also helps with this identification and building data on turtles in the region.
Coral Reef Survey in Sha'ab Sataya
We also encouraged divers to do the same, submitting their own photos or videos to Report Sightings program. One day I spent two hours head down, swimming transects of the bay looking for new turtles to identify and record. Overall, the aim is to collect as much data on the turtles as possible, identifying their condition and activities to understand their lifestyle patterns and develop actionable plans for their conservation.
Dugongs monitoring - RED SEA DUGONG PROJECT™
Turtles were not the only local residents of the bay, another rare species that come to feast on the sea grass meadows are Dugongs, otherwise known as sea cows. These mammals are not only rare, but hard to find and extremely difficult to identify as they are cautious of both humans and loud noises (a major issue with recreational and industrial boating activities). However, on my second-to-last day of the internship, I was lucky enough to see two dugongs. One from the dive boat and one after sliding delicately into the water making sure not to make any sudden movement, only catching a glimpse of the dorsal fin as it swum deeper down into the ocean. Knowing how rare dugongs are, this was a magical experience.
Some of the more common, but still exciting sightings I made whilst diving on the North and South reef, as well as across the seagrass meadows, were the white spotted eagle rays - a mother and daughter (only a little bigger than my forearm) - that glided around us on several occasions. The cauliflower jellyfish we came across was another favourite; a majestic, flowing creature I could have watched for hours. Diving in the early morning or late afternoon, we came across shoals of fusiliers, angelfish and trevallies feeding in the lowering sunlight. Throughout my time in Marsa Abu Dabbab, I worked on my fish identification skills as a part of my PADI advanced open water qualification, also learning how to cave dive, deep dive, dive in currents and dive from the beach. At the end of the two weeks, I had learnt so many new things I didn’t know how to explain everything to my family when I got back!
A little further afield, was another key part of the RED SEA DOLPHINS PROJECT™ – dolphin identification and education on their conservation. The Red Sea is home to sixteen species of dolphins. Eight of these are regularly observed: common bottlenose dolphin, Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphin, spinner dolphin, Pantropical spotted dolphin, false killer whale, Risso’s Dolphin, humpback Dolphin, and Bryde’s Whale. The other eight are considered rare.
Introducing the rare and regular species of cetaceans in the Red Sea for the visitors and encouraging the code of conduct and best practices when diving or snorkeling in their resting areas
Spinner Dolphins (Stenella longirostris) Monitoring and observation
Two of the most important locations for Spinner Dolphins (Stenella longirostris) sightings are Sha'ab Samadai and Sha'ab Sataya. I was lucky enough to be able to join an overnight trip to Sataya to observe and identify these dolphins.
Sleeping up on deck on the overnight trip, I was woken by the sun rising and turning the sky a wonderful orangey-yellow. Ahmed was already awake and on duty using the monocular to watch the horizon for the dolphins, I joined him, watching all morning for their dorsal fins to appear in the turquoise ocean bellow us.
Finally, we spotted them, taking our zodiac out to the pod, we had already explained how to act and swim safely with the dolphins and our visitors were able to see these incredible creatures from the water. Whilst keeping our distance, we snorkeled alongside the dolphins, observing their playful, relaxed ambiance, again trying to get footage to be able to identify them using AI. After over two hours swimming and collecting underwater pictures for identification of these creatures, who moved so naturally and effortlessly in the water, I was exhausted - but on a life high. Not only had I got to swim with dolphins, but I had also identified these individuals which would help RED SEA PROJECT™ develop a better understanding of their movements and what would be the next steps in their conservation.
During my internship, I joined two-day trips to Sha'ab Samadai . Diving through caverns, watching clown fish hide in the anemones and swimming alongside more dolphins. Before and between dives, we talked to the visitors about the best code of conduct around dolphins, as well as educating them on the different species of dolphin that could be found in the Red Sea and how we are working to protect them.
My last dive in Sha'ab Samadai finished with a very memorable experience: a young hawksbill turtle breathing on the surface dived downwards to inspect the humans with air tanks below. After realising that this was an unidentified turtle, I filmed and later got to name this hawksbill 'Alexander', after my brother. Not only do I hope he is doing well, but I also hope I can continue to work towards protected turtles and dolphins alike here in the Red Sea, alongside The RED SEA PROJECT™ , as well as further afield.
Our last day was spent visiting the Wadi El Gemal National Park, learning how to improve my freediving and swimming up and down the barrier reefs just offshore of a pristine white sandy beach. Watching the sunset with my teacher and friend Ahmed, I gained full appreciation of why the RED SEA PROJECT™ was so important. This incredible place needs as much protection, recognition and conservation as possible to enable the rich and diverse marine species to continue to thrive, allowing others to see the wonders of this natural world just as I have done.
After an incredible three weeks, I was very sad to leave. Saying my goodbyes to the hotel staff, dive center team and my now good friend Ahmed, I had not only learned a lot, but also built a family here in Marsa Alam. I would therefore recommend this experience to anyone with the opportunity to work with The RED SEA PROJECT™ I can assure it is both a credible, safe and educational experience, an excellent, organized and friendly organization trying their best to build effective and holistic conservation, education and research for the marine species of the Red Sea.
Lastly, I would also like to thank Ahmed Fouad for being a great teacher and dive buddy, taking the time to share his valuable knowledge and experience of conservation both in Egypt and on a wider scale.
RED SEA PROJECT™