8. Oct, 2018

 Scubadivers visiting the northern Red Sea normally go for the magnificent reefs flanking  the southern Sinai peninsula in Ras Muhammed National Park. Sharkreef and Yolanda reef are its most prominent hotspots. The steep drop offs and strong currents  make this the most spectacular diving site of the northern Red Sea, with packs of Bohar snappers visiting the area in the right season. The sandy plateau at 12 meters changes abruptly in a steep drop off, descending  to an abyss of around 3000 m deep. Marking the place where millions of years ago the African and Asian continents drifted away from each other  by powerful geological forces, leaving  the Gulf of Aqaba and the Gulf of Suez as shallow clefts at the east and west side.

At the eastern side of the Sinai peninsula,  at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba, there is  the Tiran Protected area with Tiran Island and Jackson reef. At the western side,   at the entrance of the Gulf of Suez one finds lots of cargo ships passing to and from the Suez channel.  Close to the Sinai peninsula there is Shab Ali  reef with the famous  Thistlegorm wreck, perhaps the most famous sanctuary for divers and UW photographers. Thistlegorm was sunk in 1941, packed with a cargo of supplies bound for the British army based in Alexandria, but bombed by German plane on her way to port.

West of the entrance of the Gulf of Suez (closer to the Egyptian mainland)  one finds still more popular wrecks lined up in the area of Shab Abu Nuhas, also called a ships graveyard.  In respective order:  the Ghiannis D.,  Carnatic, Chrisoula  K. and Kimon M.  South of Abu Nuhas lies Shadwan Island,  the largest island of the northern Red Sea.  

All these sites have become a must for wreck lovers and are visited by numerous Egyptian live-a-boards and day boats from  Hurghada as well as Sharm el Sheikh,  packed with divers. Only in the very early morning, one can hope to find some tranquility. My personal favorite spot is a small  -at first sight insignificant-  wreck called the Barge. It is located at Bluff point  at the eastern side of Gubal island  in 14 meters of water and particularly popular as a place for night dives.  There is not much left of the wreck itself, no superstructure, only a mass of pieces of twisted metal providing ideal shelters  for literally hundreds of species of marine life. At a  5 minutes swim from the wreck there is a shallow lagoon where rare yellow gobies seek shelter in the branches of large Acropora corals.

 The Barge is an open hull some 35m long, now broken in several parts. It is believed to be a tugboat sunk during the Arab-Israeli war.  Its corals are poor but  It’s inhabited by schools of sergeant major, soldierfish, numerous gobies, triggerfish (including the Arabian Picasso triggerfish), various species of damselfish, angelfish (including the Arabian angelfish), stonefish, scorpion and crocodile fish and two giant moray eels, one of which is nicknamed George. George is normally found at the bottom of the wreck at the port side with the head sticking out of its shelter (see insert).  The other eel has chosen the top of the wreck, hiding in its favorite habitat under a lump of coral. 

6. Oct, 2018

The huge and ambitious project of  24 years old  Dutch Boyan Slat and his team has now reached an important final stage. That is testing his Ocean Cleanup device in the Pacific Garbage Patch  between Hawaii and the US West coast (See also my prior Blog).  The present  system is nicknamed  Wilson after the volleyball of Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away. Wilson  recently left the docks of San Francisco and  is now pulled oceanwards by a tugboat towards the great  North Atlantic Gyre. Yesterday it passed Golden Gate Bridge around 2 pm. After 2 weeks of operational testing, Wilson and its escorte will continue its journey to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, another 1000 nautical miles away. Wilson consists of a 600 m long  floating tube with  a  3 m deep  screen attached underneath to  catch the drifting plastic particles. In contrast with earlier models  the new system will float  in the Ocean with the  circular current of  the gyre.  While drifting with the current the floating tubes will take an U shaped form  slightly moving  ahead of the particles of the  plastic soup.  A ship will regularly collect the  garbage  and transport it back to  the coast

Latest news (early October): after the initial 2 weeks testing period, that included the following checkpoints,

  • U-shape installation
  • Sufficient speed through water
  • Ability to reorient when wind/wave direction changes
  • Effective span in steady state
  • No significant damage by the end of the test 

system 001 now seems ready to GO for the actual cleaning phase in the Garbage belt itself. 

9. Aug, 2018

 Is it really possible to make investments in Africa,  not merely from resource extraction and sheer opportunism?  The term "millionaire" is taking on a new meaning in Africa.  Not all  Africa's new and emerging generation of millionaires are  just excited about money. They're also passionate about impact; they want to create value that touches and improves people's lives.  Some  idealists indeed believe that such initiatives are possible,  and they call it impact entrepreneurship: a new way of making money and doing good, at the same time. 

From another angle, an increasing list of millionaires, not necessarily from African origin,  also called ‘green philanthro-capitalists’ seem to follow the same ideology.  These very rich people  are not primarily interested in boosting economy and the profit principle but rather in saving  that what  is left of the  wilderness  on planet earth and its rapidly decreasing populations of wild animals.   They do so by buying large areas of wilderness.  Examples in Europe  are  Paul Lister a British furniture millionaire, called the ‘Wolfman’ who bought 90.000 ha  in Scotland (Alladale) to bring back the wolf  in the UK. Lister planted 800.000 trees and put down a fence to keep out the deer, that will return when a pack of wolves is able to keep their number in balance. Politicians and farmers however don't like his initiative that they consider too radical.  Similarly, HansJörg Wiess is an American  Swiss millionaire who purchased  200.000 ha woodlands  in Rumanian  Carpates to restore rivers, woods and landscapes threatened  by deforestation, and restoring it for ecotourism. 

Others have bought land in  African countries like  Tanzania, Botswana, and South-Africa.  For example,  former Puma marketeer Jochem Zeitz bought 10.000 ha at  the foot of Mount Kenya, called Segera Wildpark. Jochem is an idealist and Africa adept promoting his four Cs: ‘Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce’, and restored cattle grazing among lions. Other examples are Paul Fentener van Vlissingen from Holland  who bought Marataba, South Africa, 23.000 ha adjacent to the 63.000 ha Marakela National Park, and Ed Zeeman and Anka Reijnen from Holland of the Foundation Morokuru South Africa running luxury holiday lodges in Madikwe game reserve. Then we have Paul Tudor Jones, an American  hedge fund millionaire who created  a wild park of 140.000 ha in Serengeti region in Tanzania. Combining low impact tourism with luxury  lodges.

Ecotourism in Africa  may help to protect wildlife but could also mean profit for local inhabitants because it brings in jobs like park rangers and hotel personnel. Investing  in wild life projects  is a pretty expensive affair with little profit for the investors: one hectare of land in South Africa might easily cost thousands of Euros, and to set up a decent park  one minimally  needs 10.000 ha. Which makes these projects only interesting for the very rich philanthropists not primarily interested in making profit.  Some advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages: better protection against poachers, faster action, large budgets with little bureaucracy, profiting from networking among the superrich philanthropists.  

Disadvantages: lack of knowledge of wildlife management, lack of long-term continuity, the risk of social discontent among the local population (neo-colonialism). Privatizing of national property, emphasis on touristic photogenic zones,  not most threatened areas.

Adapted from the Volkskrant August 9, 2018



5. Jul, 2018

The 12   boys from a soccer team and their  coach that were found  in Tham Luang Cave some 400m after Pattaya Beach, roughly 2-3 km deep into the cave were given power gel food (a high-protein gel type of food full of vitamins and minerals used for cases of starvation) antibiotics, penicillin, pain killers and fresh water. 

Left: reconstruction drawing  of the Tham Luang Caves (NRC Wednesday Juli 4 2018)

The fact that it took the trained cave divers 10 days to find them clearly shows that their rescue is not over yet. But the teenager rescue is not over yet And sadly today (Friday) a volunteer rescue diver Saman Gunan lost consciousness underwater during an overnight operation delivering extra air tanks inside the cave, along the treacherous route divers take to get to the trapped soccer team, in an attempt to reach the boys. The boys  need to get out now, instead of waiting until the monsoon is over.  After pumping water out of the cave the water level in the first two chambers (over a distance of 1.5 km to the entrance of the cave)  would now reach to the chest of the boys. Meaning that a part of several hundred meters is still submerged. Time becomes critical because heavy rains are expected on Sunday which may raise the water levels again including the chamber of the boys.

From my safe side of the world, I wonder if it would not be possible just to pull (extract) the boys through the still inundated corridors.  For example by using a long lifeline attached to a body harness, Hookah air hose, and a full face mask.  And with rescue operators assisting underwater in the chambers that still have air in the top as intermediary rescue stations (see insert). It has to be done one by one, of course with lights placed at critical narrow passages. Bringing in diving gear such as diving cylinders does not seem a good option. This would definitely mean trouble considering the narrow passages and lack of experience of the boys.

(see the News section for a follow up of the operation)

22. May, 2018

The Marshall Islands are a chain of volcanic islands and coral atolls in the central Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and the Philippines. It consists of 29 atolls, together containing around 1200 smaller island spread over an area of the size of Mexico. The people of the Marshall Islands are of Micronesian origin, which is traced to a combination of populations that emigrated from Southeast Asia in the remote past. First Islanders probably settled around 1000 BC by Mayo/Polynesians. Later it was visited by Spanish navigators, German traders and American whalers. The islands were governed by Japan from WWW1 to the end of WWW2. After almost four decades under US administration as the easternmost part of the UN Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, the Marshall Islands attained independence in 1986 under a Compact of Free Association. Current president  Hilda Heine is much concerned with the future of the Marshall Islanders and the dangers of rising sea levels.

Such a vast archipel of atolls and smaller islands is almost impossible to describe comprehensively, so I shall here focus  on two major environmental issues: rising sea levels and the aftereffects of nuclear testing (extracted from a number of sources and articles). Starting with a brief description of some of the better-known settlements.

Majuro Atoll, the capital, has a population of nearly 25,000.  Supermarkets and roadside family stores provide a wide variety of products and services. Majuro, home to the majority of the Marshallese population, is a town of 19,000 on a 30-mile ribbon of land that’s never more than 2,000 feet wide. In almost every corner of Majuro, you can hear or see the ocean or the lagoon. Its commercial importance is seen in the lagoon, where tuna ships and cold-storage freighters drop their anchors. Here the rising sea levels and storms have also taken their toll. Human graves and tombs washed into the sea, crumbling sea walls, and residents who continue to live with the ocean lapping at their door.

Rongelap Atoll is a coral atoll of 61 islands with a total land area is 8 square miles (21 km2). It encloses a lagoon with an area of 1,000 square miles (2,600 km2). It is historically notable for its close proximity to US hydrogen bomb tests in 1954 and was particularly hit by fallout from the Castle Bravo test. Twenty people remain from the more than 300 who lived there prior to the test.  Most inhabitants were removed by US Navy to the Atol Kwajalein, where the US had located their command center for nuclear tests (see below). Three years later when Rongelap was declared safe they returned home.  In the years after the tests, many islanders suffered from thyroid gland cancer, miscarriages, and mutated fetuses. Only in 1958, the remaining inhabitants moved to Majuro.

Runit dome, 1000km Nw of Majuro. Is a  deep crater  with a  concrete dome op top  called the ‘tomb’ by the Islanders,  containing the  radioactive debris of 67 nuclear tests, still leaking  through underwater channels 

Kwajalein Atoll is leased to the US military and is the target point for intercontinental ballistic (non-nuclear) missile testing. Since 2000, Kwajalein has become one of five preferred target location for Pegasus missiles. Entry to this area containing 97 separate islands is heavily restricted and virtually closed to non-military visitors. 1/3 of the income of Marshal islands comes from leasing the atoll to the US  ballistic missile project and employment offered to islanders.  Kwajalein functioned as refuge island for Rongelap not so far from Bikini  Atoll. This occurred several days after the nuclear bombing on March 1, 1954. 84 islanders were then evacuated to  Kwajalein after being stripped naked on the beaches and tested with Geiger counters.  Many islanders infected themselves by picking up white foam dropping on the beaches looking like washing powder. Coconuts and other fruits were infested with radioactive isotopes. Compensation claims continue as a result of US nuclear testing on some of the islands between 1947 and 1952.

The threat of rising sea levels and storms On the climate top in Bonn chairman Fiji warned that through rising sea levels the lower islands of Maldives and Marshal island areas were in acute danger to become permanently immersed and uninhabited in the coming 30 years. Occasional storms  and floods are part of life on a coral atoll, but since 2008 they’ve occurred with alarming frequency. As sea levels rise around the islands, bigger waves will flood farther inland than ever before. If enough of these waves hit in succession, flooded saltwater will intrude the islands' freshwater supplies. According to new studies of USGS (The US Geological Society), salt water is now penetrating drinking water resources.  The low-lying atoll nation is in a state of emergency, experiencing a drought that could see fresh water run out for capital Majuro in three months. It is also vulnerable to rising sea levels, with “king tides” regularly flooding homes.

The Marshall Islands have an average height of just 2m above sea level. That is much higher than in  Holland, the country where I live that lies below sea level and where the Dutch already started building dikes in the 17th century. The Marshall Islands are deprived of these technological facilities,  a reason for many inhabitants to emigrate to the USA were already  20.000  seem to have found jobs in the chicken farming industry. Islanders still have the right to emigrate to the USA and many inhabitants now take single fare trips from Honolulu to the US.

Underwater world  In the northwest, Bikini Atoll’s largely undisturbed waters, used as a ship graveyard after World War II, are now a popular wreck dive site.  Other sites, in particular  Majuro atoll, have been recommended for scuba diving. Near Majuro atoll the coral reef at Kwajalein Pass seems to teem with marine life and steep drop-offs. Scuba diving or snorkeling is what most of the mere 5,000 tourists a year that visit the Marshall Islands do. Most want to see the vast variety of fish, some are in it for wreck diving. The largest wreck and the only diveable aircraft carrier in the world, the USS Saratoga, is found on the bottom of the Bikini Atoll lagoon. The lagoon within the atoll is said to contain abundant marine life because no fishing is done here.

In 2011, the Marshallese government established a 772,000-square mile shark sanctuary in the islands, about four times the size of the state of California.  According to officials it is the largest shark sanctuary in the world  that encompasses the entire nation.  Regulations include a complete prohibition on the commercial fishing of sharks as well as the sale of any sharks or shark products. Its zero retention stipulation requires that any shark caught accidentally by fishing vessels must be set free.

Go before it is too late. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that global sea levels will rise between 26 and 98 centimeters (10 and 38 inches) by the year 2100, which some scientists consider an underestimation.  Either way, it’s conceivable that the entire population of the Marshall Islands—some 80,000 people whose language, and traditions are tied to these atolls—may soon be forced to leave their home. Scuba divers could help these islands, their inhabitants and culture to survive, by providing some financial support to build fortifications against the rising sea.  Some say that the best way to experience and enjoy the beauty of this atoll empire is to travel by boat to one of the 1,200 isolated outer islands away from the urban centers of Majuro, Kwajalein, and Ebeye. Residents of these islands still live mostly off the land, fishing and harvesting bananas, papaya, coconut, taro, and breadfruit. Life on the outer islands is relaxed, and most have no phone, internet or tourist facilities.


Sources and links: