Corals in the Persian Gulf are adapting to harsh conditions and scientists are trying to learn why. They’re taking samples from uncharted waters in hopes of unlocking information they hope could save coral reefs around the world. Reporter Ken Shulman went on a boat with a team of scientists as they journeyed to the bottom of the sea.
GELLERMAN: If you were a coral reef you couldn’t find a harsher environment than the Persian Gulf. Surface water temperatures can reach near 90 degrees - and there's the world’s saltiest seawater- and intense coastal construction. No wonder an estimated 70 percent of all reefs in the Persian Gulf have died, and the remaining 30 percent are on the brink. But scientists believe those tenacious reefs that do remain may hold a valuable secret. Reporter Ken Shulman traveled to Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, to learn more.
[ENGINE AND WAVE SOUNDS]
SHULMAN: A sixteen foot whaler carrying a team of divers plows through the choppy water off Saadiyat Island—a sandy landmass just north of Abu Dhabi city.
[COUNTDOWN IN ARABIC]
SHULMAN: The skipper counts down in Arabic and eyes his GPS as the boat nears its target: a coral reef some 30 feet below.
BURT: (On boat)… I’m going to get you to work on the tiles and I’m going to get some tissue samples for corals - it is cold…
SHULMAN: John Burt is a marine biologist at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi. He and his team from the Environmental Agency-Abu Dhabi make quarterly visits to 10 reefs off the emirate. They want to chart the health of the corals here. But unlike reefs in other parts of the world, these corals have never had a checkup.
BURT: They were never properly documented, so part of what we’re going is setting a baseline, figuring out what the conditions of the reef are here now, so we can go back and look every three - five - ten years, and see are they improving, are they in decline. And then find what are the potential causes of those changes.
Charting the Health of Coral in the Persian Gulf
Photos by Reporter Ken Shulman and the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi.
SHULMAN: If you dive, or snorkel, or just watch animal planet, you know how vital coral reefs are. They cover less than one tenth of one percent of the ocean floor, but they host more than 25 percent of all marine species. In a healthy reef, the bright blue, green, and red hues come from a type of algae called zoxanthelle. These algae live in symbiosis with the coral. Through photosynthesis, they transform carbon into tasty sugars for their host. The corals get fed. The algae get a place to live. And everybody’s happy. Until they start feeling stressed.
AL HARTHI: What happens under stress is that due to different events, and in some cases temperature, the corals actually lose their zooxanthelle, or their algae. This causes coral bleaching in which you notice whitening of the coral.
SHULMAN: Suaad al Harthi is a scientist with the Environmental Agency-Abu Dhabi or EAD. She explains that coral bleaching occurs when sudden drops or spikes in temperature cause the zooxanthelle to produce toxins instead of glucose.
Sensing danger, the coral sheds the algae to save its skin. But it’s the skin that’s the problem. Bleaching leaves corals hungry. It also leaves them white, and dangerously exposed to sunlight. If the event is short lived, the coral can recover.
AL HARTHI: If the conditions of stress remain for long period it might then lead to their death and then they won’t actually be able to recover and they end up being overgrown by other things.
SHULMAN: Corals are under stress in every ocean on the planet. But the Gulf reefs have it tougher. In the tropics, water temperatures may drift a degree or two between winter and summer. Here they careen from the low fifties to the high nineties. Intense evaporation leaves these waters incredibly saline—so salty that most species don’t survive.
[SOUND OF REGULATOR PURGE, DIVER SPLASHING INTO WATER]
SHULMAN: One by one, four divers plunge into the wind wrinkled water. Half a mile away, on the shore of Saadiyat Island, battalions of construction cranes and earth movers shape the skeleton of what will become Abu Dhabi’s cultural center—a cluster of world class museums, resorts, and universities.
[DIVER DRIPPING ONTO THE DECK]
SHULMAN: After twenty minutes, the first diver returns. Ibrahim Abdullah is a former Army officer. He says human activity has also impacted the reefs here.
ABDULLAH: When they do the dredging, you know, the current this carries sediment and lands on top of the corals and sometimes they suffocate. Just like any other living creature, you cover them with sand, sediment, plastic, anything, they get suffocated.
[SOUNDS OF CERAMIC TILES]
SHULMAN: A second diver returns with a stack of ceramic tiles used to attract juvenile corals. Soon a third comes aboard with a monitor containing three months worth of temperature readings.
[DIVER ARRIVES, REGULATOR PURGE]
SHULMAN: Already reeling from a one - two El Nino punch in the late 90s, gulf corals took another a body blow last summer when water temperatures soared above 100 degrees and stayed there. The heat bleached much of the dominant species, a branched coral known as acropora. Yet the news today from the bottom is encouraging. According to EAD scientist Edwin Grancourt, the acropera here off Saadiyat are coming back.
GRANCOURT: The same species in other locations would die at these temperatures, so the coral reefs we have here in the Arabian Gulf are adapted to this extreme environment. So by the book coral reefs shouldn’t be here, for sure. But they are and they’ve adapted.
SHULMAN: Abu Dhabi may seem an unlikely environmental laboratory. The oil rich flamboyant emirate is barely as old as the global environmental movement. But Abu Dhabi is catching up. The Environmental Agency has a voice in most significant development decisions. Private corporations are also getting into the act.
Adil Albuainain is general manager of Dolphin Energy, a natural gas supplier which sponsored a comprehensive mapping project in the Gulf between 2004-2007. Dolphin Energy changed the course of its 200-mile gas pipeline from Qatar to help preserve reefs.
ALBUAINAIN: During the project execution itself, during even the detail engineering of the pipeline, there were a number of revisions, a number of changes because the route the original route was going through a coral reef, and that has to be redirected and change the route just to make sure there is no damage to them.
[SOUND OF SAMPLES BEING DROPPED INTO SEDIMENT COLLECTION JARS]
SHULMAN: The EAD laboratory is sandwiched between a fish market and a jet-ski rental store on the Abu Dhabi waterfront. Inside, NYU’s John Burt places coral tissue samples from today’s dives in plastic jars. Later he’ll inspect each one for size, color, and texture. As corals normally spawn on the full moon, and with the full moon just three days away, he’ll also be on the lookout for eggs and sperm. The Canadian born scientist finds the corals in this Gulf astonishing.
BURT: A hot bath in your home is 40 deg Celsius. So when you’re talking about 38c and corals are living though it it’s a remarkable story in terms of the story it could tell us about climate change and its potential impacts, or non impacts on reef systems.
SHULMAN: The Environmental Agency researchers know that gulf corals are surviving in conditions that should kill them. But they don’t know how or why. The secret might lie in the proteins corals secrete to protect themselves during bleaching—an organic sunscreen in a new, long-lasting formula. It might be a new chapter in the relationship between corals and their zooxanthelle partners.
Whatever the elements, Burt and his colleagues believe the story, when written, could help reefs everywhere survive and prosper.
[ROCKING WAVES AGAINST THE BOAT]
SHULMAN For Living On Earth, I’m Ken Shulman, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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