Hands across the water: Israel, Jordan come together to construct Red Sea reefs

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Nadav Shashar may have the best office in the world.

To get there, one must climb up a series of rickety wooden ladders and emerge onto a platform surrounding a circular room. Inside, the room is sunny and hot. Large windows look out onto the sparkling blue waters of the Red Sea, the dusty Jordanian mountains and a pod of cheerful dolphins jumping and playing at Eilat’s famous Dolphin Reef.

Shashar might work high above the water, but some of his best work can be seen far below it. That would be the Tamar reef, a project conceived and supervised by Shashar, a marine biologist who works in Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Marine Biology and Biotechnology program.

The Tamar reef is a modular, expandable artificial reef made of concrete with hundreds of small holes drilled into it. The holes are filled with coral grown in underwater coral nurseries, creating a living artificial reef that Shashar hopes will attract divers away from the fragile natural reef. (The reef was named “Tamar” because its Y shape looks like a palm tree, or tamar in Hebrew.)

Eilat’s natural coral reefs are beautiful, but due to their relatively small area and popularity with divers, they are rapidly deteriorating.

Thirty years ago, the coral reefs around Eilat were 54 percent living coral. Today, they are only about 20 percent.

“The idea [for the Tamar reef] was to put together a program in which we tried to reclaim or to increase the reef area,” Shashar said. “The natural reefs are just declining no matter what we are doing — they just keep getting smaller and smaller. So we feel we have to do something about it.”

“We” is Shashar and his Jordanian colleague, Fuad Al-Horani, who works at the Marine Science Station in Aqaba, Jordan, just across the northern tip of the Red Sea from Eilat.

The reef project is a joint effort between Israelis and Jordanians. Both sides approve the designs, and the teams are in constant contact about all aspects of the project.

Although the Israelis already have installed the first reef, the Jordanians plan to have their first one underwater within a month. Eventually there will be five reefs in the Red Sea waters between Israel and Jordan.

But collaboration with Jordan isn’t always easy.

The two countries have a peace treaty, but suspicions still run high. Shashar and Al-Horani mostly communicate via email, because in-person meetings can get dicey.

“For me to get to him, it took me today 15 to 17 minutes to cross the border,” Shashar said. “For him to get to Israel, he has to go to Amman, which is four hours’ drive or flight. He has to stand in line, apply for a visa, maybe get it the following morning, come back … basically it’s a two-day process. And even that is not always guaranteed.”

Still, Shashar sees the process as being worth it.

A well-guarded land border might separate Israel and Jordan, but the sea flows freely between the two countries. “What happens in one country happens in the other,” Shashar said. “It’s clear that we have to work together.”

Artificial reefs aren’t anything new — they have been used in Japan since the 1700s, and in the United States since the 1860s. In Florida, for example, there are hundreds of artificial reefs, consisting of everything from used tires to a DC-4 airplane.

But the Tamar reef project is particularly innovative because unlike most artificial reefs, it doesn’t involve scuttling ships or sinking old petroleum rigs. This means scientists can have far more control over the reef’s appearance, and can study the habits of the marine life in the area to determine the best shape for the reef.

It’s also the first artificial reef to involve coral transplantation, said Omer Polak, a Ph.D. student at BGU who is working on the project with Shashar.

Once the corals reach a mature size, which can take up to five years, they are placed in bits of irrigation piping and implanted into the holes in the concrete structure, Polak explained.

The goal of the reef is to create an attraction for divers close to the natural reef, in the hopes that they will divert their dives or part of their dives to the artificial reef.

“We’re not competing with the natural reef, we’re giving a different substitute,” Polak said.

While the artificial reef gets attention, the natural reef will be able to rehabilitate itself, he added.

Working with Jordanians on the reef has been a positive experience, Polak said. “I can’t really see differences … we’re not really friends, but we work well together as colleagues.”

In fact, he said, the only problem he could recall was an incident that happened when he first met Al-Horani — which highlighted a major ideological difference between Israelis and Jordanians.

“I’m used to calling [Shashar] ‘Nadav,'” Polak said. “I went over there and called him Fuad … and I had to be corrected that his name is Dr. Al-Horani.”

Shashar noted that although the political situation in Israel has had some effect on the project, “we also try to use science as a way of breaching between different sorts of people.” He added that the project has given Israeli children the chance to go to Jordan to plant corals in the nurseries there.

Ultimately, though, the reef’s effects will be felt most keenly beneath the waves.

“There are very few reefs available to Israelis, and the fact that we’re going to have a continuous reef thriving, for our children and our grandchildren in the future, for me is a very beneficial thing,” Polak said.

Rachel Freedenberg visited Israel in February on a media mission sponsored by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.