Thursday, January 30, 2014

A trip to the Red Sea, Rabigh Lagoon

January 2014: Rabigh and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

I traveled to the west coast of Saudi Arabia at the invitation of Dean Mohammed Al-Jahdali (a marine biologist) to start a collaboration between biologists at King Abdulaziz University – Rabigh Campus and FIU’s Marine Science Program.  We are working to develop a project to restore and study Rabigh Lagoon and the surrounding waters of the Red Sea.

After a long but pleasant couple of flights, I arrived in Jeddah in the middle of a sandstorm (luckily it was nice enough as we flew over the Red Sea on the Egyptian side to have a great view of the desert and coast).   

The Egyptian coast of the Red Sea.

It’s the first time I’ve been in a sandstorm, but I am told that they are very uncommon in this area! Needless to say with the high winds and flying sand I was a bit concerned about getting out on the water eventually!  The drive north from Jeddah to the small city of Rabigh lasted about an hour and a half and was through pretty much constant wind and sand. I am very glad I didn’t have to drive! 

The pictures just don't seem to show just how windy and
sandy it was!

I spent the first day and a half talking to the scientists at KAU and touring their new campus and the city.  We had some amazing meals including fresh local seafood.  By the time we headed out to the lagoon I was really excited to see – and swim in – the Red Sea.   The trip was awesome.  We drove across hard-packed sand roads and encountered a large group of wild camels feeding along the shores of the lagoon early in the morning.  Once we left them, we drove along the shore of the lagoon and saw the roads that had blocked much of the flow of water from the lagoon to the Red Sea – forcing it through a single narrow pass until the government removed one of the roads just a few months ago.  Still, it looks like a couple of bridges to replace the roads with a couple pipes running through them would help the lagoon tremendously.

Road blocking natural flow to and from the lagoon

Pipes under the road don't let enough water through

Based on a quick look around, there is no question that the lagoon could use some restoration work.  Although the corals, seagrass and mangroves near the mouth of the lagoon that has always been open look pretty good, those farther away are not faring as well.  Still, there is a good amount of live coral and with the newly opened waterway, there is a good chance for restoration to make a big difference while Dean Mohammed works to have more flow restored to the bay.  
Heading out onto the lagoon

Seagrass in the lagoon covered by sediment

Coral and sponge inside the lagoon

Mangroves provide important nursery habitat for fish

Towards the end of our tour we had a chance to quickly poke the boat out to the reef that lies along the open coastline.  We just went a few hundred meters offshore to the reef crest and I jumpped in.  It took my breath away.  The amount of living coral, the colors, and the huge abundance of fish was maybe the best I have ever seen!  Of course, Dean Mohammed said it was like watching black and white TV compared to other areas down the coastline a ways.  I can’t imagine what that would be like!  Eventually, I was coaxed back into the boat to head back to campus to discuss the project.  I am pretty excited about the potential for a team to do an incredible marine restoration project as well as some amazing science in a beautiful area. 

The reefs outside the lagoon were covered in living corals and fish.

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