Israeli-Sudanese coral reef exploration offers normalisation venue

Israeli-led scientific expedition, with Swiss help, sailed Tuesday from the southern city of Eilat toward Port Sudan
Thursday 22/07/2021
The Swiss-flagged ship Fleur de Passion sails from the southern Israeli city of Eilat towards Port Sudan. AFP
The Swiss-flagged ship Fleur de Passion sails from the southern Israeli city of Eilat towards Port Sudan. (AFP)

EILAT, Israel– An Israeli-led scientific expedition sailed Tuesday from the southern city of Eilat toward Port Sudan, launching a joint project with Sudanese researchers on the Red Sea’s coral reefs.

The collaboration, an early outcome of Sudan’s normalisation of ties with Israel last year, aims to create a first-ever comprehensive study of the entire Red Sea and the long-term viability of its reefs.

While coral populations around the world are undergoing bleaching caused by climate change, reefs in the northern Red Sea, where the Gulf of Eilat lies, have stayed stable because of their unique heat resistance.

The mission is being headed by Maoz Fine of the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat. For years Fine had said that a comprehensive study at the Red Sea reefs was necessary to fully understand the variation from north to south.  However, lack of diplomatic relations was a hurdle to such research.

Fine’s collaboration with expedition co-leader Anders Meibom of Ecole Polytechnique Federale in Lausanne (EPFL) has been backed by the Swiss government, which offered financial support and diplomatic efforts to connect Israel and regional Arab states.

While planning for the mission pre-dated last year’s normalisation deal, the establishment of Israeli-Sudanese diplomatic relations was “very fortunate”, Bern’s ambassador to Israel, Jean-Daniel Ruch, told AFP.

The six scientists and four crew members, all European except Fine, is set to reach Port Sudan on the Swiss-flagged sailing vessel Fleur de Passion in four days, where a Sudanese team of researchers will join with a ship of their own.

The two vessels will spend five to six weeks collecting coral samples and testing their heat durability as the ship heads south.

Fine said that moving from the healthier northern reefs to the struggling south was like “travelling back in time”, possibly offering new insights into the disparity between the two areas.

The project, which  began formally last month with a short excursion in Jordan’s Gulf of Aqaba, will continue over three years, aiming to involve other Red Sea countries.