Ship taking coral research mission from Israel to Sudan runs aground

Fleur de Passion, which left Eilat on Tuesday, hit a reef early Wednesday, forcing Egyptian navy to evacuate scientists and crew to Sharm el-Sheikh

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The Fleur de Passion sails out of Eilat en route to Sudan, on July 20, 2021. (Marcos Schonholz)
The Fleur de Passion sails out of Eilat en route to Sudan, on July 20, 2021. (Marcos Schonholz)

Just a day after setting sail from Eilat to Sudan to begin groundbreaking research into the health of Red Sea corals, the research ship Fleur de Passion ran aground while passing through the Straits of Tiran.

The Egyptian navy evacuated the six researchers and four crew to Sharm el-Sheikh, from where the Israeli scientific leader, Prof. Maoz Fine, told the Times of Israel, “We went aground in the early morning and were rescued by the Egyptian navy. The boat is still there and all members of the expedition are well and looking forward to çompleting the mission.”

Fine, of Bar-Ilan University and the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat, added that the development was “very frustrating.”

It remained unclear how or why the boat ran aground, what the extent of the damage was, and whether it could be repaired quickly enough to continue — or whether an alternative vessel will have to be found.

The six coral experts — from Israel, Switzerland, France and the United Kingdom — left Eilat in southern Israel on Tuesday for a five-day journey to Port Sudan. There, six Sudanese researchers were due to join the team for studies expected to last until September.

From left, at an event in Eilat on July 19, 2021, to launch the departure of the coral research ship Fleur de Passion to Sudan, under the auspices of the Red Sea Transnational Research Center, Swiss Ambassador to Israel Jean-Daniel Ruch, Prof Anders Meibom of the RSTRC. (Marcos Schonholz)

The project, which will stretch over four summers, is aiming to establish a baseline for coral health, against which future changes, particularly in climate, can be measured.

With the Swiss flag flying as a symbol of political neutrality, funding from an anonymous European foundation, and a diplomatic thaw that has seen Israel and Sudan agree to establish relations, the scientists hope to cover the roughly 4,500 kilometer (2,800 mile) coastline of eight Red Sea countries: Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Djibouti.

Israel — which already has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan — signed a normalization deal with Sudan last year, part of the Abraham Accords that also saw it ink deals with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco.

The project is an outgrowth of the Red Sea Transnational Research Center, managed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, which was created to help overcome diplomatic hurdles and facilitate collaboration between Red Sea nations, many of which are Muslim-majority and do not have ties with Israel.

Maoz Fine, an expert on coral reefs at Bar-Ilan University, measures the water temperature of tanks treated to simulate future climate change conditions in a lab in the Red Sea city of Eilat, southern Israel, on February 11, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Half the world’s reefs have died over the past 39 years, and only 10% are expected to survive past 2050, with climate change posing the greatest threat, Fine told an event the night before the team sailed off.

In a worst-case scenario, the Gulf of Eilat’s reefs — the northernmost on the planet — could be “the last ones standing,” he said.

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