With coral research delayed by crash, scientist not waiting to dive back in

Maoz Fine says the ship carrying him and other scientists is still stranded on a reef, with possible extensive damage to equipment, but he’s already making plans to dive off Sudan

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

The Fleur de Passion research ship before it left Eilat in southern Israel for Port Sudan, July 19, 2021. ((Marcos Schonholz)
The Fleur de Passion research ship before it left Eilat in southern Israel for Port Sudan, July 19, 2021. ((Marcos Schonholz)

A planned survey of Red Sea corals by an international team of scientists will need to be postponed until next year after the much-heralded expedition ran aground just a day after setting sail from Eilat last week, one of the scientists on board said Sunday.

The Fleur de Passion, a former Nazi ship re-outfitted to carry the scientific expedition, is still stuck on a reef in the Straits of Tiran with untold damage to it, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of scientific equipment could be in danger, Prof. Maoz Fine, one of six scientists aboard the ship, told The Times of Israel.

According to the Transnational Red Sea Center, the Swiss foundation managing the mission, a navigational error early Wednesday led the ship to hit the Thomas reef, which is popular with divers because of its rich corals and marine life.

Six coral experts, from Israel, Switzerland, France and the UK had left Eilat on Tuesday en route to Port Sudan to start the first of four summer seasons diving and conducting experiments to assess the health of corals throughout the Red Sea. While corals around the world have been decimated by warming seas, corals in the Red Sea have shown surprising resilience, providing hope for rehabilitating coral reefs elsewhere.

Fine, of Bar Ilan University and the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences (IUI) in Eilat, described the crash as like being in a collision with a train.

“It was around 4:30 a.m,” he said. “The impact threw me out of bed.”

The Thomas reef east of Sharm el Sheikh. (Google Earth)

“We were in complete darkness,” he recalled. “Waves were splashing everywhere. Everyone woke up and realized very quickly what was going on. The boat was listing by around 45 degrees, maybe more. We had to hold on tight so as not to slide down to the lower side, which was closer to the reef. Every wave that broke sent what was like heavy rain into our faces. It was very cold.”

Fine noted that the Egyptian navy rescued those aboard after about three hours.

“We prepared ourselves for leaving the ship quickly because it was dangerous,” he said.

القوات البحرية تنجح فى إنقاذ يخت شراعى يحمل الجنسية السويسرية على متنه عدد (10) أفراد من جنسيات مختلفة…

Posted by ‎الصفحة الرسمية للمتحدث العسكري للقوات المسلحة‎ on Wednesday, July 21, 2021

It’s not yet clear how bad the damage to the ship is. The Transnational Red Sea Center said it was exploring various options, including swiftly repairing the boat or outfitting a new one.

“We don’t know about the damage to the boat yet — it’s still on reef,” Fine said. “It will probably be taken off the reef by a crane in the next few days. I reckon that major damage has been caused. It will probably mean months of repair in a dry dock in Egypt.”

Fine surmised that the ship’s crew may face court action over the damage to the reef.  Earlier this month Egypt fined a ship sailing under a Tanzanian flag $108,000 for destroying coral reefs, charging $300 per meter of damage, according to Egyptian media.

Marine biologists Anders Meibom of Ecole Polytechnique Federale of Lausanne (R) and Maoz Fine of Israel’s Inter-University Institute for Marine Sciences gesture as the Swiss-flagged ship Fleur de Passion sails from the southern Israeli city of Eilat toward Port Sudan on July 20, 2021. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Fine feared that more than half of his laboratory’s equipment, “worth hundreds of thousands of dollars,” could be damaged the longer it remains on the boat, and envisaged that it would be impounded by Egyptian authorities for a time.

‘He could not afford to wait, he said. “I’m starting to order new things today.”

The expedition was not only scientific, but also the fruit of a diplomatic agreement between Israel and Sudan to establish ties, reached as part of the Abraham Accords. Fine still hopes to fly to Port Sudan in the coming weeks to carry out limited diving with another scientist and to meet with Sudanese counterparts, although a date has not yet been set.

“I will try to fly to Port Sudan if they allow us to do a few dives. There’s a momentum now and I really want to get there and do whatever we are able to do this season and prepare for next season [in summer 2022], but I’m limited to very basic stuff since I don’t have the gear.”

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