ABU DHABI // In terms of global prominence, it is nowhere near as well-known as the Phi Phi Islands in Thailand or Yemen's distinctive Socotra archipelago.
Yet the Bu Tinah shoals, a tiny cluster of islands 25km from Zirku Island in Abu Dhabi, is leading both its competitors in an online competition to be named as one of the seven new wonders of the world by the New7Wonders Foundation, a non-profit Swiss-based organisation. Home to rare birds such as the flamingo, as well as turtles, dolphins, dugongs and other creatures, the Bu Tinah shoals are currently ranked eighth in the competition, being held on www.new7wonders.com.
The poll, New7Wonders of Nature, has seven categories, each with between 20 and 60 entries. The vote runs until Tuesday, when 77 out of the 261 nominees will be selected to enter the final round. Competing in the islands category where there are 30 entries, Bu Tinah has already emerged ahead of Ko Phi Phi and Socotra. So far, the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, which inspired Charles Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution, lead the category.
The 28 finalists will be announced on July 21. Voting for the new seven wonders of nature will continue until the end of 2010, with the winners being declared the following year. "I definitely think it has got a chance," said Dr Thabit al Abdessalaam, the director of marine biodiversity management at the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi, who is urging UAE residents to vote for Bu Tinah. "It is about putting the country and Abu Dhabi on the map," he said. "It could help us in a number of ways.
"Raising awareness about the area will increase our responsibility towards protecting it. It will provide us with impetus and a moral obligation to ensure its continued survival." Bu Tinah is a cluster of low-lying islands and shoals, joined, or almost so, at low tide. The most elevated point within the archipelago is no taller than three metres above sea level. The shoals are surrounded by coral reefs and seagrass beds. The main island has a sheltered lagoon opening to the south, lined with mature mangroves.
The archipelago is part of the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected area in the country, with a territory of more than 4,000 sq km. Bu Tinah is a core zone within the protected area, meaning fishing is prohibited and only a limited number of supervised visitors are allowed. "In terms of biodiversity, Bu Tinah has got a good balance between sea and land species," Dr al Abdessalaam said.
"The island is very important as a nesting ground for some birds such as the osprey." Bu Tinah is also visited by a number of rare migratory birds such as the Socotra cormorant and some species of tern. The area's mangroves, as well as its rich seagrass beds and coral reefs, make it a hospitable place not only for birds but also for many marine creatures. The area is one of the country's best places to spot dugongs - large, peaceful and shy marine mammals who feed on seagrass. Some 600 out of the estimated 3,000 dugongs in the country live in the waters around Bu Tinah and the creatures are listed as a species vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The archipelago is important for turtles, too. The waters around Bu Tinah are foraging grounds for the two species of turtles most common in the UAE, while the shoal's sandy banks provide nesting habitat for the hawksbill turtle. There are also healthy coral reef habitats with as many as 16 species of coral recorded in the area. And the reefs survive in conditions that would kill coral species in other parts of the world.
The Gulf's waters are among the most saline in the world, as well as among the warmest. Corals live in water that is between 23°C and 28°C but in the UAE water temperatures go as high as 35°C in summer. "It is a natural laboratory of how corals can survive in very harsh conditions," Dr al Abdessalaam said. "It offers an avenue for scientists to study how these marine communities survive and maybe provide answers towards protecting similar communities elsewhere.
"Another fact that gives Bu Tinah a unique aspect is the continued survival of the area's inhabitants under harsh conditions and also significant surrounding pressure." Population growth and the need for infrastructure and development are putting more pressure on the UAE's coastal zones than ever before, he said. The development of ports and harbours, industrial and oil and gas facilities, as well as real estate, particularly the market for second homes, are all causing pressure on the coastline, he said. Pollution from shipping sewage and desalination plants are further degrading marine ecosystems.
While Bu Tinah is expected to remain off limits to the public, the agency is looking into ecotourism initiatives that could allow guided access to some parts of the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve. The New7Wonders Foundation was founded in 2001 by the Swiss-born Canadian filmmaker, author and adventurer Bernard Weber. In 2007, the foundation organised a global vote to select the new seven man-made wonders of the world. That campaign was based on the list of the seven ancient wonders of the world compiled by the ancient Greeks.
The modern seven wonders, as designated by the New Open World Corporation, are the Great Wall of China, the Petra archaeological site in Jordan, the ancient Mayan site of Chichén Itzá in Mexico, the Statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the Roman Colosseum, the pre-Columbian Inca site Machu Picchu in Peru, and the Taj Mahal in India.
The Bu Tinah shoals are not alone among UAE beauty spots in the online competition to determine the world's top seven natural wonders - but it is the only one expected to make it through to the next round. Liwa Oasis and the Empty Quarter currently rank fifth out of the 21 entrants in the landscapes and rock formations group. But it is unlikely that the desert locale will be allowed to continue further in the competition. According to the campaign's rules, natural sites that cross political borders must have an official supporting committee in each country. Besides the UAE, the Empty Quarter also spreads into Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, but the UAE is the only one of the four that has a committee. "It is really a great shame, but it looks like this quite fascinating place will not be eligible to be one of the official finalists," said Tia Viering, the head of communications at the New7Wonders Foundation. "The Bu Tinah shoals are a very worthy nominee, and I believe that many people will discover them through the campaign for the first time". firstname.lastname@example.org