x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A sinking feeling at the aquarium

Sinking a small wooden boat off Sharjah may sound easy but it took eight divers and 20 large rocks to accomplish the task.

Divers sink a small boat to facilitate reef growth near the Sharjah Aquarium on Saturday.
Divers sink a small boat to facilitate reef growth near the Sharjah Aquarium on Saturday.

In the shallow waters behind Sharjah's aquarium, a team of divers spent Saturday scuttling a small boat that will form the foundation of an artificial reef which it is hoped will eventually become home to a host of marine life, including turtles and seahorses. Sinking a small wooden fishing boat off the coast of Sharjah may sound easy, but it took eight divers and around 20 large granite rocks to accomplish the task at the weekend.

Submerged in the shallow waters outside Sharjah Aquarium, the vessel will act as the foundation for an artificial reef. Over the next two weeks, the reef will be built up around the boat using recycled building materials. In time, it will become encrusted with hard and soft corals. That, it is hoped, will in turn become home to the small colony of seahorses already present and a feeding ground for the turtles that regularly swim through the area.

"It is really wonderful that we have such amazing creatures living so close to an urban area," said Kerwin Porter, the curator of the aquarium. "Only last week we saw a huge turtle surfacing by the jetty and there are many seahorses, squid, jellyfish and small fish. "We have buoyed off the area and fishing is now prohibited so it is a marine restricted area or sanctuary." He said the creation of the sanctuary was part of a much larger project by the Sharjah Government to protect the marine environment in the whole emirate - the only one of the seven to have both a western and an eastern coastline.

"Our mission is conservation," said Mr Porter. He said Sheikh Sultan al Qassimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, "was very keen for us to have an aquarium here to encourage people to care, conserve and cherish the local marine life. The reef will effectively be an extension of the aquarium." The aquarium has been open for almost a year and has so far welcomed more than one million visitors. It has 22 displays, showing the marine life in the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

"Oceans around the world are under threat and the use of living displays is an effective way to raise awareness," Mr Porter said. "We use the animals as ambassadors here and hope that it encourages people to care for sea life everywhere." The boat used for for the artificial reef is known to local fishermen as a marchouah. It used to be part of one of the aquarium's displays and was selected to be the centrepiece of the reef because of its size, approximately three metres in length.

On Saturday afternoon it was towed into the middle of the sheltered area behind the aquarium and crowds gathered to watch it take its resting place on the sea floor. Two divers removed rubber plugs from the boat's hull and it slowly filled with water. However, it was too buoyant to sink immediately so the dive team, which was joined by The National, had to drag the boat to the jetty and fill it with large granite rocks.

After an hour and a half and just before sunset, the boat sank, to cheers and applause from spectators. Peter Jackson, an architect with the Sharjah Ruler's office and one of the volunteer divers, said the task was much harder than it looked. "It was quite tiring pulling the boat around in the water and I don't think any of us expected it to be that hard to sink," he said. However, Mr Jackson, who is in charge of the renovation of all the buildings around the aquarium, said the reef project was vital to the development of the area.

"This used to be the old fishing village of Al Khan," he said. "In the next few years the whole area will be restored and the reef and its residents will be a central part of the peninsula. "The artificial reef means that the aquarium will not stop at the door, it will extend out into the creek." Mr Porter said that once the reef began to take shape, he hoped to organise snorkelling tours and rides in a glass-bottomed boat.

"There will be something for everyone, and most importantly the animals will be protected in their natural environment." When selecting the site for the artificial reef and marine sanctuary, the Sharjah Aquarium team took advice from the Environmental Protection Authority of Sharjah, which said that the small area of coastline was vital to maintaining the overall balance of the ecosystem. It lies in the centre of a busy creek used by fishing and tourist boats and surrounded by large areas of urban development. Had it not been protected, the marine life there would have been threatened by dredging from local contractors, construction waste and fishing.

There are three other conservation areas in the emirate - Khor Kalba, a mangrove swamp off the east coast which is a breeding ground for fish, Sir Abu Nur, a small island, and the wetlands area of Waset. The Sharjah Aquarium site, though small, is the nearest to a conurbation and so the most important in terms of awareness. "We are so close to town that many people and schoolchildren can view the fish in their natural environment and they are shocked to see such diversity," said Mr Porter.