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Coastal and Marine Environment Series Qatar’s Natural Wonders: Coral Reefs

by Kim Wyatt

One of Qatar’s most famous folktales tells the gruesome story of Bu Draeyah, better known as ‘The Father of the Sea’. Half man and half sea creature, the evil water djinn terrorises unsuspecting seafarers, fishermen, and pearl divers who earn their living from the sea. In the night, the mythical monster rises from the depths to devour the sleeping occupants onboard their vessels.

 

As chaos reigns, Bu Draeyah causes destruction and mayhem, often overturning boats and destroying the precious cargo collected by the occupants. Back in the day, it’s no wonder the tale frightened sailors to stand guard at night for fear of an unsuspecting attack from the legendary sea monster.

 

Before the discovery of oil, Qatar was a busy maritime centre for the trading of fish and pearls. Men would sail for months and dive into the warm waters for their prized catch. The Persian Gulf, home to several marine ecosystems, including coral reefs, supplied abundant aquatic life and livelihood for its citizens. Nowadays, national folktales such as Bu Draeyah reflect the important connection of the sea to sustenance and trade. No doubt, Qatar’s coral reefs provided a sanctuary and breeding ground for a bountiful array of aquatic life.

 

WHAT ARE CORAL REEFS?

Despite popular belief, coral reefs are marine animals, not plants. In fact, coral reefs are colonies of tiny sea creatures called polyps. Each polyp has a stomach and mouth surrounded by tentacles to capture small aquatic life for food. Over the years, polyps excrete a substance, calcium carbonate, which creates the hard external skeletons which we know as coral.

Coral reefs are located throughout the world. Most coral reefs need sunlight to grow and are mainly found in warm, shallow waters around coastal areas and islands. However, some coral reefs can be found in dark, cold waters as deep as six kilometres and grow slower than warm water coral.

 

DID YOU KNOW? UNESCO states that The Great Barrier Reef, located off the coast of Queensland, Australia, is the largest reef on earth. Named as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the reef stretches over 2000 kilometres and can be seen from outer space.

 

WHY ARE CORAL REEFS IMPORTANT?

Often described as the “rainforests of the sea”, coral reefs are one of the most important and biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. Their protective environments, filled with many hiding places, attract millions of marine species and provide a haven for aquatic breeding and feeding.

 

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), coral reefs cover one per cent of the planet’s ocean surface. They supply an astounding 25% of the world’s marine life and provide the foundation for other marine ecosystems.

 

For humans, coral reefs provide invaluable natural resources. Income and employment generated from industries such as fishing, tourism, and marine sports help communities around the world to survive and thrive. But that’s not all. These stunning underwater worlds create a natural barrier from storms, floods, and waves to protect coastal communities from soil erosion, property damage, and loss of life.

 

DID YOU KNOW? Some types of coral grow extremely slowly—approximately one centimetre per year.

 

WHY ARE QATAR’S CORAL REEFS UNIQUE?

A 2021 study by Fanning et al., published in the international journal, Ocean and Coastal Management, states: “Qatar’s coral reefs (and seagrass beds) are among the most biodiverse, productive, and economically important coastal ecosystems in the nation.”

 

Research conducted by New York University in Abu Dhabi has shown that coral reefs in The Persian Gulf, including Qatar, are the most temperature resistant on the planet. The unusually shallow waters create high temperatures that cause extreme evaporation and salinity. Despite these harsh conditions, Qatar’s marine ecosystems, including coral reefs, have adapted to survive. On the other hand, coral reefs found in other parts of the world would not be as fortunate.

 

According to a Reuters report, all coral reefs worldwide are vulnerable due to the devastating effects of climate change and subsequent rising water temperatures, coastal development, and overfishing. Local PADI Master instructor, underwater photographer, and marine activist Khaled Zaki dives daily in Qatar’s waters and has become a passionate advocate for local environmental awareness.

Based in Qatar for over 15 years, Zaki regularly organises beach clean-ups to collect what he calls “one of the most harmful pollutants to our oceans—plastic”. He regularly posts on social media to raise marine awareness. As one of Qatar’s most prolific scuba diving masters, Zaki has seen an “increasing interest for water sports and scuba diving in Qatar” and aims to encourage the diving community to join his clean-up campaigns. The award-winning underwater photographer also hopes that his images capture the true beauty of oceans and will inspire others to protect them.

 

DID YOU KNOW? Qatar University marine scientists and researchers have been investigating innovative ways to restore and regenerate Qatar’s coral reefs.

 

WHERE TO FIND CORAL REEFS IN QATAR

Most of Qatar’s coral reef sites are understudied, according to the previously mentioned Fanning et al. study. The northeastern coast of Qatar provides the best coral reefs. Halul Island, located approximately eight kilometres northeast of Doha, reportedly has the most prolific coral growth. During Qatar’s pearl diving era, fishermen and divers would seek refuge on the island from storms and high winds. Nowadays, the island is managed by Qatar Petroleum and has become a crude oil export terminal for surrounding oilfields.

 

DID YOU KNOW? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) estimates that more than 500 million people depend on coral reefs for their livelihood worldwide.

 

WHAT ARE THE ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES?

The warning signals are alarming. In 2017, a UNESCO report revealed that coral reefs are in danger of dying out completely. As with all marine ecosystems, issues such as global warming, coastal development, pollution, and overfishing are killing coral reefs around the world.

 

The NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch states that coral bleaching—a natural phenomenon that turns coral white due to stress from rising water temperatures—is on the increase. Fortunately, leading international authorities such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) are working to support the protection and restoration of coral reefs.

 

Closer to home, Qatar’s Ministry of Municipality and Environment (MME) recently collaborated with other entities to research, design, and manufacture artificial reefs to protect Qatar’s unique yet fragile coral ecosystem. But despite these efforts, there is still much to be done to save the world’s coral reefs from increasing threats.

 

DID YOU KNOW? According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), half of the world’s coral reefs have been lost over the last 40 years.

 

HOW TO HELP SAVE QATAR’S CORAL REEFS

  • Practise responsible diving and snorkelling.
  • Do not purchase souvenirs and jewellery made from coral.
  • Support environmental action groups.
  • Raise marine conservation awareness via social media.
  • Buy sustainably sourced fish.

 

 

Doha Family would like to thank Khaled Zaki and Qatar e-Nature (via F. Krupp and QU) for supplying images to this article. You can follow both on Instagram @khaledzakidiving and @qatarenature.

 

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