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Expats help cleanup Jeddah's backyard
By Michael Bou-Nacklie
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 11 - 01 - 2009

WITH tourism season and Haj over, cities across the Kingdom have returned to their regular pace of life. Jeddah, being located on the coast of the Red Sea, is more vulnerable to the negativism associated with human tourism because of its vast but fragile underwater museum. Interestingly, some residents, most of whom comprise expatriates, as well as tourists are taking it upon themselves to keep the underwaters clean and safe.
Every year divers take to the Red Sea, donning scuba gear and flippers to counter the impact people have on nature which is most visible underwater.
Hans Sjoholm, a 25-year diving veteran from Sweden and Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Course Director for Saudi Arabia, said recently that the Red Sea is one of the last coral seas left that has not been destroyed by coral bleaching or pollution.
Marine trash kills more than one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles each year through ingestion and entanglement, said the Ocean Conservancy in a statement. In San-Francisco volunteers found 81 birds, 63 fish, 49 invertebrates, 30 mammals, 11 reptiles, and one amphibian entangled in debris such as plastic bags, fishing lines, fishing nets, six-pack holders, balloon and kite strings, glass bottles, and cans.
One attempt at rectifying that problem, here was during a recent underwater cleanup operation in Jeddah.
The cleanup dive is part of the ‘Leave No Trace' campaign sponsored by the General Commission of Tourism and Antiquities (GCTA), organized by the Desert Sea Divers, and is in conjunction with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Project - AWARE.
The campaign consists of performing a cleanup dive at least once a year, Sjoholm said.
During the recently held 10th annual cleanup dive, three boats with divers on board went to several locations for about an hour of cleanup diving.
Sjoholm, a long time conservationist and a 28-year diving veteran from Sweden in the Kingdom, has been an advocate for reef conservation through his underwater photography. In a previous Saudi Gazette report, Sjoholm said: “In the last couple of years, the Red Sea has changed drastically because of the effect people have had on coastal development.”
“It's great that we have such a good response (to the dives), people are queuing up to come. Every year we have more and more people who want to participate; if we had more resources we could bring in everybody,” he said. Sjoholm said the cleanup dives are a way to give back to the sea, “since we enjoy it as a living recreation.”
“The Red Sea is one of the last coral seas that has not yet suffered from coral bleaching and pollution to the extent that other major oceans have. It is imperative to keep it as it is for the sake of the coming generations,” he said.
Perhaps, that's exactly why George Assaf, a Lebanese diver working with Almabani Construction Company, came to take part in the cleanup dive.
“It gives me pleasure to do this. I am doing this not just for myself but for everybody,” he said. Divers were equipped with large bags and scissors to cut caught fishing lines and gloves to protect against cuts and scratches on any sharp scraps left underwater or on corals. Sjoholm stressed that it is important not to cause any more damage to the reef when trying to clean it up, because then the practice becomes counterproductive.
According to the Web site of AWARE, every year six million tons of debris enter the world's oceans.
Sjoholm said the most common items found underwater are pieces of plastic, fishing lines, plastic bags and polystyrene. Polystyrene is especially a problem when birds feed it to their chicks who eventually either choke or die from ingestion of plastics.
Plastic bags are often eaten by sea turtles and whales which can lead to their death.
The expatriate community in the Kingdom forms the bulk of diving groups here. In recent years, however, diving is fast catching on with Saudis as well.
Sjoholm attributes the increase in local participation to knowledge of the dives spreading via word of mouth.
Deborah Kanarek, vice consul at the US Consulate in Jeddah, said: “The coastal areas of Jeddah are dirtier than any other diving spots across the globe. That's not to say that I've found a ton of trash each time I've picked up something. There's a lot of education to be done here, to teach people about protecting the marine environment.”
The effect of how little people understand is visible through the ‘artifacts' the divers brought back with them. Items ranged from a sunken paddleboat to a bed frame, to sunglasses, anchors and a paint bucket with the paint brush still cemented into the dried paint. One diver found a digital watch which was still working after perhaps being underwater for over a month.
However, Glenn Horstmann, of the Fluor construction company which works with the Jeddah Municipality, remains optimistic.
“Most of the coral has less litter than that in other places that I've been to. The water in other places is a lot cleaner, the corals out here have good days, sometimes you can see a 100 feet in front of you,” he said.
The real tragedy is that other reefs around the world have suffered more from coral bleaching and other damage, Sjoholm said in a previous report, something which Scott Delinger, an adviser with the American Department of Defense can attest to first hand.
“In places that I've been to on holidays in the Bahamas, everything was just monochromatic. There was just one color, a shade of brown. I come out here and it's just this sea of colors, a Technicolor rainbow.”
In contrast, Kanarek said she has been diving in Yemen where coastal development and diving activities are very minimal, so the dive locations in that region ‘are pristine'. “You don't have the opportunity for trash,” she said.
“Our ocean is sick,” said Laura Capps, senior vice president at the Ocean Conservancy, in a press release. “And the plain truth is that our ocean ecosystem cannot protect us unless it is healthy and resilient. Harmful impacts like trash in the ocean, pollution, climate change, and habitat destruction are taking its toll. But the good news is that hundreds of thousands of people from around the world are starting a sea change by joining together to cleanup the ocean. Trash doesn't fall from the sky; it falls from people's hands.”
However, not everything is doom and gloom for Jeddah's reefs. When compared to cleanup dives in other countries, Jeddah's backyard is still relatively clean. A cleanup dive off the coast of Queensland Australia picked up over 1220 kilos of trash, including two full bottles of oil, a kitchen cupboard and a fence post.


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