In 2004, fifty years after Calypso’s first expedition to the Red Sea, after the pioneering Conshelf experiments in underwater living, and after the shattering success of the Oscar-winning films Silent World and World without Sun, the Cousteau Society is returning to the Red Sea, retracing the path first explored by Captain Cousteau.
As Prince Albert waved farewell, the Society’s windship Alcyone embarked from Monaco on November 13, 2003, headed for the Suez Canal. With scuba gear and cameras, the Cousteau team will study and film coral reefs in danger of disappearing. The data they gather will be compared with the early images shot by Captain Cousteau. Dr. Jean Jaubert, coral specialist, will lead the expedition.
The eastern Mediterranean and the northern Red Sea are separated by a narrow strip of land through which the Suez Canal was cut more than a century ago. The Canal passes through the Bitter Lakes, a salty barrier that, for seventy years, prevented plants and animals from moving between the seas. The annual flooding of the Nile River also helped keep foreign organisms from settling near the northern mouth of the Canal. Now these blocks have disappeared so organisms have travelled the dominant current up through the Canal to establish successful colonies. This migration has caused substantial ecological changes in the eastern Mediterranean that the Cousteau team will study. We also examined the plants and animals of the northern Gulf of Suez, where environmental conditions are similar to those in the Mediterranean.
Like the Gulf of Suez, the Gulf of Aqaba borders the Sinai Peninsula but the two are very different from one another. While the Gulf of Suez is sedimentary and shallow, the Gulf of Aqaba is rocky and deep. It is a miniature version of the Red Sea with marvellous coral gardens and with uniquely spectacular large jellies and salps floating everywhere. The mission included the assessment of dangers that are threatening corals, those astonishing animals fixed in their calcareous skeletons. Although they grow north of the Tropic of Cancer (the normal limit of reefs in the northern hemisphere), the coral reefs of the Red Sea are among the most beautiful and the best preserved in the world. Climate changes that killed much of the living coral in the reefs of the Indo-Pacific in 1997-1998 had little impact on these. The shores of the Red Sea are not heavily populated so the reefs are spared the direct effect of human activities (with the exception of Egypt, where tourism is highly developed).
Then, the Cousteau team travelled to the reefs off Sudan, in particular Shaab Rumi where part of the underwater structure built for Conshelf II, immortalized in World without Sun, still rests. We followed the coast of Eritrea to the Dahlak Islands, dart inland to Djibouti’s Lake Assal then back to the islands of the Seven Brothers offshore, before sailing back up the coast of Yemen.