UAE. Dubai’s largest coral reef has grown by an estimated 20 per cent since being relocated by Nakheel to a new home at The World Islands five years ago, according to marine experts.
In summer 2008, using previously untested methods, Nakheel moved 2,200 square metres of reef more than 18km underwater to save it from the effects of infrastructure development. The exercise – recently featured on a Discovery Channel TV documentary about Dubai’s engineering achievements – took 49 days and cost more than AED36 million.
Five years on, since taking up permanent residence at The World’s breakwater, the coral has expanded by about a fifth, and now comprises 18 types of coral, including new spawnings. There are also more than 30 species of reef-associated fish, including rare species such as the sind damselfish and regal damselfish that were previously unseen in the area. The reef has also become Dubai’s newest hot spot for scuba divers.
Ali Saeed Bin Thalith, Director of Development and Operations at Nakheel Marine Group, said: “Our coral move was an engineering first. We were in unknown territory when we undertook the exercise, which involved moving more than 1,100 coral-encrusted rocks, each weighing about five tonnes. These had to be removed, lifted and carried by barge without ever actually leaving the water. It was a real challenge, even down to finding the super-strong glue that could be used underwater for lifting the rocks and that wouldn’t be toxic to the coral.
“Traditionally, when coral is moved it is chiselled or drilled from rocks, put in baskets and taken to its new location. This wasn’t an option for us because each rock was encased in coral, which would have been severely damaged if it were moved in the usual way. So we went back to square one and after four months of painstaking research, using world-leading marine consultants and engineers, we found a solution. The result: a successful move, with minimal damage, and a thriving reef.”
Engineers and divers drilled and glued an iron bolt into each rock and attached a sling to hoist them from their resting place. Without leaving the water, each rock was then suspended below water, hanging from the deck of a 90-metre barge.
Once 20 rocks were on board, the barge was towed at two knots (3.7kph) for more than 18km to The World. There, the rocks were carefully lowered into place, leaving significant gaps in between for the coral to spread and spawn onto an area 700 metres long and 10 metres wide on The World’s breakwater. The process was repeated for 49 days until 1,129 rocks had been rehomed.
Marine Biologist John Burt, an assistant professor and head of the Marine Biology Laboratory at New York University Abu Dhabi, was brought on board to advise on and monitor the effects of the move.
He said: “This was one of the largest coral relocation projects ever conducted globally, with over 20,000 coral colonies spared from the effects of infrastructure development. The techniques used to transport the corals underwater with minimal handling were a world first and showed the creativity and ingenuity that can arise when engineers and ecologists work together for conservation purposes.
“The move also brought additional, originally-unintended benefits for other fauna. The area to which the corals were relocated now has a diverse community of reef fish, including rare species not seen in the area before,” he added.
Diving enthusiasts can now visit the coral reef at Nakheel’s The World.