Coral reef discovered off shores of Dalma Island

The reef is in pristine condition and large enough to have significant conservation and economic value.

Undiscovered ecosystem found by UAE scientist who compared satellite images with charts to reveal a pristine treasure that may be key stepping stone in health of UAE corals.

ABU DHABI // A coral reef covering an area of one square kilometre has been discovered by an Abu Dhabi scientist.

The reef, which was marked as empty seabed on previous maps, is in pristine condition and large enough to have significant conservation and economic value, said Dr Haifa Ben Romdhane, who made the discovery.

Dr Ben Romdhane was using satellite remote sensing to study Abu Dhabi’s coastal waters for her PhD thesis in interdisciplinary engineering at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology when she made the discovery.

She used satellite data from various sources to survey the sea floor, comparing her findings with existing maps. This is how she noticed a discrepancy between her findings and the existing records in an area about 3.5 kilometres off the east coast of Dalma Island in the Western Region.

“I was seeing something on the satellite image and, when I looked at the published map, I did not see anything, it was classified as seabed – some sort of unconsolidated or bare seabed and I was not comfortable with what I was looking at,” she said. “I could not believe it was nothing.”

In early November 2015, Dr Ben Romdhane visited the location with Mohamed Al Musallami, a marine scientist, professional diver and underwater photographer. Mr Al Musallami lead a scuba-diving expedition and performed a deep dive, confirming the presence of a coral reef with “huge corals that were in very good condition”, Dr Ben Romdhane said.

Mr Al Musallami is currently doing his military service and was unavailable to answer questions by The National.

Most of the reef consists of large coral colonies of the genus Porites, which is the common reef builder in UAE waters, and especially in Abu Dhabi.

“The good news was that it was a coral reef and not only a coral reef but a pristine one, very lively,” Dr Ben Romdhane said.

After the exploratory dives, she continued studying the reef from her laboratory at Masdar, where she used satellite data to delineate the boundaries of the reef.

The discovery was made within a larger study using satellite data to explore the health of coral colonies in Abu Dhabi, tracking changes from 2013 to 2016. Dr Ben Romdhane has submitted a paper outlining her findings and the work is currently under review.

Marina Antonopoulou, marine programme leader at the Emirates Wildlife Society – World Wide Fund for Nature (EWS-WWF), said she was aware of the study and looking forward to finding more details once the full paper is published.

“This discovery highlights the importance for conservationists to continue working on developing an inventory of coral reefs and other important habitats for the UAE, building on previous research,” she said.

The new reef could be potentially important for the overall health of corals in Abu Dhabi, Ms Antonopoulou said.

“Located between the two largest marine-protected areas in the UAE, Dalma Island’s position could potentially be a key stepping stone for larval connectivity and therefore resilience to climate change for coral reefs,” she said.

“This could also be important to consider for coral reef-dependent species such as hawksbill turtles, which EWS-WWF monitored in the past with the support of key partners and organisations in the region.”

The discovery is prompting the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) to conduct a study of the area later this year. Previous studies were limited to a shallower depth and this is why the reef went unnoticed, officials said.

“Since EAD was informed of the location of the reef, plans have been made to conduct a synoptic assessment of biodiversity on the reef during the next monitoring survey scheduled in April 2017,” the agency said.