Death of a Reef
Sport diver and BBC news correspondent John McIntyre took time off from broadcasting to send us this report on the devastation caused when a Cunard cruise liner hit a reef in the Red Sea earlier this year.

The Royal Viking Sun, one of Cunards top luxury liners, was cruising north through the bottleneck Straits of Tiran, in the Egyptian Red Sea, when she veered dramatically off course and crashed into the reef off Tiran Island in April. Mike Pearson, Director of the Ras Mohammed Marine Park, said that reef damage was extensive, involving nearly 2000 square metres.

For the hundreds of passengers and crew, the drama was serious enough to muster lifeboat stations, for the liner was listing after being holed, and she was in need of help. Eventually she was towed to safety, and languished in port at Sharm el Sheikh - under arrest until compensation was agreed.

With three days to turn the story around for the BBC, I made the familiar boat trip out to Tiran. It seemed only yesterday that Id been enjoying the exhilaration of drift dives along Gordon and Thomas reefs, but here, on the eastern banks of the Strait, close to Laguna Bay, the normally kaleidoscopic coral walls were bereft of life. The shattered remains of a once pristine reef now gave the appearance of an undersea graveyard. I was left with images more reminiscent of the surface of the moon than a coral reef thriving with colour and life.

Investigations point to the Viking Sun colliding with the reef, bow first. However, this did not, apparently, cause the worst of the damage. It seems that as the liner struggled to break free from the reef, her hull shifted north, carving off the corals like a giant chisel. Then, the sheer weight of broken coral, crashing down the wall, demolished much more in its disastrous path, to a depth of almost 30m.

Whatever, or whoever, is to blame for this incident, the Red Sea and its fragile eco-system is all the worse for it. The Egyptian government set compensation at $23.8m (15.5m), based on the loss of tourism revenue, including diving, and damage to the environment. To their great credit, Cunard settled for this sum.

However sad the spectacle of a reef reduced to rubble may be, natures ability to regenerate may now provide invaluable evidence to marine biologists about the growth of corals, of which there are now estimated to be some two hundred different species in the Red Sea.

One can only hope that the large fine paid for this damage will be used by the Egyptian Environment Agency to benefit the long-term future of this fabulous underwater habitat.

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