Undergraduate project, Marsa Alam, Egypt

The inspiration

I was very fortunate growing up to have had some fantastic holidays to tropical locations in order to get our family SCUBA diving fix. This included trips to the Philippines, Maldives,  Malaysia, Thailand, Oman, and Kenya among others but the country and the reefs which most stood out me was Egypt. The fact we were there when I had just become old enough to do my PADI Open Water course may have made me somewhat biased, but to this day the clear, warm waters that host reefs covered with hard and soft corals, anthias, butterfly fishes, and the chance to see hammerhead, tiger, and oceanic sharks to name but a few, makes these reefs unbeatable in my opinion.

Typical Red Sea reef scene. Taken in Marsa Alam, Egypt, 2012

Typical Red Sea reef scene. Taken in Marsa Alam, Egypt, 2012

Even as a young teenager I remember wondering why the Red Sea was so outstanding compared to other reefs. What were the perfect combination of conditions which made the reefs thrive?

During my undergraduate degree, I saw a short segment on the BBC’s Oceans documentary series which mentioned that corals may be protecting themselves from intense UV rays using green fluorescent proteins (GFP) like a sunscreen. The GFP’s made the corals glow bright green when a UV torch was shone on them. It was beautiful. Almost instantly I realised that, if true, this mechanism is likely to be in use by the corals in the Red Sea since these were some of the clearest waters I had ever experienced. I knew UV wavelengths attenuated quickly in seawater so, if the hypothesis was that GFP’s are used for photoprotection, their abundance should be greatest in shallow waters and decrease with depth.

The Project

After discussing my ideas with my supervisor, obtaining the necessary permits, and securing the most patient and understanding dive buddy in the world (photo below), I set off to Southern Egypt to begin data collection. I conducted “Reef Check” style transects which I had learnt during my time as a volunteer with Coral Cay Conservation, 200 meters each at multiple depth intervals. This involved up to 6 hours of in water data collection per night for nine consecutive nights during the Ramadan fast.

My results did reveal a significant negative relationship with increasing depth and GFP expression, but the relationship was not as strong as hypothesis expected and the high remaining prevalence of GFP at depths where UV wavelengths were all but gone, led me to conclude that UV protection is not the only role for these proteins.

This project helped me to attain a first class undergraduate degree and I was awarded the Graham Ralston Prize in Marine Biology (2011) for the student with the single most “exceptional enthusiasm, commitment and scientific excellence in the execution of the final year project”. I am extremely grateful for the support of a great supervisor, the now retired Dr. John Lancaster, and my dive buddy Abdallah Taher, without whom the project would not have been feasible.

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Me with Abdallah in 2009

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Abdu breaking his Ramadan fast on the beach before a double night dive