Committee coordinator for Emirates Diving Association (EDA), Kathleen Russell has been working with the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi for the last decade to bring awareness on the marine and coastline environment of the UAE.
Can you tell me first of all about Al Mahara Diving Centre, when and why it was started and your work there?
We have been in the UAE since 2001 and passionate about scuba diving and water safety. In 2010, I decided to open a PADI instructor development center in Abu Dhabi to provide more opportunities for scuba diving and marine conservation in the UAE and especially Abu Dhabi.
I really wanted to be able to teach more people especially females, youths and families to dive. Teach them about the beauty of the underwater environment and why its important we have to preserve and protect our blue planet. We supported the Emirates Diving Association and Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi and helped organise underwater, beach and mangrove clean ups and visited schools to talk about the local marine environment and how to be a good sea ambassador. We started our mangrove kayak tours in 2012 to build awareness about the importance of mangroves marine eco systems and that’s how our kayak tours started. We then saw allot of marine debris and started the mangrove kayak clean ups.
I also wanted to promote drowning prevention as I have a background in aquatic safety and we developed the PADI Swim School and Starguard Elite lifeguard training to educate and increase awareness about water safety and provide quality training in water safety.
As a social enterprise, we really wanted to involve the community and get people involved in clean ups and inspire the community to be active citizen scientists and working towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and being more self-aware and taking responsibility for their own actions.
It is hard to believe there is life in the sea in Dubai, mainly due to all the construction etc, is there a vibrant underwater world? (how many species of fish/turtles/coral reefs etc are there)
We have seen a decrease in population sizes on recreational dives and when we do Reef Check coral monitoring surveys. But we still encounter hawksbill and green turtles when we dive in Abu Dhabi and the east coast of UAE. We have definitely seen a decline in hard coral populations due to high sea water temperatures. Several years we have seen coral bleaching and allot fo coal populations didn’t recover well. We have seen some coral diseases during our Reef Check surveys in Abu Dhabi. We would like to conduct more in the east coast and further along the western region of Abu Dhabi with our citizen scientists.
On recent dives, we have seen shoals of snappers, solitary Arabian bamboo sharks and regular sightings of benthic dwellers and nudibranchs (aka sea slugs), few numbers of parrot fish, allot of long spine sea urchins out in the open seabed.
There are still allot of marine life for divers to see but if we continue on the trajectory of high sea temperatures, over fishing and increase in deoxygenation of the Arabian Gulf waters, we may lose this vibrancy in the next decades or sooner. In 2018 we had a massive coral bleaching event which affected over 73% of the corals in western coastline of UAE in a joint study from New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) and Emirates Environment Agency (EEA).
Numbers from the Environment agency of Abu Dhabi over the years have reported we have 47 different species of sharks and rays (Elasmobranchs), approx 456 species of bony fish, 21 species of algae and about 5 species of sea turtles, dugongs and a much declined coral population. There is not enough data about dolphins and whales populations but there are about 10 species which have been reported in the Arabian Gulf. We have seen the Indo-Pacific bottlenose, Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins and the rarely encounter finless porpoise.
What would I get to see on a diving trip?
Diving off the west coast, divers can still sea populations of hard coral, fields, fields of seagrass and typical Arabian Gulf species of vertebrate and invertebrate marine life including snappers, sweetlips, parrotfish, amber jacks, trevallies, barracudas, Spanish mackerel, kingfish, damselfish, gobies and their commensal shrimps, a variety of brittle stars, nudibranchs, ascidians. There would be chance encounters with reef sharks, sting rays and turtles.
What are some of the main threats to marine life in the UAE? I would same climate change with sea water and air temperature rising, over fishing, coastal development which may impact the natural marine eco-system, increase in desalination activity and increasing deoxygenation affects in the ocean.
What is being done to mitigate these threats? The government recognises these threats and are developing national policies and regional collaboration to tackle allot of these threats. Collaboration between universities and data sharing are also important to better understand the threats and work holistically using multi-disciplinary approach to creating action plans and solutions. More businesses and manufacturers also need to take responsibility for their actions to reduce any impacts to the environment like reducing the use of single use plastics and to reduce waste, conserve water and follow best practises on reducing the impacts. As a PADI dive center, we follow the guidelines from Project Aware and build awareness, be active in conservation actions and involve the community.
It is difficult to inform people of the impact on marine life when we can’t see it, what would you like to see more of to bring greater awareness to this?
It is difficult when people are not associated with the sea. They don’t realize the inter-connectivity the ocean and the health of our earth.
Since the awareness of overfishing, of certain local species, have you noticed any difference in numbers?
Yes definitely we don’t see the same numbers of orange-spotted groupers (aka hammour) as we use to see when we go diving and we have seen a decline in parrotfish, the gardeners of the sea. We see less sharks and rays also
What would you like to see more of in order to encourage more marine diversity?
I would like to see more marine (biosphere) protected areas and more surveys involving the community in citizen science programs (surveys and clean ups).
What is the dive scene like in the UAE?
There has been a decline in diving activities in general due to a slow down in economy and recently the dive sites in the Dubai have not been open due to the coast development. The east coast has been thriving with weekend diving as more hotel operators have opened over the
Has there been any noticeable impact on the marine environment due to COVID?
During this time of year, there is higher productivity however due to Covid19 allot of leisure and commercial marine activities including boat operations and shipping vessels have decreased. This would have an impact on the marine environment with reduced pollution, oil spills, noise pollution. Less human impacts on the coral reefs as marine leisure has been closed for a few months which would allow the marine life not to be disturbed
What has been the impact of COVID on your business and do you foresee it reviving now we are seeing an easing of restrictions?
We have been impacted by COVID19 as we teach schools and universities and unfortunately the classes were cancelled starting March. We also cancelled all our CSR programs and youth development programs and PADI training, lifeguard training and scuba diving and all marine watersports
Can you tell me about the dugongs, they are such fascinating creatures?
Dugongs are amazing marine mammals found across the Indo-Pacific region. UAE has the second largest population of dugongs with Australia having the largest numbers. They are found more in the western region of Abu Dhabi shallow coastlines and forage mainly on sea grass areas. They are found in a herd with females and their calves and some young with the herd. Females tend to be bigger than males. They can grow up to 3meters and weigh in at 400 kg. One of the largest recorded was found to be 4.06meters weighing 1,016kg (huge) found off the coast of west India. The dugong has a more fluke-like or dolphin shaped tail with a downward facing snout designed for feeding on seagrass and benthic environment. This is different from manatees which have a more paddle-like forelimbs. Their colouration locally is found to be more brownish than grey. Interestingly, they share their common ancestors with the elephant and hyraxes. The “dugon” name was first adopted by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Compte de Buffon, a French naturalist who wrote in his volumes of Histoire Naturelle in 1765 with descriptions of this animal found around Leyte in the Philippines. Currently, the dugong’s IUCN status is listed as Vulnerable and deserves our protection.
Have you ever seen them?
Yes just recently, we saw a dugong in the sea grass meadows off Ras Gurab. Other times, I’ve seen them while in a non-intrusive kayak near Mawarah and off Bu Tinah and Sir Bani Yas Island while on survey boats.
Can you tell me about your youth programmes and why is it important to get the young involved and aware of marine life?
I have always been inspired by the youth and their passion for being curious and being inquisitive. Now being a mother of two has really made me more passionate about youth development programs. We started out organising youth outings to ensure kids of all ages stay active outdoors and to learn about and from the outdoor environment. We first introduced basic sea survival skills as a water safety component and then developed other outdoor basic survival skills including a one-night kayak campout without parents. They were able to assess the hazards, plan their shelters, build a safe basic fire to heat up food and set up their resting area independently. Allot of youth do not get an opportunity to explore, discover and learn in the natural outdoor environment and ask questions. We tend to be an indoor society of learning. We encourage experiential experiences to achieve their learning and discovery. Because of my passion for the marine environment, we have also taught youth about the importance of the marine eco systems and why its important to protect our apex predators and keep the marine balance. It is important for youth to be connected with nature so they better understand the relationship humans have with nature. We tend to protect what we love and if we can get the youth to love the outdoors, they will more likely take action to protect our environment and be more responsible with their lifestyle actions like reducing use of single-use plastics, reducing wastes and understanding the benefits of a circular economy.
What is the reef check monitoring survey?
This is a flagship citizen science program which allows non-scientist working with scientists to survey the health of their local coral reef systems and be able to survey, record and report to a global data that is available world-wide. This data is important because it is a rapid assessment to provide an early alert of potential health risks of the local marine environment and be able to monitor longer term effects and have long term data. This is also important as the global data can be used to compare against what is happening locally. The Reef Check monitoring survey goals are to educate members of the public about the ecology of marine ecosystems, their value, threats to their health and solutions to those issues and to train non-scientists to learn how to collect scientifically valid, high quality data on reef ecosystems that can be used to track the condition of those ecosystems.
Why is World Environment Day so important and what will you be doing this year under the theme of biodiversity?
WED is important because it helps to build awareness in the public and focuses on the issues of the environment and allows government and organisations to continue working on their environmental policies with the UN SDG goals for 2030 in mind. This year’s theme is to celebrate biodiversity and we will focus on our local species including building more awareness about marine eco-systems like the seagrass, mangroves and coral reefs and highlighting dugongs, shark conservation and seagrass/mangrove appreciation. Generally, we would organise an underwater and mangrove clean-up and a reef check but due to the Covid19, we will most likely organise Dive Against Debris dive this year and host free virtual Project Aware workshop. Once we are allowed, we will organise the Reef Check Eco Diver training to train up more citizen scientist divers to participate in the regular reef checks.
Why should we protect the marine environment and what more can we do to help it?
We need to protect our blue planet because we are inter-connected. If our marine environment is not healthy, the rest of our earth will also suffer the same fate. Nature is about life balance and if its out of balance, there will be consequences as we have already seen. If we are to survive on this planet, we all must try and achieve the SDG goals in a holistic way as we are all inter-connected. Some issues are going to be harder then others but ultimately there are solutions.
What can we do to help?
We can all start by changing our lifestyle to be less consumerism focused and get out to connect with nature and build a bond with the environment again, reduce our single-use plastics, reduce wastage and conserve water, teach/inspire our youths the same and be a positive role model for all youths, reduce poverty and always respect all life on earth. For divers, we can collect marine debris when we dive and report it and make each Dive Against Debris dive. For beach and kayak lovers, we can pick up plastics when we see them on the beach or on the coastline and report it to Ocean Conservancy under the app Clean Swells. Remember to follow precautionary measures when we do these activities to reduce the risk of Covid19 now. But we can still make a difference if we all believe in positive change.
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Kathleen Russell, CEO, Al Mahara Diving Center in Abu Dhabi.
Kathleen is a PADI Course Director and Emergency First Response Instructor Trainer and PADI Swim School Instructor Trainer and Starguard Instructor Trainer from Canada. She is passionate about the oceans and also in training new divers and instructor level divers to share her love for the ocean. She is also the Emirates Diving Association Abu Dhabi Committee Coordinator and helps EDA and other companies and institutes to organise many marine environment initiatives including Clean Up Arabia, underwater marine debris clean ups, Reef Check and marine conservation programs. She is also passionate about dive travel, underwater videography and tech diving.