Sunday, March 25, 2007

Red Sea, red indeed

Izzy took off for the Sinai coast last week, despite the latest terrorism alerts and arrests, and had a blast. No, not literally. We just relaxed and took a pleasant dip in the Red Sea on the far side of the border. This time, during my sixth swim here ever, the water was blood red. Clearly red. Not an illusion.

Scholars always say that the Red Sea's evocative name has nothing to do with its colour, but is derived from a mis-translation of the Hebrew name, Yam suph (ים סוף)--or "Reed Sea"-- the one through which Moses and his Biblical throng made their exodus. Wikipedia's clickable clique notes that this traditional name comes from the Greek Erythra Thalassa (Ερυθρά Θάλασσα), Latin Mare Rubrum, and Arabic Al-Baḥr Al-Aḥmar. The colour red also might indicate the cardinal direction south, or the rich colour of the sunburnt earthen hills that crouch down to the water's edge and get reflected in the waters. Hmmmm. Could have fooled me.
The simplest explanation is that old-time sailors saw red. Check out my photographic proof above, snapped on the Gulf of Aqaba just north of Nuweiba in the Egyptian Sinai one week ago. (On this aerial photo below, it's near the tip of the little watery horn on the right.)

This startling redness was not a smelly slick on top, like the red tides of southern California. It was not a chemical. The pigment was mixed right into the translucent water and it resembled Martian canal-water or a sign from the heavens that blood would flow. Abdullah, a Bedouin scuba instructor, reassured us that this was just algae which overblooms once in a while, whenever the reef fish which usually eat it are in decline. The scientific name of this plankton-like stuff is cyanobacteria Trichodesmium erythraeum, and I even found a microscopic photo.

Alarmingly, the condition means the coral reefs are at risk.