Hurry Up! Eilat's Coral Reef, One of NYT's Places to Go in 2019, Is Facing Destruction

The coral reef at Eilat, ranked sixth in The New York Times’ list '52 Places to Go in 2019,' suffers chronic problems that are causing permanent damage

Part of the coral reef off the coast of Eilat, in the Red Sea.
Lachlan Riehl photography

The Eilat coral reef, stretching about 7.5 miles long and reaching the Egyptian border, is home to hundreds of species of coral and many species of aquatic animals who find food and shelter there. These include the whale shark and the hawksbill sea turtle.

In the Gulf of Eilat, the southern Israeli city that ranked sixth in The New York Times’ list “52 Places to Go in 2019,” the temperature is constant and there is only a moderate amount of fertilizer substances in the sea; thus the water is especially clear. The reef is doing well despite the climate change that is causing other reefs to disappear. Sometimes, schools of dolphins and whales show up. On the seabed in the north of the gulf, seaweed carpets provide a habitat for a wide variety of other fauna.

A diver in Eilat. Among the goals in Eilat’s master plan is to double the population within two decades and add 5,000 guest rooms.
Lachlan Riehl Photography

But the beautiful reef, one of the richest in the world, suffers chronic and serious problems that are causing permanent damage. If you want to see it in all its glory, you better hurry up.

The many tourists visiting the resort who sun themselves on the beaches and paddle in the Red Sea’s clear waters probably don’t think twice before anointing themselves with sunscreen. Most of them certainly don’t know that these lotions have an especially detrimental effect on one of the country’s most stunning natural resources. Benzophenone is just one ingredient in many sunscreens that’s harmful to coral in a number of ways; for example, it damages its reproductive mechanism.  

But it isn’t only sunscreen that’s threatening the coral.

Divers are damaging the reef, as does artificial lighting on shore, because the coral’s reproduction – like its preying on animals – depends on synchronization with the natural light cycle. The Eilat port and the Trans-Israel Pipeline’s oil pier have very strong artificial lighting, not to mention the restaurants on the beachfront.

The Eilat reef, stretching about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) long and reaching the Egyptian border, is still home to hundreds of species of coral.
אמיר שטרן

More rooms, more tourists

This year, at Timna north of Eilat, an airport will open named after Ilan and Asaf Ramon – the astronaut killed in the Columbia space shuttle disaster and his son killed in an air force training accident.

In addition to serving the local people, the airport is expected to increase the number of tourists in the area. The coral is a major attraction, but continued commercial development could lead to more damage to the reef.

While the municipality wants more hotels and tourism near the beach, attempts to preserve the natural treasures have become more challenging than in the past.

Among the goals in Eilat’s master plan is to double the population within two decades and add 5,000 guest rooms. Early this month the municipality presented to the National Planning and Building Council a plan that includes the expansion of commercial activity near the reef.

Fish at Eilat's coral reef. The reef already suffers chronic problems that are causing permanent damage.
אמיר שטרן

For its part, the council decided to put together a new master plan for the beaches in the region.

The plan aims in part to “develop Eilat as a leading tourism destination based on the nature values that are unique to Eilat Bay and its environs.” Dalit Zilber, a senior planning and building official, says special consideration should be given to “preserving the natural treasures” of the shoreline.

The construction planned in the area and the growing number of tourists will increase the pressure on the narrow bay. In Eilat and the adjacent Jordanian town of Aqaba, there are oil ports and terminals for loading phosphates and at present, there is a train planned from Eilat to Tel Aviv that will also be used for cargo.

According to the plan, the train will be linked via a canal to the cargo port in the north of the bay. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority has expressed serious reservations about digging the canal, and in a letter to the Planning and Building Council, said that "digging a deep canal in the waters of the bay will muddy the water for an extended period of time.” The authority said particles from the sea bottom are likely to cause lethal damage to the coral reefs and added: “The damage to the carpets of seagrass will also be tremendous. Maintenance of the canal will cause chronic disturbance to the ecosystem.”

A man watches sharks at Eilat's underwater observatory park.
Ofer Vaknin

To improve protection of the coral, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority suggests expanding the area of the nature reserves. “The area of seagrass is not protected at present,” said Asaf Hebri, the park's authority's Eilat district director. “Some of it is a secured area where there is no development, but we want to ensure that a larger area will be protected in cooperation with the Eilat Municipality.”

There is agreement between the INPA and the municipality to declare a nature reserve in the area of the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline, he said, but added that there are difference of opinion between the two on the plans. "The beaches should remain without construction, and we oppose projects such as the underwater hotel that has recently been promoted.”

Smear campaign

File photo: Fish at Eilat's coral reef, in southern Israel.
Omri Yossef Omessi

Despite the warnings against the canal linked to the port, the authority is not specifically opposed to this plan. Hebri says that the INPA has yet to present a final plan for the canal and the cargo port.

The INPA policy paper even proposes imposing various restrictions on guided diving expeditions to prevent inexperienced divers from harming the coral. The authority is calling for a ban on the presence of inexperienced divers in areas defined as sensitive. This is a recommendation that is hard to implement, because it requires coordination with the divers’ organizations as well as tourist agencies in the city, and they want to provide visitors with activity inside the reef that it as varied as possible.

When it comes to sunscreen, Kermerski-Winter believes that Israel needs to follow the lead of locations such as Hawaii and forbid the use of sun block containing substances that endanger the environment, and allow substitutes that don’t contain these substances. But the manufacturers of the sun block prefer to leave the situation as it is instead of investing in substitutes, and consumers may not be easily persuaded to use the substitutes, which leave a white layer on the skin.

The INPA said there needs to be more information about the polluting products and environmentally friendly alternatives, such as clothing that protects the skin, and that less toxic products must be made accessible. Hebri admits, however, that there is still a long way to go to promote legislation to prevent the use of harmful products.

Meanwhile, the authority is considering encouraging the use of safer alternatives — and selling them at the beach at the nature reserve. For now, the authority is making do with distributing a poster from Florida that encourages responsible use of sunscreens. If it’s on your skin, it’s on the reef, the poster warns.

Swimmers compete at FINA World Junior Open Water Swimming Championships in Eilat, Israel, September 7, 2018.
Gilad Kavalerchik/AP