Monday, March 27, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

From ship to wreck to reef: SS Thistlegorm now an artificial coral refuge

Jacques Cousteau discovered the World War II-era shipwreck in the 1950s, but thousands of divers visit now thanks to the Sharm el-Sheik resorts nearby.

(CN) — A sunken British cargo steamship in the northern Red Sea has accidentally become an artificial coral refuge thanks to ocean temperatures spiking due to climate change.

Shortly after being built in 1940, the British military repurposed the SS Thistlegorm for World War II until her final voyage from Glasgow, Scotland to Alexandria, Egypt. While sailing in the Straits of Gubal, two German Heinkel HE 111 bombers used munitions explosions to split the ship in two, and it sank in about 100 feet of water.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau eventually found the shipwreck in 1955, and since then 175,000 divers from around the world have visited the SS Thistlegorm — many after the Sharm el-Sheik resort developments in the 1990s. These visitors' observations led Erik Caroselli of the University of Bologna and his team to conduct eight years of research on how the shipwreck sheltered local marine life.

They published their findings Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

Caroselli explained via email that “recreational citizen science,” where volunteer divers did their normal recreational dives without needing to follow specific sampling protocols such as going to specific depths or sites, allowed Caroselli and his colleagues to collect “a huge amount of data in a relatively short time and saving research funds." Caroselli noted it would have taken a single researcher decades and millions of dollars to cover the many sites in the Red Sea alone.

Through this method, the researchers found a relatively stable and actively present coral reef community, which they believe makes the artificial reef “a possible and promising refugia for Red Sea communities.”

“There is a wide community of coral reef scientists working on artificial reefs, trying to help the recovery of damaged or degraded reefs,” Caroselli wrote, referring to the many techniques and materials along with the evolving research on how to aid marine species that live in corals. Among the possible uses of artificial coral reefs is to “help coral reefs species shift to cooler waters as sea temperatures increase due to global warming. In some areas this may be difficult because the sandy bottom acts as a barrier for hard bottom species. So, it has been proposed that hard artificial structures (e.g. wrecks) may act as ‘bridges’ of hard bottom species and allow these communities to pass over these sandy barriers," he said.

The researchers said any future studies hoping to use artificial reefs to combat human-influenced decline of marine life need to compare multiple wreck sites in the northern Red Sea to nearby natural coral reef dive sites, to study “species abundance analyses between and among groupings of sites, possibly by latitudinal and/or temperature gradients.” Furthermore, Caroselli said scientists “need help from the entire community, as the environmental challenges we are facing are huge. There are many opportunities to participate in data collection in many citizen science projects worldwide. These activities are useful for science, for personal development, and they can also be fun!”

Although the citizen science project in the Red Sea is over, Caroselli said a new project that uses the same recreational citizen science approach, called the Divers United for the Environment (DUEproject), is currently running in the Mediterranean Sea.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.