Bye bye birdie

El Gouna Egypt
The Blue Lagoon, with an evaporated water mist cover on the horizon

Yesterday, Erin and I decided to visit the Blue Lagoon.

This is a shallow body of hypersaline water (which is true of the entire Red Sea) between the shoreline and a spit of sand that parallels the beach for maybe 200-300m. Its mostly clear enough to see an occasional fish, but milky, with salt foam in some parts; the sand is actually reddish clay on the main shore, and coarse, lighter-colored silica on the spit itself.

What I loved about this place when I visited it last October was the presence of a small seabird colony.

Our goal was to find them.

It was unlikely they would have migrated in Winter. Would they still be there?  Or had the damage been too great in the intervening three months?

Our walk there took less than an hour from the New Marina (it was quite debilitating to do this alone, in the lingering heat, two months ago, but no problem now) and we stopped along the way to eat croissants bought at the outset of our journey, at 7th Star in Abu Tig marina, and of course hydrate with the water we had brought along in my old dive bag.  We also re-applied 100 SPF sun screen, which did wonders to protect our skin from the sun high in a cloudless sky, and marched on.

One of the nice things about walking along the beach this way is the absence of flies, midges, and fleas.  These are everywhere in El Gouna, but largely absent here — possibly due to the wind; although it was calm yesterday.

We arrived at the Blue Lagoon around noon.  It is just past Mangroovy Beach and the Blue House, and is situated between that area and Element (which we visited yesterday via tuc tuc, which cost us 70LE round trip).

One of the not-so-nice things that drove me to consternation last time I came here was the sudden presence of quads that drive up the shoreline, squashing all the fragile dunes and mangrove seedlings and tiny beach critters in their wake.

Another observation we made on this walk is the obvious decision by Orascom,  and/or the developers to whom it has leased this part of El Gouna, to disregard the impact on wildlife of the overbuilding that is taking place.

el gouna egypt
Lamenting the speculative buildout around the Blue Lagoon

Frankly it is disheartening to see all these ugly, squat buildings rise in the desert — far too many for this area to sustain: my wife and I are fortunate to have been able to see this part of the Red Sea Riviera in a relatively pristine state, compared to the ecological disasters that are Hurghada, Sharm El Sheikh, Dahab and elsewhere along the “Red Sea Riviera.”

El Gouna Egypt
Blue Lagoon eco destruction, October 26th, 2017

However, last time I was here in October, I saw massive amounts of trash, including food, plastic water bottles, nets, rope, various  plastic cans, tar, and of course the ubiquitous plastic bags that cause sea turtles to drown through asphyxiation. This despite the seemingly positive results of a recent study to determine the level of plastic fragments floating in this sea.

It was a relief to see that something was being done about the beach debris, as a small group of workmen in blue green uniforms, and carrying rakes, were cleaning up what they could of the enormous amount of beach garbage, although I was saddened when we came upon a large, dead parrot fish on the shore, and also pieces of bleached out dead coral, that had either been killed by the warming of the Red Sea, or perhaps broken off by a snorkeler or one of the many cattle diveboats that make scant use of floating anchors.

Gouna Egypt
Dead coral from the Blue Lagoon

As we approached the Blue Lagoon, with a handful of narrow-billed sandpipers trotting along in front us on their Energizer Bunny feet, I saw the sea bird colony.  I decided to wade into the lagoon slowly, and approach them cautiously in order to get a closeup in the spit of beach where they like to congregate.

Unfortunately I did not have a DSLR with telephoto lens, so I had to contend with the S8+ camera, which is fairly useless for capturing details of fauna in the wild at distance.

samsung s8 telephoto lenses
I need one of these

My biggest fear was that quads would appear suddenly and ruin my opportunity for some great shots, ones where I could get close enough to provide the kind of clarity and detail that would later enable me to identify these seagulls.

Almost on queue, as I waded closer to the birds sunning themselves as they eyeballed my treading gingerly on the slushy bottom, which I was doing to make sure I did not slip and fall into the water with my smartphone in hand, I heard the unmistakable droning sound of quads approaching.

I looked backed and counted four of them, each being driven at maximum speed by young German men who were hooting and hollering at the joy of the ride.

They circled around the lagoon area, and then seemed to head up north, away from the birds in their sanctuary. But suddenly they made a U-turn, and came barreling down the spit of land where the seagulls congregate for safety.

A quad-riding tourist succeeds in terrorizing the seagulls away, as an Egyptian workman pick up beach garbage
Oh what fun

They headed straight at the birds and did little figure 8s, as if reveling in the alarm they were causing in these creatures, and one of them remained stationary, gunning his engine, before released his brakes, and zipping loudly past the workmen picking up the trash.

El Gouna Egypt
Quad tracks tearing up the Blue Lagoon’s fragile ecosystem

The fragile spit of sand was riddled with tracks by the time these young German vacationers left; no doubt on Monday, they will be back in Deutschland, and I doubt any will give a thought to the minor devastation they inflicted on the Blue Lagoon yesterday, devastation that is compounded daily by the willingness of El Gouna to allow this sort of thing to take place without any restrictions.

Of course the birds were long gone, having flown out to sea, were they floated on the calm blue-green shallows, which extend out quite a bit, before the demarc line where the sea turns deep blue.

El Gouna Egypt
Erin surveying the damage

If Orascom is serious about protecting its sliver of the Red Sea environment, it must do more than put out feel-good PR about being carbon neutral, recycling sewage to water the golf courses, and exploring solar and wind power options.

At the risk of over editorializing, it’s our opinion that Orascom can do far more to conserve El Gouna’s natural beauty and protect its remaining wildlife.

It should designate areas where seagulls nest in spits of beach, such as you see in the Blue Lagoon, as off-limits to humans (do not forget that these pelagic birds also have to contend with the wild dogs who roam the area, largely unimpeded) — especially to humans on loud, destructive machines that play havoc with the beach ecosystem: quads, but also inflatable boats with noisy outboard motors, or tiny single-engine aircraft and drones.

It should also attempt to control the throngs that pass through here when they hold events such as the upcoming Sandbox music festival, which will do its part in ruining this once edenic part of the Red Sea.

El Gouna Egypt
It’s a start

Finally, there needs to be a concerted effort — other than the limited attempts thus far attempted — to re-establish mangrove stands along El Gouna’s shoreline — both to protect the beaches from erosion and encourage biodiversity, as has been accomplished in Saudi Arabia. No doubt kite surfers and possibly others will complain, but there is plenty of room to reserve a kiting area around Element for such activities.

Will Orascom be willing protect El Gouna, given that the resort is running at a large deficit, with expenses exceeding the revenues derived from property taxes and commercial space rentals?

Will it (or the for-profit developers leasing this area from Orascom) have the eco-aware willingness to put up signs prohibiting such activities around areas such as the Blue Lagoon?

Will it also install sturdy chain link stands that would block quads from entering this spit of beach, and others like it along the shoreline?

Or is the fox — which in Egypt in general, and El Gouna in particular, is the pressure to maximize tourist foreign currency earnings, irrespective of the harm done to the environment — already in the chicken coop?

I fear that is the case.

With the vast number of ugly concrete living structures nearing completion, the day is not far off when the Blue Lagoon shall be completely overrun by holiday people, and the birds who presently live there depart forever.

Pity, that.

But then again, there’s still Marsa Alam… for now.

leaving america


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