Underwater WWII Wreck Has Become A Refuge For Marine Life

It has been demonstrated that coral reefs can grow remarkably well on artificial substrates made from sunken battleships.

<p><strong>M-20 motorcycle in a hold offers shelter to marine biodiversity. A variety of marine life had taken up residence within the vehicles and motorcycles that were still in the holds. WILFRED HDEZ/SWNS</strong></p>

A WWII wreck in the Red Sea has become a refuge for marine life as good as any reef, a new study has revealed.

Biologists now say that artificial reefs can have a large part to play in the conservation of marine life.

The SS Thistlegorm was a British cargo steamship built in 1940 and sunk the following year after being hit by two German Heinkel HE 111 bombers.

When she went to the bottom of the sea, the ship was on her way to Alexandria in Egypt, carrying Bedford trucks, armored vehicles, Norton 16H and BSA motorbikes, Bren guns, cases of ammunition, and 0.303 rifles all destined for British troops.

There were also Wellington boots, aircraft parts, railway wagons and two LMS Stanier Class 8F steam locomotives for the Egyptian National Railways.

Four sailors and five gunners were also lost in the sinking, and the ship now lies at a depth of 30m (90 feet), becoming a popular diving site off Sharm El Sheikh.

The trucks and motorbikes, still in the holds, have become home to a plethora of marine life and scientists set out to discover how it compared to the real coral reefs nearby.

Massive artificial coral reef communities, such those found on sunken ships, often resemble neighbouring natural coral reefs in their long-term dynamics, which may increase the resilience of the reefs to environmental change in the future. SAAD ALAIYADHI/PEXELS

Study author Chloe Lee from the Department of Biological, Marine Science Group, at the University of Bologna, said: “The SS Thistlegorm provides a compelling example of how artificial coral reefs can sustain a well-established community structure similar to those of their natural counterparts.

“Large artificial coral reef communities, such as those thriving on sunken shipwrecks, tend to mirror those of nearby natural coral reefs, and their long-term dynamics may help future reef resilience to environmental change.

“Sunken warships have been shown to serve as exceptionally good artificial substrates for coral reefs as their size and complexity offer a multitude of opportunities for microhabitats, and in cases where they extend down to 30–40 m (131.23 feet (40.00 m)), the cooler waters can provide respite to corals from warming oceans but still sufficient light for their symbiotic zooxanthellae.”

Researchers used ‘citizen science’ to survey the wreck for 72 different species over eight years.

They also noted the sea temperature, depth and time of the dive, logging species such as Giant Morays, Soft Tree Coral, Red Sea Clownfish and Napoleon Wrasse.

Over the eight years, 71 of the 72 target species were sighted regularly.

Ms. Lee added: “We examined the community structure of the world renown “SS Thistlegorm” wreck in the northern Red Sea from 2007 through 2014, analyzing data collected during the recreational citizen science Red Sea monitoring project ‘Scuba Tourism for the Environment.’

“The community structure at the SS Thistlegorm showed relative stability over time, making this artificial reef a possible and promising refuge for Red Sea communities.

“Further investigation on the influence of artificial reefs as an auxiliary tool
for human-influenced decline could entail the comparison of multiple wreck sites within the northern Red Sea to nearby natural coral reef dive sites through species abundance analyses between and among groupings of sites.”

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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