'Red' is for endangered: Film offers hope for nature

A film on the Red Sea explores the depths of prevalent issues and the environmental champions working to solve them.

Philip Hamilton.
Philip Hamilton.

'Red' is for endangered: Film offers hope for nature

The beauty of the coral reefs in the Red Sea was witnessed first-hand by John Kerry, United States climate envoy. While he and other delegates were attending Cop27 in Sharm El Sheikh, they took time away from the negotiations and speeches to explore a portion of the reef for themselves. According to the New York Times, they saw a blue-spotted stingray, a six-foot-long moray eel and schools of lunar fusiliers.

But ‘a tourist from northern England, said she and her partner swam closer to what she thought was a group of jellyfish, then realised with dismay that it was an array of plastic bags, coffee cups and chocolate bar wrappers’.

Still, any English tourist knows things could be a lot worse. Pollution along the English coastline is depressingly familiar, and not just with plastic. The behaviour of privatised water companies has led to raw sewage being deliberately poured into the rivers and arriving on beaches.

The problem has got so bad that holidaymakers avoid bathing in some areas and there is even a protest group known as Surfers Against Sewage, or SAS. In this instance, ‘who dares wins’ means surfing without the risk of diarrhoea and vomiting.

Growing problem

Tourists come to the reefs for more aesthetic reasons. The plight of the world’s reefs, however, is well known, and it’s a far bigger problem than plastic bags replacing jellyfish. In the case of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the largest living structure on earth, perhaps half the reef area has been lost to coral bleaching.

This is a direct effect of increases in the warmth of the oceans. The coral, which is an animal, depends on algae inside to photosynthesise the sunlight. When the algae are killed by overheating, the coral loses its colour and the reef dies. Terry Hughes, an expert on the Barrier Reef, was moved to tears when he described the resulting devastation.

In the case of the Red Sea coral, there are risks of toxic waste from oil refineries, the spills of oil, destructive fishing methods, and even the anchors dropped by boats taking tourists to see the reef, yet the risk of overheating is not as acute as elsewhere in the world. It seems that around 10,000 years ago, after the ice age, the larvae of the coral here had to pass through high temperatures in the south, at the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, before they could become established.

As a consequence, only the most heat-resistant larvae survived. They are able to withstand temperatures as much as 7 degrees Celsius above the summer maximum. It is even possible that such coral, which can tolerate heat stress, might one day be transferred to repopulate damaged reefs.

The plight of the world's reefs, however, is well known, and it's a far bigger problem than plastic bags replacing jellyfish ... The coral, which is an animal, depends on algae inside to photosynthesise the sunlight. When the algae are killed by overheating, the coral loses its colour and the reef dies. 

Red Sea exploration

Philip Hamilton is a filmmaker who likes remote places such as the Red Sea. He is a vegetarian who takes flights with great reluctance, owing to the damage they do to the environment. In other projects he has documented the danger to whales of collisions with ships and succeeded in getting shipping routes changed to bypass the animals' feeding and breeding areas.

His film Red shows a car driving over a patch of sand where green turtles have laid their eggs. It's the kind of wanton, unnecessary destruction of habitats that makes one feel queasy.   

In the case of the Red Sea, Hamilton took advantage of the pandemic and the temporary drop in tourist numbers to film some of the wildlife there, particularly in the shallow waters near the coast. His subjects included the dugong that frequent the underwater meadows of sea grass. Like manatees, they belong to the Sirenia family. As entirely marine herbivorous mammals, Sirenia are unique. There is a legend that they got their name from being mistaken for mermaids by sailors.

Getty Images

The idea is far-fetched, not just because, as bottom feeders, dugongs are unlikely to be seen combing their hair on a rock. They are simply not built to impersonate mermaids, sharing a possible lineage with elephants. Some might find them ugly, but they have a benign expression.

Something of a romantic in his view of nature, Hamilton was able to film individual dugongs and even to take a nap with one, before he was woken by a fellow diver. He claims there are only thirty individuals left in the entire Red Sea area. It is more likely that about two thousand survive, though no one knows for sure.

The dugong is a very placid creature, which makes the scenes in the film of tourists surrounding one of them difficult to watch. Yet this kind of harassment might be the least of the threats to its survival. Some get caught in nets and drown, others are hunted.

The dugong is a very placid creature, which makes the scenes in the film of tourists surrounding one of them difficult to watch. Yet this kind of harassment might be the least of the threats to its survival. Some get caught in nets and drown, others are hunted.

Recent scientific evidence suggests that many animal species are not simply sociable, but that they pass down a cultural knowledge that helps them find feeding grounds and avoid dangers. Elephants do this, and given that dugongs may be related to them, it's probable that they also have a culture. Certainly, they are known to congregate in great numbers, if only for short periods at a time.

Statistics heavy

Red is full of statistics. Too many for this viewer to absorb. Out of all the stats in the film, just two stuck in my mind: the one concerning the scarcity of dugongs, and another calculating the variety of fish species in the Red Sea: some fifteen thousand species in all, of which 15% can only be found there.

Many of these fish will be sustained by the coral reefs, and here's one final, mind-boggling statistic: across the world, reefs only account for 0.1% of the sea's area, yet a quarter of marine creatures depend on them. 

Given that statistics have a tendency to confound the imagination, it may be useful at this point to explain what coral is. Mostly sedentary invertebrates, the numerous types of coral include some shaped like fungal ledges. One is shaped like a ball, with convolutions on its surface that resemble the human brain. They come in many colours; there are even fluorescent varieties.


Tiny as the polyps are, their colonies can affect their surroundings on a massive scale. In an annual spawning event timed to coincide with the November full moon, they fill the sea with immense clouds of sperm and eggs.

From the union of these, larvae develop and are caried off by currents to find suitable anchorage on which to build a reef.

Difference of day and night

Sir David Attenborough is probably the most famous naturalist on earth. In episode 8 of his series Life, he demonstrated how coral polyps might colonise a shipwreck.

The process is slow and can be terminated by predation – foraging crabs, for example – or choking amounts of algae. Yet, if the polyps take hold, then a reef can form, eventually replacing the hulk of the ship in its entirety.

By day, a reef like this can appear tranquil. The only obvious movement is of the small, multi-coloured fish going about their business, a peaceable scene identical in effect to the aquarium in a dentist's waiting room. However, after nightfall, as Attenborough puts it, 'the mood on the reef changes.'

'Corals are, in fact, extremely aggressive,' he says, 'and will fight to the death to expand their territory. There can be no honourable retreat; a winner… will eat its enemy alive. Along the battlefront the polyps extrude their guts – long, threadlike filaments – over their opponents…'

Corals are, in fact, extremely aggressive, and will fight to the death to expand their territory. There can be no honourable retreat; a winner… will eat its enemy alive.

Sir David Attenborough

It's a well-worn axiom that armies march on their stomachs. On the reef, they weaponize them too. At this point, the images of warring intestines consume the screen as Sir David's measured tones continue:

'At the fringe, all that remains of the destroyed polyps are their skeletons. The coral that can digest fastest, wins.'

The language here is almost as disconcerting as the pictures – one doesn't encounter the word extrude every day – but the visuals are as dramatic as anything one could see on the plains of the Serengeti.

 AFP/Getty Images

This vision of a battlefield on which the opposing armies digest each other, stands in grotesque contrast to the sort of purple, blue and pink sculpture park witnessed by the delegates in Sharm El Sheikh. It's a reminder that natural beauty can be terrible too. Unlike human warfare, there is a detached quality about the account, as if scripted by Charles Darwin.

Sometimes referred to as the 'rainforests of the sea', reefs are perfect examples of the complexity of the biosphere and its fragility. The heating of the world's oceans has already led to marine heatwaves that can devastate these precious ecosystems.

The Red Sea corals may be more resilient than others, and the local dugongs more numerous than Philip Hamilton suggests, but the world is in the throes of huge changes. A filmmaker can show the effects, but it is not always wise to point fingers at the culprits. "If I started finger-pointing," he says, "I wouldn't stop and I wouldn't sleep at night."

Nor would he have much effect. Since failing to change the minds of Japanese whalers through confrontation, Hamilton favours the approach of Jane Goodall, the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees. While outspoken, she prefers not to antagonise her opponents.

Environmental champions

Hamilton also notes how many local people have taken up the cause of protecting their environment, often at the expense of normal family life. His film introduces us to a zealous few who are committed to improving the chances of sharks, cetaceans and dugongs.

There are also promising signs of a greater public awareness in the countries that border the Red Sea. In Saudi Arabia, for example, Jeddah now hosts an aquarium where people can see for the first time the amazing abundance of creatures a few feet beyond the shoreline.

And at the nearby King Abdullah University in Thuwal, the Red Sea Research Centre is devoted to understanding the coral reef's ecosystem and finding ways to preserve biodiversity.

According to the butterfly effect in chaos theory, the flutter of one butterfly's wings can initiate a chain of events that lead to a hurricane. If parts of the Earth's biosphere are ailing, no ecosystem can avoid that sickness forever.     

Philips Hamilton's film 'Red' takes its name from the sea and from the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of endangered species. Sir David Attenborough's 'Life' is available on BBC iPlayer.         

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