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LatestPhoto
The Odyssey passing a tanker in the Suez Canal - a manmade aquatic 'super highway' that funnels ships between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Photo : Bob Wallace

May 23, 2004
The Suez Canal
Real Audio Report
  28k


Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in Egypt.

A few days ago in Port Suez, the crew lifted anchor to motor up the Suez Canal - a manmade aquatic 'super highway' that funnels ships between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.

The Suez Canal is a 162 kilometer long, 162-meter wide, lockless sand ditch connecting two landlocked seas and three lakes that can accommodate ships with a capacity of 370,000 tons. French Engineer Ferdinand Maire de Lesseps originally proposed the canal project in 1854. Construction began in 1859 and was completed in 1869 when it was described as, "a triumph of will over apathy, and of water over sand". However, even today the dredger's work is never done and the waterway is constantly plagued with eroding banks and tons of windblown sand.

For almost a century after its completion, the Suez Canal was a vital highroad of commerce and empire, linking the industrialized nations of Europe with far-flung outposts, while channeling the raw wealth of Asia and East Africa to commercial markets in the west. It became the barometer of world trade, with thousands of ships passing through each year.

An International agreement in 1888 declared the Canal open to all nations at all times. However, during the two world wars, the British occupiers of Egypt excluded German shipping, and in 1949 Egypt began blocking Israeli ships and those ships carrying cargo bound to or from Israeli ports. Tensions mounted and Israel took the Sinai and the Canal during the six-day war in 1967. Its subsequent closure cost the world an estimated 12 billion dollars in higher shipping costs, in particular the added expense of taking a ship around the longer route and the Cape of Good Hope. Egyptian and US Navy men searched and cleared the canal bottom of ordinance and scuttled vessels and the canal was re-opened two years later. Israel finally withdrew in 1978 handing back the Sinai and control of the Canal to Egypt. However, the result of years of intermittent combat between the two countries is still evident, and children and fishermen line the shore between military posts and rusting metal detritus.

LatestPhoto
Ships that transit the canal at 10 - 14 knots complete the 162-kilometer passage within a day. Most sailboats, including Odyssey, average less than 10 knots and must travel at the tail end of the convoy.
Photo : Genevieve Johnson

It is remarkable to cross a desert on Odyssey, a short cut from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea that allows us to continue our research while saving valuable time on passage.

As the last tanker passed us at Port Suez, we fell in line astern of it and began our journey. With the crew on the bow, we passed through the entrance of the canal in the wake of the tanker. From the corner of my eye, I saw a shadow beneath the turquoise surface, a single bottlenose dolphin emerged, momentarily riding our bow and leading us into the canal. We were thrilled to be accompanied by a dolphin as we left the Indian Ocean, a fitting farewell after two and a half years of research.

The crew thoroughly enjoyed the passage through the canal. For the majority of its length, high sand banks lined the narrow canal along both sides obscuring the desert view. However, from the crow's nest, the scenery was spectacular and we saw the canal snaking through the sand dunes with a line of tankers stretching to the horizon.

For most of its length, the canal is only wide enough to accommodate one-way traffic. Ships leave Port Said to travel south to Port Suez twice a day - midnight and 6am. There is less traffic moving north from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and only one convoy is scheduled for 6am.

There comes a time when it is inevitable for traffic from both ends to meet somewhere in the middle. This is taken into account and carefully timed so that ships meet at the Bitter Lakes giving them opportunity to speed up and pass each other. The Lakes also act as a buffer for absorbing the power of the tides from Suez.

Ships that transit the canal at 10 - 14 knots complete the passage within a day. Most sailboats, including Odyssey, average less than 10 knots and must travel at the tail end of the convoy. Every boat takes a pilot onboard and most sailboats anchor overnight in Ismailiya to avoid oncoming traffic. Ismailiya is situated over half way up the canal and we were told that with every heavy wind, the desert attempts to recapture the little town. From our vantage point at the anchorage, the winding blue ribbon of the canal was hidden and we watched tankers pass through the desert with Asia on the right and Africa on the left.

LatestPhoto
Over a sea of sand, the Odyssey crew ride camels around the pyramids of Giza.
Photo : Chris Johnson

We left before dawn ahead of the northbound convoy. Forty kilometers from the end of the canal we were surprised to see a group of 12 bottlenose dolphins. We wondered if they came from the Mediterranean Sea, or swum north up the canal from the Red Sea. We speculated how noise from the intense shipping traffic in such a confined space may affect their abilities to navigate and forage effectively, and how the unrestricted movement of water between the seas impacts on both marine ecosystems?

Two days and over 160 kilometers later, we arrived in Port Said on the Mediterranean coast. The crew organized a short trip to Cairo and the Pyramids for the following day - a fantastic end to our time in the Indian Ocean.

Links:

  • What did the crew report on one year ago in Sri Lanka?
    Two years ago in the Indian Ocean?
    Three years ago in Papua New Guinea?
    Four years ago in the Galapagos Islands -
    A Special Real Video Report Narrated by Dr. Roger Payne
      >56k   >200k

Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

 
 
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