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Egypt’s Darwin: Remembering Marine Biologist Hamed Gohar

November 25, 2022
Copyright: Francesco Ungaro

Scientists do not live in the spotlight. They are not usually found on the covers of magazines, in YouTube advertisements, or on grand highway billboards. Though there are countless researchers that have been published around the world, only few are recognized by name alone, and oftentimes, they are Eurocentric researchers.

Take the example of a marine biologist: when one searches ‘marine biologist’ on an online search engine, most likely they’ll come across countless articles on Charles Darwin – the most prominent 19th-century naturalist and geologist. Darwin yearned to explain the beautiful diversity of nature, which helped him to develop the revolutionary theory of natural selection in his book “On the Origin of Species” in 1859.

Yet rarely does one ever come across the names of scientists from other parts of the world, particularly the global south. For the Middle East, Egyptian scientist Hamed Gohar was the Darwin of the region. Widely considered to be the founding father of oceanography in the Arab world, his passion for the seas and oceans was more akin to a deep, intimate friendship than simply work.

Who was Hamed Gohar?

Born in 1907 in Cairo, Gohar was one of the first in the region to pursue biology instead of medicine in 1925. His exceptional and unique intellect helped him acquire a Master’s degree in oceanography from the prestigious University of Cambridge in 1931.

Gohar then started looking at xenia, or soft coral, near the Red Sea shore. He also discovered that dugong – a sea mammal that was originally believed to be extinct in the region – still existed in the Red Sea. He published the first scientific analysis of red sea dugongs in 1957, and because of this study, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species currently classifies the threatened marine species as vulnerable. The Convention on International Commerce in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora also forbade the trade of the animal internationally.

At the Hurghada Marine Biological Station, he spent another 25 years studying marine life, and it’s said that because of his passion for aquatic life, he never ate fish.

Gohar produced a number of contributions to marine biology in Egypt and the Arab world. He collaborated in the development of Arabic scientific dictionaries with the Arabic Language Academy, assisted in the planning of the inaugural International Conference on Law of the Sea in Geneva and acted as an advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations. He is also well-known to an entire generation of Arabs thanks to the successful television programme he hosted for more than 18 years called “Sea World“.

Though there isn’t much information available on his achievements and story, nor any media interviews, Gohar’s ‘Sea World’ program provides an insight of the breadth of knowledge he had and the passion he carried for marine biology. He did not speak exactly like a professor, but also like a grandfather telling a story, calmly describing the significance of marine life to the ecology and dispelling common misconceptions.

As the gravity of climate change becomes more apparent, people like Gohar are important to remember and honor. Not only did he spark inspiration for many in the region when it came to marine biology, his distinctive voice and unwavering devotion to the ocean leaves an important legacy of science and knowledge.

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