a visit to the
stubborn
islands

Islands of this sort shouldn't be there, the country is not known for its diving opportunities, yet as Erik Bjurstrom discovers, five cays off Saudi Arabia's Persian Gulf are home to a teeming, breeding marine life

Out in the Persian Gulf, 32km off the Saudi city of Jubail, lies a chain of five coral cays in a place where coral islands are not supposed to exist. Harqus, Karan, Kurayn, Jana and Jurayd were formed when sand built up on a submerged coral reef until it broke the surface of the sea.
The islands have a maximum elevation of 3m above high tide, and support a unique ecosystem, despite harsh conditions normally antithetical to the life forms that have developed there over the years.
The Gulf is usually considered capable of supporting only a minimal marine community, made up of a handful of particularly resistant species. At most places on and around the coast this is what you find but not on these islands.
Compared to the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf is shallow, averaging only 35m deep. Because it is in one of the hottest regions in the world, its waters evaporate faster than the few entering rivers can replenish it. This gives it a high salt concentration. Some parts of the gulf are five times more saline than open oceans.
Also, because of the shallowness of the water, there are big temperature fluctuations: from 10C in winter to 38C in summer. Normally, reef-building corals can live only within a range of 20-32C.
But the Gulf islands are far enough offshore to be surrounded by relatively deep water, and washed by constant currents. These two factors slightly redress the large fluctuation in temperatures, and the salinity found in Saudi's very shallow, almost stagnant coastal waters.
There is also the oil to consider. It is estimated that an average of 250,000 barrels of oil spills into the Gulf every year: the same amount as from the devastating Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989.
But Gulf coral reefs seem to have a remarkable ability to recover from oil spills. There is even a suggestion that through natural selection they have adapted to the presence of oil over the thousands of years that it has seeped into local waters.
The major oil spill at the end of the Gulf War was truly the mother of all oil spills at about one million tons of crude, ten times larger than the normal annual spillage.
A marine sanctuary which included the offshore islands was created by the Saudi authorities in response to this disaster. Latest reports from divers indicate that there has been little destruction of fish and coral there.
To reach the islands we took a dive boat from Jubail. After an hour we saw the horizon broken by a line of bushes, looking through the heat haze like a mirage. Shallow water inside the reef was shining a luminous green. This was Karan Island: a patch of sand in the sea with bush vegetation on it.
We dropped anchor about a mile from the island, and when I dived under the boat I got a pleasant surprise: the water was as clear as that of the Red Sea. A fairytale landscape of coral of all shapes extended in front of me.
Big boulders of porites coral made up the main bulk of the reef. On top of this massive coral were big table corals, branched acropora, and a lot of fire coral bushes. We had to be careful not to touch the fire coral (not a true coral but a jellyfish relative) as it has a very painful sting on contact. Brain coral lay scattered over the seabed like huge cannonballs.
The fish life at Karan was rich, with big shoals of sweetlips and angelfish swimming together. The sunlight reflected in the shoals to make a glittering curtain of light, and as I dived, a tunnel opened among the fish to clear my way to the bottom.
A big parrotfish swam away, trailing a cloud of pulverised coral behind him.
A blue-spotted stingray, which had been lying on the bottom, got scared and disappeared in a cloud of sand.
Two more stingrays, lying in the sand, also moved away, disturbed by my arrival. But the small coral fish just went on eating algae, undisturbed by my presence.
Everywhere under the coral overhangs there were big, brightly coloured lobsters. If I got too close there was a crunching sound like boots trudging in fresh snow.
It was the lobsters signalling distress by rubbing their antennae together.
A movement on the bottom attracted my attention. Two octopuses were in an intimate embrace. When I triggered the camera flash they became as white as snow. Embarrassed by my presence, they crawled away to a more secluded place for their love-making. While they were moving, their bodies continuously changed colours like neon lights.
I turned around and looked straight into the face of a big barracuda! The glittering steel on my tanks had probably attracted him. His jaws looked like a crocodile's, with big sharp teeth sticking out. He was about a metre and a half long, and started circling me, probably out of of curiosity. But could that have been a hungry expression in his eyes?
I tried to scare him away by swimming towards him and yelling, as one writer on marine life recommends. But this one had obviously not read the book, because he did not move an inch. He just kept his distance, swimming round and round.
I did not dare to let him out of my sight, so I retreated slowly backwards towards the reef. Then I made a quick rush to the surface and the waiting boat.
We went ashore and prepared a camp and a barbecue. It was May, and the island was a meeting place for breeding animals, both in the water and on land. We saw greenback turtles mating everywhere in the sea, while on the shore thousands of seabirds jostled for space. The noise from the birds (mostly lesser crested tern and common noddy) was deafening. Their eggs covered the sand.
In the evening, after we had eaten our meal around the camp fire, I took a stroll around the island. As I walked, I suddenly stumbled into a big hole in the ground. It was a turtle laying her eggs. I looked around and saw similar holes everywhere. Turtles in various stages of egg-laying were all around.
I felt sorry for them. They were so clumsy on land. The egg-laying seemed to cause them agony, and viscous tears dripped from their eyes. After laying, they meticulously covered their eggs with sand and went back to the sea with slow, tired movements.
There are two species of sea turtles that mate and nest in the Gulf: the hawksbill and the green turtle, both endangered species. Nesting begins in early summer. Adult hawkbills are the first to appear, mating around the islands in late spring. By mid-May the females begin crawling ashore at night to deposit their eggs. A month later the larger green turtles show up.
After digging several false nests they dig a real nest and drop 50 to 120 soft-shelled, ping-pong-ball-sized eggs. The eggs hatch about two months later. As the baby turtles make their way to the sea many are picked off by gulls and other birds. Once they are in the water, they become victims of marine predators. Very few of the hatchlings actually reach adult size.
Before the Gulf War, these islands were uninhabited, and one of the most important sea turtle nesting sites in the world. More than 1500 green turtles nested here every year. Now the area is disturbed by military patrols and heavy equipment. If the hatchlings survive the oil spills, they probably won't return to the now bustling islands to mate.
As a fitting conclusion to a good dive trip, our second dive day ended with a wonderful show by the eagle rays. They appeared under the boat in a school of about 20, and gave us a ballet performance, like butterflies in a summer field.

  • Saudi Arabia is not open for tourism without a sponsor based in the country, but Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, is. The biggest diving enterprise is Scuba Dubai, PO Box 5173, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (fax: 00971 4 3328026,e-mail scuba@emirates.net.ae) Also: Dubai Diving and Watersports Centre, PO Box 9154, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (fax 00 971 4 820244), and Dubai Sports Diving Club, PO Box 11403, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (fax 00 971 4 391270).

    Appeared in DIVER - June 1999