The sea was a perfect flat calm. Not even the faintest ripple disturbed the serene surface of that mirror like water. The air was equally still and tinged
with a salty mist as the red sun laboured slowly into the heavens for the start of another day. Only the deep blue of the cloudless sky hinted at the ferocious heat of the day to come. A tarpaulin was laid across the ground to help minimise the amount of sand left clinging to our bags and clothes at the day’s end. We had learned by bitter experience that no amount of careful planning prevented those all pervasive granules from adhering to everything in that humid climate. We assembled the tanks and regulators without speaking, as though nobody wished to break the magic of the morning’s silence. Quietly we donned BCDs, ran through a fast and noiseless equipment check, picked up mask and fins, and walked towards the waters edge. It was almost with a feeling of shame that we crossed the threshold from sand to water, and broke by our own movement that perfect flatness of the sea. Quickly we waded to deeper water, donned fins, and grasping the regulator between eager lips, slid below the liquids surface.
This was what we had driven so far to achieve. Weeks of anticipation and planning were reaching their moment of fulfilment. We dropped slowly, tensing against the cold ingress of water as it permeated the collar and cuffs of the wetsuit. We dropped through water as yet only weakly lit by the low sun, until, at precisely six metres below that calm surface, we struck the bottom. We stared out in amazement, before us lay a uniform bed of sand stretching as far as the eye could see, punctuated only by the odd crumpled Pepsi can and a single blue thong. Adjusting buoyancy carefully so not to disturb the fine particles of the bottom and reduce the visibility below four metres we followed the direction predicted by a compass towards our goal. We finned gently through that placid water in that early morning gloom, until it was possible to detect a faint hint of shape, a slight difference in colouration. As we moved closer the vague outline hardened, the colours became more pronounced, and at last she could be seen in her entirety. Our navigation had been unerring, we had found our goal. The majestic wreck lay flat on the sandy bottom, she was intact and fully twenty feet long, sitting upright on all four wheels. The seats designed to carry passengers at two riyals a time were still in place, though threadbare from many years of submersion. The glass was missing, and a hole large enough for a man to pass through was visible in her roof. This was no war sunk relic, nor a vessel which met grief on the outside of some uncharted reef in the midst of a storm, but rather a Toyota minibus carefully placed on the seabed to form an artificial reef. The success of the project became apparent as we slowly approached, and a startled sergeant major fully 6cm long dashed away from his lair near the steering wheel of the vehicle. Two sea perch came out of the gloom to investigate us, but rapidly turned away and disappeared from vision. We checked our gauges, six metres of depth, four minutes into the dive, and still an abundant supply of air……….
This is how many view diving in the Gulf of Arabia in comparison to the luxury of the Red Sea situated on the opposite coast of the Arabian Peninsula. But having been lucky enough to spentd more than twenty years of my life diving on both sides of Arabia I can tell you how much I have enjoyed each of the very different environments. The Red Sea is deep, part of the Great Rift Valley, and generally blessed with a more or less constant year round water temperature as well as tremendous water clarity. It is this feature that allows the coral reefs to flourish as the algae zooxanthellae which lives symbiotically with most corals and helps feed the polyps therein requires copious amounts of light in order to photosynthesise. The Gulf on the other hand is a shallow sea, and hence suffers considerable temperature variation throughout the year, something you will quickly realise if you invade those waters in January. Also the generally sandy bottom is prone to easy disturbance, especially by windy weather or storms, and consequently visibility tends to be much reduced. But that does not diminish the pleasure to be gained from diving in the Gulf.
It is here in the shallow water described above in the salty inlet of Half Moon Bay near Al Khobar in Saudi Arabia that I have seen large numbers of sea snakes ferreting in and out of the prawn and goby holes in the muddy bottom searching out a tasty morsel. Sadly man’s incursion and proximity to this environment has had an impact, and over the years the number of snakes spied has dropped dramatically. But the flat bottom is still home to many sea grasses, and these in turn provide the feeding and breeding grounds for many species. And nothing is more exhilarating than sitting quietly and watching the interrelationships of the species that abound in even these shallow and murky waters. I was always amazed to watch how the prawns and gobys shared the tasks of housekeeping in their unusual symbiotic relationship. Usually the goby would take on guard duty watching for predators as the prawn cleaned and extended their mutual home, a task that was rewarded by food donated to the crustacean by the fish.
It is in the Gulf that I have seen the unusual upside down jellyfish, so called as they lay on the bottom with their fronds pointed uppermost to feed. And in these same waters large and friendly squaretail groupers have followed divers regularly around, watching inquisitively while hoping for a free treat. Many people, probably accurately, disapprove of fish feeding but it is hard to refuse these loveable creatures as they sit on the sand supported on their pectoral fins and watch you closely with large soulful eyes. Be warned though, like every wild creature they can become aggressive feeders and bite, but you are unlikely to suffer any major wounds. Rather than teeth they are armed with upper and lower dental plates coated with razor sharp denticles, more closely resembling short cropped wire brushes than any pair of teeth. I was the victim of such an aggressive attack by a large and presumably hungry grouper. A group of divers had formed the habit of taking small tins of Viennese sausages with which to feed the fish, and obviously they quickly learned to identify the reflective cans with food. I had no sooner taken a tin from my BCD pocket when a huge and wide mouth grabbed my hand and the can, fortunately retaining only the latter as it sped quickly past. Even more fortunately no lasting damage was done as the fish disgustedly spat out the unopened tin some distance sustaining no damage to it while allowing me to retrieve and use the fish food. Hopefully after that incident the animal became more cautious and learned better manners and to wait to be served.
There are many islands in the Gulf, and many do have areas of reef around. But better still this body of water has been a shipping route for many centuries, and where there are and have been ships on the surface you will inevitably find ships underwater. And for me wrecks, (other than deliberately sunken 4 wheeled vehicles), offer the most exciting part of diving. That excitement is not from seeing what I can recover, and I do know of wrecks in Arabian waters still laden with bottles alcohol and plastic sealed carpets, though I will not repeat their locations. Nor is the fascination for me to spend time pushing myself to the limit trying to penetrate a potential death trap of cables, pipes and corridors. Rather I just want to watch as I am always stunned by the peace and serenity of a sunken vessel, and try to imagine what it was like as hysteria and panic abounded when the ship sank in the midst of a storm or after running accidentally aground.
Yes, the Red Sea is great, but so is the Gulf.