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Volume 41, Number 3May/June 1990

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Sand, Sea & Sky

Written by John Lawton and Miranda McQuitty
Additional photographs by Michael McKinnon

It took a Saudi Arabian student studying in the United States to sum it up: "I had no idea Arabia had such interesting wildlife," said Azza al-Sharifah, "and I live there."

She was speaking following the March preview, in Washington, D.C., of the first in-depth study of Arabia's natural history on film (See box, page 22). For although the uniqueness and diversity of its wildlife has been known to experts for some time, it is only now - in the documentary series Arabia: Sand, Sea and Sky - that its story is being told to the public.

The series of three 50-minute programs makes its world television premiere in May, carried by 7,222 cable systems to 48.2 million homes in the United States by - appropriately - The Discovery Channel. For, says the series' producer-director Michael McKinnon, "each program is a journey of discovery."

The Mountain Barrier explores the wildlife of the high Sarawat escarpment that separates Saudi Arabia's coastal Tihama plain from the deserts of the peninsula's interior. The Red Sea Rift investigates the marine riches of the Red Sea from the mangrove swamps of the south, through the spectacular coral reefs of the center, to the sea-grass beds of the north. And The Eye of the Camel follows a Bedouin family across the sands of the legendary Rub' al-Khali, examining the extraordinary strategies adopted by animals and plants to survive in this desolate region.

Filmed over a period of two years in more than 100 locations in Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea, the series benefited from what McKinnon, an Australian, describes as "a great piece of luck. Just as we went into production," he explained, "the results of a whole series of studies done by experts for the Saudi National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development were published. It was manna from heaven."

Even John Bulmer, the cameraman responsible for what Discovery Channel's Michael Prettyman described as "some of the best film we have ever had on our air," gave credit to the scientists of the Saudi wildlife commission who advised him. "There is no mystery about wildlife photography," said Bulmer. "It's just a matter of experts showing you the right place at the right time, and then being quick and on the ball."

But Bulmer's modesty belies the actual effort that went into making Arabia: Sand, Sea and Sky; over 30 people were engaged in 11 three-week shoots that involved four months at sea and more than 160,000 kilometers (100,000 miles) of land travel. For Arabia is a vast area - as large as Western Europe, or the United States east of the Mississippi - bordered on three sides by water and on the fourth by desert. And while this isolation led to the development of its unique wildlife, it also made filming it - until recently - nearly impossible.

"But modern development and the newly available scientific knowledge enabled us to film in the remotest places," said McKinnon, whose previous productions include The Arabs, a highly acclaimed study of the contemporary Arab world in a historical perspective.

McKinnon also takes a contextual approach to his subjects in Arabia: Sand, Sea and Sky. His scripts stress that the origins of much of Arabia's wildlife go back 30 million years, when the Arabian Peninsula broke away from the African landmass, isolating many species. The separation was part of a rifting process still going on - one that is responsible for a chain of great African lakes from Malawi to Kenya and that extends as far north as Turkey. In between, the tectonic movement tore a huge rift in the earth's crust from Ethiopia to Jordan, more than 1600 kilometers (1000 miles) long, into which poured the waters of the Indian Ocean, carrying marine life with them and creating the Red Sea.

Marooned on a vast peninsula, Arabia's wildlife evolved away from its African origins, while Red Sea marine life, isolated in a long sleeve of water, developed away from its Indian Ocean beginnings.

Thus were created the unique life forms found in the Red Sea today, and on Arabian soil - where, for example, four out of 10 insect species are endemic, that is, found nowhere else in the world.

The Indian Ocean still passes over the shallow threshold of the Bab al-Mandab to replenish the Red Sea, and McKinnon's cameras follow the flow of its nutrient-rich water along thousands of kilometers of coral cliffs, atolls, reefs and lagoons, which give the sea some of the most stunning underwater landscapes in the world (See Aramco World, May-June 1985 and May-June 1989).

In the southern Red Sea, abundant plankton supports an immense chain of life. Microscopic creatures support triggerfish, boat fish and a great variety of gobies and prawns. Vast schools of jacks feed in the biological soup, while shoals of barracuda prey upon smaller fish and groups of 20 or more giant manta rays feed in extraordinary circling formations.

Where they meet the land, the nutrient-rich waters of the south have also created mangrove swamps - the domain of crabs, rock skippers and herons. But by the time the water reaches the central Red Sea - drawn north by evaporation from the surface - the Indian Ocean's flow is depleted of nutrients; marine life there is concentrated on deep coral walls.

These coral cliffs stretch north for a thousand miles to the Gulf of Aqaba, where sand washed down from coastal mountains provides ideal conditions for great meadows of sea grasses. Here seabed-dwelling creatures, vunerable to predators swimming above, have evolved intriguing means of camouflage and evasion. But McKinnon's cameras flush out the moth fish - rarely seen by man - and film groves of garden eels anchored tail-down in the sandy bottom, feeding on food drifting by.

Arabia's break with Africa was a violent affair; as the peninsula pivoted away to the east - the hinge point was Jordan - its western edge also tilted upward, creating a mountain wall the entire length of the Red Sea coast. This great mountain system is called the Hijaz - the barrier.

Impassable for most wildlife, the mountains loom above a coastal plain where Arabia's ancient links with Africa are evident in such species as the Abyssinian roller, with its spectacular, gravity-aided mating display.

In the south, prevailing winds sweep the Red Sea's moisture-laden air up and over the mountain wall, where cooler altitudes wring rainstorms from the clouds that form. The high slopes are thus the most verdant region of the Arabian Peninsula, and the part where the greatest variety of endemic species is found. Here the Yemen linnet thrives in the steeply terraced fields, and in the high mountains juniper forests contain the greatest concentration of wildlife anywhere in Arabia, including some 350,000 hamadryas baboons and 11 uniquely Arabian bird species (See Aramco World, July-August 1989).

Elsewhere, in the rugged outcrops of the drier northern mountains, McKinnon's cameras discover the refuge of the ibex, and film the harrahs - vast volcanic plains of black lava rubble hundreds of kilometers across. Cold, bleak and barren in winter, the harrahs come to life with the spring rains, attracting nomadic animals and birds, including seven species of lark, which come here to breed.

On the eastern side of the mountains it seldom rains, but when it rains, it pours. Much of this water disappears into aquifers - layers of porous rock - beneath the desert, but in the brief life of the desert pools a fully rounded natural drama is played out. The waters bring back to life the dormant eggs of Triops granarius, one of the region's oldest inhabitants, the desert shrimp. In the space of a few days the shrimp grow to maturity, mate and die -leaving their eggs to lie in wait for rains that may not come for another 20 years.

In the southeast of Arabia lies the Rub' al-Khali, the largest continuous sand desert on earth, with linear dunes stretching for hundreds of kilometers and towering sand mountains rising more than 300 meters (1000 feet) from ancient dry-lake beds (See Aramco World , May-June 1989).

Covering an area larger than France, the sand desert is known as the Empty Quarter because, for at least the six months of summer, searing heat prevents animals or wandering herdsmen from venturing into it. Only in winter do the Bedouins of southern Arabia enter these forbidding sands, leading their camels into the desert in search of pasture.

McKinnon's cameras accompany a family of Bedouins of the Al Murrah tribe, and their camels, on their winter migration through the center of the Rub' al-Khali, together with their saluki hounds. The fleet-footed saluki is believed to have originated in southern Arabia 8000 years ago and has been used since earliest times to hunt gazelle, bustard and hare.

The lives of the camel and the Bedouins have been inextricably linked, too, since the beast of burden and provider of milk, meat and hair was domesticated in southern Arabia 4000 years ago - probably saving it from extinction.

Wild desert animals, however, must fend for themselves and have adopted an intriguing variety of survival strategies. The rare rheem gazelle, for example, may spend its entire life without drinking. Instead, it takes moisture from the desert plants it eats, and starts the day by licking the morning dew from its coat.

Although such habits do not change, the habitat of much of Arabia's wildlife has been transformed in recent years by modern development. Arabia: Sand, Sea and Sky examines the profound implications of these changes for the peninsula's wildlife, and assesses the conditions required to strike a balance between the demands of modern Arabia and the needs of its wildlife heritage.

The series shows, for example, how the technology of oil production has been used to pump water from vast subterranean reservoirs, making possible extensive new agricultural projects. For the millions of birds that migrate through the peninsula each year, these new areas of vegetation provide readymade refueling stops, while pools and rivers of irrigation water have become the new oases for resident wildlife (See Aramco World , November-December 1986).

Conversely, the numbers of large Arabian animals have decreased in the last 35 years, as four-wheel-drive vehicles have brought hunters with automatic weapons into previously inaccessible areas. Some animals, like the endemic Farasan gazelle, have survived only on remote Red Sea islands, while the ibex have been protected only by the continued inaccessibility of their mountain habitat.

National parks have now been established in most countries of the Arabian Peninsula, along with ambitious plans to protect endangered Arabian species.

"Arabia," says McKinnon, "has inherited a wildlife of great richness and diversity."

The message of Arabia: Sand, Sea and Sky is that the countries of the Arabian Peninsula are using their resources to protect it.

John Lawton is Aramco World's contributing editor.

Miranda McQuitty is a natural history researcher.

A Natural History Preview
Written by Libby Dudley

Audience reaction to a preview, in Washington, D.C. last March, of extracts from the three-part series Arabia: Sand, Sea and Sky, was demonstrative and outspoken. The 480 invited viewers winced as a colorful mountain kingfisher repeatedly batted a neon-blue agamid lizard against a tree before devouring it, and gasped at the aerial acrobatics of the long-tailed Abyssinian roller as it performed for a potential mate.

They were wide-eyed at the lightning-paced race to the death between a desert hare and a saluki hound, and entranced by the "dance of the sea": underwater plants and eels swaying with the current, their movements choreographed to an inaudible undersea beat.

"Wonderful photography," said Dr. Roderic Davison, professor of history at George Washington University. "It's stunning footage," enthused Michael Prettyman, of The Discovery Channel, the US broadcaster of the series.

"I wish we could have seen more," added Jane Newson, editor of Middle East Journal, following the preview at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

Television viewers in the United States will be able to see the full series on three consecutive Tuesday evenings at 8:00 Eastern time, May 15,22 and 29, when Arabia: Sand, Sea and Sky will be broadcast, with limited commercial interruptions, on The Discovery Channel. It will also be shown on three Thursdays at 10:00 a.m. (May 17,24 and 31) and three Fridays at 11:00 p.m. (May 18,25 and June 1).

Viewers in Saudi Arabia can look forward to seeing the first episode of the series on Saudi Arabian Television in the near future. Negotiations are under way with broadcasters in a number of other countries as well, says producer-director Michael McKinnon, and the BBC has agreed to broadcast the series this autumn in the United Kingdom. "We expect the series to be sold worldwide, perhaps to as many as 20 or 30 countries in the end," McKinnon added.

The production was financed by Saudi Aramco, Mobil Corporation, and Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), who are also underwriting the US telecast.

This article appeared on pages 16-25 of the May/June 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1990 images.