With slow, graceful wing movements, the black-backed ray flew through the water like a giant bird. Its mouth, gaping to sieve the plankton-laden water, was so big I could have swum into it. In front of it, a school of pilotfish kept formation, and from its white belly hung two suckerfish. The ray turned and stopped in front of me. It was some five meters (16') across. Its big eye gazed at me for a moment and then, with an elegant flip of its wings, it banked away. I had met one of the gentler monsters of the deep—a manta ray—on my first plunge into a coral reef in the Farasan Bank, off the southwestern coast of Saudi Arabia.
In his 1963 classic The Living Sea , Jacques Cousteau noted the "overwhelming underwater life" of the Farasan Bank, and called it "one of the most fascinating areas [explored] during our first Red Sea expedition. Only a few Westerners have seen it and even fewer have dived there. To learn about the Farasan's reef structures and marine biological richness would take a lifetime."
I was 15 when I first read that passage, and I was just learning to dive. With Cousteau's words, the Farasan Bank began to shimmer like a mirage at the horizon of my most adventurous dreams. Over the years, as I dived on many of Europe's coasts and a few in Sri Lanka, I always regarded the Farasan Bank as my ultimate diver's goal.
The Farasan Bank is a shoal 100 kilometers (62 mi) wide that stretches 800 kilometers (500 mi) down Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast from the latitude of the town of al-Lith to Karamaran Island in the south. It is part of the Arabian Peninsula's continental shelf, which drops from an average depth of roughly 40 meters (130') down to some 600 meters (2000') at its outer edge. The Bank includes more than 100 coral islets of widely varying size and some 20 large islands; among them, those of the Farasan Island archipelago, off the port of Jaizan, are the largest. (See Aramco World , November/December 1994.) They are limestone islands, built up of coral created some 8000 years ago, as sea levels rose with the ending of the last ice age. Because of the extensive areas of shallow water, which gives the corals good access to the light that is essential for the growth of reefs, coral "gardens" have spread over vast areas, creating a rich and beautiful ecosystem still unaffected by tourism, industry or large-scale fishing, and one still virtually unknown outside the Arabian Peninsula.
For nearly two decades I kept my boyhood dream alive. Then, in 1981, I had an opportunity to join a dental clinic in Khamis Mushayt, a city in southern Saudi Arabia about 20 kilometers (13 mi) from Abha, the largest city close to the Farasan Bank. I packed my cases with diving equipment and an old but available 1918 British Admiralty chart, determined to explore the underwater world of the Farasan Bank.
Getting permission to dive on the Farasan Bank took time. We made several practice dives along the inshore reefs. It was July when we were finally able to set out, into a calm sea, with the 50-degree (122°F) heat burning on our shoulders. But I was ecstatic, and I regarded the school of dolphins that escorted us out as a good omen. An hour later we noticed a line of what looked like bushes on the horizon. It turned out not to be a mirage, but materialized into an island surrounded by a reef. Within the reef, the shallow water shone a luminous green; when we dived, we found a fairytale landscape of coral and soft coral fans in glowing colors.
In the distance I saw something big moving. At first I thought it was a whale shark, the world's largest fish, but then it began to resemble a compact swarm of bees. It turned out to be a school of striated fusiliers, an anchovy-like fish. In all my years of diving I had never seen such a tightly packed school of fish: It was like a moving wall. When I approached, a tunnel opened up in the wall and I was engulfed, swimming in a cave with moving walls as the uncountable fusiliers moved as one all around me, as if guided by a single brain. Then a group of fast jacks approached the fusiliers. The school moved away from me and packed itself into a giant ball of fish. When the jacks hit the ball, it exploded in all directions like fireworks, confusing the attackers just long enough to allow the fusiliers to escape. Exhilarated, I returned to the surface. My efforts to come here had been justified.
The largest island in the Farasan Bank, after the Farasan Islands themselves, is Jabal Sabaya, 338 kilometers (208 mi) south of Jiddah and 19 kilometers (12 mi) from the coast. It rises more than nine meters (30') above sea level, and the water around the island is deep, as the coral walls fall precipitously to the bottom. When we dived there, descent was like slow-motion skydiving; in moments like this, diving becomes not a sport, but a sublime philosophical experience.
At 45 meters (150'), I pushed off horizontally from the reef wall and hovered in a blue nothing where I could see neither surface nor bottom. A strange well-being began to fill my body—a warning signal, in fact, that the increased pressure in my breathing air was making the nitrogen it contained act like a narcotic. I lit my light and revealed an explosion of color from the gorgonia fan coral (Gorgonella maris-rubi) that was growing out from the wall. The gorgonia species host numerous life-forms, such as shrimp and bright-colored nudibranchs, that shelter in its branches and take advantage of its habit of growing out into the edges of the nutrient-bearing currents that flow along the reef.
The small white soft coral that I saw nearby, a species in the Xeniidae family, is a particularly sophisticated example of symbiosis. The coral polyps, which are animals, harbor large numbers of individual algal cells within their own tissues that benefit from the waste products of the polyps' metabolism; the algae, which are plants, for their part carry out photosynthesis whose products nourish the coral. The beautiful feathery tentacles of the coral polyps are constantly performing a rhythmic dance, opening and closing in unison like hands, perhaps to keep their symbionts supplied with fresh, oxygen-rich water.
Several long-nose hawkfish, with neat red gridlines marking their silver sides, were lying among the branches of a gorgonian. One of them held a small jewelfish in its long beak, looking very like a seabird with its catch. With trembling fingers I moved quickly to try and make the photograph of my life—but the hawkfish swallowed his prey. In nitrogen narcosis, I couldn't feel much disappointment, and I actually began to giggle into my regulator. It was all like floating in a dream.
At the same time, several lionfish were hovering along the vertical wall, armed with what are generally regarded as lethally poisonous dorsal spines. Local fishermen had told me that the only salve for a lionfish sting is a red-hot iron, whose heat apparently destroys the protein-based poison, and consequently I had great respect for lionfish. But as anything beautiful and poisonous or dangerous is an underwater photographer's ultimate subject, I went in close with my macro lens—apparently too close. At lightning speed the fish shot forward, and, bending its back like a snake, buried a spine in my finger. Pain shot through my hand as though I had put my finger in an open flame. For a moment I panicked, but to my surprise, the pain subsided after about five minutes without any more damage done. I had been lucky: The sting was a shallow one. A deeper sting that penetrated a larger blood vessel would have resulted in excruciating, lasting pain. I continued my descent. At 66 meters (216') we reached the bottom, in light that was faint and gray, like the time just before dawn in the world above. Before us lay what looked like a moonscape of dead coral. Several sharks patrolled in front of us (see Aramco World, March/April 1996), and strangely shaped sponges hung like stalactites. At this depth, the sound of our breathing seemed distorted and echoed through the water. Our time was running out, so without lingering long, we turned upward, back toward light and life.
When I get a fish in my viewfinder I often find myself wondering why it looks the way it does, why it behaves the way it does; I'm struck by the wonderful solutions nature has found for each creature's needs. Farasan, for us, was a miracle of biological diversity. Every little fish occupied its own niche in the ecological system and showed its own particular behavior. At night we saw swarms of lights moving through the water like fireflies—the astonishing little flashlight fish (Photoblepharon palpebratus). Under each eye, this fish has an elliptical, sac-like organ full of light-producing bacteria; the organ is sizeable—about 17 millimeters (11/16") long, and thus larger than the fish's eye—and is equipped with an "eyelid" that allows the fish to turn the light on and off at will. Apparently, the light attracts the zooplankton the flashlight fish eats and enables it to see its prey, and also helps it both to signal other flashlight fish and confuse predators.
We saw many examples of symbiosis, or cooperation between species, besides the algae-coral relationship. On the bottom, we saw small holes in the sand, each guarded by a goby fish (Ctenogobiops maculosus) and maintained by a snapping shrimp: We often saw the shrimp come out of the hole shoving a pile of sand in front of it. The shrimp digs the hole and maintains it; both the shrimp and the goby live in it. The shrimp rarely leaves the hole unless the goby is on guard, and usually keeps one of its antennae in contact with the fish, for, of the two creatures, the goby has better vision and a greater sensitivity to low-frequency vibration. If danger approaches, the goby somehow signals, and both creatures immediately withdraw into the hole. Over the course of some 200 dives in the Farasans, I watched this duo many times, and I noticed that if danger approached when the shrimp had wandered away from the fish, the goby made a motion that resembled coughing, apparently sending a vibration through the water, which prompted the shrimp to pop back into the hole.
We had the time, too, to see unexpected behavior. On one dive, a companion was kneeling on the bottom taking pictures when a 150-centimeter (5’) yellow-margin moray eel (Gymnothorax flavimarginatus) left its hole and began to examine the diver who was photographing it, sniffing all over his body while twining around him like a snake. It looked my companion straight in the eyes, and he held the eel in his arms and was able to stroke it—which the big eel seemed to enjoy.
With several companions I spent every weekend for nearly three years diving on the Farasan Bank, getting to know every detail of many reefs and feeling like an astronaut who can make his visits to another planet whenever he wishes. The names of Hadara, Jabal Sabaya, Abu Latt and other islands, which had once so captivated Cousteau, became synonyms for adventure. But to me, in addition, the Farasan Bank meant something few are fortunate enough to experience: The realization of a boyhood dream.
An award-winning underwater photographer, Erik Bjurström is working on a book about his adventures diving throughout the Red Sea and among deep wrecks in the Baltic. He lived in Saudi Arabia for 16 years.