Published: March 2012
The Seas of Arabia
Poets praise their treasures. Profiteers deplete them. Activists now seek to preserve them.
By Kennedy Warne

The old fisherman sat on a scrap of carpet in a thatched shelter by the sea.

His face was like a walnut shell, and his eyes squinted with a lifetime of gazing into the white-hot glare of Arabia. The shamal was blowing off the sea in scorching gusts, making even the date palms droop. "It is the western wind," the man said in a raspy voice. "I feel its warmth."

Behind him, the village of Film, notched into the mountains of Oman's Musandam Peninsula, shimmered like a brazier. Goats panted in the shade cast by upturned boats and the walls of a mosque. Just breathing made me feel as if my nostrils might burst into flame. Sami Alhaj, my Yemeni dive partner, said: "Underwater, with the corals, we get a little piece of heaven. Above water, with this wind, we get a little piece of hell."

We soon fled the inferno and descended into paradise once more. Color marked our passage between worlds as vividly as temperature did. Where the colors of land were those of the spice suq—pepper, cinnamon, mustard, mace—the undersea world was drenched in the sumptuous hues of a sultan's palace. Long, waving indigo arms of soft corals mingled with pomegranate fronds of feather stars. Speckled-gray moray eels, whose gaping mouths reveal a startling burst of yellow, leered out of crevices, while butterflyfish flitted past in tangerine flashes.

Had the legendary Scheherazade known the richness of these seas, she would have had stories for another thousand and one Arabian nights. She might have piqued the king's curiosity with the riddle of the reefs of Dhofar, in southern Oman; they flourish as coral gardens in winter and seaweed forests in summer. The trigger for this ecological shift—found nowhere else—is the onset of the khareef, the southwesterly monsoon, which bathes the coast in an upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water. Seaweed, dormant in the warm months, responds to the cooler conditions with a burst of luxuriant growth, carpeting the reefs with green, red, and golden fronds.

Or she might have told the story of the tribe of mudskippers that have their sheikhdom on the shores of Kuwait Bay. Their name in Persian means "lazy ones," because they appear too lethargic to follow the falling tide. Instead, each goggle-eyed fish builds and patrols its own mud-rimmed swimming pool. Shining in slippery coats of mud, they wriggle through the slurry of their ponds, waddle along the walls on their broad pectoral fins, then fling themselves into the air, exuberant as porpoises.

Might she have mentioned the ghost crabs of Masira Island? They build perfect miniature Mount Fujis of sand every night, only to have them leveled by the winds the next day. Scheherazade would have had no shortage of material.

"I am the sea. In my depths all treasures dwell. Have they asked the divers about my pearls?" the Egyptian poet Muhammad Hafiz Ibrahim wrote a century ago. Few survive today of those champions of the sea, the pearl divers of generations past who sought the greatest treasure of all. Forty, fifty, a hundred times a day they dropped to the seafloor, as deep as 65 feet, without goggles and often wearing only a thin woven garment to protect against jellyfish stings. With other risks, they took their chances. Men died from stingray jabs, from poisonous stonefish spines, from shark bites. Clownfish—cruel joke—attacked their eyes. Their eardrums burst, and some went blind from constant exposure to the salty water.

Pearls were the diamonds of the ancient world. In Hafiz's time they were the Persian Gulf's most valuable resource, and 70,000 men were engaged in collecting them. But the divers saw little of the wealth they brought up. The oysters were thrown into a common pile, to be opened the next day, when dead. Even if a diver brought up a pearl of Steinbeckian magnificence, he would never know it. Debt drove them to dive. Debt inherited from their fathers and their father's fathers.

Yet pearling was equally a matter of deep cultural pride, part of a maritime tradition that is as Arabian as deserts and dates. Through the waters of the Persian Gulf, East met West, the wealth of Africa and India flowing to the empires of Europe. Until the 1930s, great Kuwaiti dhows, or booms, with names like The Triumph of Righteousness and The Light of the Earth and Sea, set their lateen sails to the billowing northeasterly wind that blew them to Zanzibar and Mangalore. Months later the khareef brought them home again. The seasonal fluctuations of the winds were the fuel of Arabian commerce. The winds were Allah's, and the winds were free.

Then came oil, and a seafaring way of life that had endured for millennia melted away at the breath of a new monetary lord. Oil was the genie that granted the wishes of modernization and affluence. Arabia was transformed—from camels to Cadillacs, mud houses to megamalls—as its citizens rode the magic carpet of petro-wealth.

Today human hands are reaching deep into Arabia's seas and taking more treasure than the seas can possibly replenish. Overfishing, pollution, seabed dredging, and massive coastal modification are crippling marine ecosystems by degrading water quality and exacerbating toxic algal blooms. In 2010 a group of marine scientists described the region's most strategic waterway, the Persian Gulf, as "a sea in decline," bedeviled by a storm of malign influences. "If current trends continue," they wrote, we will "lose a unique marine environment."

One of the groups at greatest risk are sharks. Of all the insults to Arabia's marine life, none is more grotesque than the mountains of shark carcasses that arrive every evening in the Deira Fish Market in Dubai, trucked from landing sites around Oman and the United Arab Emirates, from there to make their way east—a stinking tide of fins and flesh.

Rima Jabado, conspicuous in her yellow rubber boots and pink top, moves through the market counting and measuring hammerheads, threshers, bulls, silkies, and makos: the thoroughbreds of Arabia's seas, carted here to be hocked like horsemeat. Totemic animals that divers dream of encountering underwater are hauled out of the backs of trucks with meat hooks and lined up on the pavement, grimy and bloodied, row upon row of scowling mouths.

An auctioneer works his way along the line, followed by a retinue of buyers calculating profit margins on their smart phones. In their wake a man expertly severs the fins and lays them out on plastic tarps for separate sale. A pickup truck pulls up, and the driver unloads a dozen sacks of dried fins. He plunges his hands into a sack and lifts out handfuls of small gray triangles, stiff as plywood. There must be several thousand fins in this one shipment.

"When I started working here, I thought, That's a lot of sharks," Jabado, a doctoral student at United Arab Emirates University, tells me. "But when you see it every day, you ask, How is this possible? How can this last?"

A muezzin gives the evening call to prayer from a mosque whose minarets make artful silhouettes against a golden sky. Across the parking lot, the fish market is crowded with Emirati housewives gliding down aisles of laden stalls, passing their purchases to Pakistani boys who wheel them in garden barrows to a rank of SUVs.

The old name for this part of Arabia was the Pirate Coast. Trading ships carried companies of archers to repel thieves. But how to solve the plunder of the sea itself? Jabado travels the length of the U.A.E. coast, from Abu Dhabi to Ras al Khaimah, tallying sharks and interviewing fishermen. Everywhere it is the same story: Catches are down, and fishing intensity is up.

One of the questions Jabado asks the fishermen is whether they think sharks should be protected. Some say, No, why should we protect them? Sharks are a gift from God. He will replenish them. Others say that sharks should be protected but that it needs to happen across the region. If we protect them here, do you think the Iranians are going to stop taking them? they tell her. Why should I stop fishing for sharks and miss out on revenue if some other person keeps taking them?

Eight countries border the gulf. "They have the same kind of culture and heritage, mostly speak the same language, face the same problems, and share the same resources," Jabado says. "Why aren't they working together?"

Her concerns run deeper than fisheries management. The impact of an environmental disaster in so shallow and enclosed a waterway is appalling to contemplate. There are many hundreds of oil and gas platforms in the gulf, and tens of thousands of tanker movements annually through a narrow stretch of the Strait of Hormuz between the Musandam Peninsula and Iran. "What if there was a Deepwater Horizon event here?" she asks. "The average depth of the gulf is about 30 meters. One big spill could wipe out whole marine ecosystems."

There are inklings that the unified approach Jabado seeks may be starting to take shape. Several countries are considering following the lead of the United Arab Emirates in giving legal protection to a single species of shark: the whale shark, the biggest fish in the sea. The giant filter feeders have been turning up in unexpected places. In 2009 David Robinson, a Dubai-based whale shark researcher, was startled when a Google image search turned up a photograph of whale sharks swimming among the platforms of Al Shaheen, a major oil and gas field off the coast of Qatar.

"The photograph was on the Facebook page of a worker on a gas rig," Robinson said. "I sent him a message, he added me as a friend, and now we're getting a stream of pictures from him and others. In one photograph I counted 150 animals. I'd like to say we discovered the sharks through tirelessly scouring the oceans, but that would be a lie. It was through scouring the oceans of cyberspace! Science by Facebook—a bit embarrassing, really."

The discovery of whale sharks at Al Shaheen has led to other finds. Seasonal mass spawning of lobsters has been observed, with the lobsters rising to the surface at night and turning the sea into a vast crustacean soup. With fishing banned and boat traffic restricted in many oil and gas fields, these areas likely serve as de facto marine reserves. The platforms certainly act as giant fish-aggregating devices. At Al Shaheen, with a flare stack belching flame overhead, I watched a shoal of jacks circle the legs of the platform and spinner dolphins launch their lissome bodies into the air. A hammerhead cruised at the edge of visibility, finding sanctuary within the ring of fire.

A sense of marine guardianship seems to be growing across the region. In Kuwait hundreds of keen amateur divers have formed the ecological equivalent of SWAT teams, dedicated to repairing the environmental damage of war and waste. They lift sunken vessels from the seabed and remove tons of snared fishing nets from Kuwait's coral reefs.

Off the island of Qaruh, I helped cut away a net that was twined around the brittle stubs of staghorn coral—a nightmare of knotted nylon mesh that yielded reluctantly to our collection of chef's knives and garden shears. Our odd assortment of reef repairmen included a computer engineer, a television producer, and a former leader of Kuwait's Grand Mosque. On the return journey, crossing a smooth, tawny sea with a dust storm billowing on the horizon, two of the team found space among the scuba gear on deck to pray. Oblivious to the symphonic thunder of twin 200-horsepower outboards, they prostrated their bodies and uttered the ancient words of invocation and praise, giving voice to the hope that good might come to the world.

At the other end of the Persian Gulf, in Dubai, public-spirited beachgoers collect stranded turtles and take them to a rehabilitation facility in the luxury Burj al Arab hotel. In 2011, 350 juvenile turtles were brought in, many victims of "cold stunning"—inertia caused by the winter drop in sea temperature. "If they survive the first 24 hours, there's a 99 percent chance they'll recover," Warren Baverstock, the aquarium operations manager, said as we walked along a line of bubbling tanks. He reached in to scratch the backs of splashing turtles, which twisted their necks and flippers in pleasure at the attention. "They always know where the sea is," he said. "They swim up and down the wall nearest the sea, lifting their heads up, looking for it."

Mass releases of the rehabilitated turtles are staged at a nearby beach to publicize the work and reinforce the message that Arabia's marine life is valuable, vulnerable, and in need of protection. Each turtle is implanted with a microchip for identification. In the seven years the project has been operating, no turtle has washed ashore twice.

The hotel's most famous patient was an adult green turtle called Dibba, which had arrived with a fractured skull. Baverstock and his team needed 18 months to rehabilitate the turtle, but Dibba, released with a satellite transmitter glued to its carapace, repaid its caregivers with a 259-day, 5,000-mile migratory journey, looping down the Arabian Sea, passing the Maldives, skirting Sri Lanka, and reaching as far as the Andaman Islands before the transmitter battery failed.

Dibba traced an ancient route imprinted not just on turtles but also on the cultural memory of Arabia's peoples. This way came the dhows laden with Basra dates and pearls. This way they returned, carrying camphor, silks, sandalwood, and cloves. Every Arabian family had its sea captains and sailors, its pearl divers and boat carpenters—a saltwater legacy written in its genes.

Modernity has dimmed that memory. "We have lost the thirst for the sea that can only be quenched by going to the sea," one Omani businessman told me with sadness in his eyes. Yet for others the thirst is returning. Increasing numbers of Arabs are going to the sea not to exploit it but to experience it as it is. They are renewing their bond with ancient shores and rediscovering the poet's truth: "In my depths all treasures dwell." 

Let Them Eat Shrimp, published in 2011, is Kennedy Warne’s book about the loss of mangroves. Thomas Peschak’s photographs of manta rays appeared in the July 2009 issue.