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My job often requires me to travel to some interesting places. This usually involves a brief encounter with a hotel in a capital city before being whisked away in an air-conditioned car to a dirty port where I board a large, moderately comfortable survey ship, my home for the following few weeks at sea. Interaction with anything or anyone during my fleeting moments in whichever country is minimal. As a photographer this is a mild form of torture, being in a new country, surrounded by new people and landscapes, award-winning photographic possibilities no doubt around every corner. Invariably, after having researched all I can about the country, its sights, wildlife and unique landscapes I will struggle through airports with a ridiculous bag of camera kit hoping something will cause a delay so I can spend a few days out with my camera. Invariably this does not happen. These trips have started to become so familiar I tend to switch off, taking in my surroundings with just a passing interest, knowing I won’t get much opportunity to explore.

So when I was asked to join a team of researchers to survey some remote coral reefs off the south-west coast of Saudi Arabia I jumped at the opportunity. In 16yrs of diving I’d never been to the Red Sea, always a little put off by the crowds who flock to the north and the generally exorbitant prices of liveaboards, so a chance to be paid to dive and photograph what I presumed were pristine reefs in the south was too good to miss.

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The objective of the survey was to broadly classify habitats in order to advise a team of engineers where best to build a very large transport bridge (around 40km in length) connecting the mainland to a group of islands known as the Farasans. Information and photographs would be used to inform of the whereabouts and composition of critical habitats allowing mitigation of potential disturbance, i.e. the bridge is going to get built, but with consideration to habitats that could be of value to tourists.

Following an uneventful flight to Jeddah I met up with my esteemed colleagues. After a few hours of chat and coffee and trying not to voice my mostly unqualified opinion about the incongruity between the Saudi’s archaic treatment of women and their apparent love of Apple products (what do I know), we boarded an internal flight to Jizan where we were to meet the boat and head out to sea. To be polite I would say Jizan wasn’t the most attractive of cities (to be impolite I would say it’s a total dump). It mostly consists of a vast series of half-finished construction projects with numerous flat, muddy areas of wasteland. Most of the completed projects are so tastelessly designed (why pink and gold?) they make the wasteland look attractive. So I wasn’t disappointed when we arrived at the dive boat. In retrospect I regret not making the effort to take some photos here but it didn’t really occur to me at the time as it was all so uninteresting and downright ugly.

After sleep and a surprisingly decent breakfast skilfully cooked in a tiny kitchen by one of the crew (a lovely chap called Samantha) we set off to the first site, along the way finalising survey plans and briefing everyone as to their roles and the data required. The survey would involve a combination of methods depending on the expected habitat and depth. Where possible we would dive in order to gather maximum information but as many sites were between 30-50m, too deep for multiple dives, a drop-down video would be used along transects. I would take as many photos as possible of, well, everything.

The first day was more about setting up, configuring, testing and refining rather than collecting useful data. My hopes for gin-clear water and pristine coral reefs rapidly started to fade when we tried out the drop-down video. The visibility was poor and the camera had trouble focusing. We realised it needed some modifications so we headed back to port where one of the team headed into Jizan (rather him than me) to gather essential ecological fieldwork supplies, mostly cable ties and batteries as well as the all-important wire BBQ fish holders (indispensible in any ecologist’s toolkit). These were used to fashion a rough cage to hold the video camera together with a focus light.

Once the video was sorted and a few other modifications were made to some other bits of equipment we were ready to start the survey. Our first series of sites, which wouldn’t require diving, were around a couple of small, featureless islands still within sight of Jizan. They were called Aminah and Aminah South. The latter was more of a wave-cut coral platform than an island but proved to be a fascinating, although somewhat desolate habitat. Old abandoned nests littered the sun-scorched ground along with numerous bones and a few decomposing fish. A few seabirds, mostly Brown Boobies and Sooty Gulls, perched along the edges. At one point we were accosted by a small, irate terrestrial bird which charged at us babbling what I presume were all sorts of avian obscenities. We later identified this bird as an Arabian Babbler’I wonder where it got that name!

After a fairly long and uneventful walk along Aminah, the larger of the two islands (my lasting memory of which will be an alarming amount of washed up rubbish), we headed back to the boat to plan the next few days. We would spend another couple of days in this area, classifying changes in habitat around the shallow areas of the islands. These were generally unremarkable consisting of sand and algae on mostly dead coral substrate.

I was itching to get diving and experience the pristine, unexplored coral reefs. I was excited at the prospect of finally diving the Red Sea and even more excited about diving an area not many divers get to visit. My first dive was to be on a seamount so I had high hopes imagining steep, coral-covered walls, dense shoals of fish, maybe the odd whale shark or manta ray. So it was, feeling ever so slightly adventurous, I donned my kit and jumped in. Needless to say the experience wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Visibility was only marginally better than what I’m used to off the coast of Yorkshire in the North Sea. Most of the dive was featureless sand and coral/shell fragments. Living hard corals were sparse, a few small branching colonies here and there, fighting to compete with dense patches of soft coral and algae which seemed to have firmly taken hold.

This is becoming a common problem on coral reefs around the world and is caused by both man-made and natural disturbances triggering a complex series of processes eventually resulting in corals losing their ability to recover. Faster growing species then take their place after which any new corals have no room to colonise. Once the structure of the reef deteriorates its associated biodiversity also declines and what is known as a feedback loop occurs where things quickly go from bad to worse. I’m used to seeing this in the Caribbean where, for a number of reasons, many reefs are suffering major degradation, but I didn’t think it would be so pronounced in the Red Sea, particularly in these more remote southern areas. Admittedly we still weren’t far from Jizan, a fairly major city, so it’s conceivable that run-off from past and continued developments have aggravated the situation.

Over the next few days we made a series of dives, some slightly better than others. I was happy to encounter a few Anemonefish so I could attempt to get the shot that a million others have already taken. There were a few other decent macro opportunities but for the most part I stuck with wide-angle, using the trusty Sigma 15mm fisheye. I would’ve fared slightly better with macro had I used my 60mm instead of the 105mm due to lack of visibility, but unfortunately this was one of the lenses I’d left on the shelf at home. Still, this was a habitat survey so most of the required shots would need to be wide angle anyway.

Although undoubtedly interesting diving none of the sites really lived up to my expectations which I realised probably don’t even exist (although I’ve yet to dive reefs in Indonesia so there is still hope). The best site was a long, shallow reef which we affectionately named ‘Site 99’. Most of the large table coral colonies here appeared relatively healthy although there were signs of deterioration. This was mostly in the form of coral disease along with numerous patches of a curious sponge/mat tunicate which was smothering and killing some of the colonies. I’d noticed this on a few dives and later identified it as’Diplosoma viridis. Reef fish populations seemed abundant with some lovely dense shoals of Anthias but diversity wasn’t particularly high. On all my dives I saw very few keystone species such Parrotfish. Keystone species are those which have specific functional roles in an ecosystem, Parrotfish being one of the primary consumers of algae which, left unhindered, can quickly overwhelm a coral reef. On all the dives I did in this area I saw many of the typical signs of a coral community in a state of decline.

Due to work commitments elsewhere I was forced to leave the survey half-way through. Regrettably I never made it out to the Farasan Islands, but I heard through my colleagues the diving didn’t really improve (and the weather deteriorated). Whether this area has ever been that productive, or whether some kind of disturbance has forced it into decline, I don’t know. There were many signs of historic reefs, long-since dead and now covered by dense stands of algae, but generally the area just didn’t seem to support conditions required for extensive reefs like those found further north. This could be due to proximity to the Red Sea/Indian Ocean convergence, causing unusual current patterns and high turbidity, but it’s difficult to say.