THE ARABIAN GULF IS BEST KNOWN for the hugely rich oil states that surround it. Yesterdays Gulf was the home of pearl-divers, pirates, smugglers and small Arab and Iranian coastal populations, for whom fishing was a major part of life. Intense shipping traffic and two Gulf wars have degraded the health of this small piece of water.
I lived in or visited the Gulf off and on since the late 1950s. The Gulf of my early memories was full of sharks but, sadly, populations are depleted today. Those that survive are the worlds richest sharks, because they live in the waters of the worlds richest countries.
The generally shallow Gulf is a tough habitat. Off Kuwait, winter temperatures can fall to 11°C, and in summer they reach 37°C. Records of shark species present are unreliable, so in 2006 I began preparations for mounting expeditions to try to plug some gaps in our knowledge.
The cost of shore bases for 16 people, research vessels, crew-change shuttles, land vehicles and chumming materials was way beyond the possibility of splitting between participants.
The plan was for three expeditions working down the Arab side of the Gulf from Kuwait to Ras al Khaimah in the UAE, so I approached the respective governments for help. The response was fantastic. Various departments, including the Coastguards, gave us everything we needed.
The expeditions are organised by the Shark Conservation Society, and I am very pleased that every SCS member is a diver. We worked on two levels - chumming at sea, and daily fish-market visits to record species being landed.
The results would form the first-ever such shark data gathered in the Gulf. SCS would pass it to the governments concerned to provide baseline data that could be added to and would, we hoped, lead to sustainable fisheries management and conservation.

ON SHARK ECO-TOURISM TRIPS, divers go to shark hotspots and, if conditions are right, should get to dive or swim with sharks.
These research trips are different. Our divers might be able to get into the water with bull sharks, tigers and great hammerheads, or they might see none of them.
Everyone knew that this time round they were research volunteers first and divers second. The probability was that we would freedive/snorkel with the animals rather than be on air.
The chum slicks would bring the sharks to the research boat and they would all be recorded.
Figures from the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, the FAO, various writers and Collins Sharks Of The World indicated between 11 and 31 species present. We thought the maximum figure, from Collins, was likely to be the most reliable, but soon realised that we could easily end up rewriting the books, because so little previous research had been done.
SCS expeditions are not picnics. Anyone who thinks theyre coming for a holiday is in for a nasty surprise. Being woken at 3am to chum rotting sardines for two hours may sound like fun while in the UK, but the reality is different.
Squelching up to your knees in mud, netting intertidal mangrove channels, is hard work, and by the end of a hot eight-hour day, even the hardiest are wilting. Our all-diver teams were brilliant, and they must have enjoyed it overall, because more than half of the 2008 Kuwait volunteers signed up for 2009 in Qatar.
It doesnt matter where I am in the world, or how often it happens, but the excitement never lessens when the first fin breaks the surface, or the first shark shape appears in my chum slick. What is it, how big, can I swim with it Suddenly the whole operation goes into overdrive, and any chum-slick boredom or tiredness disappears.
In Kuwait and Qatar together we chummed for 295 hours, and in Qatar worked round the clock when we could. On both trips, the scarcity of large sharks was alarming.
The market teams processed sharks and rays and came across medium-sized bulls and tigers, and great hammerheads. The largest sharks we saw at sea were a single whale shark, 2m blacktips, and a 2m-plus sandbar shark.
Whitecheek, milk and blacktip sharks were present in the markets and at sea in numbers, and seemed to have taken over the apex predator position from the larger species.
There is an unfortunate belief among Gulf Arabs that eating baby sharks promotes sexual potency. I was unable to check by interviewing any Arab wives, but I suspect that baby milk shark and Viagra are not in the same league!
In Qatar we chummed for five days before Mark Boothmans team suddenly found themselves in Shark City, surrounded by blacktips, spottails, and whitecheeks. But the sharks on the surface were a lot less interesting than the baby milk sharks being caught fast and furious on baited lines on and near the bottom.
The market teams had been finding milk sharks with umbilical scarring, so we knew we were in the pupping season.
We worked the same place for 48 hours, and caught, processed and released nearly 100 baby sharks. Processing involved recording sex, species, length and maturity. We need more proof, but indications are that we had chanced on a pupping-ground nursery area.
If that was the case, our next step would be to tell the Qatar government and seek protection for the area - exciting, and very worthwhile.
Marks team had worked the first 24 hours, then mine relieved him. It was great to be knee-deep in sharks, and later we spotted a whale shark. April is the beginning of whale-shark season in Qatari waters, and this was obviously a lucky sighting - a diver from the local BSAC club said he hadnt seen one in 20 years of diving!
An article in the Qatar English-language daily encouraged many divers and fishermen to contact us with offers of help. One Turkish diver reported regular sightings of bull sharks, and was so convinced of imminent danger that he always went in with an electronic shark repeller and two knives!
The area he dived was in the south-east of Qatar, near the Saudi border. Its an inland sea linked to the open water by a channel that varies in width between 500m and 1.5km, and was next on our list of sites to be investigated.
On our way into the inland sea channel, one of the team saw a large shark outlined against the sand, so we were hopeful of encountering some of the bigger animals that had so far been absent, both in the markets and at sea. This was also one of two areas yielding regular reports of the critically endangered green sawfish.
We chummed in the channel the afternoon we arrived, after asking some French spearfishers to move - bull sharks, chum in the water and spearfishermen are not a good mix!
We soon realised that chumming here was ineffective because of the tidal race on both tides. The chum slick was going a long way, but the bags were washing out in minutes. After seeing no sharks, we moved into open water for the evening session, drawing another blank.

NEXT DAY, BOTH BOATS HEADED for a reported hotspot, and things started well, with blacktips swimming up one of the slicks within half an hour. I put both boats together, and all day we were circled by sharks, though they didnt come close enough to allow identification.
Later we went back to the channel for a snorkelling/freediving session with our Turkish friend, hoping to film his bull sharks.
Team-member Matt Barnes had told me that crunching plastic water-bottles brought sharks in, and he was right. Out of the 5/6m vis, he was soon nose to nose with a 2.5m sandbar shark.
We had started with a list of 31 sharks. On our two expeditions we met these 23: Arabian carpet, Arabian smoothhound, blacktip, bull, graceful, great hammerhead, grey nurse, grey sharpnose, harnose, hooktooth, milk, pigeye, sandbar, slender weasel, sliteye, smoothtooth blacktip, snaggletooth, spinner, spottail, tawny nurse, whale, whitecheek and zebra!
We recorded 19 species in the markets and 12 at sea, with some in both. Graceful, hardnose, sliteye, smoothtooth blacktip, spinner and spottail sharks were not listed by Collins but proved present by our expedition. The bigeye thresher and great white were not seen. Only one smoothtooth blacktip had been previously recorded - in the Gulf of Aden in the 1980s.
We helped trigger new laws in Kuwait that greatly restrict shark landings, and we are in discussion with the Qatar government on shark closed seasons and green sawfish protection.
It was a privilege meeting the worlds richest sharks, and adding to our knowledge of them, and we hope we helped to give them a future.

Shark Conservation Society, www.sharkconsoc. com, which contains the full expedition report. Catch Richard Peirce on The Worlds Richest Sharks at Dive 2009 at the NEC, October 24/25.