Howdi, Saudi

The less-crowded eastern coast of the Red Sea has immense potential for sport divers: nowhere more so than the coral reefs only half an hour from the port city of Jeddah by Erik Bjurstrom

With the arrival of thousands of western expatriates, many of them British, interest in diving has exploded in Saudi Arabia. Rumours about the quality of the diving have spread, and many expatriates go to work there specifically for underwater weekends. Diving has become big business, and dive shops are popping up everywhere. Riyadh, in the middle of the desert, has three!

Dive schools are abundant, and the BSAC has branches in every major town with an expatriate community. Helped by cheap domestic flights, a stream of eager divers takes off every weekend to Jeddah, where hotels and the dive charter boats are waiting. All the hotels there have beach resorts on the waterfront, usually about 30 minutes away by shuttle bus. Guests can use the facilities free.

Jeddah is unique among the big port cities in the world. It is built on a coral plateau, facing the sea, with a beautiful drop-off. Only about 30 minutes drive from the city centre you can dive down a beautiful coral wall that competes with the best the Red Sea can offer.

For those who want to buy or rent diving equipment there are well-supplied dive shops at the beaches. If you prefer the more adventurous diving further out, where the water is clearer, there are several charter boats available, visiting the string of coral reefs that stretches along the coast about 10 miles offshore. On Thursdays and Fridays (the weekend in Saudi Arabia) you can see divers all along the seafront, walking out on the plateau to the reef edge. Sheraton pier at Abhour creek is a popular place, because the pier goes all the way to the reef edge. It is a good place for instructors to take their classes because of the easy access and safe conditions.

Over the edge at Jeddah

Erik Bjurstrom recalls a typical dive off Jeddah, which turned up creatures like the boxfish above.

Visibility was about 20m. A huge school of fusiliers almost covered the top of the reef. We came down just when a schools of fast-moving jacks were attacking the fusiliers. The fusiliers defence strategy was fascinating. When the jacks closed in, the whole school of fusiliers changed to a big ball of tightly-packed fish. When the jacks hit the ball it exploded like fireworks, which confused the jacks and made them miss their target.

The edge was a beautiful garden of hard corals of every shape. Some corals were like giant roses, 1m in diameter. I went closer to get a good picture. A coral grouper studied us curiously while we were shooting. When I turned to get a picture of him he disappeared and came out through another hole. When I followed, he came back to the first hole. I fooled him by moving over and then immediately back, and as expected, he looked out right into the camera for a good portrait.

A hawkfish was lying motionless in a spot with a good overview. There he could constantly watch what was going on and catch an unsuspecting bypasser.

The coral slope went down to a depth of 30m, where the sand took over. At the reef edge were a lot of bright yellow fire coral bushes. We had to be careful not to touch the fire coral. It is not a true coral, but more related to the jellyfish, and gives a short but painful sting on contact. Along the wall were schools of coral fish in bright colours. Suddenly, two whitetip reef sharks showed up, and we had the luck to witness something few divers have seen: the mating behaviour of sharks. In front of our eyes, without any concern for us, they danced close to each other, each biting the others tail.

After a while they disappeared into the deep. We went down ourselves. The reef wall was covered with beautiful red gorgonia soft corals. They were growing perpendicular to the wall to catch plankton with their small white tentacles. The gorgonias often contain goby fish and different kinds of nudibranchs.

The lionfish also seems to have chosen this area as its favourite place. There were several of them around. In the coral kingdom, its bizarre appearance signals: stay away! Its dorsal spines are poisonous, but since the fish is so conspicious it poses little threat to divers. But some divers just have to go close - like photographers, for example. In my eagerness to get a close-up, I was lightly stung. It felt as if I had touched an open flame. But it subsided quite quickly. On several coral shelves I saw cleaner shrimps. They have their own beauty parlours where they receive fish that want a cleaning. The fish comes up to the shrimp and stands still, with its mouth open, and the shrimp eagerly starts to go over the body, looking for parasites.

A beautiful spotted moray eel looked out from a hole in the rock. A squid came hovering over the bottom. As he moved, his body changed colour continuously, like a neon sign. When I triggered a flash he turned completely white. He turned up white on the picture also, which shows how fast they can change colour. I focused next on a little fish fry hiding on a bubble coral. He looked at me with big, surprised eyes. Unbelievably, he let me come all the way up to him and: zap ! He was imprinted on my film. The intricate shape of the corals makes them an excellent nursery for all the small fish that would otherwise be an easy prey for bigger predators. This is the basis for the great variety of species on the coral reef. Every species fills its own niche in the ecological scheme, where it is most efficient in the struggle for survival.

In a cleft I saw a sea anemone with two clownfish in it. Normally the tentacles paralyse any fish which come in contact with them, but the clownfish are unharmed. They rub themselves with mucus from the tentacles, which protects them from the poison. In that way the clownfish gets protection and attracts prey for the anemone, an example of symbiosis, or co-operation between different animals. Clownfish are very aggressive to intruders, and they savagely attacked my fingers when I got too close with my hand!

A small electric ray showed up, and I went up to it to get a picture. I must have bothered it, because suddenly it touched me and gave me a strong electrical shock. I was surprised it was so strong, as the ray was only 2ft across.

I was on the bottom. A big parrotfish swam away, leaving a cloud of pulverized coral behind him. A blue-spotted stingray, which was lying on the seabed, got scared and disappeared in a cloud of sand.

The approach to Jeddah is filled with dangerous reefs, and over the years several ships have been wrecked. They attract all kinds of fish life, and become interesting sites for divers. They get their names from the cargo they have, like the Chicken wreck, the Marble wreck, the Cable wreck, and so on.

One of the most interesting wrecks is the Mecca wreck. She is intact and has attracted a fascinating array of marine life. Big schools of batfish and barracudas cruise around. The upper part is the territory of the surgeonfish which savagely protects it by attacking divers when they approach. The wreck is dressed in beautiful soft corals of all colours. Some sharks have based themselves here, and can be fed by divers. The place is a world class dive site, only 30 minutes drive from the centre of Jeddah. How many big cities can boast anything like that

You cannot visit Saudi Arabia as a tourist;, you have to get a job there if you want to enjoy its diving. Many who get a job get hooked, and stay for many years, going diving every weekend. Jobs are advertised in papers, trade magazines and through word of mouth in companies which have business in Saudi Arabia. Once you are there, the local BSAC branch or any of the dive shops will give you all the information you need.

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