By Hans Sjoelhem
Thirty years of diving the reefs of Jeddah and its surrounding areas have gone by in a flash. In many ways I feel I have only scratched the surface. The passion to discover the jewels of the Red Sea only increases with time, and it is truly an adventure and a privilege to do this at the doorstep of the great city of Jeddah.
But “why?” you might ask. Why have I found diving here so special? Allow me to explain. In many ways diving is the opposite of swimming. I love swimming, don’t misunderstand, but that is an activity caught somewhere between the air and water.
Red Sea Diving Experience
When diving, you are fully immersed in a different world where every voyage is filled with discoveries, excitement and rewards. On each dive you get to defy gravity, experience tremendous freedom, joy, fulfillment and harmony on these exquisite coral reefs; these cities of life.
Diving in many places around the world can be a lot of fun, but the Red Sea is particularly special. The Red Sea forms a 2,350km long stretch of water closed in the north by the Sinai Peninsula and exposed to open ocean at the shallow Straits of Bab al-Mandab (which lies between Djibouti and Yemen in the south). 30% of Red Sea species are endemic, meaning that you can only see them here.
Saudi Arabian Reefs
Saudi Arabia has an impressive 1,850km long coastline by the Red Sea that has been blessed with huge reef formations and islands. Many famous diving personalities have frequently visited the Red Sea. Diving pioneers like Hans Hass first explored the Red Sea in 1940 and put the spotlight on its marvels I even had the pleasure to meet him here in Jeddah in 1987. Jacques Cousteau visited and dived in Jeddah in 1956. He once said that, “the Red Sea is a corridor of marvels – the happiest hours of my diving experience have been spent there”.
Fortunately for us, a nearby section of this corridor of marvel is conveniently located immediately to the west of Jeddah’s seashore, forming a vibrant chain of reefs surrounded by calm and clear water. It is a huge privilege to venture to these nearby reefs to explore shipwrecks and off shore coral colonies.
Year Round Diving
Because the water is so warm all year round, you can dive here throughout the year and see first-hand the changes each season brings. Witness changes in the habitats and the cycle of life, seeing coral grow and form new spectacular formations, discovering different species and witnessing their changing behavioral patterns.
Every creature on the reef goes about their day with the simultaneous goals of finding a meal and a partner, but not becoming a meal themselves. Each creature does this in their own way and some with more flare than others. Frequent visits provide the opportunity to observe schools of juveniles feeding on plankton in the water column.
Specimens such as surgeonfish, chromis, anthias, mackerels, fusiliers and triggerfish are abundant. Dive long enough and you will identify them in different stages of maturity, sometimes looking completely different than their juvenile selves. Butterflyfish and angelfish display dazzling colors as they decorate the reefs, while clownfish play around in sea anemones. Puffer fish and groupers hover calmly in place carrying on with their own reef duties. Some of my favorite scenes are the busy nurseries inside the reef systems, where predators like jacks and trevallys circle to make their catch.
In the surrounding azure waters, I have often run into cruising schools of barracudas and tuna either in huge resting formations or zooming about to catch their prey. Ambush predators such as lionfish and the more cryptic stone and scorpion take a different approach. These fish wait, often in hiding or well camouflaged, to ambush the unwary prey.
The cleaner wrasse earns its meals the hard way. Watch fish queuing up at the cleaner stations for their appointment to be relived from parasites, mucus and injured tissues by the Bluestreak cleaner wrasse which gorges itself on these troublesome morsels. Watch pairs of eagle rays playfully dancing over the seafloor to the greatest symphony of life, while the surreal cartoon like bluespotted stingray stir up a huge sand cloud on the seafloor during their feeding, completely oblivious to their surroundings. If you are especially lucky you might come across a pod dolphins playfully approaching, greeting and checking you out.
All of these creatures make up a kaleidoscope of marvelous colors and personalities, leaving lasting impressions and memories of joy and respect for these fabulous creatures. I have found that diving is often like experiencing a dream.
Afterwards the memory is only a pale and faded facsimile. Logbooks and image archives are very useful in getting the most of your experience. They preserve and restore memories of great experiences and friendships. Visiting the denizens of these underwater habitats, submarine cities of life where every creature plays an important role in this ecosystem. If you think that you have seen it all you better try again and rethink the way you are approaching and exploring this wealth of ocean life on your next excursion. Also, if you believe the reef is there for you to revisit and plunder indefinitely, you will likely be disappointed.
Our planet is under a tremendous pressure, and change seems to be inevitable. The degree to which that change is a positive or negative one is up to us. We must each do our outmost to preserve our blue planet, unless we want future generations to find that we have squandered the world’s natural treasures.
In 1965, the Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dieum said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught”. I encourage everyone to educate themselves and teach others about the plight of the world’s underwater environment. As underwater visitors, remember to shoot only with your camera, leave nothing but bubbles, take nothing but pictures and kill nothing but time.
See you underwater!