Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Kuwait's Sea Life

Yes, this was taken in Kuwait (not by me)

I thought I had posted this before, but looking through my archives, I can't find it anywhere. I used to write a lot of freelance articles for various magazines and newspapers around Kuwait. This story has been published before (so it is a wee bit dated, but most of the information is still accurate). It was written at a time when I had a wonderful editor, Tim Waddell, who I miss.  He and Sue Day both 
 made me a better writer and I miss working with).  

I thought it would be a good time to whip this article back out, as it is dear to my heart and  with the summer quickly approaching (one day it will be 60F and the next 110F - that's summer in Kuwait).  

Some have said that Kuwait is one of the "unfriendliest tourist destinations," intimating that perhaps people won't want to "Go See Kuwait".... Well, unfriendly as some aspects are to tourism, Kuwait is still an interesting place to be discovered by many (and by many of us who live here and haven't seen it all).  After all these years in Kuwait, I still learn something new here EVERY day.  Your environment is what you make of it.  I don't think that it is a secret that I love Kuwait.  I think everyone should see it through new eyes.

GO SEE KUWAIT!   - - -

Most Westerners picture Kuwait as sand and camels; perhaps recently as a semi-dangerous country along the front line.  I will always associate Kuwait on the still sea at sunset; a heavy smell of salt and oil lingering in the air and a pinkish mist coming off the water, as curious sea turtles pop their heads through for a brief moment of contact.

I have had Kuwaiti friends in Washington, DC,  for many years.  My interest in Kuwait was flamed by different people from different walks of life;  diplomats, business people, housewives, students.  All shared the same commonality; an intense love for a little country.

My closest friends turned out to be fishermen.  I had always lived around the ocean, but I wasn’t much interested in water; the type of waters where  I grew up (in Rhode Island in the North East of the United States) were deep and turbulent; scary to a kid. I grew up with images of “Jaws” in my head, as the filming site of Martha’s Vinyard wasn’t very far from where we were.  The different variety of stories I heard from Kuwaiti fisherman intrigued me;  strange and uncommon fish and what sounded like an abundance of them at that, turquoise-blue waters that sometimes looked like glass.

My favorite fisherman story, recounted to me while I was in Washington and which captured my curiosity,  was that of a mysterious creature that lived in a sunken ship. Four men were there that night – my friend, Reyadh Al-Banna, was with them. Fluorescent lights shined in the water to attract more fish. The
boat was anchored next to the shipwreck; an oil tanker with the stern sticking out of the water close to the international maritime border between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait;  split apart on a sand bar in the early 80’s and empty of cargo.  The sea air was hot and thick. Mist surrounded the area and there was no sound.  They were pulling up the lines as fast as they could bait them. The fish mysteriously disappeared; then reappeared for no explainable reason in an ebb and flow.  No one spoke or questioned it, but wondered silently to themselves why it was happening.  Suddenly, Reyadh looked down at the water and lost his breath.  The night air became frighteningly still and quiet; He couldn’t speak. He pointed frantically towards the water.  The fishermen turned and saw the creature;  A face about 3 to 4 feet across with a nose described as “pushed in” and the eyes bulging on the sides, starred  back at them from the depths.The vessel was 18’ long and the creature was longer.  Reyadh cut the anchor,  the boat drifted out of reach and they raced back to the shore.

I, and not the creature, had been hooked.  I had to see that shipwreck someday. I had to see the sun on flat waters where dolphins and tortoise and thousands of fish swam. Fifteen years later, I was there.  We went to see the wreck on a choppy day. I went with a strong-willed British friend who is was eager to dive at the site. When we arrived, he changed his mind.  It was eerie.  We all had the same feeling and didn’t want to be there.

Kuwait’s sea life is amazing:  tortoises, dolphins, sea rays, lion fish, whale sharks, barracuda, and an amazing assortment of both tropical and larger fish like grouper and tuna.Unless a Western person knew someone with a boat, or ventured to find one of the many rental boats or day trips, this valuable part of Kuwait would be overlooked.

There are eight interesting and diverse  islands in Kuwait:  Warba, Bubyan, Failaka, Awhah, Maskan, Kubbar, Qaruh, and Um Al Moradim. (For a list and map of Kuwait islands with GPS coordinates, see LINK HERE.)  There are many types of tropical fish around the islands and the coral should not be missed by divers visiting the area. If you throw bread into the water at sunset, thousands of multi-colored fish surround your boat to feed. At sunset, the water has an “oily” look to it and turns a shade of pink.

Summertime in Kuwait, you can find almost every type of Kuwaiti from any walk of life on Kubbar Island.  Approximately an hour’s boat trip from Kuwait City, Kubbar is a tern sanctuary, but is commonly known locally as a Friday picnic island. Small boats to very large luxury yachts race to get there after Juma prayer – and there is struggle for a mooring space unless you arrive at Kubbar in the morning and stake out your space.  Kubbar is to Kuwait what Sunday picnicking is to America; food is prepared, put into thermos containers or coolers for the trip; either sandwiches, chips, and fruit or if you are really lucky, a home- cooked fish and rice meal (motabbag simich).

Qaruh Island

The ultimate mooring is to position the back of the boat facing the island with about 20 feet of water between.  Umbrellas are set up on the shore and everyone has cool drinks in the water. It is like a small, watery back yard.     People  talk and greet friends in other boats;  some play music, many rip around on jet or water skis.  A recent addition to Kubbar pass-time is the mechanized parachute for interesting displays of aeronautical maneuvers.    At lunchtime, offers are always made to surrounding boats (neighbors) to join – even if you don’t know the people.  As longtime Kuwaiti fishermen like Abdulwahab Al-Tahir insist, “At sea, you care about others who are there with you; what you have, you share.”  This may come in the form of food or assistance – it doesn’t matter.

At 4:30, it is time for the Kubbar fashion show.  Everyone retreats to the water and watches Kuwait’s variety of pretty ladies strolling around the island.  Bathing suits have become smaller and smaller as years go by; On Kubbar, you may think that you are on a small island in the Mediterrenean, rather than in a conservative country.

Um Al Moradim (the Southern-most island of Kuwait) is much more quiet.  It was recently disputed by Saudi Arabia, wanting to claim the island as their own. Occasionally, there are arguments between Kuwaiti fisherman and the Saudi Coast Guard or Customs officials.  Kuwait maintains a Coast Guard post on the island.

Um Al Moradim has a thriving rabbit population.  Years ago in the late 1980’s, bored Coast Guard men brought a pair of rabbits out as pets. Now, thousands of huge rabbits inhabit the island;  the size of the fabled and elusive Western American “jackalope” (minus the antlers).   The rabbits are so abundant that you can pick them up and they readily eat any fruits or vegetables left for them.  There just isn’t enough vegetation or to go around;  the government has plans to humanely take the rabbits off the island – donating some to schools and others to homes.

Um Al Moradim has a nice surprise for night-time swimmers:  phosphorescent algae.  This phenomenon has been documented in other parts of the world, but is not well-known in Kuwait;  Any movement in the water creates  tiny lights like “fairy dust”, similar to that given off by fireflies.  On a starry night when the moon is full,  it is magical. The water is clear enough to see the sea floor and hot as bath water.  The sky is a blanket of stars and the lights from the mainland shore and the off-shore oil rigs twinkle in the distance.

Qaruh is the spot of choice for nesting sea tortoises.  Surrounded by  a wonderful array of coral, it is difficult for larger boats to navigate to, therefore not popular with the masses.  During several months of the year, oil creeps up from underground wells and boats become black with tar; a lingering smell of oil in the air also makes it unpleasant. If you are lucky enough to get to Qaruh when it isn’t  oily,  you will see incredibly blue, clear waters with an amazing assortment of fish and jellyfish.  Dolphins often come within arms reach of the boat.

Sea smuggling is a problem for the Kuwaiti government, which limited the number of allowable engines on a boat to 2, as faster boats are more difficult to catch. Coast Guardsmen and customs officials are eager to catch smugglers as they are often awarded bonuses for catches. There was a story of Russian diplomats years ago who were also divers: They were diving in an area close to Um Al Moradim for no particular reason and came across several crates of contraband alcohol on the sea floor – most likely thrown overboard by escaping smugglers.  They didn’t want to bring the entire cache to the surface for fear of being caught. Instead, the kept the latitude and longitude coordinates (via GPS) and every now and then would go out to their “store” if they needed a bottle for a dinner party.

The fish in Kuwait are less in number than they have been in the past, according to fishermen. Almost everyone owns a computerized fish finder,  brought to

Kuwait in the 80’s. Spotting the fish finder owners is easy: large groups of boats gathered on single spot, trying for the same schools of fish. Pollution from various sources (including raw sewage, washing of tanker hulls into the bay, and littering) is also adding to the diminishing sea life and an increase of algae problems in the bay.
I have had the good fortune of knowing Kuwaiti fishermen at a time when Kuwait’s sea life is still abundant. Without them, I think I would still be afraid of the water instead of swimming in it. I would have missed too much.

My friends at Al Boom Dive Center take weekend trips to the islands.
Whether you dive or not, it is a great experience.

My favorite island is Um Al Moradim, the southern-most island in Kuwait.  I love to be there after the other boats have gone; staying from sunset to feed the fish cheese puffs (looks like they are playing basketball as thousands of little yellow fish pop the cheese puffs out of the water trying to bite them); until after dark when there is a moon and you can see clear to the sea floor.  After almost 18 years, I'm ashamed to say that I've never been to Bubiyan Island, but there is always somewhere else remaining to discover.

There is a very good book on the varieties of fish in Kuwait (with photos) titled, "The Coral Reefs and Coral Reef Fishes of Kuwait"  available for free download in .pdf format HERE.  (Actually, the site has a lot of downloadable books in English for free.)


AG said...

Such a beautiful post! One of our favorite things to do in the summer is spend a day on the yacht (belonging to a friend) and head out to the islands.

Your writing really highlights the beauty of the sea. Mashallah.

Naomi said...

Is the water safe to swim in nowadays?

Anonymous said...

YOu kidding me ? Rhode Island is amazing :) nothing like spending the day at Newport where ppl didnt really swim they just jumped over the waves lool i always found that funny when you watch it from far.

Desert Girl said...

AG - I'm looking forward to that again this summer. NOTHING like it anywhere I've been.

Naomi - what do you mean? When was it ever not safe? Maybe not healthy- in the Bay. I wouldn't swim there (but I could say that about swimming in bays in most major cities around the world because of the levels of pollution).

Anonymous 8:57: You're 100% right - Rhode Island IS amazing and so unique that I think everyone should go there someday and check it out. The waves were so big that that's all you could do - jump! I loved growing up there (for the most part except for the winters... brrrrrrrr).

Anonymous said...

in the winter after you spend like half the day shoveling your car out ( im arab yes it took me that long ) lol ..the best thing to do was go to thayer street sit in one of the coffee shops and sip on something that keeps you warm and just mingle with friends. oh god i miss "clam chowdaa" you cant say the "r" lol

Desert Girl said...

Anonymous 10:01 -

Are you a Brown University alumni? OMG - Thayer Street. I just had a flashback. I went to Lincoln School near Brown.

Here's what I miss from Rhode Island:

Dell's Lemonade (someone should open one here - TONS of $$$)
Coffee cabinets (shakes)
Apple season

Anonymous said...

No i was at Johnson & Wales Univ..(Brown required to much studying)lol.. OMG Dells yummmyyy.
Water front,thayer street,new port, Salmon Bagels,Ghost Busters building loool.

Expat and the City said...

Fantastic post and the best part of living in Kuwait. <3

Naomi said...

I have kids who will want to be in the sea once we get there. Was told the pollution from oil& sewage was all around the coast. Glad its OK!

Yousef Al-Hadeedi said...

Hi all,

I just read your article; a very inviting invitation to the sea for sure! For anyone who is interested in boating trips I offer them around Kuwait bay area and to the islands. I'm a fully qualified Royal Yachting Association Powerboat handler as well as certified in First Aid. You can check out my instagram account @amwajboattrips for more info or call 6688-7475, email All the best, Yousef

Belle in Arabia said...

This was a great article!