in the


by Marijcke Jongbloed

Surgeon fish Acanthurus

In the hot climate of the Emirates water sports are naturally popular. Among the many water sports that can be enjoyed in the UAE, diving and Snorkeling are practiced by many residents and visitors. Whereas deep water diving demands some training, Snorkeling needs no skills and anyone who can swim can enjoy this sport that gives access to the magic underwater world.

Several centres in Dubai, Sharjah and in the East Coast hotels give PADI courses for divers and provide equipment for rent or for sale, while they also offer guided tours to the best locations.

Clown fish and anemone

In the Arabian Gulf most of the diving is on old wrecks of barges and cargo vessels as well as on the new artificial reefs that are being created along the Jebel Ali coast in the emirate of Dubai. The wide shallow beaches of the Gulf do not make for interesting Snorkeling.

On the Indian Ocean coast there are various great spots for diving as well as Snorkeling. Good places are found on Shark Island in Khor Fakkan, Martini rock, the beaches near Sharm (particularly good for looking at corals, best done at night), Dibba rock and Lima rock further north. The most pristine sites are along the rocky shorelines of Khor Hablein in the northern Musandam. The rocky coast to the north of the Oceanic Hotel also provides good Snorkeling as well as the coast just north of Dibba.

While most of these places have to be reached by boat, Snoopy rock can be reached by swimming or even on foot from the beach at low tide. It lies just off the coast in front of the Sandy Beach motel. It does not take long to swim around the island, but once you don a mask and snorkel it can take hours before you can tear yourself away from the underwater wonders.

On the west side of Snoopy rock the water is very shallow, and the ocean floor is littered with rocks interspersed with sea cucumbers and sand dollars, a type of flat sea-urchin. The southern side of the island has a large shallow area of brain and boulder corals while the west and north sides are quite steep and offer good views of rocky crevices and the deep water of the ocean. Close to the island the fishes abound: the quick clownfish, playing hide and seek in the fringes of sea anemones, small colourful wrasses and strange-shaped trunk fishes.
Lionfish Pterois volans

In the shallow areas snorkellers can explore between the rocks to look for shells. Of course, the shells on the seabed are often still occupied by the gastropod that created them and to see a live one, half-covered with its mantle, is a treat! The colours are much more vibrant than after the shell has washed ashore. The moon snail (Natica alapapolionis) is a predator that drills holes in the shells of other gastropods in order to get at the soft animal inside. The shells of its victims can often be found washed up on the beach with a neat round hole telling the tale of their demise. The moon snail leaves another sign of its presence on the beaches: the sand collars. These amazing structures with their often crenellated edges are in fact the egg cases of the moon shell made by mixing mud and sand from the seabed with its sticky eggs. When you find them in the tidal zone on the beach they feel rubbery and you can pick them up without breaking them, after some time they dry out and become brittle. The only way to preserve them is to spray them with hairspray.

Another gastropod that is common on the East coast is one of the cowries : the beautiful Cypraea ocellata. There are bivalves too, venus clams and scallops. Most are sessile but one species – a flame scallop called Lima fragilis can propel itself for short distances by clapping its shells together.

On the rocks in the tidal zone one can find oysters, barnacles and chitons. All these creatures seem welded to the rocks. This powerful attachment is needed in order for them not to be dislodged by the wave action, since they usually occur exactly at the surf line.
Khor Hablein

One of the most amazing sights is that of a nudibranch undulating past. These sea slugs have bizarre markings and flamboyant colours and move through the water as if they are performing a slow motion ballet. Their bright colours serve as a warning to would-be predators that they can give unpleasant stings. They are able to do this because they feed on a variety of stinging invertebrates such as hydroids and sea anemones and can store the stings (nematocysts) of their prey in their own bodies. The most common sea slug is Chromodoris annulata – a white slug with circles outlined in purple and yellow spots. The frills on its back are its exposed gills that give the family its name (nudibranch = naked gill).

On the ocean side shoals of sardines, sergeant-majors (Abudefduf saxatilis) and yellow-marked angelfish (Pomecanthus maculosus) float or dart past. The sardines move in enormous groups that seem to form one huge body. This is a defence strategy – safety in numbers. When a predator fish attacks the small fishes disperse in all directions confusing it and therefore preventing it from making a catch.

One of the larger fishes is the spectacular Surgeon fish (Acanthurus sp.), so called because it has a very sharp thorn on both sides of the base of its tail that can be retracted into a slit. When raised, these thorns are formidable weapons in fight, when the fish whips its tail sideways and causes deep cuts into the flanks of an opponent. They usually move in small shoals. Another remarkable fish, one that swims singly, is the Picassofish (Rhinecanthus aculeatus), easily recognisable by its boldly coloured pattern of stripes and dots.
Sand Collar

If you are lucky, you may be visited by a curious cuttlefish (Sepia sp.) as I experienced once. The creature floated around me, displaying the most amazing colours that moved back and forth over its body like fluid fluorescent paint. After I saw it in all its glory, I was sorry to see a catch on the beach spearfished by a human predator.

There is no need to be afraid of the white-tipped reef sharks or nurse sharks that can be seen occasionally loafing on the seabed. They are friendly sharks – none of the dangerous ones are likely to disturb you in any of the East coast Snorkeling locations. Hammerhead sharks do occur but stay in deep waters. Another friendly large animal that can be encountered often is the Green turtle (Chelonia mydas). They still nest on the beaches near Kalba although in much fewer numbers than in the past.

In fact, the whole East coast is in need of protection, if it is to have a future as a marine tourist attraction. There is a lot of shipping movement along the coast and unfortunately illegal voiding of sludge and oil leaks are frequent. Some marine nature reserves have been pronounced by the Fujeirah authorities but not much is done to enforce the laws. Spearfishing has reduced the biodiversity around, for instance, Snoopy rock, considerably and many of the wonderful species that could be seen there only two decades ago have already disappeared. The locations to the north, along the Musandam coast and Lima rock are more pristine as yet. A very real threat to marine life are bad fishing practices, such as anchoring on coral reefs, losing gargour fish traps that can kill hundreds of fished over the years, and drift nets in which air-breathing turtles, dolphins and even whales can be entangled and drowned.

Although Snorkeling holds few dangers there are a few ‘nasties’ that every swimmer should be aware of. At Snoopy rock, for instance, you have to be careful in places where there are rocks strewn on the bottom, for it is quite possible that one of those weed-encrusted rocks is actually a stonefish. Throughout its entire life the stonefish barely moves, depending on its camouflage to catch unsuspecting passing fishes, and on its poisonous dorsal spine for its protection. It is very dangerous to step on a stonefish, as both the poison and the shock of the pain can be fatal. So the advice is not to put your foot down on any rock, even with flippers on. Stonefish have been recorded at Dibba and Khor Fakkan also.

Scorpion fish also occur. At first sight they are very similar to stonefish but they differ in that they do move and their eyes are visible. Although also poisonous they are not as harmful as the stonefish.

Another creature that is better avoided is the sea urchin (Echinometra mathaei and Diadema spp) of which there are hundreds tucked between the rocks. The dark brown spines are barbed and very difficult to remove, once embedded in a heel or palm. Infections can occur after sea urchin spines are removed.
Green turtle

Then there is the colourful lionfish (Pterois volans), with its white and orange-red bands and multiple long spines. These spines are strongly poisonous but because the fish moves, it is easier to avoid.

Last but not least there are the sea snakes with the Yellow-bellied seasnake (Pelamis platurus) being the most common one found on both coasts. In general they are not aggressive and their mouths are very small so it is not easy for them to deliver a bite to a large victim, but their poison is very strong. It needs to be strong because in water it becomes diluted and the snake depends on its effectiveness for success in its hunts.

Stingrays (Taeniura melanospina) are more a feature of the Gulf waters, where the coast is much less steep. These large flat fish come close into shore at the change of the seasons (September-October and March-April). They lie partly buried in the sand and if stepped upon, they whip their tail around which has a large barbed spine at the base.

Usually the sting penetrates somewhere around the ankles and the pain is said to be excruciating. However, the sting is not poisonous and the pain subsides in 7 or 8 hours, during which time it can be mitigated by holding the affected body part in very hot water. Afterwards a course of antibiotics is advisable because the mucus that coats the sting can contain many bacteria.

Shell collectors should be aware, when picking up cone shells (Conus spp.), to always keep the narrow part of the shell away from the body. The animal inhabiting the shell can shoot a harpoon-like hollow tooth that injects a dangerous neurotoxin. In the interest of conserving nature, it is in any case better to only collect those shells that no longer contain a live creature.

As long as you are aware of the few dangers in the sea, you Snorkeling trip can be a truly wonderful experience that will leave you with great memories for the rest of your life.


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