Sunday, February 7, 2010

Arabian Gulf vs. Red Sea (Noah in Kuwait)

NOTE: Photos to be added soon! Check back!

Months later, as I reflect on this November 2009 trip with a Kuwaiti friend that did not come along, I find I can't really answer his simple question - "Why would you go to Kuwait?" Indeed, Kuwait's policy toward alcohol is the same as Saudi's. That was OK; for me, it became all about the fish (as per usual). But looking back on the night before the flight, hanging in the library with Anthony and listening to Ernesto prod us over the phone to go, it was just about the adventure. So Anthony and I just bought the ticket.

So eager were Ernesto & the Mexican musketeers that came along that they neglected to check if Mexicans were even allowed into Kuwait. According to the look on the Kuwaiti official's face and the names on the return tickets he was holding out to the Mexicans as soon as we landed, it was evident that they were not. Familiar with Middle Eastern politic, we knew that rules can be sidestepped. So we sidestepped around the official, offering nods that translated to a polite "no thank you" and went on to the immigration desk, leaving him helplessly confused in our youthful wake. Due to the mishap, instead of five hours of total transit from KSA to Kuwait City, it took us about 13 hours - losing our first day - but successfully negotiating Mexican nationals into Kuwait is no simple task. What we learned for the future? Carry a copy of your university degree in your e-mail inbox, and bring SCUBA fins; you will be considered a professional and allowed entry. The musketeers sallied forth, veritable Don Quixotes fending off windmills (where 'windmill' means 'Kuwaiti immigration'). (For weeks afterwards we would jest: "Do you have your fins? OK, welcome to Kuwait.")

About those SCUBA fins... The Mexican musketeers were newly SCUBA certified and wanted to dive around the Middle East. Fantastic idea, I thought. Before leaving, it dawned on me that of course, the Arabian/Persian Gulf (from here on, just "the Gulf") was an entirely different basin with a unique biological assemblage to explore! (The artifact of the basin's "name" depends on who you call your friend - Middle Eastern nations openly befriend, and secretly scorn each other - for entertainment, perhaps? Just say "Arabian" when in Arab countries and "Persian" when in Iran. Also, don't ask a Kuwaiti taxi driver if he "likes" Iraq.)

Before departure, I set out to compare the "the Gulf" with my new home country's west coast wonder, the Red Sea. Why would anyone care? Well, see the below map, and the accompanying chart of lightly researched facts of biological interest...

The Red Sea is significantly warmer and saltier than the Gulf. The Gulf is situated overall at higher latitude (farther North) than the Red Sea. In addition, unlike the Red Sea, it receives massive freshwater input from the fertile Tigris-Euphrates river drainage (which delineates Iraq's southeastern border). The Gulf also has a much wider mouth to the Indian Ocean than the Red Sea. (Though the Red Sea does receive water from the Mediterannean through the Suez Canal, I'd guess this would be negligible, except for its role as a vector for non-native species exchange.) The Gulf's coastal freshwater input also means more nutrients, and therefore more turbid water due to higher densities of phytoplankton growth. These factors affect biodiversity; while lists 1,220 fish species known from the Red Sea, only 772 are known from the Gulf. Surely a dive in the Gulf would be a vastly different experience thana dive in the Red Sea.

Aside from the natural, there is the anthropogenic to consider. The Persian Gulf witnessed mankind's 1991 Gulf War, in which a coalition of nations aided Kuwait in chasing out Iraqi invaders. Iraq's exit strategy while fleeing was to cause as much damage to Kuwaiti economy as possible - and the easiest way to do that was to destroy its natural resources. The retreating army lit oil fields on fire, evacuated oil tankers of their payload, and wrecked coastal refineries - all releasing oil into the Gulf... According to Wikipedia, "...estimates on the volume spilled range from 42 to 462 million gallons; the slick reached a maximum size of 101 by 42 miles and was 5 inches thick. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the size of the spill, figures place it 5 to 27 times the size (in gallons spilled) of the Exxon Valdez oil spill..." I was curious if I'd be able to find evidence of this environmental disaster out on the reefs, even ten years later.

Still there? As if this post hasn't been geeky enough, my curiosity pushed me to search through the scientific journals to find out if some reef biologist had already looked at the Gulf War's damage. I found a 1993 paper called "Has the Gulf War Affected Coral Reefs of the Northwestern Gulf?" Without including a detailed review of the paper, I'll say that while the techniques used were fairly weak, the minimal amount of data support the authors' conclusions that any damage that had been done to coral cover, coral abundance, fish diversity, fish abundance, and/or urchin abundance had more or less recovered by late 1992. While there were significant differences between some of the ecological parameters mentioned before and after the war at certain sites, the authors chastised naysayers: “The most convenient explanation for the coral mortalities observed, and for the decline in the fish community at Kubbar, is to blame the Gulf War in some way. For example, there was always the possibility that long term effects (from temperature drop, soot fall-out, decreased insolation or toxic effects of oil) would manifest themselves in changes to the coral reef community. However, the changes recorded above, with the exception of Qit'at Urayfijan are relatively small, cannot easily be traced to a particular cause, and have, in some form, happened previously without the benefit of a war to blame.”

Yet, a bit of a deus-ex-machina for those waiting on bated breath to read the cathartic summary of my Kuwait dives. C'mon people, I visited without scientific equipment (i.e. measuring tape and a clipboard), and it was more about curiosity than data. Although, oddly enough, I dove Qit'at Urayfijan, the exception-to-recovery reef from above, and it wasn't your picture perfect reef. Of course, I had no perfect pictures anyhow because I accidentally left my camera in KSA, and we had to squish another camera in my housing to snap off the shot or two posted here.

So what can I say? The water was noticeably colder and pea-green, with perhaps five meters of visibility; there was significantly less coral diversity and coral cover than any reef I've been to in the Red Sea, and significantly less fish abundance and probably fish diversity. The reef was mostly coral rubble with the occasional isolated coral head or patch of solid dead coral rock, popular with the large urchin population. An adjoining wreck was sprinkled with coral growth. After one day of diving at one site, it would be impossible to identify the impact of oil spills from surface-level human affairs. But it was still, as the Silent World always is, magical.

There is more to Kuwait then the neighboring body of water, and we made good on our time to explore. But Kuwait is still very small. It is nearly impossible to get a taxi there; most people in Kuwait have money - it has the most expensive currency in the world, at US $3.50 to a Kuwaiti dinar (KD). So walk we did, throughout much of Kuwait City, for hours, failing to get taxis. Our two nights in Kuwait saw the two most important sites to visit - the souq and the Kuwait Tower. The souq, one of the richest in the Middle East, was beautifully clean and, to my horror, sold sharks in the fish market. Outside, I smoked my first sheesha while Kuwaiti children ran around setting off tiny, loud firecrackers every three seconds. The Kuwait Towers, more or less the country's national monument, is a series of three concrete spires, the highest of which is 187 meters. An elevator takes tourists to the top where a rotating dining area allowed diners a 360 degree view of the city every 30 minutes. In addition, you can enjoy photographs of Gulf War destruction caused by "the barbaric invaders," according to captions. Overall, I found it the least friendly city of any I've been to in the Middle East, in that there just didn't seem to be anything to do. I might go back some time in the summer when the whale sharks make it to the Gulf; for now my judgments lay in purgatory.