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Marine Life in Qatar

Qatar Seas

Qatar's Marine Life

Francis Gillespie, author of Discovering Qatar and Gulf Times Natural History journalist, takes a look at the seas that surround Qatar and the mammals, fish and reptiles that inhabit them.

A rough sea by Doha's Corniche.
Copyright © Qatar Visitor

When people speak of the natural environment and fauna of Qatar, they usually have in mind the wildlife which has become adapted to life in hot, dry deserts with few plants and little water.

Yet the shallow seas which surround the peninsula are also part of the natural environment, and are home to a wide variety of creatures, ranging from reef-dwelling fish and sea-snakes through to dolphins and even the occasional gigantic whale shark or hump-backed whale.

To survive in the heavily saline waters of the Arabian Gulf, marine creatures need to be just as resilient as those on land. Not only is the salt content of the Gulf's enclosed waters three times that of the open ocean, oil slicks and increasing levels of pollution foul the environment.

In the late 1990s a series of exceptionally hot summer months impacted on the thermocline, resulting in widespread destruction of life on the inshore reefs and the deaths of thousands of fish, shellfish such as oysters, and sea turtles. Despite this disaster, the fauna is slowly recovering and life has returned once more to the reefs.



Dugongs

A dugong browses on the sea-floor.
Photographer unknown

A marine mammal that has recently been in the news is the dugong. A conservation initiative launched by the Supreme Council for the Environment and Natural Resources [SCENR], will study the habitat of these timid herbivorous animals, which graze on the sea grass beds between Qatar and Bahrain.

The second largest breeding population of dugongs world-wide is located in this area. Numbers are declining, as are those of other marine mammals - oil slicks are particularly devastating for dugongs as they surface to breathe, and oil globules damage the plants on which they feed. The survey, continuing over the next 3 months, will provide data about their numbers and look at ways to preserve their habitat.

Dolphins and Whales

Bottle nose dolpins swim in the Qatar sea.
Copyright © Robert Baldwin

There are four species of dolphins inhabiting the sea around Qatar. The one most often seen, as it inhabits inshore waters, is the Common Bottlenose Dolphin, easily recognisable from its pronounced beak and friendly-looking 'grin'. Further out to sea the Long-beaked Common Dolphin is more likely to be encountered as it rides the bow-wave of boats.

Very occasionally a relative, the rare Finless Porpoise, has been sighted. Humpback and Bryde's Whales sometimes enter the Gulf from the Indian Ocean, perhaps to shelter from storms, and have been seen in the lagoon of Khor al Adaid in the south of Qatar.

Sharks

Discovering Qatar, by Frances Gillespie.
Discovering Qatar

Although no incidence of shark attack has been recorded in Qatari waters since the days of the pearling industry which ended 60 or 70 years ago, some people still consider sharks a possible threat to swimmers, quite without justification.

Sharks are naturally nervous creatures and steer clear of humans. However, when the pearling fleets anchored on the oyster beds for 3 months at a time and food scraps were being thrown overboard daily, sharks hung around the boats and overcame their natural fear, and attacks on divers sometimes occurred.

Hammerhead Sharks are sometimes seen in the shipping channel at Ras Laffan, following the boats as they come in. Other sharks known in the region are Tiger and Leopard Sharks, and the harmless Grey Reef and Nurse Sharks which feed on the inshore reefs.



Fish

An Eagle Ray glides through the water.
Copyright © Robert Baldwin

Among the most elegant inhabitants of Gulf waters are the rays. Some, like the Stingray and the beautiful spotted Leopard Ray, stay close to the sea bed, but the Eagle Ray 'flies' gracefully through the open water, hence its name. Stingrays often bask in the mornings in the shallow sand fringing beaches, and rays also frequent sunken wrecks, which are covered in the shellfish which they eat.

All rays have spines at the base of their tails, covered with a poisonous mucus, and although they do not deliberately sting humans, accidents have been known to occur. Far more dangerous are the Stonefish which are perfectly camouflaged as small rocks, right down to the barnacle-encrustation and weeds. The poison in their dorsal spines is excruciatingly painful and can have long-term effects, and for that reason shoes should always be worn by swimmers on rocky shores.

The beautiful but poisonous lionfish.
Copyright © Robert Baldwin

Another poisonous fish, which is as beautiful as the Stonefish is ugly, is the Butterfly Cod, often known as a Scorpionfish or Lionfish. Inhabiting both rocky and coral reefs, they have long, feathery dorsal and pectoral fins in a variety of colour combinations: usually red, orange and white, although in Qatar there is also a black, grey and white variety. The poison is carried in their long dorsal spines, but as they make themselves highly visible when the spines are erect they are not a real danger to divers.

The inshore reefs around Qatar are predominantly rocky and do not attract the true coral-reef dwellers, but on the offshore reefs around the Hallul and Sharoua islands colourful fish such as the Surgeonfish and the coral-crunching Parrotfish patrol among the coloured coral growths.

Reptiles

A hawksbill turtle covers its nest on a Qatar beach.
Copyright © David Gillespie

Several species of turtles inhabit the ocean around Qatar, and in the past there were even more. Of these the most common are the Green and Hawksbill turtles, but only the Hawksbill is known to nest on the beaches of the NE coast, although this year there was an unconfirmed report of a couple of Green turtle nests.

In 2005, as numbers of turtles steadily declined, the SCENR, in line with other Gulf countries, set up a programme to study and monitor the nesting turtles and give all-round protection to the beaches, both when the turtles are nesting and later on when the hatchlings emerge. This protection will need to continue for many years before the long-term results are known, but it is a positive move.

This Qatar sea snake is venomous but unagressive.
Copyright © Robert Baldwin

The reptiles inhabiting the Arabian Gulf include not only turtles but sea snakes, which are sometimes encountered on beaches after being stranded by a high tide. Nine species are found in the sea surrounding Qatar, of which the most common are the Yellow-bellied Sea Snake out at sea, and the Arabian Gulf and Blue-banded Sea Snakes, both of which inhabit inshore waters and have distinctive dark bands along the length of their bodies.

Sea snakes are related to cobras and their poison is far more toxic than that of any local terrestrial snake, but they are not aggressive and no incident of sea snake bite has ever been recorded here.

Environment

The fragile eco-system of the Gulf is the subject of increasing concern among the nations which border on it, and regulations are continually being drafted and updated to improve the protection of marine species and their environment. However, illegal practices such as the dumping of raw sewage and toxic materials at sea continue, and laws to stop this are almost impossible to enforce. Over fishing, oil pollution, the 'reclaiming of land' and ever increasing numbers of desalination plants also pose ongoing threats to Gulf sea life.

The Arabian Gulf is facing a critical stage: unless even more stringent action is taken by all the nations to protect it and the myriad creatures that inhabit it, Qatar and its neighbours may one day have to face the possibility of being surrounded by waters devoid of most recognisable forms of life.

Also see: An Introduction to the Geology and Nature of Qatar by the same author.


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