Wonder Reef
Sufaniya Bay 2016 Google Earth

It was the summer of 1964. Smith and I were 17, working as apprentice divers for the freshly established Al Gossaibi Diving Services, the brain child of the legendary Dee McVey. Dee had been the lead diver and manager of undersea operations for all of Bechtel’s offshore projects since the mid-fifties. When Bechtel finished up, Dee recognized a great business opportunity and set up the first Saudi commercial diving operation in the Gulf with his partner Mohammed Al-Gosaibi.

Dee’s first dive ship was the Dhow London stationed out of Sufaniya. A big, wooden vessel maybe 70 feet long with a robust diesel engine and a crew of eight sailors from all points of the Arabian Gulf: Oman, Bahrain, and Jubail. Lean as whippets, strong as bulls, these men were genuinely happy to be at sea. They were even happier when Smith or I would go overboard at the end of the day with a spear gun and deliver a fat hamoor, a distinctive Gulf grouper, for dinner.

Someday I’ll write a full account of our adventures on the London, but that day the dhow was at the dock in Sufaniya for an engine repair, so Smith and I had the day off. There wasn’t a whole lot to do in the camp, so we gathered our snorkeling gear and spear guns and hired a cab. He drove us about a mile, along a sandy trail that eventually ended and dropped us 50 yards away from the head of a small, pristine bay just southeast of town.

I had spotted it earlier when I hitched a ride to Sufaniya on a company DC-3. The bay was shaped like a big blue, reversed apostrophe with its long tail merging into a wide, sandy inlet that spilled into the more-green-than-blue waters of the gulf. Flying over, I could see dozens of stingrays hovering over the mouth of the bay, and along the edge closest to the gulf there was a long, dark shadow 30 feet from the shore that had to be a reef.

As the cab drives off, we wade into the shallows. Smith and I are each about six feet, three inches tall, but he has a bigger frame and easily outweighs me by 30 pounds. He also has terrible eyesight, so that he has to fold up his glasses and position them in his mask in order to see anything at all. Not comfortable but it works for him. We adjust our masks, slip on our fins and slip into the warm, tepid water. Leading with our arbalettes — a spear gun powered by cords of surgical tubing — we use only our flippers to silently swim like porpoises.

The water is about 20 feet deep and clear as gin — the visibility is at least 100 feet, and rising off the clean white sand right before us is a perfect coral reef. About twenty yards wide and the length of a football field, in places a couple of feet from the surface, this magnificent labyrinth of rock and coral is decorated with elaborate elk-horned corals, punctuated with massive brain corals the size of Volkswagens, and swarming with about every sea creature known to the Arabian Gulf.

We snorkel along, easily diving to the bottom if we want to check out a cluster of big clams, closely examine the sea cucumbers, or just glide along the base of the reef. Smith dives down, has a great shot at a hefty hamoor but lowers his spear gun and doesn’t take it. Underwater he turns to look back to me and I understand completely. We don’t want to break the spell of this virgin reef by fussing with a 20 pound hamoor corpse. Especially so early in the day.

He picks up a broken piece of coral and pokes at a luminescent yellow anemone to watch its tentacles retract. Something catches my eye to the left: it’s a cuttlefish slowly cruising along. Its body is changing colors back and forth like a spaceship from Star Trek.

Following quietly, I’m able to get about three feet from the cuttlefish as it cycles its colors from bright green to an electric blue to a shimmering pink. The colors strobe along the edges of the squid in a deeper hue than the rest of its skin. It’s very beautiful. I swim too close, and the cuttlefish blasts me with a cloud of ink the size of a Beach ball and jets away. I knew about squid shooting ink from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but to actually see that inky blob is a first in my life, as it would be in anyone’s.

The reef is actually long clusters of coral divided by canyons that fall to the bright sandy bottom littered with living shells, mud suckers, starfish, shrimp, and clumps of sea grass populated by hordes of tiny luminous fishes. The canyon walls are covered with teeming marine life of all sorts: from the crannies in the coral moray eels stick out their snouts, a sea snake wiggles into a dark hole, and at the foot of the reef I see a lobster’s antenna protruding from a crack in the coral.

A four-foot-wide stingray glides just off the sandy bottom along the reef. Its back is mottled into the vivid design of a perfect Persian carpet rendered in maroon, bright yellow, forest green, and pale blue. I can see the ray’s whip-like tail and near its base the actual, arrowhead-shaped stinger that does all the damage.  But it will never attack you, just don’t violate its first commandment: “Don’t tread on me.”

I take a breath and propel myself through a canyon. Through dozens of angelfish of all kinds. The small ones are white and yellow with a blue stripe and small carmine dots near their fins. The big ones — a foot and a half tall — are painted in severe black and white stripes like a zebra.  Slow and stately they cruise along like show horses, surrounded by a lively traffic of smaller fishes from purple neon guppies to dozens of beautiful fish that I wish I could identify.

When you are snorkeling and then dive under the surface something happens that most people never consider: you hear sound very well because it easily travels under water. About ten feet below the surface, I am quietly swimming past garish green anemones and over mustard yellow fire coral with thousands of fish darting everywhere, and I hear a symphony. It’s music to my ears in the way that an overture, an aria, or a steel guitar can transport someone away from all the cares and distractions of life to the peaceful presence of the present. This is a fairly Zen-like thought for a guy that can’t even spell Zen, but it was one of those moments.

I hear dozens of faint, discordant chirps like out-of-tune crickets playing over a bass line of continual grinding. It’s a parrotfish eating the coral. As big as a shoebox, it has the chompers for the job and patiently eats away at the coral, which is its role in the system. Gliding along, ten feet underwater, listening to the orchestra, I realize that right now I’m part of that system, and I like it.

Trailing behind a fat parrotfish, I’m distracted by a pufferfish slowly coming the other way. I swim after the puffer a bit, then poke towards it with my spear gun. The puffer instantly explodes into an obese, spiny volley ball, flicks its tail, and swims off.

I hover over some coral about two feet from the surface, holding on to a clump, breathing through my snorkel, watching straight down through my mask at the action. After a minute or two I focus on the different colors splotched across the reef. Everything is painted with variegated lichen ranging from deep greens to magenta and royal blue, pale-yellow and violet; colored sponges sprout like mushrooms from the coral. In the cracks there are hundreds of sea urchins of all sizes, prickly with sharp black needles, surrounded by half-opened bivalves, their purple mantles straining the water for plankton.

The longer I stay there drifting over the coral the more detail I can see. Tiny fishes the size of a lima bean, weird little sea horses fringed with manes that look like seaweed, wild anemones like Medusa’s head sprouting from a stem the size of a silver riyal.

Time sort of dissolves, and I’m there for ten or fifteen minutes before a resplendent lionfish appears. Painted with a camouflage-like pattern in shades of yellow, gold, and orange, it is designed not to blend in, but to loudly dare any fish to attack it. About the size of a pigeon, it sports 21 beautiful, deadly, venomous spines, any one of which could paralyze, if not kill, a human. The lionfish is not afraid of anything. I jab at it with my spear gun and, unlike any other fish on the reef, the angry lion fish turns with its bristling quills and advances on me.

Floating like driftwood above the coral in the warm, still water of the bay, wearing only a white tee shirt and cut-off jeans, mesmerized by the riot of color and movement beyond my mask, I am probably as free as I’ll ever be in my life. So integrated into this world that maybe, like an ungainly porpoise, I’m just another mammal passing through.

A flashing movement 20 feet out into the bay catches my eye. About two feet below the surface, a gleaming phalanx of chromium needlefish streams by. Sleek, trout-size darts with long, sharp, needle-like beaks, they are flying fish — when the action gets hot, they blast themselves through the surface and into the air, soaring in a low arc about six feet high and 20 feet long before they splash back into the gulf.

There is a favorite story about “Big Tom.” And he was big, close to 300 pounds on a sturdy, barrel-chested frame, three inches short of six feet. In the early afternoon, he and my dad are coming back from fishing the third reef in Tom’s boat. It’s been a productive day with many hamoor. Standing up as he steers the boat home, Big Tom is already savoring grilled grouper drenched in his special cinnamon, curry, and lemon sauce on a bed of that Spanish rice that his wife Maria does so well. He is perfectly content.

Then a burst of dozens of needlefish explodes out of the water, coming straight at him. My dad ducks, two needlefish land in the boat and flop around, but a third kamikaze dives out of the sky to spear Big Tom’s substantial left forearm. The needlefish sticks in his flesh like a live, flapping harpoon. Watching this unfold as they speed along, my dad is amazed. And then totally astounded as Big Tom looks down, maintains speed, rips the fish out of his arm, flips it back in the water and, totally unfazed, continues steering as if he had just smacked a mosquito.

Stealthy like patrolling U-boats, three barracuda follow the needlefish less than a foot from the surface. Silver-blue, they are shaped like a six-inch-wide slat in a picket fence. Not more than a yard long, they are extremely fast and endowed with sharp teeth that would make a piranha consider dentures. As they slowly move by, propelled by the merest flick of a fin, I can see their jaws quickly biting the water as if it were meat. They are no threat to me as I watch them follow the needlefish.

I snorkel over to the west edge of the reef, the side facing the bay, and look down its length. It’s as if someone has placed a large, intricate, ceramic structure crawling with life on the sandy bottom of a giant aquarium. The white sand ripples with the shadows of the swells above.

Coming straight at me, a couple of yards off the face of the reef, is a big green sea turtle. Its broad shell is about four feet long, its head about the size of a toaster, its graceful flippers cycling without the slightest effort. I dive and duck behind a coral head, so I won’t spook her, and watch this marvelous creature, one of the oldest reptiles on earth, pass by.

Less than ten feet away, I can clearly see her deep, black eyes, her prominent, beak-shaped mouth and gulping jaw. Her smooth shell, shingled around the edge with plates, is a wonder of hydrodynamic engineering. As she paddles away, I’m stunned by the idea that this green turtle is a virtually unchanged descendent of a species that is 100 million years old.  When humans were just coming down from the trees, this sea turtle had been swimming the oceans for more than 98 million years.

I’m soon distracted by two sharks gliding toward me. Every skin diving story needs a couple of sharks to accentuate the drama. Unfortunately, these nurse sharks are less than two feet long, slowly skimming over the bottom.

I’m familiar with these sharks. There were always dozens of them hovering in the shallow waters off the pier in Dammam. A favorite spear fishing spot, the pier was six miles long but less than ten feet deep for the first half mile. In three feet of water I grabbed my first mud shark. About a foot and a half long, it twisted and flexed in my hands with surprising strength for such a small creature. It was like gripping the disembodied bicep muscle of some world-class weightlifter. It was an amazing thing to actually feel the sheer strength of a two-foot mud shark, a good reference point for any future encounter with a 12-foot hammerhead.

The two nurse sharks wander down the reef, and in the distance I see a large cloud of silver fish about the size of very large sardines streaming toward me. At the slightest vibration they all split off with perfect synchronization. Darting together, right or left, up or down. They reassemble into a school before, out of nowhere, Smith strikes from a coral canyon right into them. I had forgotten that Smith was even here. As he darts into the school, they divert around him in a perfect silhouette, as if in an animated cartoon when a character runs through a wall and holes it with his outline. Smith spins to watch them leave, sees me, waves and points to shore.

We’ve been on the reef for more than three hours, our throats are dry, and we’d really like something to drink. We slide up near the beach into a couple feet of water, take off our masks and flippers, and un-cock our spear guns.Smith says, “Did you shoot anything?”

“No. Saw a perfect skipjack. Would have been easy. You shoot anything?”

“Had a head shot on fat red snapper, but no. I didn’t shoot a thing. I didn’t even try.”

“It’s a wonder isn’t it?”

“Yes, it truly is a wonder.”

We vowed to come back and often talked about visiting again, but life intervened and we never returned to Wonder Reef. At some time in the 1980s, the entire bay was flooded by a catastrophic oil spill. I never found out if the reef recovered.

After I completed this story, I checked out Sufaniya Bay on Google Earth and found the wide satellite photo that I used to head line this tale.

I couldn’t lead with this closer shot of the bay in non-living color because it is much too sad.

Wonder Reef
Sufaniya Bay 2016 Google Earth

As you can see the inlet is now a toxic sump pit, its greasy surface painted by the tides and currents into a strangely beautiful, but deadly plume. The bay is dead, the reef is gone forever. Only the wonder remains.

Earlier stories by Tim Barger are included in his collection Arabian Son.

ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories by Tim Barger
ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories
by Tim Barger
E-book: $4.95

Paperback: 142 pages ~ $12.95
ISBN: 978-098820505-5
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