A Marine Oasis
Written by Kate Lord Brown
The warm waters of the Arabian Gulf play host to a unique gathering of whale sharks off the coast of Qatar.
Qatari fishermen have long been aware of the gentle giants of the sea gathering in the Arabian Gulf from late April to October, but the sharks, which have existed for 60 million years, are now considered a threatened species. A unique collaboration between Qatar’s Ministry of the Environment, Maersk Oil, and David Robinson, a PhD student from Heriot-Watt University, has seen a team working together since 2011 to carry out vital research to learn more about Qatar’s whale sharks.
Above the Al Shaheen oil field, located 80km off the north coast of Qatar, more than 100 whale sharks feed at the surface every day, making it one of the largest aggregation sites in the world. “As a long-term operator in Qatar we felt committed to support research that could reveal why this area is so special,” says Abdulrahman Al Emadi, Director of the Maersk Oil Research and Technology Centre (MO-RTC).
Marine life has to adapt to extreme conditions in the Gulf. In the summertime, surface sea temperatures can reach over 35°C, but high evaporation rates actually draw in cooler water from the Indian Ocean at the same time. “The mixing of currents makes the area unique in terms of biodiversity in the Arabian Gulf. With time our platforms have turned into artificial reefs overgrown with coral that attract a variety of marine life. You can see dolphins, turtles, and even whales,” says Steffen Sanvig Bach, Marine Biologist at MO-RTC. The Qatar Whale Shark Project has now discovered that the whale sharks come to Al Shaheen to feed on the eggs from tuna fish spawning in the area. Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish; the largest captured whale shark was 20m long and weighed 34 tons. David Robinson explains: “The sharks can be identified by their unique spot patterns, so if you are lucky enough to encounter them, then take a picture of the left side area just behind the last gill slit and send the photo to whaleshark.org.” Over 300 sharks have so far been identified by the project, and the researchers have found that they return to Al Shaheen each year.
Mohammed Al Jaidah, special advisor from Qatar’s Ministry of the Environment, says: “The whale sharks have become a symbol for how important it is to preserve the environment. In Qatar, thanks to the collaboration between industry, government, and academia, the future of the whale sharks is in safe hands for generations to come.”
Qatar Whale Shark Research Project
The Qatar Ministry of the Environment and the Maersk Oil Research and Technology Centre have launched a research programme that will investigate the importance of these structures for the marine biodiversity in Qatar. You can view a documentary about the project on Oryx One in-flight entertainment.