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Oman’s underwater treasures showcased

29 Nov 2021 By TRIDWIP K DAS

Secret Seas – Discover Oman’s unique underwater world is a celebration of the sultanate’s rich and diverse marine environment

Muscat – A book in the making for seven years featuring 160 marine species found in Oman’s seas was published earlier this month. Written and photographed by Paul Flandinette and Michel Claereboudt, a book signing ceremony was held with H H Sayyida Tania al Said, president of Environment Society of Oman, on November 11.

Through 295 photographs spread over 240 pages printed on sustainably sourced paper using water based inks and varnishes, Secret Seas – Discover Oman’s unique underwater world “illustrates rather than documents” the sultanate’s rich and diverse marine life. The Omran Group is strategic partner in the project.  

The book involved extensive underwater photography, starting from Musandam and Khasab up north to the Damaniyat Islands, Muscat and Masirah right down to the Hallaniyat Islands, Mirbat and Salalah in the southern tip of the country.

L-R: Paul Flandinette, H H Sayyida Tania al Said and Michel Claereboudt at a book signing ceremony held on November 11, 2021, at Environment Society of Oman (Supplied photos)

Flandinette, who led the project, is director of special projects at Brand Infiniti – a Muscat-based media company. A finalist of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition held by the Natural History Museum in London, one of his photographs had the distinction of being presented in a Smithsonian Museum show on the planet’s oceans in Washington DC.

“Earlier a diver, now a photographer who dives”, when the idea of the book began taking shape, Flandinette realised the book needed “scientific rigour”. “I’d read about Michel (Claereboudt) and asked him to join me in writing the book. I don’t think anyone has the knowledge of underwater Oman like he has,” Flandinette said of his co-author.

Associate professor in the department of Marine Sciences at Sultan Qaboos University, Claereboudt is an internationally acclaimed expert on corals and Echinoderms – sea urchins, sea cucumbers, starfish etc. He has researched the ecology and biology of corals and other reef invertebrates in Omani waters since 1997.

Both Flandinette and Claereboudt have dived in other parts of the world, and what stands out for them about the diving experience in Oman is the number of fish seen here.

“The numbers to me are unbelievable. You needn’t go to the Red Sea or Bali. We have it all around us here all the time. You just need to put your nose underwater,” Claereboudt informed.

Secret Seas is divided into chapters dedicated to different groups and families of marine wildlife, including parrotfish; cephalopods; scorpionfish, lionfish and stonefish; sea turtles; and sharks and rays. A chapter titled ‘The reef’ showcases organisms that live in coral reefs.

‘Blue waters’ shows fish photographed in settings described by the chapter title. ‘Blue waters occur when phytoplankton lack nutrients to feed on and zooplankton sink to deeper waters. During these periods, often just before the summer, the large pelagic inhabitants become more visible. While blue waters are good for wide angle underwater photography, they are in effect watery deserts with little nutrients,’ the chapter explains.

Another is dedicated to ‘Underwater photography’. “On land, a photographer tries to stay still to take a sharp image. In underwater photography everything is in constant motion, the subject, the water and the photographer. These can make for quite big challenges. In addition, you have very limited time underwater to capture your image. Most species present their own specific challenges to photography whether that’s because of their tiny size, like little shrimps, their speed or simply because they swim away from the camera,” Flandinette said.   

Owing to the nature of fish and the environmental constraints involved in underwater photography, of 200-300 photographs taken in a dive, often only two or three might be useable.

Sharks are now among the rarest large fish encountered by divers in Oman

About the rare marine species seen in the book, Claereboudt said, “Sharks are nowadays among the rarest large fish encountered by divers in Oman. Common 20 or 30 years ago, overfishing of these slow reproducing species has reduced their population to such extremes that it is indeed very rare to be able to observe or even see a shark in its natural environment.

“The mollusks nudibranchs, also called sea slugs, a name that really does not render justice to their beauty and colourful patterns, are often both seldom seen and unusually beautiful. Several species illustrated in Secret Seas have only been seen once over thousands of dives.”

A chapter titled ‘The Oceans: A tale of two futures’ presents a stark reality. ‘Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, two hundred years ago, the oceans have absorbed a third of all carbon dioxide produced by human activities. The amount of heat taken up by the oceans (due to greenhouse gasses resulting directly from human activities) is staggering and equivalent to the energy produced by four Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs being exploded every second of every day of the year. As a result, we have already lost over 50 per cent of our coral reefs.’   

H H Sayyida Tania, who has penned the forward, described Secret Seas as “a wonderful celebration of Oman’s abundant marine environment and a valuable contribution to our awareness, knowledge and appreciation of Oman’s marine life”.

Asked how the book will help Environment Society of Oman’s conservation efforts, she said, “It is my hope that it will inspire people to learn more about the captivating world under the surface of our seas and encourage people to actively participate in the protection of one of the most fascinating parts of Oman’s natural heritage.”

Likely the only photographic book focused on the country’s marine life, Flandinette hopes Secret Seas is going to be a revelation about what there is in Oman in terms of species and the marine environment, and get people interested to come here to dive.

“More importantly, the assets that we have created – the knowledge, the experiences and the images – we want to make these available to Oman to help education in schools, to support knowledge, so that the next generation of Omanis is more familiar with the ocean and so more likely to want to protect it. We want them to be more aware about their heritage and what they’ve got on their doorstep,” Flandinette said. 

Every image in the book has information on the species photographed, where it was taken, and aperture and shutter speed specifications.

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