Revealing secrets of the sea

The sea and Oman are inseparable. The country’s heritage and culture are closely tied to and have risen from the sea. The waters around this land are rich and biodiverse. But Oman’s underwater world remains a mystery. Now, two expats - a British commercial filmmaker and a Belgian marine biologist – are compiling a book featuring the mysteries and wonders in Oman’s unique underwater world that are waiting to be revealed.

Likely the only photographic book focused on the country’s marine life, Secret Seas will “illustrate rather than document” through 250-300 images spread across 220-250 pages over 150 marine species. The book includes five years of extensive professional underwater photography, starting from Musandam and Khasab up north to Muscat, the Damaniyat Islands, and Masirah right down to the Hallaniyat Islands, Mirbat and Salalah in the southern end of the country.

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Michel Claereboudt (left) and Paul Flandinette (Muscat Daily)

 Co-authored by Paul Flandinette, currently director of special projects at Brand Infiniti – a Muscat-based media company – the idea of the book popped in 2014. Flandinette’s first assignment in the sultanate was a film for Royal Air Force of Oman’s 50th anniversary in 2009. A finalist of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition held by the Natural History Museum in London, one of his photographs has also 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.

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 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. Having authored books on his two specialisations – the latest titled Shallow Water Echinoderms of Oman published in May – Claereboudt has researched the ecology and biology of corals and other reef invertebrates in these waters since 1997.

Claereboudt describes his job as being underwater, having spent much of his life in scuba gear. While pursuing a PhD, he dived twice a day, two-three days a week over two years. Yet, he claims he doesn’t like fish. “The biggest difference between Paul and me is – I don’t like fish. They move around too much. That’s why I work with corals and Echinoderms.” Corals don’t move, he  explained, they grow – about 1cm per year. “Some of them grow a little faster, but generally, they grow at 1cm a year. So if you find a colony that is 2m in diameter, it’s about 200 years old. As for Echinoderms, these have a maximum speed of 2cm per minute and so I have time to set up my camera.”

Flandinette described himself as just the opposite. “I love fish, and turtles and dolphins and sharks… Not all of them move much but most do,” he said. “The fish move, the current moves, you move – everything moves underwater. Underwater photography is completely different from surface photography – you deal with a different set of environmental constrains – the light, currents, the subject matter is always in motion... It gets complicated there. To get a good photo, you have to understand your subject matter, their behaviour.” Fish often have predictable patterns of movement peculiar to their species which can only be anticipated with experience.”

Having swum with finned companions, Flandinette has learnt to give them distance. All animals have a “break point”, getting too close and breaching that distance makes them unhappy. “But if you approach slowly and sensibly, you can get really close.” Owing to the nature of fish and the environmental constrains involved in underwater photography, of 200-300 photographs taken in a dive, often only two or three might be useable.

According to Claereboudt, while diving can become second nature for divers, having a camera is an additional intellectual activity. “You need to think about how deep you are, how much air you have  left, where your diving buddies are, where is the boat… You have all of these intellectual activities while you’re manipulating your camera and taking pictures,” he said, adding that if the diver isn’t skilled enough, a small hiccup can become a big problem. “It’s very easy to be disorientated. If you don’t have the experience, the calmness, the reflection to think through, it becomes a problem.”

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. “Not just in terms of diversity, but if you have a school of sardines, instead of having a ball the size of this room, you’ll have a school that’s 20m long and 5m thick; if you see barracuda, you’ll see 20-30 circling. We have a photo of Golden sweepers in Hallaniyat Islands – there are thousands of them with the diver going through them,” Claereboudt said. “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.”

Asked what they want to achieve with the book, Flandinette said he hopes it’s 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. “But more importantly, the assets that we create - 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, before continuing, “And I don’t think anybody would have seen images of Oman underwater in the way we are going to show them.”

“It’s not going to be a techie book; it’s for the layman,” Claereboudt added. “Although someone who wants to know the name of a species will find it, the book is not designed for that.”

As for when Secret Seas will be published, according to Flandinette they’re “no more than two months away from creating a full design, polishing all the writing, wordcrafting… We’re aiming to be published next year, in Oman’s Golden Jubilee year. The perfect year to publish a book that has never been done before.”

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