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Beyond the sea turtles: 'Secret Seas' explores Oman's underwater treasures

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Published in 2021 by award-winning film-maker and underwater photographer Paul Flandinette and marine scientist Michel Claereboudt, the book 'Secret Seas' was gifted to me during my recent visit to Mirbat where a massive effort to map out diving spots and ocean activities is currently ongoing to make Mirbat a year-long destination for different adventures.

It is a hefty nearly 300-pages hardcover book that included around 300 underwater photographs "covering some 160 individual species" all found in Oman.

"We tried as much as possible to identify the species we photographed, but several remain taxonomic mysteries and maybe new species unknown to science. For species identification, we used John E Randall's book 'Coastal fishes of Oman' and other internationally recognised authorities'', the authors explained in the latter part of the book.

The authors admitted that it was a large project and required spending hundreds of hours in the water and species identification but while it has all the right support coming from Omran and some of the country's top brands and environmentalists, somehow it eluded coverage and promotion from the media.

While the book is a colourful celebration of Oman's spectacular marine life, it cannot be missed that one of its primary reasons for creation is to raise awareness about the world's battle with climate change and the continuous degradation of our oceans and marine life.

In her foreword, HH Sayidah Tania al Said, President of the Environment Society of Oman, admitted, "Like much of the world, Oman's marine environment is threatened by a number of factors, the biggest of which include entanglement, suffocation and poisonous ingestion from lost or abandoned fishing gear, plastic pollution, ship strikes, habitat loss and climate change."

She advocated that it is important to educate and inspire present and future generations, those who live in and visit Oman to "act as respectful and committed custodians of our incredible biodiversity" calling the book valuable in its contribution to raising awareness, and knowledge and appreciation of Oman's marine life.

There are plenty of interesting things about underwater life included in the book that I didn't know before. After going through the entirety of the book, I loved how the authors left the readers with the section on "The Oceans: A Tale of Two Futures."

When they said, "The tale of the oceans is one of two futures. One, as a result of inaction, in which we will see an underwater world ravaged and eventually die from overfishing, increased temperature, pollution and acidification while the other future offers some hope provided we drastically cut our production of greenhouse gases and actively help the oceans recover (or at least hang on)'', they are putting up a challenge the answer of which relies on how much we love our oceans.

If you're not familiar with the book, I would personally urge you to find a copy as I think it's worth being added to your collection if you're the type that wants to collect information about Oman or love diving and the seas.

Here are the amazing tidbits of knowledge that I got from the book.

Oman's coral communities are unique

Coral reefs are formed by groups of organisms that build colonies modified by their builders to fit their habitat needs. But what makes Oman's coral communities unique is that "firstly, Oman harbours some of the largest single-species reefs in the world."

The authors named the large beds of "cauliflower coral" or Pocillopora damicornis that's more than 10 metres thick in the South of Daymaniyat Islands and the still-unnamed foliose Montipora that covers several square metres in Barr Al Hikman, west of Masirah.

They also pointed out that in Dhofar, coral communities in the area are also the second wonder of Oman's reefs are the tropical corals share the bottom of the oceans with large seaweeds normally found nowhere else and are more characteristic of the temperate shores.

Think of any colour and a nudibranch has it

Apparently, they are called the 'jewels of the sea' but due to the lack of imagination of many, they are simply called sea slugs or nudis. Surprisingly, it was eye-opening to learn that there are 3,000 individual species of sea slugs and while generally small, "their diversity of colours, patterns and shapes have no equivalent even among tropical fishes.

Other than discussing in detail how they got the name nudibranch as well as how their colour is a warning sign of toxicity to predators, my personal favourites due to their colour and structure are probably Pleurobranchus peronii or dark burgundy species (that eats soft corals apparently) and the very cute Nembrotha aurea which reminds me of a tropical orchid in some Asian mountains.

Eels are an interesting bunch

Honeycomb, phantom, leopard, moray, yellowmouth, zebra, high fin, snowflake and dragon. Who says eels and its family is boring? Just the names alone are big giveaways that eels can be a fun bunch.

Oman's waters are particularly abundant with moray eels that look aggressive but rarely are. Did you know that morays have a second set of jaws called the pharyngeal? Did you also know that while they may lack scales, they can secrete mucus that protects them from sharp irregularities of the reefs? This whole section on eels reveals a few interesting tidbits about how the species got their name and how you can tell them apart based on their appearances.

Nemo and the other colourful species

The book also has several pages dedicated to our beloved Nemo, about parrotfishes and how shallow-water fishes come in a different range of colours. The book also delves into sea turtles, rays and sharks, cephalopods (that's squid and cuttlefish for you) as well some important tips and tricks on how to take amazing underwater photography. If you're looking for a book to help better your understanding of marine life and where to find them in Oman, this book is definitely a great addition to your references.

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