Life in a desert sea

In the Al Shaheen field offshore Qatar, Maersk Oil’s installations are becoming something akin to artificial reefs, and hosting sea life including more than 100 of the world’s largest fish. Maersk Oil and Qatari authorities are trying to understand more about what brings them here and how best to protect them.

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The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is the largest fish in the world and is expected to have existed for around 60 million years. Photo: Simone Caprodossi


From his crane operator’s seat more than 50 metres above sea level, Abdul Rahman Mohamed has a prime view across the Maersk Oil platforms offshore Qatar and down to the divergent sea life that is making its home under the waves.

The outside temperature is still below 40 degrees Celcius but the rising sun over the Al Shaheen field will soon change that, as one of the most amazing natural events in the region unfolds below – a gathering of the world’s largest fish.

Every year from May to September, more than 100 whale sharks gather around the platforms in Qatar’s largest offshore oil field in one of the world’s largest aggregations of the slow-moving filter feeding fish, which are currently classified as vulnerable to extinction. 

Abdul Rahman reports the sightings to marine biologist Steffen Bach at the Maersk Oil Research and Technology Centre (MO-RTC) in Doha, who is trying to understand why the platforms in Al Shaheen have become biodiversity hotspots.

“Some of the platforms are 20 years old now and have with time been overgrown by marine organisms and turned into – well, almost living structures. They essentially act as artificial reefs attracting a variety of species,” says Bach.


Spawning tuna

Al Shaheen is the largest offshore oil field in Qatar and is operated by Maersk Oil on behalf of Qatar Petroleum, producing approximately a third of the country’s oil.

The whale sharks – the largest reported specimen of which was 20 metres long and weighed 34 tonnes – come to feed on the eggs of spawning tuna, as thousands of colourful fish can be seen among the sponges and soft corals that grow on the oil platforms, creating a marine oasis in a desert sea.

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The whale sharks – the largest reported specimen of which was 20 metres long and weighed 34 tonnes – come to feed on the eggs of spawning tuna, as thousands of colourful fish can be seen among the sponges and soft corals that grow on the oil platforms, creating a marine oasis in a desert sea. Photo: Simone Caprodossi

Since the whale sharks were first noticed in 2007, MO-RTC has joined forces with Qatari authorities and Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, UK in the Qatari Whale Shark Project.

“Platforms themselves are however not the only reason,” Bach explains. “Al Shaheen is located in an area with very complex currents, which are partly driven by the high evaporation from shallow areas in the Gulf that quickly warm up in the summer. So while the baking sun is creating a desert on land it is actually a creator of life in the sea.” 

To understand and protect


The whale shark

  • The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is the largest fish in the world and is expected to have existed for around 60 million years.
  • Historically, very little data on whale sharks has ever been collected because it was not considered commercially viable. In recent years this status has changed with the increasing demand for shark products from the Asian market.
  • There are increasing reports of whale sharks being taken for their fins as other species of shark become less abundant. They are currently classed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The Qatari Whale Shark Project researches the whale sharks and other sea life around Al Shaheen, where public access and fishing is banned, seeking to understand why they come here and how best to protect them.  So far it has identified several species of dolphins, sharks and other species which were not believed to exist in this part of the Gulf. 

“The water contains DNA fragments from marine species that have been in the area recently,” says Philip Francis Thomsen from the University of Copenhagen, who is working on a new monitoring technology. “By filtering a simple water sample we can potentially identify all the fish species that are present around the platforms during the year.” 

MO-RTC’s Bach is also expectant. “This work is extremely exciting for us because very little has been published about the marine life in the Gulf and the new DNA technology has shown promising results previously,” he says. “The perception of the Gulf as a desert sea might be about to change.”


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Since the whale sharks were first noticed in 2007, MO-RTC has joined forces with Qatari authorities and Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, UK in the Qatari Whale Shark Project. Photo: Simone Caprodossi

Findings from the research are sent to the Qatar Ministry of Environment so that future protective measures can be identified, and the data are already helping operations in Al Shaheen to plan their activities with minimum impact. 

“The safety zones around the platforms prevent fishing and create a de-facto marine protected area,” says David Robinson, a Ph.D. student at Heriot Watt who has dedicated his time to studying the whale shark population in the region. “It is definitely a place that deserves all the attention and protection possible.”

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Every year from May to September, more than 100 whale sharks gather around the platforms in Qatar’s largest offshore oil field. Photo: Simone Caprodossi