A diver descends into the waters of the Persian Gulf, just to the north of the island kingdom of Bahrain. But as the man swims down below 40 feet, a strange shape comes into view. Surrounded by tropical fish, the object has a cylindrical, cigar-like form – yet it’s more than 200 feet in length. So the diver continues his descent, keen to explore this eerie apparition under the sea…
For context, the Kingdom of Bahrain lies in the Persian Gulf to the northwest of Qatar and east of Saudi Arabia. The country’s main island is linked to Saudi Arabia by a bridge to the lesser Bahraini island of Um Al Nassan and a second bridge from that island to the Saudi mainland. The area’s long history makes it a likely source of archaeological interest, too.
You see, Bahrain was once a British Protectorate – but it gained independence in 1971. And Bahrain follows a less austere version of Islam than its neighbor Saudi Arabia. In fact, many Saudis drive across the bridge to Bahrain to enjoy its more liberal milieu. Alcohol is available in the island’s restaurants and hotels, and there are even nightclubs.
However, Islam is still a keystone of Bahraini culture and over 80 percent of Bahrain’s population of some 1.2 million are Muslims. Islam is also the state religion, and just over 60 percent of people are Shias, while the remaining almost 40 percent are members of the Sunni faith.
So had the diver found something connecting to Bahrain’s past? Well, as previously mentioned, Bahrain has a history far predating its status as a British protectorate – a period that only began in 1868. In fact, the history of Bahrain can be traced back to the Bronze Age when the island was a key trading center linking the Middle East with the Indian sub-continent.
Bahrain has actually come under the sway of a variety of empires including those of the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Portuguese. That’s probably because the main trade of the islands was in pearls gathered from the Persian Gulf. But major change came to Bahrain in 1929 when oil was discovered, transforming the island’s economy.
And today, the Bahraini authorities are keen to develop tourism as another economic force for the country. Work to enhance Bahrain’s tourist industry has been going on for decades as part of a strategy to create a post-oil economy. The opening of a new underwater theme park is a key part of that strategy, too. Which brings us back to our diver.
That’s right: the work to increase tourism to the island has paid off. For example, the number of visitors to Bahrain in 2017 was 11.4 million, a substantial increase on the previous year’s total of 10.2 million. And the income from tourism in 2017 was a handsome $4.9 billion, a welcome contribution to the Bahraini economy. This number of curious visitors will only increase – and the diver will be counted among them.
You see, the underwater explorer we met earlier was actually in Bahrain’s new underwater theme park, which officially opened in September 2019. The country’s Industry, Commerce and Tourism Minister Zayed bin Rashid Al Zayani performed the honors at the opening ceremony. And the park, covering an area of more than one million square feet, is billed as the largest of its kind in the world.
Yes, the opening of underwater attraction Dive Bahrain should go some way to ensuring that tourist numbers continue to climb. And Bahrain has seen increases in luxury hotel accommodation and high-end retail outlets as well as new premium leisure and sporting opportunities. So any increase in visitors prompted by the new diving park will likely benefit both those sectors of the economy.
There’s also been a determined push to promote Bahrain’s cultural offerings as well as its rich heritage. Speaking to the Oxford Business Group, Jerad Bachar of the Bahrain Economic Development Board said, “Our positioning is centered around an authentic Arabic experience that is based on 4,000 years of trade, culture and heritage.”
So what exactly will a tourist find on a visit to the new Dive Bahrain attraction’s million square feet of ocean bed? Well, there’s a mock-up of a traditional Bahraini pearl merchant’s abode. And as we mentioned before, pearls were a mainstay of the Bahrain economy prior to the discovery of oil.
In case you weren’t aware, pearls form naturally in oysters. The bivalves react to pieces of grit being trapped in their shells by covering them in a smooth excrescence of mother of pearl. This is presumably more comfortable for the oyster and provides humans with a richly prized natural product. In fact, pearls from Bahrain are highly sought after for their coloring and quality.
The pearl diving industry’s history stretches back thousands of years, too. Diving for pearls around Bahrain was even mentioned in an Assyrian text from some 4,000 years ago. That’s when the Roman historian Pliny described Bahrain as “famous for the vast number of its pearls.” The industry is said to have reached its peak from the mid-19th century when pearls were even more treasured than diamonds.
However, a combination of industrial pearl cultivation, the Great Depression of the 1930s and the discovery of oil sent the industry into a tailspin from which it has never recovered. At one time, it’s believed that the majority of Bahrain’s men were employed in some capacity in the pearl trade. But organized pearl-hunting trips are now only the province of tourists – such as those at Dive Bahrain.
Another feature of the Dive Bahrain theme park will be the creation of an artificial coral reef. Unfortunately, you see, the naturally occurring coral formations in the sea around Bahrain are not in the best of health. Although there are 28 different types of coral growing around Bahrain, their environment is putting their continued existence at risk.
The salinity of the waters around Bahrain, the temperatures and the amount of sediment in the sea all place high levels of stress on corals. And to make matters worse, there have been two severe episodes of coral bleaching in recent years. In fact, one bleaching came in 1996, soon followed by a second in 1998.
Areas of coral have also been entirely devastated around the Bahraini coast. Today only one coral reef is present in the sea around Bahrain, at a spot called Abul Thama. That reef lies about 45 miles to the north of Bahrain’s main island and is at a depth of around 160 feet.
At one time, Bahrain’s coral reefs were the most prolific in the southern part of the Persian Gulf. Scientists have blamed their observed sharp decline on two factors. Firstly, there has been an increase in development along the coasts overlooking that part of the Gulf. Secondly, sea temperatures have increased.
So the creation of an artificial coral reef at the Dive Bahrain park is a welcome development indeed. But this man-made reef does not explain the strange sight that greeted our diver at the beginning of this piece. You’ll recall that they spotted a large, elongated object on the seabed.
What exactly was it that the diver observed? Well, as they descended towards it, the shape became clearer. Unbelievably, they were looking at nothing less than a full-sized passenger jet resting at the bottom of the Persian Gulf, at a depth of around 65 feet. So the question immediately arises: how did a passenger jet end up at the bottom of the sea?
Was it the result of some horrific tragedy, resulting in the plane ditching and sinking to the seabed? Thankfully, the answer to that question is a firm “no.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the plane had been situated in its final resting place deliberately by the developers of the Dive Bahrain attraction. And its role is to act as a diving destination and a haven for wildlife.
The plane in question is a Boeing 747. These huge passenger liners first came into service in 1970 and were quickly nicknamed “jumbo jets.” The aircraft’s size and the bulbous front section of the fuselage – which houses two floors – gives it an unmistakable profile. It was always recognizable in the air – and this one is similarly familiar despite being underwater.
This plane is a 747-200, and it’s almost 40 years old. The 200 series of 747s started commercial flights in 1971 and featured enhanced engine power and an increased range over the original model. The sunken plane came into service in 1982, operated by Malaysia Airlines. Malaysia initially flew the plane as a passenger liner with the registration 9M-MHJ.
In 1997, though, the plane was retired from carrying people and transferred to Malaysia Airline’s freight-carrying arm, MASkargo. But after 23 years of service with Malaysia and its cargo subsidiary, the plane was retired and spent a short time in storage. Then it was put into service with another freight firm, Focus Air Cargo. That company was based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Focus Air went out of business in 2008, though, and the 747 ended up in the hands of Air Atlanta Icelandic, based in Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik. Confusingly, the Icelandic company then leased the plane back to the Malaysia freight operator, MASkargo. Such are the tangled web of contractual arrangements in the international aviation world.
As the Simple Flying website puts it, “Like so many 747s, this particular aircraft has a long and storied history.” In fact, the craft – registered TF-AAA – flew with MASkargo until May 2013, when it was finally removed from service. The plane was then stored in Fujairah, a part of the United Arab Emirates, which lies to the east of Bahrain.
Ultimately, the Bahrain authorities acquired the plane and decided to transport it to a location around 20 miles to the north of the Amwaj Islands. This is a group of man-made islands to the north-east of the main Bahraini island. But this move was no mean feat. Remember, we are talking about a plane that is some 230 feet long and has a wingspan of almost 200 feet.
Yet other planes have been deliberately sent to the ocean floor to act as diver attractions and wildlife havens. But this 747 is the largest aircraft that’s ever been purposely submerged in the sea. And now that the plane lies at the bottom of the Persian Gulf, it will form the centerpiece of Bahrain’s new artificial reef.
However, some have expressed serious doubts about this project and its potential environmental impact. This includes Adriana Humanes of the U.K.’s Newcastle University. She took her Ph.D. in marine ecology at the Australian James Cook University. Humanes expressed her concerns in an interview with CNN.
First, Humanes described the potential positives of such a project. She told CNN, “As corals reefs in good health state become less abundant and divers become more skilled and experienced, artificial reefs have become popular alternatives used by governments and the tourism industry to attract visitors to certain areas of interest. Wreck diving is one of the oldest methods used to construct artificial reefs by providing a structure to marine sessile organisms and fishes.”
However, Humanes added that there could be serious problems with the physical presence of planes underwater. “Their materials – copper, copper alloys, aluminum, lead and steel, petroleum hydrocarbons and other potential pollutant – can be subject to corrosion, [passing] heavy metals into the seawater and affecting the surrounding marine organisms,” Humanes explained.
And there was more to worry about. Humanes continued, “Corrosion will also lead to the subsequent loss of structural integrity, potentially affecting marine life living in the area or becoming a safety threat to visitor divers.” However, it does seem that the Dive Bahrain managers have taken these concerns into account.
The Bahrain Tourism and Exhibition Agency described to CNN how the aircraft had been treated before it was lowered into the Persian Gulf. Technicians had seemingly removed electric wiring, adhesives and plastics from the 747. All of those materials could have been hazardous for the surrounding environment, wildlife and recreational divers.
Speaking before the plane had been sent to its final resting place beneath the waves, a Bahrain Tourism spokesman told CNN, “All aircraft surfaces will be subjected to a high-pressure wash with bio-friendly detergents to ensure all post-production coatings, oil and grime are removed.” And the spokesman had further words of reassurance about the environmental impact of the 747.
The Bahraini representative continued, “Furthermore, a vast amount of time has been spent removing contaminants from the aircraft. This has included removing all wiring, all hydraulic, pneumatic and fuel systems, and all adhesives, insulation, plastics, rubbers, chemicals or other potential toxic substances.”
To get a flavor of just what it’s like to dive down into the waters of the Persian Gulf to discover a complete Boeing 747 on the seabed, it’s worth checking out some of the videos that divers have posted on YouTube. One such video, posted by Andrew L in September 2019, shows that the plane’s fuselage is already encrusted with marine organisms.
In the same video, a head-on shot of the cockpit’s exterior has an eerily skeletal feel. The glass has been removed but the struts that support it remain intact. After touring the outside of the 747, the diver in the video enters the fuselage. This has been stripped of pretty much all of its fittings apart from the actual structural parts.
Another dive, filmed by YouTuber OnlyAnnaO in December 2019, also shows the diver exploring the interior of the sunken 747. Swimming through the fuselage, she comes to a ladder leading up to the upper floor at the front of the jumbo jet. It’s the location where first-class passengers would once have enjoyed luxury flights. Now its only occupants are tropical fish.
So, after decades of flying through the skies carrying passengers and cargo around the world, this Boeing 747 now has an entirely new purpose. And if you get the chance to visit Bahrain, a dive on this incredible underwater aircraft comes highly recommended. Just don’t expect cabin service or in-flight movies!