Scattered like a string of pearls upon the azure, the Dahlak Archipelago and its coast were once described by Eritrean Horizon as one of “the last, great and unspoilt destinations in the world.” With more than 200 of Eritrea’s islands which belong to the Dahlak archipelago, this island chain forms the natural gateway to Eritrea, guarding the approaches to the modern port of Massawa and the ancient one of Adulis.
Topographically, the Dahlaks rise above a shallow continental shelf lying off the coast. Unless one is blessed with an unlimited amount of time, it is hardly feasible to explore the over 200 islands within a short time period. Nevertheless, even a few hours can provide a rewarding and rich snippet.
Few regions in the world offer a greater opportunity for yacht cruising, and the Dahlak archipelago is bestowed with innumerable specialties to satiate the insatiable appetites of cruisers and divers.
In waters that are generally tranquil, and never too far from the Arabian and African mainland, the gold coasts of the Dahlak archipelago are an undisturbed marine paradise and offer an unforgettable experience. Pearl fishing has flourished around the Dahlak islands since the time of the ancient Egyptians, who held influence over the archipelago.
Later, during the Ottoman Empire, the archipelago—especially the Dahlak Kebir—was the chief port for pearl fishing in the southern part of the Red Sea. Another remarkable feature is the necropolis of gravestones, curved with beautiful Kufic scripts, which stand out as evidence of the historical creative culture and economic significance of the region.
The Dahlaks are true desert islands, with barren soils, and many of the islands are simply flat, sandy bars or barren rocks which jut out of the sea. Early inhabitants of the Dahlaks dealt with the problem of a shortage of drinking water by carving large cisterns out of the rock, each of which contained a day’s ration for the settlement. One cistern was carved for every day of the year – an extraordinary triumph of human ingenuity over the harsh environment.
Meanwhile, of the 1,000-plus species or sub-species of fish known to inhabit the Red Sea, some 15% are unique to the area. Moreover, some corals and echinoderms, such as certain star fish, are also only found there. Similarly, many of the Dahlak reefs had not been visited by divers prior to the 1960s. Depending on their depth and coral formations, different reefs are suited to either fully-equipped scuba divers or snorkelers. To get to both the populated and uninhabited islands, with their spectacular marine and birdlife, however, one requires a boat with a decent engine.
Off the coast of Dahlak Kebir, at the mouth of the Gulf of Zula, lays the island of Dissei, formed by a narrow ridge of little volcanic hills which tapers off at either end. The jagged rocks give it a barren, inhospitable appearance. However, around every little point of land is a cove or bay ringed with a crescent of white sand. The deserted beaches are scattered with driftwood, the chalky exoskeletons of cuttlefish, pumice stones formed from submarine volcanoes, fragments of rosered coral, and even the bones of dolphins. Compared to most beaches around the world, there is remarkably little pollution.
Equipped only with a snorkel, mask, and flippers, one can observe a tapestry of marine life swimming just below the surface. Playing about among the corals and anemones, around the tops and sides of columns, are tiny clown fish, trigger fish with pursed lips, big-eyed and shy red squirrel fish and brilliantly hued wrasses—the submarine world’s equivalent to hummingbirds or tropical butterflies.
Additionally, as a part of the Dahlak archipelago, Dissei’s beaches are so quiet and remote that when the island’s only village comes into view in a wide, sandy bay, it appears like a settlement of survivors from a long-forgotten shipwreck. Huts constructed from driftwood and stung with old fishnets strengthen the impression that this is a community of several dozen Robinson Crusoes.
The villagers live by fishing out of their wooden crafts, known as sambukhs. Their nets catch a variety of grouper, reef fish, and small sharks (whose fins are dried and eventually sold in the Far East for shark fin soup). Depending on the season, these waters also abound with shoaling pelagic fish such as tuna and jacks, which must be caught on a line.
Just a few meters from the beach, little reef fish, sporting an explosive array of electric or neonlike colors, cluster around small flowerings of branching coral and sea anemones. A short swim further out from the shore, still within the shallow water, multicolored pillars appear, covered with soft, branching and rounded corals, seaweeds and anemones. These coral heads are centers for a wide variety of marine life.
Across from Dissei lies the island of Madot, which is little more than a sand bar. During certain seasons, tens of thousands of seabirds come here (and many other islands within the Dahlaks) to breed. Lesser crested terns and brown boobies lay their eggs on the beach itself above the high water mark. When the chicks hatch, they are nurtured in the sand. In addition to the lesser crested terns and brown boobies, other commonly seen species are white-fronted sand plovers, reef herons, seagulls and, most magnificent of all, the pinkbacked pelican.
The birds are generally tame to a degree which suggests limited contact with human populations. Off the shores of the islands, one can often observe them at close quarters.
Another significant mammal species found in the Dahlaks is the dugong, or sea cow. This creature, which is greyish, cylinder-shaped, up to four meters long, and can weigh 900 kilograms, gave rise to fishermen’s tales about mermaids and is rarely seen.
Swimming at night, it is possible to observe another incredible wonder of nature. As you move through the dark water, greenish sparkling light explodes around your fingers and limbs. This amazing light show, called bioluminescence, is produced by tiny living creatures.
The Dahlaks are indeed a world of their own. The rich, unique features and array of biodiversity underscores that the Dahlaks are a priceless environmental treasure that must be protected.