27 September 2013

Birding the Farasan Islands

During the long holiday for Saudi Arabia national day my family and I went for three days to the Farasan Islands. This was a family holiday but I took my camera and binoculars and did a bit of birdwatching. Over the next couple of days I will post details about what we saw on the islands. The Farasan Islands are an archipelago in the Red Sea, about 50 kilometres from the city of Jizan, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia between 16°29’ and 17°10’ N and 41°30’ and 42°30’ E. The islands were established as a protected area in 1996 by the Saudi Wildlife Authority (SWA) and are one of the most important breeding sites for seabirds and shorebirds in the Red Sea, including the endemic White-eyed gulls Larus leucophthalmus and Crab plover Dromas ardeola. The archipelago is comprised of dozens of named islands and innumerable islets and sandbars, with only two of any size Farazan Kabir and Segid. They are joined by a road and bridge and both have settled villages on them. The islands are low lying and their surface is composed of fossilised corals forming low hills with faults forming irregular gullies and cliffs up to ten metres high in some places. The rock surfaces are very rough and as a consequence have little soil cover except for small portions of the wadi beds. On Zefaf island, extensive uplifting has resulted in the formation of a 86 metre high dome known as Jabal Zefaf. High coral reefs form steep sea cliffs along the shoreline of the islands. Sand banks occur where the reefs are absent and salt flats extend from the shoreline to the coral hills. Precipitation in the area is low and hence the islands lack any streams or other water bodies. Sporadic rainfall does occur which creates intermittent water flows toward the sea allowing densely vegetated areas to occur near the shoreline. The high subterranean water table within the islands enables the shrubs to stay green throughout the year. The vegetation of the islands is mainly composed of xerophytic scrub, herbs and perennial grasses. The climate is hot & humid throughout the year and agricultural activities and date cultivation are minimal. All the islands are low lying with the two larger islands having a broken terrain of small hills, gullies and craggy coastal cliffs. The islands comprise a variety of habitat types including mangrove thickets, wet and dry salt marshes, sand dunes, sand plains and tidal flats mainly along the coast with dense scrub of acacia and euphorbia thickets.
Jizan to Farasan Ferry
Farasan Islands Map
You can hire a two-wheel drive Toyota Corolla from Budget Car Hire at Jizan King Abdullah Airport (tel: +966 17 3215776) who are open from 06:00 – 02:00 hrs each day except Friday when they are open 17:00 – 02:00 hrs. I get 40% discount on the price of Budget cars in Saudi Arabia as well as 225 free kilometres instead of the normal 125 kilometres. The car would cost 115 Saudi Arabian Riyals (SAR) per day with an additional 20 SAR collision damage waiver with 0.6 SAR extra per kilometre driven over the limit. I tried numerous times to get the hire car details from Budget to allow me to book the car in advance onto the ferry but I was not able to do so. As a result we were unable to get the car over to the islands.
With the arrival of a new ship in 2006, the travel time between Jizan and Farasan was improved from 3 hours to 1.5 hours. The ticket for the boat is free of cost and as well as people it also carries 35-40 cars. You can book the ferry in advance, if you know the car registration details, in fact you have to do this as otherwise you will not get the car over. We got to the ferry office at 01:00 hrs and waited for it to open at 06:00 hrs and were the first people in the queue as well as the first people to ask about getting a car over but still could not get the car booked on the ferry. The ferry site is https://www.mot.gov.sa/ar/Pages/home.aspx but does not support English so if you don’t speak Arabic then you will need help of someone who does to book the tickets and car. It takes up to ten days to get registered for the site, so ensure you do this well before you travel. The ferries go at 07:00 hrs & 13:00 from Jizan and at 09:00 hrs & 15:30 hrs from Farasan. If you decide not to take your car or cannot book it on the ferry then there is a small parking area within the port where you can leave it free of charge for a short number of days (+/-3 days). Getting on the ferry as a foot passenger is simple although remember to bring your passport or Iqama to enable you to get a ticket at the port booking office which is directly to the left to the port gate. If you failed to get a ticket from the Customs for the ferry, you can avoid further frustration by renting a fluka. Flukas carry up to 12 passengers and have a ticket price is SR50 per person each way. They are faster than the ferry and you can take one at any time you want, but you cannot take the car.  They take about 1hour and can be hired at any time as long as you pay the cost of the minimum number of the passengers which is six or SR 300. As soon as you arrive in Farasan, you need to proceed immediately to the customs office in the town centre to reserve your return ticket to Jizan if you have not got one in advance. STC have installed communication systems providing internet, landline and mobile phone services on the island.
Farasan Fort
There are no taxis on Farasan, only ordinary cars and their owners who will drive you around if you ask. They can be found directly after you get off the ferry or in the small town and will approach you as you get off the ferry. Prices are negotiable with foregners paying more than locals. A trip from the port to the Coral Hotel was 30 – 50 SAR although we got a free lift both ways with a nice Saudi couple who were staying at the same hotel and gave us a lift. If you want to see the Gazelles from the port some try to charge a high price with a 2 hour tour to see gazelles and back to the port costing 250 riyals. We hired a car and driver for five hours for 250 SAR to see the Gazalles from the hotel where the Restaurant manager sorted the car out for us. There are a few small buses from the port to the town that cost about 5 SAR but do not go around the islands. You can rent a boat from near the port and near the Coral Resort Hotel for 150- 200 SAR per hour to go to the small rocky islands where you can see Brown Noddy, Sooty Falcon and up to three species of Dolphins.
Mangroves on Farasan Kabir

We stayed in the Farasan Coral Resort which is probably the best hotel on the islands. There website is http://www.coralhotels.com.sa/fcr_home.asp and the telephone number is +966 17 3160000. The hotel has free wi-fi internet access in the lobby area. They can arrange cars and boats for you, although they do not have any of their own, with cars about 30-50 SAR per hour and boats 150-200 SAR per hour. We also contacted the Farasan Hotel but decided to stay in the Farasan Coral Resort as we had small children and it was on the beach whereas the Farasan Hotel was in the town. We booked the room about one month in advance, prior to that they said it was not possible to reserve a room. We checked the room was still booked for us two days before departure, and all was fine although when we got there they did not have our reservation at hand although a room was soon found for us. The operators on the hotel front desk often do not speak English but the Restaurant manager who is a Bangladeshi can speak excellent English and he is the best person to ask to arrange boats and cars. The hotel cost 450 SAR for a family room for four people.