A beacon of a faded era on Greater Tunb

Over the past 40 years, the lighthouse on the disputed island has fallen into neglect, but some still remember its heyday.

 The light house that used to be run by MENAS, on Tunb.

Courtesy of Middle East Navigational Aids Service (MENAS).
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ABU DHABI // Its light once guided ships away from danger as they sailed in and out of the Strait of Hormuz. But over the past 40 years, the lighthouse on Greater Tunb has fallen into neglect, its guiding beam flickering and fading away.

At 24 metres, the white lighthouse, built in 1914 by the British, was the tallest object on the island. Its light was powered by gas and rotated by a weight-driven mechanism that had to be reset each day. As a former engineer for the Middle East Navigation Aids Service (Menas), Mike Colwill is one of the few people to have not only visited the lighthouse in its heyday, but to have climbed regularly to its top.

From there, says the 68-year-old Briton, "I had a full view of the island, and could see all the way to the fishermen and their boats along its coast". Mr Colwill is now the general manager at the National Oil Maintenance Works and Executions oil field service company, based in Abu Dhabi. But back in the late 1960s he was a mechanical engineer on the LT Relume, a 400-tonne ship run by Menas. Based in Bahrain, Menas began as the Persian Gulf Lighting Service around the time of the first oil exports from Abadan in 1911, with the aim of providing safe navigation in the Gulf.

It set up lightbuoys in strategic positions along the Gulf, including the Shatt Al Arab (1914) and beyond. As early as 1922, it fixed buoys at the approaches to ports such as Bahrain. Since the 1960s, it has also helped operate land-based radio navigation stations along the Gulf. Mr Colwill joined in 1966, the same year the service was renamed Menas, and worked there until 1970. "Our job was to make sure the navigational aids like lighthouses and buoys along the Arabian Gulf all worked properly," said Mr Colwill.

"We were like coast guards for the Arabian Gulf." The Menas ships would have four to five British engineers on board, along with a largely Indian crew of 40. On the same ship as Mr Colwill was a 40-year-old Greater Tunb native known as Khalfie, who worked as the deck hand. "He was a delightful fellow who always smiled and liked to guide us whenever we landed on his island," said Colwill. "We used to deliver bottled gas to the island every two months or so, and also resupply the lighthouse crew of six men living near the lighthouse with provisions."

Having visited Greater Tunb a dozen times or more, Mr Colwill fondly remembers a "quiet life" long gone. "After the captain of the ship paid his respects, first by visiting the elder or sheikh of the island - often carrying a gift like tinned cheese - we would head ashore and do our job on the lighthouse." Because there were no cars on the island, the crew had to hire donkeys to transport the provisions. That done, they would spend a day or two relaxing on the island, diving and fishing with the locals.

"It was one of the most peaceful and tranquil islands I have ever visited," said Mr Colwill. "There was such an abundance of fish there that the waters around the island were always colourful and lively." Crayfish were particularly bountiful, and Mr Colwill would often be asked by those on shore to bring some back from his island visits. "We would put on our mechanic gloves, goggles and flippers, fish for a dozen of crayfish and simply enjoy the dive surrounded by marine life." The ship's crew would barbeque the fish and enjoy small talk with the residents for a day or two, before taking to the seas. British surveillance aircraft also regularly patrolled the area.

But in 1971, that peaceful, convivial routine came to an abrupt end. When the British withdrew from the Trucial Coast, just a day before the union of the emirates, Iranian forces moved in. "I was in Abu Dhabi when it happened," said Mr Colwill. "I was very sad to hear that the tranquil life on the island that I loved so much was gone." At the time, he said, there was a protest in Abu Dhabi against the invasion. Menas continued to maintain the Tunb lighthouse until 1974, after which it fell under Iranian control.

Mr Colwill now doubts Iran will voluntarily return the island. "Why should they?" he said. "It is a wonderful island and of great strategic significance. "I will always remember the people of the island, their kindness and their hospitality, and those wonderful days of fishing and sitting near the sea." rghazal@thenational.ae