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Destination Oman

by Mark Webster

Reproduced from in focus 47 (March 1993)

Oman

The choice of world wide locations available to the discerning diver is constantly expanding to offer a bewildering variety to tropical, temperate or even colder water diving with all the diversity of flora and flora or wrecks one could imagine. To find a destination which can offer all of these attributes and also provide the opportunity to investigate a fascinating culture, history and some stunning scenery would be quite unusual. However, a recent trip to the Sultanate of Oman has shown me that just such a mixture is now available. 

Oman is situated on the south eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, between Yemen, Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and until the early 1970's was one of the least known Arab States. This changed dramatically with the discovery of oil and the accession of a young and progressive Sultan, which combined to develop the country to its present intriguing mix of modern, traditional and ancient history. Until only four years ago the country was closed to tourists and it was only ex-patriot workers and locals who were able to explore the diving potential offered by the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean which meet along Oman's coastline.

This area of the Arabian peninsula is steeped in history, being the centre of the Frankincense trade in biblical times, the home of the Queen of Sheba, and having been occupied by the Portuguese, Persians and British over the centuries. Sinbad the Sailor is though to have used the ancient port of Sohar as a base for his voyages, and in recent years the discovery of the ancient city of Urbar, the "Atlantis of the Sands" by Sir Ranulph Fiennes has confirmed that the area is of major archaeological significance in the Middle East.

The geography of the Sultanate is remarkably varied from the soaring coastal mountains which harbour lush oases and wadis, to the barren splendour of the "empty quarter" in the interior, and the surprising tropical vegetation of the south western coast, which is reminiscent of Sri Lanka or Goa. This variety can be sampled on a day trip basis or provide an exciting opportunity for extended safari style or even camel train exploration.

So Oman can provide an attractive mix of activities to the adventurous traveller, but what is the diving like? Although there is more than 2,000km of coastline to explore, the diving facilities are at present centred around the two main centres of population - Muscat, the capital in the north east and Salalah in the south west, close to the Yemen border. These locations offer access to two very different types of diving - tropical coral reefs in the north and a blend of temperate and tropical in the south. In both areas the seas are particularly nutrient rich, propagated by the frequent mixing of temperate and warm currents. Although this can lead to variable visibility (average 10-15m with spells of 30-40m) the benefit is a staggering density and variety of fish and invertebrate life. Whale Sharks and Manta Rays are often sighted along with several species of whale, and the whole of the coastline provides favoured nesting sites for several species of turtles.

Muscat

Muscat is the capital of the Sultanate and had a long maritime history. The old port is of a classic crescent shape with its entrance dominated by the twin forts of Mirani and Jelali, which guard the magnificent palace of the Sultan Qaboos. Behind the port and old town, rises the modern city of Muscat, with its business centres, hotels and all the amenities of a major centre. The development has been sympathetic to the traditional architecture and geography and is also striking as probably the cleanest city I have ever visited!

There are two commercial diving centres operating in Muscat - Sunny Days Watersports based at the magnificent Al Bustan Hotel and the Oman Diving Centre which has its own self-comtained facilities in a private bay. The latter is also the headquarters of the Oman Diving Federation and has the patronage of the Sultan. Both centres are well equipped and offer similar services e.g. training from novice to instructor (PADI or BSAC), gear hire and sales, and provision of daily diving.

Diving from both centres is predominantly from boats, both fast beached-launched hard boats and more sedate dhows (our dhow dive was unfortunately cancelled at the last moment sue to the arrest of the dhow's crew who sailed too close to the Sultan's Palace!!) and there is a wide range of diving within a maximum of one hour's run of both centres. The coastal scenery is spectacular with the mountains marching right up to the sea and forming impressive cliffs. Depths can increase very quickly once you leave the shore and there is a choice of wall, coral garden or wreck diving.

During my stay we sampled diving sites typical of the region.

Shark (Fahal) Island

This is a large limestone outcrop about 5km north west of Muscat and offers interesting reef diving in water depths of 10-40 metres. The seabed consists of rocky galleys and outcrops encrusted with both hard and soft coral growth. Fish life is profuse with the chance, as the name suggests, of sighting sharks - sleeping nurse sharks are quite common.

North Point

This headland is some 8km south east of Muscat and offers a variety of dive sites. We dived "Topless Bay" (I can't imagine how it got its name!), which is a shallow coral garden (maximum 15 metres) in a very sheltered inlet. A very nice second dive and good for photographers with all sorts of fish life, exotic plume worms and masses of spiny lobsters!

Bandar Khayran

This site is a little further south east of Muscat and is accessed through a narrow opening in the cliffs, which opens out into a stunning fjord formation which turns and runs parallel to the sea. The best diving sites are at the far end of the "fjord", where it opens to the sea again, and as we sped toward it we were joined by a school of 20-25 dolphins, which played in our bow wave and even permitted a short snorkel with them. Unfortunately they moved too fast for photography. There are several sites in the area all offering a mixture of shallow coral gardens and walls on the same dive site. There are large areas of table corals here and a wide variety of soft corals, purple whip corals and for the sharp-eyed "bushes of black coral in only 15 metres of water! Recovery of the latter is definitely a capital offence!

Salalah

Salalah lies on the Indian Ocean coast some 750 miles south west of Muscat, a flight of about one and a half hours. The climate is dominated by the Monsoon or Khareef season common in most Indian Ocean areas. The vegetation is therefore much more lush and tropical, and the humidity is noticeably higher to new arrivals from Muscat. The Khareef runs from June to September and creates very high seas on this exposed coast which curtails diving in all but the most sheltered bays. The winter months, when it is much cooler and calmer, are therefore best for a diving expedition.

The town of Salalah is a mixture of ancient and modern, where tradition is till very much observed, including a regular Suq for the trading of rifles, many antique, which the local Omani men still carry. Several kilometres from the town lies the port, which has a large and active fishing fleet. The Sultan has a palace here and favours Salalah as a summer retreat. Indeed many Omanis and resident ex-pats regard Salalah as a holiday retreat, enabling them to enjoy a tropical climate without leaving Oman.

At present their is only one dive operator in Salalah - Sunny Days Watersports which is based at the Holiday Inn - where they offer full training and daily diving excursions. There are two definite " diving styles" to be sampled - safari style diving and boat diving, from a dhow.

The safari style diving is reminiscent of the Sinai as you travel by four-wheel drive vehicle into the desert west of Salalah. Here you will find a series of sheltered bays which offer protection to reef building corals, notably table corals and brain corals. If you visit in the autumn months you will encounter the unusual sight of giant kelp beds growing alongside coral reefs! This growth is propagated by the cold currents brought by monsoons in the summer months, but dies off as the water warms again during the winter months. These are not the familiar kelp beds you would find in the UK, but much taller, softer and accessible, and harbour all sorts of interesting marine life. The coral life is typically Indo-Pacific and there is a profusion of macro life and a surprising number of large "snowflake" moray eels.

The boat diving is generally to the eat of Salalah, and during our stay we used the comfortable dhow owned by Holiday Inns. The diving here si very different with towering headlands plunging into the sea, a generally much more exposed coastline. Due to the heavy seas during the monsoon, reef building corals are very sparse, but this does not detract from the spectacular underwater scenery of drop-offs and large boulders and gullies. Soft corals seem to endure the conditions well and because the coast is open to the Indian Ocean you will encounter large shoals of fish, many pelagic, and one or two surprising species such as the giant Cuttlefish.

Our dive sites included.-

Eagle's Nest/Hoons Bay

These are two safari beach dive sites adjacent to each other either side of a headland. Both offer safe easy entry to shallow (5-15 metres) coral gardens with the giant kelp growing along the edge of the reef closer to the shore. A lot of life for the macro lens here, including Christmas Tree worms, plume worms, gobies, hawkfish and several species of nudibranch. Large shoals of coral fish gather under the table corals and watch out for octopus, scorpion fish and particularly ugly stone fish! This area offers good easy diving with some lovely beaches to relax on between dives with your picnic lunch and are particularly popular for a night dive and beach barbeque.

Gorilla Point and Donkey Head

These are dhow dive sites approximately 10km east of Salalah and offer very similar diving under he towering limestone cliffs. The wall below the cliffs extends to 15-20 metres and then drops more gently on a seabed dissected by gulleys and strewn with large boulders. Some hard coral growth is found here but most is soft with sea whips and small black coral outcrops. Huge shoals of purple surgeon fish escort you on your dive and you will also encounter shoaling banner angel fish and Moorish idols (similar to look at, but different species), a very unusual site. Pelagic sightings included barracuda, eagle rays and sleeping nurse sharks. The headlands also seemed to attract large potato cod (grouper) and pairs of giant cuttlefish.

TRAVEL NOTES

There is a wide range of accommodation available in Oman, however the diving centres are associated with major hotels, so it is often better to book a package with diving , as this will offer the best value and the hotel will also provide transport to and from dive centres. We stayed with the Holiday Inn in both Muscat and Salalah, but you could choose the luxurious Al Bustan Palace Hotel (which has surprisingly good diving packages) and the Oman Diving Centre will have beach cottages available from this summer.

Flights are with Gulf Air and a standard economy return is around £400. So it is perhaps better to organise a group to negotiate package rates or better still to contact one of the tour operators who plan to offer Oman as a destination.

Oman should not just be seen as an alternative to the Red Sea as it undoubtedly has much more to offer. If you plan to sample this alternative destination I would suggest a 10-14 day itinerary to include diving and land excursions, perhaps add four-wheel drive or camel safaris to the mountains and interior from both Muscat and Salalah, so that you derive the most from this intriguing and attractive arabian land. The Omani people are extremely friendly, polite and helpful and the fact that tourism is in its infancy and is not the dominant economy will provide a totally different experience compared to more traditional destinations.

 Reproduced from in focus 47. Mar. 1993 with kind permission of Mark Webster (http://www.photec.co.uk/)


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