There’s a whole new world waiting to be discovered underwater and Oman offers clown fish, turtles and reef sharks to those willing to take the plunge, says Kate Ginn
Exploring the sea off the coast of Muscat, Bryan Richards was swimming under water at a depth of around five metres when he suddenly spotted movement below.
There, resting on some coral – perhaps taking a breather before moving on – was a young turtle looking inquisitively up at him. Floating down for a closer look, Bryan reached out and saw a blur of green and a flash of shell as the turtle powered away from his outstretched hand and off into the distance.
It was a magical moment and just a glimpse into the world below the waves.
Oman, with its 1,700km of shoreline and warm waters, is a magnet for marine life, making it a great spot for divers keen to explore the Sultanate from a unique perspective.
“It’s going somewhere you’ve never been before,” says Bryan, explaining the appeal of diving. “You only have a short time down there and you never know what you’ll see. Each dive is different and that’s what makes it such a fascinating sport.”
He’s been diving since 1983, after taking a basic course through the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) and has dived all over the world, including Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Egypt and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
And he’s been exploring Oman’s waters since 1995, when he first moved to the country to work in the oil industry.
“When I first came here, we used to dive directly off the beach at what is now the Shangri-La. There was nothing there then, it hadn’t been built,” recalls Bryan, who is a qualified master diver and instructor.
Opportunities for diving in Oman are as plentiful as the fish, with local divers, groups and clubs and places such as the Oman Dive Center (ODC), near Qantab beach. A mere half an hour away from ODC and below the waves is the wreck of the Al Munasir, a 3,000 ton vessel intentionally sunk by the Royal Navy of Oman in 2003, which has developed into a beautiful dive site. Large shoals of snapper and goatfish can be found there, along with moray eels and the occasional shark.
“Oman has some pristine coral reefs and nearly all of them are nature reserves,” says Stuart Martin, general manager of Lua Lua Diving and Adventure, based in Muscat.
“There is loads on marine life on offer for divers. You have whale sharks passing through and on a daily dive we’ll see turtles, rays, sharks, cuttlefish and a wide variety of reef fish.”
Bryan’s amazing underwater photographs show him coming face to face with a clown fish (which can, apparently, be quite aggressive if they feel threatened) and the incredible looking but venomous lionfish with its spiky fins.
The coral is also pretty spectacular around Oman. It’s best viewed at shallower depths when the vivid colours can be seen at their brightest. The deeper you go, the less sunlight is filtered through the water and everything is turned a shade of blue.
“All of our diving takes place at the Damaniyat Islands where there are 26 different dive sites to choose from,” says Stuart. “We are literally spoiled for choice, as every single site is different. It depends on the conditions, but we can always find a dive site that has got very little current, great visibility and loads of marine life.”
Diving in twilight adds another dimension.
“Night diving is something else,” says Bryan. “You see a whole different ecosystem at night than you do in the day. Some of the fish are semi-comatose so you can see them very close up.
“Some of the fish and coral are fluorescent, so the colours are wonderful with deep purples, greens and blues.”
Diving can also, sadly, highlight some of the more unpalatable facts of underwater life, such as discarded rubbish. Divers see tins and cans thrown overboard from pleasure craft and plastic bags, which turtles eat thinking it is food, only to suffer an agonising death.
Clearing up any rubbish you may encounter underwater is one of the unofficial rules of the diving community.
Diving is not without its dangers either. Bryan once suffered an electric shock while diving in Saudia Arabia after putting his hand down on the seabed on top of an electric ray. Luckily, he didn’t suffer any serious injuries.
He also once came face to face with a sea snake in the Red Sea. It swam straight into his facemask in poor visibility, but thankfully just moved on.
“It’s a wonderful and very safe sport, as long as you listen to instructions, go down with a more experienced diver and always dive your plan.
“You have to always remember that you’re in a hostile environment and that you are a guest there for only a certain amount of time.”
Novices must always take a recognised course before they are allowed anywhere near the open water alone. How deep you can dive and for how long depends on factors such as fitness, experience and water conditions.
Bryan, who has more than 2,000 dives under his belt, has been down to around 50 metres. Trips can last from as little as 15 minutes to over an hour.
“I’ve never been scared underwater,” says Bryan. “The training that you do will covers just about any eventuality.”
As to what draws them to the sport, Stuart Martin and his assistant manager, Tegan Randall, agree. “I think it’s like an escape,” says Tegan.
Stuart adds: “You kind of shut off. Your mind switches off from everything that’s going on above the water. All your day-to-day issues are pushed to the side and you’re able to just concentrate on nature and enjoy it.”
Diving Dos and Don’ts