Oman is an unsung dive location, an overlooked jewel, an unexpected treasure which does, however, come at a price.
If you like great coral (hard and especially soft), interesting, profuse marine life and diving in small groups then Oman's Daymaniyat Islands, located just 22 kilometres from Muscat city,should be on your agenda - if you can afford it.
The Daymaniyats are a string of nine small uninhabited islands which were declared a conservation area in 1996 and on a calm day, the boat trip there takes around 45 minutes. The surrounding waters can be explored by swimmers, snorkellers and divers - there are 17 diving sites - but the islands themselves are protected and landing is prohibited.
The Daymaniyats are not the only spot where people go diving out of Muscat. There is also diving off the point (but with dubious visibility) and at Fahl Island, which is better and offers turtles and black tip sharks.
Further afield, the north of Oman is known as a more remote but attractive diving area (such as the distant Musandam Peninsula) now apparently affected by algal bloom, known by Americans as the red tide, and the south of the country also has dive sites. The great advantage of Muscat is that you are set to go twenty minutes after leaving the airport.
The best time to go to the Daymaniyat Islands for scuba diving at least is in the summer when the sea is calmer and the visibility is better. However, it is pretty hot at that time of the year with air temperatures between 38C and 42C on average and sea temperatures between 28C and 30C. Not much need for a wetsuit apart from the protection.
Only a couple of dive operators are currently cleared to visit the islands on a daily basis, but it is worth seeking them out as the diving and visibility are generally better offshore.
The north side of the islands offers diving on rock faces with ledges while the south side has some beautiful shallow reefs - among the latter is the aptly named 'Aquarium'.
The advantages of the Aquarium include a spectacular abundance of moray eels of all shapes and sizes - laced, zebra, starry, undulated, geometric and snake eels come to mind. There are so many that sometimes they have to share the same hole in coral outcrops or take shelter among the soft coral, and they are not infrequently spotted swimming about their business.
Fishies: Pelagics seem to love this site, especially off the relatively shallow wall, which boasts impressive zebra sharks (occasionally, but mistakenly, called leopard sharks), cow-tailed, blotched fan-tail and devil stingrays, and large pick-handle barracudas. Serious turtles also roam the reef and whale sharks may pass by the islands.
Fish fill the water columns over and around the Aquarium - angelfish, burrfish, damselfish, filefish, pufferfish, scorpionfish, sweepers, triggerfish, trunkfish, and wrasse for instance as well as more edible offerings such as flounders, groupers, painted spiny lobsters, mackerel, sea bream and snappers. Wherever one looks and pretty much whatever one's interest - micro or macro - there is not only something to see but something to enthral. Baby clownfish, nudibranchs, sea horses and colourful starfish provide an attractive alternative to the denizens of the deep.
An added advantage is that this site is not deep (maximum depth around 22 metres) so there is plenty of bottom time and dive operators are generally relaxed about timing. Surface intervals off the islands may be accompanied by sea eagles, pods of dolphins and surfacing turtles.
The disadvantages of the reef include (a lot of) fishing detritus, basically the remnants of old nets and large fish traps that are still in use, some with (inedible) tropical fish inside - the fishermen reportedly throw them back. We saw one trap with two adult laced morays inside and cut free a Blue Tang caught in some netting on the ocean floor. A companion Dive Master released a turtle that became entangled in a rope used to haul up a fish trap.
There is often some current, depending on the tides (two metre movement), but it is usually swimmable. Navigation is pretty straightforward, but the formation off the wall can be misleading if you're distracted by a big animal or are not mindful of the current. It has been known for diving to be cancelled for the day as a result of boat captains not turning up (by law only Omanis are permitted to drive the dive boats) though that seems to be a very rare occurrence.
Muscat city - Oman's capital city - is a most enjoyable and civilised base for diving. The city works well, the facilities are good, security is excellent and there are diverse attractions ranging from wadi bashing (exploring the interior along dried river beds) through visiting monuments like the ancient Rustaq Fort to shopping in the Muttrah souk.
Omanis are friendly and hospitable, though it should be noted that contact is normally only with the men and cultural differences should be observed. Thursday/Friday, of course, is the weekend.
On the downside, the ore-laden mountains that back Muscat cause it to be one of the hottest capitals in the world - on a recent visit in May the mercury at 17.00 had climbed to 48C - and heatstroke is a potential issue with frequent hydration the best defence. At the height of summer the tendency will be to move from one air conditioned environment to another. The city sprawls along the coast and it is probably best to hire a car to get around (the traffic flows like shoals of fish so it's good to be alert).
Maps are indifferent at best, but there are enough road signs for navigation once the basic geography is understood and petrol is dead cheap (£10 for a full tank). That, however, is pretty much the only bargain buy in Oman.
Everything else - hotels, restaurants, alcoholic drinks, dive packages and so on range from expensive to very expensive by most standards, which probably explains why the country is an under-rated holiday destination whether for regular tourists or for divers.
Overall, the Daymaniyat Islands are four star for marine life, four star for coral and five star for enjoyment. Careful planning can make a visit much more affordable. The local airline is beginning to offer budget fares Muscat - London, smaller hotels are more economic and flexible than the international chains and self catering reduces the cost of eating and drinking considerably. The moral is - save your money for the diving. It's well worth it!
By Daniel Nash II
Oman Travel Guide
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