Oman’s diving paradise
Muscat - Oman’s Daymaniyat Islands have rightfully earned their nickname The Aquarium. Located an easily accessible distance from Muscat, the archipelago is a nature reserve on UNESCO’s tentative list of world natural heritage sites and one of many diving paradises along the sultanate’s 1,700-kilometre coastline.
Over the past two decades, Oman has gradually opened its borders to travellers and is rapidly gaining a reputation for the quality and variety of its diving.
Boasting long stretches of unspoiled white sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters, it has 40 recognised diving spots spread out along the coast from Musandam peninsula, the country’s northernmost province at the entrance of the Arabian Gulf, to Salalah in the southern Dhofar region bordering Yemen.
Many sites have been declared natural reserves, including the peninsula of Bar al-Hikman south of Muscat and the Hallaniyat Islands in Dhofar, hosting endangered species such as green turtles and the Arabian humpbacked whale.
The Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea are rich with coral reefs, making the area home to an extraordinary habitat with a wide variety of sea creatures, according to environmental scientist Glyn Barrett.
“I did dive in a number of spectacular places around the world such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Astrolabe Reef in Fiji and national parks in Thailand. Each one of these locations was special in its own right and the Daymaniyat Islands of Oman are certainly world class with a great diversity of colourful underwater life,” Barrett said.
While there are regional variations, Oman’s waters are best known for sting, eagle and torpedo rays, some species of reef sharks, a wide variety of moray eels, snake eels and lion and scorpion fish in addition to regular reef fish.
“There is certainly seasonal variation in activity and therefore possible sightings of charismatic marine life such as whale sharks, which are most active from July through to September,” Barrett said, noting, however, that “visibility is not at its clearest at this time, so corals won’t be as spectacular”.
“It depends on what you really want… Nevertheless, The Aquarium diving site at Daymaniyat has never failed to fill me with awe.”
Divers of all experience levels can enjoy dive sites accessible from Muscat and the coastline to the south. Coral growth is generally exceptionally healthy, with different types of coral and plankton-rich waters that attract a large amount of marine life. There are few currents and dives range in depth from 10 to 30 metres along coral-flanked stony walls.
Oman is increasingly gaining the reputation as the best destination for scuba diving in the region, hosting what has been listed as the fifth best diving site in the world at the Daymaniyat archipelago. The number of diving centres has grown substantially in the last few years as the water sport is becoming a popular pastime for residents and holidaymakers.
“Diving certainly seems to be taking off in Oman. There are already some really good Omani dive instructors who are professional and knowledgeable. As awareness of the environment continues to develop, there will definitely be an increase in Omani divers,” Barrett noted.
In addition to being available at different places along the coast from Musandam to Salalah, dive centre activities are fairly affordable, Barrett said.
“You can get away on a boat trip with two dives and all equipment together with snacks and good company for a little less than 50 Omani riyals (about $130). Compared to a number of other places in the world, this is a competitive price and certainly worth it,” he said.
Diving in Oman can be done throughout the year but for Omani diver Saeed al-Lamki, the best time is in May and August when water temperature is comfortable, though visibility is not the clearest.
“Compared to other diving sites, Oman has a richer feel to its reefs with many more colours as well as apparent variety of species. Although this might not be statistically proven so… somehow that’s the feeling I have when diving here,” said Lamki, a radiologist.
Diving centres, he said, have been thriving as more people are interested in exploring Oman’s underwater wealth. “I think there is an increase in the number of divers. It seems there are more and more Omanis talking about their diving experiences than before,” he said.
For Lamki, one of his best dives was at The Aquarium. “I have had a few exceptional experiences in my life, including an amazingly colourful and vibrant dive at The Aquarium; a shark dive in the Bahamas and a spectacular cave dive in Fiji,” he said.
Strong storms and typhoons that battered the Omani coast in the past three years have damaged a number of dive sites but Barrett assures that the “corals were recovering quickly”.
For him, the sheer amount of sea life and quality of vibrantly coloured corals on the reefs of Oman leave the most lasting impressions on the memories of most divers.