City, culture, desert and diving – Oman has it all, as a diving trip to Muscat reveals
Arriving in Muscat blurry-eyed from an overnight flight, the morning heat is incredible, but the welcome is warm too. One of the most developed and stable countries in the Middle East, Oman has a strong tradition of hospitality, and this welcoming attitude to visitors makes it easy for the independent traveller to make their way around.
Visibility and water temperature in the Gulf of Oman vary considerably within a single dive – you can see for anything between 6m and 20m, and be sweating in 32°C water or shivering in 25°C just moments later. But these cold and warm currents, and the plankton blooms that reduce the viz, are what makes the marine life so diverse and plentiful.
There are fewer divers than the Red Sea (you’re unlikely to share the dive site with any other boat) and many of the species of fish and corals are the same. Perhaps it was just my jet-lagged brain, but the fish also seemed bigger in Oman – the stingrays, morays and even the pufferfish were super-sized.
The dives in Muscat were generally quite easy – there was no current or swell and maximum depths were between 20m and 30m. There’s also an incredible amount to see – the Damaniyat Islands are the jewel in Muscat’s diving crown, but there are other great reefs as well, closer to shore.
There’s quite a lot of tourist development going on, but unlike Hurghada with its half-finished hotels, this is being done systematically. A new airport is being built, roads are being upgraded through Muscat, and a new development called The Wave is opening with apartments, shops and restaurants around a marina. But there’s still plenty of opportunity for adventure in easy reach, whether in the desert or under the water.
My first stop was the Oman Dive Centre, a well-established beach camp with comfortable and picturesque accommodation in huts clustered right by the sea. The rooms have a rustic charm, for example the en-suite bathrooms at the back of the cabins are open air to catch the breeze – it’s nature’s air conditioning. The whole resort has the atmosphere of a yacht club or beach club - it’s laid back and relaxed, and at its centre is diving. The beach is open for locals as well so you’re not in an exclusive resort cut off from the everyday life of the city. On Fridays in particular the beach bar is a popular place to spend an afternoon and evening.
Our first dive was at the Al Munasir wreck, which was purposely sunk for divers in 2003. Around a 20-minute sail from Oman Dive Centre, the wreck is an 84m long troop ship, sitting on a sandy seabed at 29m, with the main deck at 15m.
As my first dive in Oman, I was surprised by the sheer numbers of fish – huge schools of snappers and goat fish, and so many reef fish you could barely see through the portholes of the wreck. The soft corals also covered every sheltered spot, and the largest stingray I’ve ever seen was lying under the stern – his favourite spot, according to my dive guide Tom Schwericke. Just to cap it off as one of the best dives I’ve done this year, a couple of eagle rays swam lazily over the wreck’s deck as Tom and I were on our safety stop. I was delighted, and keen to jump back in for our next dive.
This area of coast, Bandar Khayran, is made up of many inlets, bays, and small beaches perfect for picnics. It’s a popular Friday activity to take a boat, find yourself a secluded beach and spend the day swimming, snorkelling and enjoying the spectacular scenery. Mermaid Cove is one of these bays, and was our next dive site.
Starting from a ledge at around 6m, the reef drops down to around 20m. Here, the shimmering thermoclines and hazy viz create plenty of atmosphere, particularly as there are many neon-yellow soft corals almost glowing in the gloom. It’s weird and slightly eerie, and a great contrast to the top of the reef, which we explore later. Here, there are more hard corals and abundant fish life, with large starry pufferfish, angel fish, and morays. It’s also a site where there are often turtle sightings.
After a night at the Millennium Resort in Mussanah, an international-style hotel with excellent food and great views of the marina and the sea, I join Oman Sail to visit the Daymaniyat Islands which lie 18km off the coast. Oman Sail are in the process of adding a diving arm to their operation, which at present teaches youngsters to sail, is responsible for training the national sailing team, and also runs a charter boat business. The dive centre will be situated next to the Millennium Resort.
A 40-minute RIB ride from the hotel brings us to the islands where we meet with the catamaran Orana, one of the company’s charter boats. Although there’s no dive deck on the cat, it’s the perfect place to enjoy surface intervals and meals, and we dive from the RIB.
The nine Daymaniyat islands are a nature reserve and permits are required to visit here. Quite literally desert islands, the Daymaniyats have no population and very little vegetation – they’re rocky, desert outcrops in the middle of the ocean. But underwater, it’s a different story.
After a freshen up and a snack of coffee and dates, we’re ready to dive and our first site is The Garden Of Eden, at the western end of the chain of islands. It lives up to its name, with pretty soft corals in purples, yellows and whites, and enough marine life to fill my logbook. We see turtles and stingrays, huge grouper and honey-comb morays of an incredible size, schools of damselfish, a few trevallies, and some huge, colourful nudibranchs.
Currents can be stronger here, and the viz poorer in the winter months, but I had excellent conditions – it was still as a mill pond with 15-20m visibility. During the summer, plankton attracts whale sharks to the islands, and leopard sharks are spotted here too.
Our second dive site, Three Sisters, was at the other end of the islands. Starting in around 5m of water, the reef descends to a maximum depth of 20m. After a short swim along the reef, you reach a huge overhang, or cave. Large enough for around 10 divers to enter, it’s a pretty spot, and a good place to look out for moray eels, batfish, lionfish and scorpion fish.
Turtles are also common at this site and all around the islands – the beaches are the densest nesting sites for hawksbill turtles in the world, according to the Environment Society of Oman. Green turtles are also common; they nest on the mainland at Ras al Hadd, east of Muscat.
While I’d love to have stayed the night out here, and Orana’s four cabins look compact but comfortable, I have a date with the desert and we head back to shore.
A million miles (luckily not literally) from the busy and bustling modern city of Muscat, the desert is quiet and offers the chance for some adventure. I stayed at the Arabian Oryx Camp, near Bidiya, around a three-hour drive from the city. Surrounded by sand dunes, it mixes traditional Bedouin influences with more modern en-suite, air-conditioned cabins. Activities here include dune bashing (driving up and down the steep sand dunes), camel trekking and desert safaris. Some people go sand boarding too – it’s snowboarding but in a very different climate.
Waking up at 4.45am, I scrambled up a steep sand dune to watch the sunrise. Having arrived in darkness the night before, watching the light slowly grow and the view of dunes and mountains become clear was an incredible experience.
And it’s not all dry and dusty – Oman has spectacular ‘wadi’, or fresh-water springs, which create incredible gorges and have been the lifeblood of small commuities and farmers for hundreds of years. These are a cool and picturesque place to stop off on your drive through the desert.
Souk and the city
There’s lots to discover in Muscat itself, as I found out on my final day in Oman. Well worth a visit is the Grand Mosque, which is open to visitors until 11am (closed on Fridays). The gardens are a pleasant place to walk around, and the interior of the mosque is breathtaking – the high ceiling and dome is intricately decorated with blue and white and gold designs. Everyone must dress appropriately to visit, in long-sleeved tops and trousers, and women have to wear a headscarf.
For a completely different atmosphere head to Mattrah Souk, an old indoor market in whose narrow and winding passageways you can find scarves and silver, household goods and gold – perfect for souvenir shopping or grabbing a bite to eat. A wander along the Corniche, which runs along the side of the harbour and is lined with restaurants, cafes and shops, also gives you a good flavour of the city, or head to the Bait Al Zubair museum for an insight into Oman’s history and culture. It’s a private museum, housing one family’s collection of Omani artefacts.
On my final night, when I’m staying at the Intercontinental Hotel in Muscat, I head out for a stroll along the beach as the sun is setting. I’m not the only one – the whole city seems to have turned out to enjoy the cooler evening. People are drinking coffee, teaching the kids to ride bikes or jogging and playing football – and this is Muscat’s charm. There’s some top notch diving to be had here, but there’s much to enjoy topside as well – the city, the culture, the desert, and the welcome of the Omanis.
Accommodation and tours
The Millennium Hotel An international-style hotel, with great food, set right by a marina in Mussanah. A new dive centre run by Oman Sail is being established next to the hotel. www.millenniumhotels.com/millenniumresortmussanah
Park Inn Hotel A no-fuss business-style hotel in the centre of Muscat. It has a roof-top pool and a bar. www.parkinn.com/hotel-muscat
Intercontinental A large hotel in the diplomatic and governmental quarter on the city. Situated right on the beach, the hotel has restaurants, two pools and gym/ health club in the extensive gardens. www.ichotelsgroup.com
Arabian Oryx Camp Accommodation is in modern air-conditioned, en-suite cabins with Bedouin-style decoration at this desert camp. www.ichotelsgroup.com
OTHER AREAS TO VISIT AND DIVE
Musandam Jutting out into the Strait of Hormuz, Musandam is separated from the rest of Oman by a 90km stretch of the United Arab Emirates. It’s popular with divers, especially from nearby Dubai, because of its colourful reefs, drift diving, and the occasional big visitor such as whale sharks and manta rays. The spectacular mountainous coastline is broken up into bays and inlets, many of which are undived, and the whole place has the feel of a frontier town – expect plenty of adventure.
Salalah Located in the south west of Oman, Salalah is on the Arabian Sea. Diving takes place in sheltered bays. During the summer months, kelp forests grow up and are home to many juvenile fish. From May, a phenomenon called the ‘khareef’ brings in moisture-rich winds, turning the beautifully barren desert plateaux and gullies verdant green.
- Parent Category: Omani