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You can distill the sunny side of Oman scuba diving into three key phrases: "balmy waters," "mellow currents" & "beaucoup critters."
But the soul of my recent trip to the Arabian Peninsula was surprise. I never expected Oman to be so friendly & techno-savvy; never guessed the scuba diving, desert trekking & caving would be as brilliant. Count me one of the newly educated, a consumer of humble pie. Conventional wisdom got tossed on its ear. This little-known Arab nation called Oman amazed me day after day with abundant natural beauty, & the easy smiles of Omani people in every village & desert valley we explored.
The northwestern Arabian Sea, & the Gulf of Oman near the city of Muscat, are not only safe & sound for scuba vacations, but the visual treats underwater make this a compelling dive destination. Travel to Oman works well for Europeans, for whom air travel is low-cost & direct. This is just as easy for Europeans as the Red Sea, so why not try something new & fresh? Now for North Americans like us, who crave a keener edge to their dive vacations, far from the trampled tourist tracks of the Caribbean, you are less than 17 flying hours away from an adventure -- both underwater & roaming the desert canyons -- that will grace your memories for a lifetime.
RELAX, NO ISLAMIC MILITANTS:
COMFY WATER TEMPS:
The best time to visit Oman for scuba diving, snorkeling vacations or desert romps is the Northern Hemisphere's autumn & winter, that is November through January. This is prime time because the visibility goes up, there are more sharks & sometimes frisky pods of spinner dolphins will be seen cavorting in the boat wakes en route to your dive sites. You may want to avoid the "slack season" of July through September, when air temps & humidity can be a bit withering to Nordic chaps like me. However, if you grew up in West Texas, South Florida or Arizona, then no worries. Go for it any old time. You guys eat the big heat for lunch, right? You were made for Arabian Sea diving.
Gentle species of sharks are common visitors to the rocky offshore islands, sometimes even whale sharks in cooler seasons. The honeycomb morays here are sometimes bigger than mammoth green eels I've enjoyed off Kona or Maui's western coasts. Nearly all species of fish I saw in Oman were hefty, healthy & delightfully unafraid of divers.
Therefore, less-than-perfect visibility often means better-than-average critter density. That's why Oman diving is rife with life -- fishes of every hue & shape imaginable -- hundreds at a time in big colorful schools. This is the gist of an Oman diving holiday -- schooling tooling species. The critter counts are as healthy as you'll find in the Red Sea, but the Red Sea has better corals, most dive guides would agree.
HOLY MACKERAL, at FAHL ISLAND !
Those mackeral would linger for a minute, then vanish around a rocky corner into the greenish water. A few minutes later they suddenly reappeared & did that wonderful tube dance around me again. It was an odd feeling, being buried alive by shiny gliding fish, all moving "in synch" as if linked by invisible puppet strings, & those comical mouths wider than baby birds at chow time. They would come sooooo close, but never actually touch me, as if guided by some hairline electrical beam. That dive was a major hoot & it reminded me of those classic photos of "silver fish tunnels" formed by schooling barracuda in Palau.
On my next time down at Bill's Bumps, the same mega-school phenomenon happened again, but with fewer fish & they were some kind of gray & yellow snapper. These new fish legions were a bit more skittish than the horse mackeral, so they hung around a few choice seconds then zipped by pretty quickly.
HALF an HOUR'S ROMP with FRIENDLY SHARKS:
It's a normally benign species, so I lingered in their area for nearly half an hour, at depths of 15-25 feet, sometimes right abutting the rocky walls with them, sometimes swimming alongside them in deeper waters until my breath gave out & I had to head up. Then I'd dive again & they'd circle back for another pas de deux times two. That afternoon was one of the most exhilarating shark encounters of my diving career, & the viz was less than 45 feet. But I could see them as clearly as my fintips, so you know how close those good ol' boys were gliding by.
OMANIS PROTECT THEIR OCEAN RESOURCES:
GOOD SCUBA DIVING & SNORKELING CLOSE to TOWN:
FORGET the HYPE, LET'S MAKE IT PLAIN:
Oman diving is not perfect, not better than the Red Sea, & not the "best undiscovered scuba secret on earth." I am equally weary as you of dive mags lavishing shopworn praise upon tropical islands. There are some sites in Oman where the corals are pretty humble, some where they are sparse. If you are into deep diving, or tech diving, forget it. You won’t find the gear & technical support here; at least not yet. And so far there's no way to get Nitrox easily, but that may change in a year or so. On the plus side, the lack of way-deep diving bodes well for the average guy & gal. Virtually all of the best recreational diving sites in Oman, which have been well explored, are seldom deeper than 30 meters (98 feet). In fact, most of the best sites are closer to 20 meters deep (66 feet). This is a good place for novices & advanced divers alike, with something fun to sample for everybody.
In short, scuba diving holidays in Oman ARE big fun; they are more than exotic; they are refreshingly unique -- first because of the huge & healthy schools of fish -- next because of the beautiful desert side tours so close to Muscat. We recommend in a one-week trip you stick to a few well-scouted dive sites that are tried & true. Here below are places well worth your time, according to my own logbook & the opinions of Rob Gardner & Brigitte Wensauer, our partner-guides in Muscat. They have dived these islands for years, & know them like the bezels on their underwater compasses.
Sometimes we use a good backup, the Oman Dive Center outside Muscat , which also can arrange special vessel charters up to the Daymaniyats. There will be much more on the Oman Dive Center, a good bet for Southwest Asia's premier scuba complex, later in this article. There are some simple rules protecting the coastal environment that you will encounter on your Oman dive vacations.
All scuba divers & snorkelers who visit these islands are required to pay a modest daily park fee for a diver permit, normally under USD $10 pp through the dive shop, before entering the sector. It is strictly forbidden to hassle the sea turtles, nesting birds, or to take away any shells, fish or plants from these islands. Carefully regulated camping is allowed on only two select islands, & campfires can be kindled only in designated sites. No dogs or cats on these islands, please.
Like most offshore island diving in Oman, the typical depths are shallow here (seldom more than 30 meters) & the currents are often remarkably gentle in the mornings. However sometimes in February, March & April the seas can be a bit sporty, locals confirm. Prime time for the Daymaniyats is right when our clients like to head for warm water anyway -- November through January each year. These protected islands are closed to scuba diving & snorkeling from May through October, to give respite to the fragile marine species who call them home. From March through June every year, endangered hawksbill turtles breed & nest here, so most conscientious divers give them wide berth to minimize their stress.
The Daymaniyat Islands offer the best coral-intensive scuba diving in Oman, with not as many schools of large fish as some southern islands, but more colorful reef species. Here you are bound to see turtles, rays, many species of harmless but adrenaline-sparking sharks, even whale shark sightings in the cooler months, local guides say. Green sea turtles & hawksbill turtles are common denizens of the Daymaniyat Islands & their busy nesting beaches are carefully protected. You also may see bottlenose dolphins, spinner dolphins, & even a few humpback whales will migrate through some seasons.
There are no land mammals on these protected islands, which are a national nature reserve for marine birds by the thousands. There are terns, red-billed tropics, magnificent ospreys & several other migratory species.
Except for the furthest island east, most of these Daymaniyat Islands offer steep cliffy north faces, worn by millennia of wind & waves, & these cliffs continue down below the sea surface into sheer dropoffs, littered by big jumbled rocks to an ultimate depth of 25 meters (about 82 feet). The southern flanks of these rocky isles are fringed by shallow, fairly wide shelves of sand & intermittent coral bommies. Here you will find ancient beds of pore, table, bush & boulder coral colonies. Many are worn, but they shelter fish by the thousands.
The furthest island west in this chain is called Jazirat Jun, & it lies about 19 km NE of the Al Sawadi shoreline. There is a lovely beach on the south side of Jazirat Jun, which is a convenient launching point for some fun, easy day dives. You'll easily find a good-sized rocky shoal less than two clicks NW of Jazirat Jun, called Clive Rock, which has a precipitously plunging north wall down to about 23 meters (75 feet). There are abundant fish & corals here. The SE tip of this skinny island offers excellent shallow snorkeling in a gentle lee, with a field of hefty boulders strewn about, corals everywhere & scads of smaller reef fish, especially sohal surgeonfish. If the currents are slack between Jun & the islet just to the east -- watch out for pesky venturi currents here -- you can slide eastward for a peek at broad fields of purple cauliflower corals, which provide haven for anemones, darting clownfish, coachman fish & other brilliant species.
There are easy & accessible snorkeling beaches in the Central Daymaniyats, too numerous to list here, where you frequently spot big sea turtles & hard corals of many hues & shapes. Along the north wall of the easternmost tiny isle in this central section, is a beautiful drift dive, where chunky turtles are abundant, & you'll see bright sponges, teddy bear corals & a kind of black coral that sports bright yellowish "feelers" all over, like some Killer Bee Convention. Now here are some other jewels in the coastal crown of Oman diving.
DIVING BANDAR KHAYRAN:
I had a delightful morning free-diving in less than 25 feet of water out in the Mermaid's Cove area of Bandar Khayran. There was one honeycomb eel that came out of his lair, in broad daylight, & began to swim lazily around me, investigating the skinny legs & all. He seemed utterly relaxed & I could have probably worn him like a boa over my shoulders, but the surge was a little assertive for that. Also, I do not recommend touching any marine creatures ever, unless they absolutely foist themselves upon you with the boldness of West Maui sea turtles.
DIVING FAHL ISLAND:
DIVING CEMETERY BAY:
This is one of the best & most accessible snorkeling destinations near Muscat. The depths at Cemetery Bay vary from 1 to 9 meters (or 3 to 30 feet ). The north side of this bay offers two pretty hefty colonies of cauliflower corals in less than 12 feet of water. Just a tad off the rocky beach area on the SE corner of this bay, you can enjoy some gigantic boulder corals, up to 15 feet wide, which locals say may be several centuries old. Right underneath these big boulder corals are scads of fun reef fish, enough to jazz up any snorkeler's day: groupers, batfish, wrasses, Moorish idols, parrotfish, angels, even one of my personal favorite species -- porcupine fish.
Closer to the Cemetery Bay perimeter, you can find in shallow waters some healthy colonies of table & bush-type corals, which provide home to species such as damselfish.
DIVING CAT ISLAND:
Watch for an oddball three-finned turtle, (kind of like old Kauai's "Tripod") who is oftentimes cruising the shorelines of this island. You wonder what nailed that poor guy, but locals say he's pretty happy with life as it is.
This is the classic "Oman Diver & Trekker Special" --
Recommended 7-night / 8-day diving, hiking & cultural tour:
(We can customize these options any way you want;
1st day:Morning arrival into Muscat on Northwest-KLM Airlines via Amsterdam. You will be greeted by our guides at the airport & taken downtown after clearing customs. You'll check into Radisson SAS Hotel in downtown Muscat, conveniently situated near good restaurants & nightspots. This 3-star Radisson has the best-value lunch & evening buffets in the city. Yes, we have checked most of the good hotels & restaurants. You can unpack & freshen up then hit the road with camera ready to go! You will enjoy our talented guide Brigitte Wensauer & her popular Oman Fort Tour, heading out to the ancient fortifications at Nakhl & Al Hazm for half a day. After touring the nooks & crannies, the parapets & dungeons, the trapdoors & secret tunnels of these huge forts, you head back home to Muscat for some laid-back lounging at your poolside. You get a free shuttle in the mornings from your downtown hotel to the luxurious private Radisson club right on the Gulf of Oman. (Soft drinks & picnic lunch provided free today.)
2nd day: Two guided boat dives at Fahl Island, an Omani scuba diving must-see. After this you will enjoy Brigitte's downtown Muscat tour, including the famous old-town market called the Souq, right near the harbor. This Souq is "Souvenir Central," & Muscat's answer to Seattle's Pike Place Market -- but a lot more fun. The deals you can strike with Omani merchants for gold & silver creations, prime frankincense & colorful Asian rugs are really something. With a few shrugs & a smile, these gracious people will give you 20 - 35% off just about anything, if you ask politely. Local laws & traditions forbid Souq merchants from hoodwinking the tourists. Now isn't that something? How many Asian countries have you visited with this sort of impeccable consumer protection built right into everyday commerce? The Muscat Souq is a must-see. After the Souq, you will visit the Sultan's Palace in Old Muscat near the harbor. When floodlit after dark this huge palace, seen from the cityside & from the harbor, is strikingly beautiful. (Clients seek their own meals today; water provided on dive vessel.)
3rd day: Two dives at Bandar Khayran, another classic of Arabian Sea diving. Then after an appropriate safety-decom interval at sea level, later that day we drive to the lower flanks of the Hajar Mountains, a desert region famous for its pristine air & clean sands & multi-colored peaks that stretch for many miles, for some relaxed car camping, highlighted by open vistas & a savory open-fire supper under the stars. Nothing like good camp chow spiced with pleasant conversation & completely unhindered views of the night sky. The sky seems surreal with so many stars! (Soft drinks & supper provided free today + water on dive vessel.)
4th day: This is another must-see, funseekers -- Al Fallah Cave -- known in the local Omani vernacular as "Hoti Cave." It's a compelling day tour you'll never forget. (Modest rock scrambling required; as this is a slightly strenuous cave hike). Anybody in reasonable shape can do this cave tour; it's nothing heinous. Al Fallah Cave is safe & do-able for most persons who are in good health. The sights are spectacular in this Hoti Cave, especially the underground lake (with its tiny pink fish) & an awe-inspiring main chamber with some massive stalagmites. Photo opp's abound if you bring a bright strobe & some backup lights. Make sure you have good block-soled approach boots (light-weight & breathable) extra flashlight & batteries & some fresh water. If time permits & for extra cost, we can add on another night of camping under the stars at the summit of Jebel Shams, the tallest peak in Oman (9,870 feet, or 3,009 meters). We reach this summit with a 4WD vehicle so no worries in the cardio department. (Soft drinks, breakfast & picnic lunch provided free today.)
5th day: 2 dives at either a new Bandar Khayran site or the Quriat Wreck (advanced divers only for the Quriat, as this wreck is draped in old fishnets & might be a little tricky when the currents are moving). What makes this wreck a cool site is the profusion of rare cuttlefish, who mate & flutter around in beautifully complex patterns. Good idea to be careful around the Quriat Wreck. If you are an experienced diver, this will be duck soup. If you are a beginner, then tell us & we will substitute a day at Mermaid's Cove or another mellower coastal dive site. Your scuba diving guide will decide on the exact dive site today, based on weather conditions & fitness of the team -- for your maximum safety. There are dozens of fun scuba diving options for you, or more challenging options too -- if you have a taste for underwater adventure of the keener sort. (Clients seek their own meals today; water provided on dive vessel.)
6th day: 2 dives in the stellar Daymaniyat Islands, finest scuba diving locale in Oman, & one of the prime gems of Arabian Sea diving. The fish life & corals are beautiful here in the Daymaniyat Islands. Please check the rest of our Oman Diving webpage for detailed accounts of diving these splendid Daymaniyat Islands. This will be the highlight for those clients who visit Oman mainly for the scuba diving tours. (Clients seek their own meals today; water provided on dive vessel.)
7th day: Day-tour with 4WD to the desert river valley called Wadi Suwayh, a picturesque "wadi" or Omani river valley. Depending on the tour group's level of ability, the weather, & team preferences, we may select another wadi that is equally beautiful as an oasis. This is a mellow & photogenic day tour for any hikers of modest cardiovascular ability, & you will love it. For those who really want to kick up their heels with some adrenal action, another more advanced swekking canyon further back in the high country may be chosen instead. Serious canyoning enthusiasts, who are up for the more advanced back-country swekking ("swim-trekking" the canyons), must bring all appropriate safety gear from home, including waterproof pack & camera bag, light rock gear, good block-toed hiking boots or approach tennies (light-weight & breathable for the desert heat) & a sunhat, plus long-sleeved nylon or cotton shirt. Do not forget the Ten Essentials from "Freedom of the Hills." (Soft drinks & picnic lunch provided free today.)
8th day: Departure with Northwest-KLM Airlines, via Amsterdam & then back to your home city. Clients seek their own breakfast & lunch before departure today. (You may add as many extra days as you wish, to remain in Muscat for more diving or more back-country tours such as wadi hikes, back in the Hajar Mountains. Please let us know what you need & we can customize your options readily, just as you prefer.)
Price per person with a minimum of 2 guests: from USD $1,597 per client for the land package, depending on customized side tours clients choose. Some customized packages may be lower in price. International air tickets are extra for all Oman dive vacations. Meals & tips on the road are extra costs. We cannot package this tour for solo guests. Prices are lower for more than 4 persons. On the more advanced swekking forays, we request no more than 8 divers or trekkers per guide, for maximum safety. In the gentler scenic wadis, larger groups are fine. See Oman Prices webpage for details.
OMAN DIVE CENTER, the SCUBA DIVING BRAINSTEM of OMAN:
Only one discouraging item we could find, after an in-depth examination of Oman Dive Center: there is no Nitrox (yet). But that may change soon. Time to get the word out, because this is a prime facility, with competent staff who are gracious & safety-minded. No worries about crowding. The pace here is mellow as the weather.
Oman Dive Center is a PADI 5 Star IDC dive center, spanning 30 full acres, based in its own private mini-fjord called Jussa Bay. The bay is spectacular, with emerald water & a pristine white sand beach 200 meters long. This place looks like it was designed by tall-hatted Texans, because it is spacious everywhere. Not one room, boat or nook anywhere seems cramped & crowded. Plus they keep this place spic-&-span.
There are fully-equipped teaching classrooms, comfy changing rooms, luxurious showers, toilets, a large swimming pool for confined water training & restaurant with bar. The ODC also has a fully-stocked equipment room with drying area. Most of their new gear for sale is top-of-the-line Mares & ScubaPro. We recommend you bring your own regulators, BCs & basic safety gear, same as we always say for any remote country.
Oman Dive Center also offers four dive tenders, three large & one small, with ample sun protection & roomy benches. The 3 large dive tenders are about 10 meters long with 2 engines -- each 150 hp. The smallest vessel, about 8 meters long, has twin 55s for power. The vessels are built for big groups, but normally take only a maximum of 10 divers + crew on board, so you'll never have to endure a cattle-boat experience on your Oman diving tour.
ODC offers day diving, night diving, wreck diving, snorkeling, dolphin watching, & special charters to the famous Daymaniyat Islands. These require several days in all, & special service fees of about USD $200 per diver minimum, due to the long distance boat rides from ODC up to the Daymaniyat Group. You can do checkout dives for PADI certification here, at a decent rate.
The ODC, as of early Year 2004, has 2 full-time PADI instructors, 2 divemasters & 4 deck hands all training to be divemasters. These lads are all personable & well-motivated & they are Omani nationals. That bodes well for staff stability in years to come.
The three bigger dive boats all carry emergency oxygen, DAN kits with demand-valve regulators. There is also a medic first-aid room with a huge oxygen cylinder in it, in case of an unlikely emergency. The currents are so gentle & the depths so moderate on most dives here near Muscat, that decompression sickness is almost unheard of, locals say. Just in case, & we believe in being prepared, if ever an incident of DCS occurred, the Royal Omani Airforce is standing by with jet-quick helicopters to whisk a diver out to the city of Wudam, near Sawadi, where there is a naval base & an expertly equipped recompression chamber.
Just for the record, in ten years of business not one U.S. Dive Travel client -- not one -- ever has suffered decompression sickness in any of the 30 countries where we are working worldwide. We are proud of that perfect safety record, amigos, because it did not happen by mirrors. After careful study, & as much foresight as we can muster in an imperfect world, we choose dive destinations where the likelihood of success is very high, & the chance of dire problems is very low. Obviously there are hazards in this sport, & no dive operation is perfect all the time, so there is an element of personal responsibility that we expect of all our adult clients. Basically we trust you all to do the right thing, the way we were all trained by PADI & NAUI -- "takin' it slow & easy." Much more fun that way.
"Oman is easy diving, " says Ms. Ruqaya Albereky, the ODC's chief administrator. Her first name is pronounced "Roh-KY-ah," & she is a friendly Muslim woman originally from Africa, now an Omani national, who is known throughout Oman diving circles for her firm hand on the tiller. Ruqaya has done an exceptional job building a well-trained dive team. They are safety first all the way, & that appeals to my Teutonic instincts for order, efficiency & cleanliness.
Check our Oman Prices webpage for some ideas on fun side tours
you can add onto your Oman vacation. And Bon Voyage, mates!
FOR MORE INFORMATION or RESERVATIONS:
Contact -- Susan & John Hessburg, Mgrs
U.S. DIVE TRAVEL Network
PMB 307 / Suite # 116
15050 Cedar Ave. S.
St. Paul, Minnesota, USA 55124-7047
IMPORTANT NOTE about PRICES & TARIFFS:
First things first for your Oman scuba diving holiday. Please remember that you will need to secure a formal visa from the Omani Consulate closest to your hometown, before you will be allowed entry into Oman. Visas for most U.S., Canadian & European citizens are very easy to secure, & take only a couple weeks. In many cases, these entry visas can be picked up right at the Muscat airport when you arrive. The Oman Embassy staffers in Washington, DC are exceptionally gracious & helpful. They are geared up to encourage eco-responsible tourism; this is quite evident. Visa fees are nominal & paid via cashier's check to the Omani Embassy or Consul General nearest to you. Make sure you prepare well for your Oman scuba diving trip.
OMAN VISA PROCESS -- Passport & visa required for all tourists, & for all Oman dive vacations. Tourist/business visas for multiple-entry issued for stays up to 6 months & valid for 2 years. Both business or tourist visas require a special official application form & cholera immunization if arriving from infected area & a self-addressed stamped envelope for return of passport by mail. For transit & road travel, please check with the Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman, 2535 Belmont Rd., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008 (202/387-1980, -1981 or -1982).
All package prices listed here for Oman dive holidays are subject to possible change in this steadily evolving travel market. Land prices are traditionally stable, while air prices may fluctuate for Oman vacations. Until air tickets are issued, all airlines reserve the right to change airfares without notice -- a longtime industry standard, per FAA rules. We at U.S. Dive Travel will price-protect you to the utmost of our professional ability; & that has been our pledge for one decade now. We normally secure excellent discount air tickets. Remember please, the federal government has deregulated airlines, so only they control their pricing -- not any travel professionals. But our lodging & Oman diving contracts are set for one year at a time, & therefore are rock solid nearly all seasons.
Unless specifically noted, these above packages are prices for only the land-based or vessel-based portion of your Oman scuba diving vacation, in most cases reflecting double-occupancy rooms. At most vacation resorts there will be no triple-occupancy rooms offered. Some exceptions may be noted. International air tickets & commuter "island-hopper" airfares are always extra above these land costs. Nominal service fees are also extra for air tickets & the lodging + diving components of all Oman scuba diving vacations. The baseline tariffs for all clients start at $35 per person for the land portion + $25 pp for published-fare air tickets. Late-booking clients may receive slightly higher tariffs on the lodging + diving. Solo clients will always pay a single supplement to secure a private room on their Oman diving holidays -- normally 35% to 50% more -- & possibly a doubling of the standard double-occupancy rate at some resorts.
For our U.S. or Canadian clients, the preferred payment mode for all lodging, diving & side tours is by cashier's check or wire transfer in U.S. dollars. All clients living outside the USA or Canada will need to pay only via direct wire transfer in U.S. dollars -- no exceptions please. No personal checks or credit cards will be accepted for the lodging or land-tour portions of any Oman dive vacations, please. Thank you for your gracious understanding. Our service level is the highest & our prices the lowest in this industry, & thus we need to preserve a reasonable margin, thereby ensuring that your Oman diving holidays will be brilliant & affordable.
For published-fare air ticket bookings on your Oman diving holiday, USDT always accepts Visa & Mastercard, even from non-U.S. clients. For discount wholesale air tickets, however, USDT accepts only cashier's checks or wire transfers, please, since we are giving you exceptionally low net rates, below the lowest published discount fares available.
Remember, all clients to all foreign destinations will be asked by local officials overseas, upon departing the airport on your final day, to pay a nominal government departure tax, usually between USD $25 - $45 per client. USDT cannot collect this tax beforehand, so you simply pay it down there, in your host country. Be sure to stash away a little cash for this final moment at the airport, so you'll get your exit visa stamped quickly with no fuss; & away you go. Best of luck with your travel plans. We hope your Oman dive vacation is a safe & satisfying adventure. Blessings & best wishes.
Best fishes too!
>////*> <*\\\\<John Hessburg, General Manager
© Copyright U.S. Dive Travel. All rights reserved.
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