Text and Photo by Scott Johnson
From endemic marine species, such as Oman anemonefish, Oman butterflyfish and Oman cuttlefish, to virgin dive sites, Oman offers “off the beaten path” experiences day and night.
A back-roll off one of the Oman Aggressor’s two 6.7-meter tenders leaves me descending into the unknown and onto a previously unexplored site off Al Hallaniyah Island in Oman’s remote Hallaniyat Islands’ archipelago. The top of the seamount below me rises to within 8 meters of the surface, but its naturally hewn, uneven sides stairstep into the surrounding depths. With no discernible current and a good 21 meters of visibility, I decide to survey the area fairly high in the water column in order to cover more terrain.
Leisurely finning over a rolling plateau of hard corals and rugged rocks adorned with stalks of radiant soft corals, I see the glowing, telltale white spots of an eagle ray 9 meters below me. The graceful ray is slowly gliding along as if strolling in the park and best of all, seems unaware or uncaring of my presence. With a gravitational assist, I descend at a 45º angle to within only a couple meters of the eagle’s back and then fire a series of shots before the startled ray flaps away.
Gradually working my way further around and back up the northern flank of this underwater mountain, I am treated to another set of spots in the form of a busy leopard (zebra) shark. Most people probably do not think of sharks as cute, but that is what comes to mind as I draw closer. And, most definitely, hungry, as this rather small 2-meter shark is obviously looking for a snack since its elongated caudal fin is pointed toward the sky and its wriggling head is in a crevice. I spend the remainder of the dive with this “I’ve got the munchies” leopard as it thoroughly combs the reef for something to eat and offer, “Bon Appétit!”, when my computer lets me know times up. Ascending, I wonder what exciting new spots await in Oman’s vast marine wilderness.
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gospel of Matthew 2:11
2,000 years before Magi from the East (wise men) presented their precious gifts to the infant Jesus, caravan trails were already being etched in the desert floor as aromatic sap from scraggily Boswella trees in the mountainous region now called Dhofar in Oman was ferried to eager traders in port cities and then sold throughout the known world. This sap, called desert tears or frankincense, once held such demand that it was valued more highly than gold. It was used for religious offerings, to consecrate temples, as medicine (due to antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties), as an ingredient in mummification and for more mundane purposes, such as cosmetics, incense and perfume.
The Sultanate of Oman, which is bordered to the west by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, respectively, and elsewhere by the Gulf of Oman to the northeast and the Arabian Sea to the southeast, was birthed from this vast maritime trade of desert tears. And now, it is heralded as the Middle East’s new diving frontier. From endemic marine species, such as Oman anemonefish, Oman butterflyfish and Oman cuttlefish, to virgin dive sites, Oman offers “off the beaten path” experiences day and night.
Two-faced and Too Amazing
Shortly after boarding and goggling at the impressive (understatement) new Oman Aggressor, which is docked in an equally shiny Salalah marina complex not for from the legendary Dhofar mountains, I ask Shaker Mohamed what I should expect to see over the next two weeks. Mohamed smiles, shakes his head and offers, “Diving is new to Oman. Every dive is, how you say, an exploration dive here. So, we boldly go where no diver has gone before.” I thank him and excitedly start to prep for an adventure of discovery.
Our check-out dive at Ras Mirbat reveals an aquatic environment rife with action and color. An enormous green sea turtle ringed by swirling cardinalfish looks at me as if to say, “What’s up?” as I take my initial bearings. Not far away, two day octopuses sit on either side of a half-eaten fish carcass and barely flinch when Mohamed bathes them with his video lights. And, then, around 17 meters, Naomi Le Vot-Bovy, a guide and the only non-Egyptian crew member, points into a low-ceiling ledge and shows me something truly spectacular. Peering inside, there seems to be four eyes staring back at me. I remove my Sola Photo 1200 light from the housing, turn on its red beam (so as not to scare the object of my curiosity), place it on the mouth of the opening to my right and then look again. I am utterly amazed to see the jittering, flattened head of an endemic two-faced toadfish as it grumbles at my intrusion. The subsequent images I capture are of an almost mythical creature few people know exist.
Omani Tattoos and Happy Fish
The Marriott Wreck was so named because of the Marriott Resort on the nearby Mirbat beach. The wreck is over 100 years old, yet no one seems to know the ship’s actual identity or history. The same is true for an estimated 50 or more additional unidentified shipwrecks in these waters. What is known about the Marriott Wreck is that it is a diver’s playground.
A night dive on the shallow-water wreck can be exhilarating, but also prickly. Yellow-lipped, brown eel catfish energetically serpentine across and under much of the structure, while other inhabitants are simply trying to get some sleep. My left hip bumps against a couple of long-spine black urchins as I try to focus on one of the scurrying fish. The resulting sharp pain prompts me to flare my right knee into another armor-piercing urchin and leaves me feeling like a pin cushion. I eventually stop grimacing and am treated to more scorpionfish, slipper lobsters and hunting blue spotted rays than I have previously seen on a lone site. Once back aboard the mothership, I gently crawl into bed with two painful Omani tattoos that will eventually fade and vivid memories that will certainly linger.
If laughter truly is the best medicine, then our return to the wreck the next morning will cure all my ailments. About 15 minutes into the dive, a massive, free swimming honeycomb moray passes in front me on a collision course with Paul Flandinette, a vacationing British expat living in Oman’s capital city of Muscat, who currently has his head down in part of the fractured superstructure trying to photograph something. The spotted honeycomb parts Flandinette’s hair as it passes, which, of course, causes the surprised diver to spew bubbles with bulging eyes. I lose 1/3 of my tank of air as I belly laugh until I cry.
When my eyes clear enough for me to see again, I swim towards a group of blue-barred parrotfish that are milling about a splintered sliver of the hull. The brilliantly-hued parrotfish seem to be celebrating life as they whirl around one another. A giant hogfish appears upside down in front of lounging parrotfish, which spooks it and causes it to swim away. The jokester hogfish then rights itself and settles on the departed parrotfish’s comfy bed as if signaling “mission accomplished”.
The Dragon’s Lair
A 169-kilometer, 11-hour cruise from Salalah carries us to Al Qibliyah Island, the most easterly island in the Hallaniyat Island chain and thus the farthest from the mainland. Al Qibliyah Rock is known to host a least one dragon moray, which is at the top of my shoot list for the upcoming dive. I ask if any of the other guests want to help me look for the special moray and Marina Goodyear volunteers.
Temporary holes open within dense, mixed schools of lemon sweetlips, minstrel sweetlips, twobar seabream and yellowfin goatfish as Marina and I swim through them. Taking our time, we check every visible hole and crevice we find. Omani waters must contain more eels per square meter than any other place on the planet and the expansive, boulder-strewn slope of this site is no exception. We pass multiple honeycomb, yellowmouth and grey morays as we seek the dragon’s lair.
Our hunt finally proves fruitful when Marina tugs my right arm and points to a dragon extending from the shelter between two large rocks at 18 meters. I give Marina a big thumbs up and then carefully approach the ornately patterned eel. Striped hingebeak shrimp line the lair and occasionally venture onto the moray’s textured skin to clean it. Just as I am about the squeeze the shutter on the framed dragon and its attending retinue of shrimp, the focus distorts. I look up to find a grey moray positioned between me and the dragon as if trying to convince me to take its picture instead. The delightful odd couple keeps me blissfully entertained until I notice a small, yellow, polka-dotted cube floating between the spines of an urchin. The juvenile yellow boxfish is just another in a seemingly endless of living marine collection of Omani spotted treasures.
Spotting the Extraordinary
Each and every dive from either the Oman Aggressor’s spacious dive platform or one of its tenders represents an opportunity to discover something new, something breathtaking. Come to think of it, the same holds true for the surface intervals, as well. For example, crew members and guests are ever hopeful of spotting a breaching or spouting Arabian humpback between dives. These endangered cetaceans likely represent the world’s only nonmigratory and most isolated pod of humpbacks. From desert tears to dragons’ lairs to mysterious humpbacks, Oman truly offers adventure-seeking divers the chance “to boldly go where no diver has gone before.”
The Oman Aggressor operates a Hallaniyat Islands itinerary from the Juweira Boutique Hotel & Marina in Salalah from October through April, a Musandam Peninsula itinerary from the Khasab Port Marina in Khasab each May and a Daymaniyat Islands itinerary from the Al Mouj Marina in Muscat from June to September. International flights typically access the three host cities from either Doha or Dubai.
Departure Tax/Visa Requirements
The departure tax is typically included in the airfare. Visas are valid for only 30 days from date of issue and cost approximately $50 U.S. per person.
Arabic, though English is spoken in tourist areas.
Omani Rial (OMR).
220-240 Volts with European style outlets, though most of the Oman Aggressor outlets will accept U.S. style plugs.
The Oman Aggressor – www.aggressor.com