My logged dives #1073-1076
Bobbi and I had a week off for Eid Al Fitr so we crossed the border into Oman to dive at one our favorite spots in this part of the world, the Damaniyite Islands, just off Al Sawadi, about an hour's drive north of Muscat. The islands are a protected marine reserve 40 minutes by boat off the coast, known for great visibility and rich marine life. We used to see leopard sharks here on almost every dive. Now it's rare to see a leopard shark, and fishermen are encroaching on the reserve despite the police post on one of the islands, visited by police for only a part of each day. The worst problem on our most recent visit though was the visibility. A green algae had bloomed in depths down to 17-18 meters, stopped by the thermocline there which plunged us into temperatures in the low 20s when we went that deep. Vis was at least good at the bottom, though the light was clouded by the algae. We had not anticipated the cold. Bobbi had left her 5 mm wetsuit at home. She at least had a shorty she could wear over her 3 mm. I had a half mm lycra and a half mm rash vest over which I could put on a 3 mm overall, and over that a 3 mm longsleeve top, so I had 7 mm on my core, but still got chilled in the limbs and head, so second dives each day were hypothermic for both of us.
We got up before 6 a.m. to leave Abu Dhabi before 8 in order to arrive as requested by 2 pm on Friday, only to be told that we didn't really need to be there until 2:30, but they always told people coming from UAE to arrive a half hour before they wanted them there. In fact, that was to meet a boat departing at 3:00, so we could have slept an hour longer that morning.
While waiting we encountered good friends Robin and Ann, whom we knew from BSAC days in Abu Dhabi. They had dived there several days already but were giving Friday a miss due to the cold and disappointing vis. They painted us a pretty poor picture of what to expect, but we soldiered on. Robin and Ann were still around on Saturday but didn't dive that day either.
I can't say I blamed them. We were thinking to give Saturday a miss as well, but we were there, and you never know what you'll see. Actually our first dive was the best of the 4 we did, because the family spending the week there at Al Sawadi and getting their kids certified wanted to go to the Aquarium. This was a long trip for an afternoon dive. It meant that we weren't diving until after 4:00, so our second dive didn't start until almost 6, and was essentially a night dive. To Extra Divers's credit, they did have torches for everyone, fully charged, and I had brought my two from home.
The Aquarium is a submerged reef lying just outside the protected area so it's getting covered in nets and fish pots, and whereas it still has a lot of honeycomb moray eels and smaller fish, we didn't see any turtles, and the bigger fish are sure to be caught or driven away between the divers and fishermen. Still there were interesting things to see there. Bobbi found a large seahorse as big as her forearm. We saw some large cuttlefish as well, in groups of two and finally four just at the top of the reef. We saw a lot of honeycomb morays, one free swimming, and a large pair wavering like flags, right at the end of the dive. We found plenty of green and grey morays as well. We found hard-to-spot flounder and scorpion fish, hard to see camouflaged in cabbage coral. It was a great dive despite the poor vis, and Bobbi and I came up only when our time expired at 1 hour, everyone else already on the boat.
Our night dive was at Little Jun, far right corner, south I think, east (far wall) back toward Big Jun, direction of Sira. We felt freezing cold on this dive, but didn't see much ourselves. Bobbi found a pair of hermit crabs in fluted cone shells, with small shrimp living on the shell. Said the dive guide reported a massive sting ray that went right over his head, corroborated by Marian and her daughter who were with him at the time, but none of the rest of us saw it. Bobbi and I were chilled and came up after 45 minutes.
Saturday, we dived with a group of video photographers, one of them named Khalid Al Sultani and his wife, Sara from Germany, who were lingering over small animals in the dive and got some stupendous video, check it out
Our favorite fish on this dive was one we've seen before in Thailand, which the dive guide said at the time was "look like shark, not shark". I thought it was a cobia, such as this one, http://www.flickr.com/photos/sprain/403529059/. It was 1.5 to 2 meters, circled us high up on the reef, around 7 meters depth, but had a small mouth like a nurse shark (not a jutting jaw as in this picture), and a dorsal fin a little far back from that of a shark (not fanned as in this picture, that I noticed), and also it was not skittish as sharks tend to be. I'll try harder to track this one down. Also, the lady who was diving with Bobbi and I and our guide Roshan while her husband watched the 2 year old back on shore at the resort, found a lobster (crayfish). They went up early while Bobbi and I finished out the hour underwater.
Our last dive was at three sisters on Police Island, encroaching on another site there. The first thing we saw was a torpedo ray being videoed by Khalid, one of the video divers. Roshan was snapping pictures of nudibranchs which was essentially how we spotted them. As on the other dives there were numerous lion fish, morays, often two together, trigger fish everywhere, napoleon wrasse, and lots of scorpion fish. Poking my light into caves we found a big puffer fish in one, and a huge grouper hiding in another. We saw flounders on all the dives, on this one three together in the sand. The guide was teasing some clownfish and oddly, one of them bit his finger (amusing, surprised Roshan). There were nice swim-throughs on this last dive, but we were COLD on this one, and glad when our hour was up.
We got back to port right at 3pm, hauled our gear up the road (no car waiting), didn't wash it, and headed back to the Millenium hotel, where we showered and just barely made our late checkout time of 4:00 pm.
The Millenium Hotel was very nice, just half an hour's drive north from Al Sawadi on the Sohar road. We used to like Al Sawadi Beach Hotel a lot, spent many nights there with our young children in Oman, and had some great feasts back in the all-you-can-eat lobster days, gone now. The Al Sawadi as it gets older diminishes in value as it also gets more expensive, now 95 Omani riyals a night for two, half board (US$250). Last time Jay treated us to accommodation there, so nice of him. This time we checked around online and found the Millenium for 65 Omani riyals ($170) for the two of us with dinner and breakfast buffets much better than at AlSawadi, great rooms with seaview upgrade free, quite luxurious, similar to Meridien Aqaa but smaller scale. We had a view of the boat harbor out the window. The bar and restaurant were pleasant with outdoor decks, but furniture spartan, and drinks expensive. We splurged 14 Oman riyals ($40) for a bottle of Argento house wine. They had our room number but we didn't sign the chit before leaving the restaurant so they sent 'room service' up with the bill and doorbelled us out of bed at 10:45 that night to come to the door and sign the check, jeez.
If you stay at the Millenium be aware there are no top sheets on the beds or inside the closet (where they provide a spare blanket), and the duvet is too hot for summer, but the AC is too cold without it. Next time we'll request a sheet before sleeping (and ask there be no room service we haven't requested ourselves).
Travel logistics: The borders were quiet on Friday morning when we made the trip. We left the house at 7:45 and were over the border just after 10:00. it took us half an hour to drive from the Oman border down wadi Jizzi to the Sohar Road, a trip that used to take 45 min on a winding road. At the Buraimi turnoff it takes almost half an hour to reach the triumphal portal on the far side of Sohar and another hour from there to reach Al Sawadi Beach turnoff.
Just beyond the Sohar gate there's a bull fighting grounds just off the road on the beach side that was active at 5:30 on Saturday evening as we were coming back, but I think it might have still been Eid celebration in Oman, probably not a regular occurrence, but something to watch for if in the area on Fridays. Bullfights tend to happen every other week on a Friday.
Heading south from Sohar you eventually come to the Suwaiq roundabout. There is a turning to the right signposted for Rustaq there. It's a back road to Rustaq, not the best way to get there, but a little way up that turning, past where the boulevard ends and where the road curves, the part that goes straight takes you to the Suwaiq motel, a colorful place to stay but potentially noisy. If planning to sleep there, take a fan for white noise to drown out the incessant bass beat (the AC on its own doesn't quite get it), and if diving next day, give yourself an hour for the trip to Al Sawadi Beach Resort.
The next roundabout toward Muscat is Wudum al Sahel, with a gazebo arch in the roundabout. A sign here tells you to go straight for the Millenium Hotel, 16 km. But it's only 10 km or so to the next roundabout where the sign says to turn left for the Millenium Hotel (and it's 5 or 6 km from there). This roundabout is also the northern entrance to the proper loop road that takes you if you turn right there to Rustaq and then eventually brings you back to the highway at Barka past Wadi Bani Khurus, Wadi Bani Awf, Wadi Mistal (Ghubra Bowl and Wakan) and Nakhal, all fascinating places to visit. This roundabout has two boats in it.
If you're staying at the Millenium allow at least half an hour to reach Al Sawadi Beach from the hotel.
Now comes the tricky part getting to the Al Sawadi Beach Resort from the direction of Sohar. The next proper roundabout in the direction of Muscat from the north is Musaneh. There are no signs here but the turning to Al Sawadi beach that used to be halfway down the highway to Barka is no more, and so if you continue south on the main highway you'll pass the spot where the formidable steel guardrail now blocks what used to be your turn, and you must continue another 10 km before you can U-turn at the roundabout at Barka and drive 10 km back on yourself to the turn for Al Sawadi which you still might miss, since it's no longer signposted. If forced to do that look for a Shell station on your right (heading north) and an Arab World Restaurant just after that, and take the next turn which should put you on a street lined with hedgerows that takes you between the Makkah Hypermarket on your right and a Turkish restaurant on your left. That's the road to Al Sawadi.
But to avoid going 20 km out of your way, when you reach the Musaneh Roundabout heading toward Muscat, turn left and then immediately right to get on the slip road going against traffic heading north on the Sohar road. Go slow enough to slow down for unpainted and unmarked speed bumps. You cross a couple of places where there is a turning off the highway and you have to cross those roads, but eventually you'll notice the Makkah Hypermarket ahead of you and you turn left there to get on the road with hedgerows and the Turkish Restaurant on your left.
If you miss that turn you'll come to the Arab World Restaurant and the Shell station just a block later. If you notice them in time, turn left at the street just before the Arab World Restaurant and where it dead-ends turn left again to take you back to the road with hedgerows. I did this myself a couple of times or I wouldn't mention it.
Hope this information is useful to someone (if it is, click on an ad, thanks :-)