It was National Day weekend in the UAE, a long 4-day one for me and Bobbi, and her colleague Bonnie. Bonnie is going to the Maldives with diving friends and wanted to start her PADI open water dive course. The weather in Abu Dhabi for the weekend looked stormy and windy, but WindGuru was showing conditions on the east coast to be placid for Saturday and Sunday, so with all of us including Nicki packed cozily into our Honda MRV/Pilot, we started out at leisure for a long drive Friday afternoon across a rainy Emirates. The drive became longer through a series of mishaps. It was raining hard as we passed by Abu Dhabi airport and we somehow ended on the Suweihan road. We used to reach the Eastern Region this way so we carried on under cloudy skies that alternatively darkened and drenched the desert. Past Dhaid we found lengthy tailbacks approaching Masafi, with too many National Day shoppers crowding the roadside "Friday Market". This brought us to the cement factory near Dibba almost exactly an hour later than we would have arrived had we gone our usual route. By now it was pouring down rain and getting dark. We found the border crowded, chaotic, and uncomfortably lit with vision impaired by headlights in the drizzle, and for the first time ever we were turned back.
Fortunately we knew of accommodation in the residence apartments in Dibba. These had tripled their rates for the weekend but we still found an affordable two bedroom flat in Alia Suites, outside of Dibba for 1000 dirhams a night, or $368 dollars, which made it $40 a night per person, the best deal we would likely get on such short notice on a holiday weekend. Any port in a storm: it was roomy, clean, and comfortable, amazingly had free wifi, and normally would have been a third that price. We catered it with Indian chat and tandoori from Lulu's, and bevvies from our coolbox. We were a positive, compatible group of friends, out for an adventurous long weekend. Anything could happen. We were enjoying ourselves.
Next day was beautiful, clear skies, no trace of the rain the night before apart from puddles in the road and wadis. Nicki made us all filter coffee and we turned up at Freestyle divers at 9 a.m., on spec, and found that their one boat was doing Dibba Rock shuttle service the two days we would be there. This was ideal for dive training. Freestyle Divers is on the premises of Royal Beach resort, there is a pool there we can use for dive training, and with three rides a day out to Dibba Rock, there are many options for blending ocean diving with confined water.
Bonnie had completed the PADI eLearning course online, so we got her started in the pool. The way the course works, after the initial pool session, dive students are ready to try out the ocean, and the first dive of the course is FUN, no skills allowed. Bonnie did great in the pool and ocean despite strong currents as we tried to find our way along the reef that has all but disappeared.
Air temperatures early December in Dibba were balmy, but the ocean was a cool 25 degrees centigrade. Bonnie had rented a 3 mm wetsuit, and Nicki lent her a hoodie to augment that, but the rest of us were diving in 5 mm suits. We were dropped in at the aquarium where all the fishes are, and though we had to fin a little into the current rounding the island from the channel, it was not difficult at that point. There are masses of fish in the aquarium, always captivating with clouds of snappers covering the rocks, punctuated by the occasional silver trevally, rainbow wrasse, and puffer fishes riding high above the fray. We found a little torpedo ray that followed us around like a puppy dog, and we showed it a flounder we found in the sand there (the moses sole).
From the aquarium I tried to lead us onto the reef, identifiable from its loud clacking. I think I took us beyond it, looking for sharks which we can sometimes see there, and at its southern end Bonnie surfaced and we drifted a little to the east, but when we got back down and finned north, we found ourselves on the raspberry coral at the eastern end of the L which is a good place for turtles. We had welcomed a 5th diver into our group, Andrew Roughton, he had a camera, and he snapped this picture of the turtle we found there.
If there had been no current we could have gone back west to the right angle of the L and followed it back north to return to the aquarium, but there was no way. The current was too strong, so I indicated we move to the north toward the rock. Nicki and Bobbi duly complied and soon disappeared to the north, while Bonnie and I found it easier to go with the current from where we were, and Andrew, coming behind, followed us. The current guided us gently over some more raspberry coral patches like those in the photo, where we found cuttlefish, and some rock bommies where batfish lived. Bonnie was curious about the sea cucumbers, and people in Hawaii do worse to them than just touch them (they put them on rocks to make them eviscerate and show their kids) so I picked one up and handed it to her underwater. They feel soft and squishy if you're expecting something else. At 50 min on my dive computer and surfaced with Bonnie. It was a nice dive. Bonnie logged it on FaceBook:
That afternoon Bonnie and I returned to the pool and finished all of her remaining pool modules. We had changed to Lycra for this, perfect for the warm pool, but cold each time we had to come back to the pool deck and brief the next module and change tanks.
Next day we returned to Freestyle, this time to dive on their 9 o'clock boat, which didn't get away until after ten, which provided ample time for Bonnie to get her equipment set up and sorted, and in the end we were on the boat awaiting others. Unfortunately Bonnie had made a tactical error in purchasing what she thought was a copy of the mask she had been renting, but which in the ocean turned out to be too big for her. This delayed her descent until Phil on the boat offered to lend her his. It was the same model, but again just different enough that it fit her, and she and I were able to get down and dive together. The others had gone off already to dive the back side of the island.
Andrew took this picture of Bonnie on her first day of diving
There's really nothing worse for a beginning diver than a mask problem. The diver can't see properly and takes in water. The diver is not experienced enough to know what s/he is doing wrong, and it compounds anxieties. I had tried tightening the strap and defogging it with spit, but there was no way around the ill fit. But when Phil provided his mask Bonnie was at least able to come long and enjoy the dive. We started in the aquarium as we had the day before. There was only a hint of current, so I led us onto the coral reef we had been looking for the day before. Today I was able to pretty much follow the reef, where we found a couple of cuttlefish that I moved my hand near, so they would back off iridescent. The current was more noticeable there so I turned us back north to regain the calm of the aquarium, but it was a stiff fin into current on a north compass heading to get us into the lee of the island where the current slackened, and Bonnie was doing well to keep up. We had gone now to almost ten meters which made me realize we were getting swept a little off the rock, so I followed the contour east and found a small school of large barracuda lurking. We swam close to those, and found batfish nearby, and I was of two minds whether to go south to back to the aquarium or continue around the back of the island. We passed under the shadow of a boat and Bonnie signaled she wanted to ascend, so we came up 35 min. into the dive.
Bobbi and Nicki were enjoying their dive as well, finding morays and pipe fish on the back side, and being dogged as usual by the playful torpedo ray. Dibba Rock appears in the good vis we had today to be making a comeback from the twin hits of cyclone Gonu and prolonged red tide, plus harbor and villa construction up and down the coast there. Bonnie decided to return later to complete here course, and no one was that excited about Dibba Rock to go again that day, so we made an early return to Abu Dhabi, arriving just in time so see the precision flyers in acrobatic formation off the corniche, after two fun days out in a beautiful country celebrating its 41st national day that weekend.