Saturday, May 28, 2011

May 27-29, 2011 UAE East Coast - Dibba and Khor Fakkan

My logged dives #1045-1048

Godelieve and Rossane wanted to dive with Bobbi and I this weekend. Chris had booked his Nomad hostel out completely to a large French group and there was no room at the inn for us this weekend, nor space on his dive boats going to Musandam, and Godelieve had never been to Khor Fakkan, so Bobbi and I decided to revisit our favorite dive sites there and see how the fishes had survived the triple whammies of Cyclone Gonu, the months-long red tide epidemics, and more recently the spate of hotel and harbor constructions taking place all along the east coast of the UAE.

It's still a beautiful area, relaxing, moves to a rhythm all its own, and all your own if you make it so. Our rhythm is to sleep to a normal hour on Friday, our first weekend day off, which for us means waking up when the sun rises and lying around till the early sunlight tells us it's 5:30 or 6:00, then getting up and checking email, watching the news on TV while packing our dive gear and clothes for the weekend, fetching the car from overnight parking across the road, loading it up and being away by 8:30 for an 11:30 arrival in Dibba. Lulu is our first stop there, the new hypermarket that has become the focal point of Dibba cuisine. There we could get tasty tiny round pizzas for a dollar apiece, spicy chicken and prawn, watermellon and grapes for a pittance, cold fresh juices, and still arrive at the dive center at noon for their 12:30 dive.

Which turned out in typical Freestyle rhythm to be an after 1 pm dive, but ma'alesh, we had little else to do that day than kit up and wait and get on the boats, and then into the water for an hour's cool relaxation, then back on shore, repeat, add water, relax.

We were told we should have been there last weekend. Everyone was telling us vis had been 20 meters, plenty of animals around, ideal conditions. For our first dive we put in on the right side mooring south east of the island and set our course west in slack current to meander among the coral bommies in shallow water near the island. Surge was a problem and vis was disappointing, but we still enjoyed schools of fish, a lone batfish under a rock, shoals of snappers and jacks criss crossing one another as we dropped into the aquarium, big lumbering porcupine fish moving in close out of curiosity, parrotfish, fusiliers, etc.

From the aquarium I headed back west toward the loud clacking which intensified as we moved in over the coral rubble where the beautiful reef used to be with its sharks and devil rays, undoubtedly the best diving I ever did in the UAE, and certainly the most consistently best including there and Musandam. But that was back when Terry was alive. Now it's sad that Terry and the reef as it was are both gone.

But the reef is bouncing back in one place, if you follow it south from near the aquarium and if you can find where it turns east (hard to do in bad vis, just possible on our noon dive today) you come upon a patch of purple raspberry coral that's pretty like it used to be. But at noon today there were no sharks or turtles on it. When I found it I circled it looking for critters, but apart from healthy reef fish, nothing caught our attention. Eventually we reversed and retraced over the barren parts, and then our time was up and we surfaced.

The 3 pm dive, which got going at around 4 (good to see that some traditions are honored ;-), was not as easy as the first. We had planned to go around to the back side of the island on this dive but when we arrived at the south east corner mooring, conditions had changed and there was a stiff current that would prevent us getting to the back side that way. The current was so bad that when Godelieve and Rossane entered the water they got carried astern and would not have been able to reach us at the bow line except that I yelled for a line to be thrown to them, and to his credit Terry's son Andy had one tied to a buoy and tossed it astern and recovered our divers. Bobbi meantime had descended to await us out of the surface current, and shortly we joined her by pulling ourselves down the rope against the current.

We retraced our steps from morning but this time had to fin toward our right in order to avoid being swept off course. We passed the same coral, with some effort to keep our path through it (the batfish was still there :-). Vis had got worse so at the aquarium it wasn't as attractive as earlier but here at least we were in the lee of the island and had some relief from the current, so were were able to find our way to the back side that way. We entered though thermoclines of bracingly cold water. I was wearing just lycra and a rash vest, Bobbi had on her shorty, and we were cold. At depth, just 12-13 meters, we went out a little into the sand but not so far where there would be rays because the current went against us when we left the shelter of the wall of boulders. We found morays in the wall but turned back when the current started to push us back even there.

We were picking our way back over these boulders when I saw a flash of grey and black streak and realized a black tip reef shark was passing. I wheeled after it, and Rossana just 12 years old, was right at my shoulder trying to keep up with it. Recharged now, we resumed our heading back to the aquarium, but Godelieve had put weight in her pocket and it had slipped out. I saw her and Rossana suface, nothing we could do, so Bobbi and I carried on and saw a second shark as we were coming back on the aquarium. Pushing up against our allotted hour we passed over the clacking reef rubble and I saw a third shark right about where it should be. Bobbi missed that one, and our time was now up, but we surfaced thinking that a mundane and almost unpleasant dive had been rendered almost exciting simply with the appearance of our favorite inhabitants of our once favorite reef.

Back on shore Andy and his staff were offering beer and making the motions of preparing barbeque, but the Royal Beach Hotel where the shop is prefers to keep prices high (800 for a single bedroom) and endure less than full occupancy rather than offer dive packages that would allow divers to stay on the premises, so it's hard to accept hospitality from the dive shop when we have to not only drive into Dibba, but check into our accommodation there as well. Two bedrooms at Seaside Apts where we stay (not by the sea, they always remind us, when we call there), with kitchen with microwave for heating up the interesting Indian dishes we can buy at Lulu's, is only 330 in May, or 82.50 each for four people. I hope Andy can restore the social scene at Freestyle though. We would like to have stayed with them, but logistically it was too difficult, with Godelieve having to cook special pasta to feed Rosanna, and everyone being tired and not wishing to drive on UAE roads under the influence.

Before we departed we learned that their Musandam trip that day had encountered 2 whalesharks (they're back!) but we had arranged to dive Inchcape 2 and Martini Rock next day with Divers Down. We had selected that over a trip with Brian and Tatsiana at Neptune Divers, who were going to Musandam on Saturday, but we were going to Khor Fakkan.

So no more about that (but checking old dive logs, lots of whaleshark sightings in May and June, this one in 2003:; and these just last year for example:
Anyway, we turned up at Divers Down well before we needed to be there. They were just setting up shop at the Miramar, on the same beach as the Meridien Al Aqah, from where Al Boom sends boats daily to the sites were were planning to dive. Must say Divers Down agreed to my exact requests for dive sites, which was why we chose them, and the boat was ours apart from an open water course being run from it, whose divers were not diving the same dives we were. But we still had to share those sites with the hoards from Al Boom's boats.

The dives were nice, though we were going through motions of previous dives Bobbi and I had done dozens of times before, but like everything else in the UAE, the dives were not like before. The Inchape 2 is the wreck in 22 meters near Martini Rock. It's got a lot of animals on it, writhing with morays, and surely much else, though most of the life on it today was human. We had planned a dive as in the old days. Descend on the wreck and for Rosanna who had no computer, understand from the wheel that she could spend 30 min max at 22 meters, then ten minutes at 16, and then exhaust the tank for as long as it takes at 12 (the dive would be 37 minutes NDL at 22 meters if diving on tables). In the event we had circumnavigated the wreck in the sand, done a tour of the decks, and even investigated the holds with overhead escape access, acquainting ourselves with most of the morays in the process, in the first 20 min of the dive, at which point we headed off on phase 2, a 240 degree compass course in the sand about 5 min to the wall of boulders. The plan here was to find jawfish in the sand just short of those boulders. There were none that we could find. There were more morays in the rocks, but when we turned the corner into the bay to the north of the wall, the rust and blue corals were there, but nothing much to write home about. Nice dive, but not like in the past.

We motored over to Martini where bananas, watermellon, and oranges were laid out for us and we enjoyed a surface interval in warm but overcast May conditions. Our dive on Martini rock was again cold though. Too cold. The purple and white soft corals were there, and very beautiful. Morays were plentiful. But not much else. I scoured the rocks for scorpion fish. They used to be everywhere on this dive. We used to see turtles and honeycomb morays. On this dive today, we encountered mostly Al Boom divers and reef fish. It was pretty but pretty cold too. We're waiting now on the reports from Musandam of whale shark sightings :-(

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