Saturday, October 8, 2016

Diving and Snorkeling with Whalesharks in the Daymaniyat Islands, Oman

My logged dives #1499-1502

Last weekend we were planning to go to Oman to dive the Daymaniyat islands. We were hearing all about the whale sharks frolicking there. We had made arrangements to dive and stay there, but then Chris at Nomad told me he was short of staff for Musandam and needed someone to guide a couple of divers who had requested a private guide. It was a long weekend and some of our friends were going as well, but I decided the most correct thing to do would be to repay kindness by responding positively to the request for help, which also came with free diving and accommodation, and postpone the Daymaniyats trip for a week.

So last weekend we ended up in Musandam with decent diving, Bobbi and I limited to 18 meters depth, and every day reading Dro Madery’s descriptions of whaleshark and leopard shark ballets we were missing by not being further south in Oman. To make matters worse, the count of whalesharks sited on Friday was 8, on Saturday, only two, and on Sunday, none - so there were diminishing numbers. Also we met people living in Oman who went there on Monday, which was their National Day holiday, and saw no whalesharks. So there was no guarantee when our weekend finally came around that we would see anything of phenomenal interest, and we tried not to get our hopes up. We decided just to stick to plan and let whatever happened happen.

The weather, fine the weekend before all over Oman and UAE, seemed to be deteriorating. On Tuesday it poured down rain in Al Ain, flooding parking lots. It was still cloudy on Wednesday and on our way into Oman and down past Sohar on the way to Muscat, our windshield wipers were warding off occasional rain squalls. We almost didn't stop off at our favorite Kashmiri roadside restaurant along the way for our favoritely delicious chicken karai and dhal, since it was raining as we approached, but the rain let up just as we arrived at the spot so we stopped after all and ate outside, moving under the awning to avoid the slight sprinkle.

We were heading for Seeb,about a 4 hour drive from our house in Al Ain (plus time for border crossing). It was no longer raining  when we reached there and pulled into the Eastin Residences, which turned out to be a reasonably nice hotel for half the price of where we’d be staying the next night at Civil Aviation Club on the beach at Seeb behind the airport. The CAC had the advantage though of being where the dive center was, making driving unnecessary après-plongée with 1-riyal beers ($3) and meals al fresco at the beachfront clubhouse (no more rain that weekend :-).

Our late arrival meant we didn’t get as much sleep at the Eastin as we needed after a hard week at work, but we slept well. We had to get up at 6:30 though to leave by 7, only to discover that it was only half an hour to civil aviation beach, so we were there half an hour early for the 8 a.m. meetup with Global Scuba.

It didn’t take them long to get the handful of divers who turned up for diving onto a boat and on our way to the islands, just half an hour away. We hoped we’d see whale sharks at the surface en route, but we saw none on the way out, that first day, which wasn’t a good sign. As I said, we were bracing ourselves for disappointment. And when we pulled up at the Aquarium, a shallow reef head starting at 5 meters and going down to 30 or deeper off colorful walls, there were several other boats there already. But then our mood soared when we saw a whaleshark surface right near our boat, its fins breaking the surface near some snorkelers. We started to get excited about maybe seeing one while diving after all.

As it turned out, we saw more than one (  -

We entered the water and found it as clear as a swimming pool. We descended right on top of a turtle. Just beyond that, I found a pair of honeycomb morays,  I lifted the camera off them to see divers ahead finning fast and pointing up and out to blue water, and there was our first whale shark. We followed it for a bit and then I panned down to a pair of scorpion fish, and close by a pair of nudibranchs. From there I filmed a placid ball of yellow fish, above which a pair of whalesharks appeared. Everything was coming up pairs on this dive. I videoed the two whalesharks for nearly three minutes before turning back to the reef where Andrew from Poland was photographing a turtle, and dive guide Arif wanted to know how much air we all had.

Next up, more scorpion fish and a rarely encountered banded moray eel. Then we lingered over a wriggling ball of whiskered fish, passed through cuttlefish territory, found another turtle, another fishball, another turtle, a pair of bannerfish, and beyond the fishball another whaleshark. The whaleshark stayed with us for at least 5 minutes (got that much video at any rate).

It was getting time to end the dive, so we made our way up the reef toward the 5 meter shallows, and got close up with a flounder (a.k.a. moses sole). Nearer the top there was another honeycomb moray poking out of a cabbage coral, and more cuttlefish. On our safety stop, 3 minutes at 5 meters on the top of the reef, we found one last turtle, and nearby one last honeycomb moray in a small bommie, with batfish attracted to the same bommie because blue wrasse had set up a cleaning station there. I was about to go up the mooring line but decided to accompany the turtle instead on its way to catch a breath of air. At the surface I looked down to check on my real buddy, and found Bobbi coming to join me not far below.

This was a phenomenal dive. It lasted for an hour on our computers, and the video footage of interesting things to see went on for half that long. The fact that diving of this calibre is so close to home for us is one big reason we have remained in this region for almost 30 years now.

This dive was so great that we decided to do the next one on the Aquarium as well. This time we headed to the south parts of the Aquarium looking for leopard sharks and rays, but saw neither. It was still a good dive. We descended on batfish hanging around the anchor line, found scorpion fish and nudibranchs, lingered over a rock with both scorpions and nudibranchs, came upon a turtle placidly grazing despite photographers, found a lionfish cradled in cabbage coral, explored a fishball, encountered more honeycomb morays and scorpion fish, clouds of fish, and so on.

Saturday, October 8, back to the Aquarium for a whaleshark, then elsewhere for leopard shark

The second day, we returned again to the aquarium. On the way we came across the pod of whalesharks recorded earlier in this post.

Once on the site, descending as before on the 5 meter reef top, we soon came upon one of the turtles grazing there. Just after that we found a sand patch with a couple of large nudibranchs, plus a crocodile fish I wouldn't have spotted except that someone must have disturbed him, since it reflexively moved across the sand and stopped in view of my camera. Passing along a wall, I spotted a pair of scorpion fish that can be hard to see except that these moved further down the wall. Next we saw another big nudibranch on our way to cuttlefish territory. Here my GoPro caught a turtle ascending but changing his mind and leading us on a trip over its cabbage coral patch instead. Maybe he just wanted to show us a honeycomb moray at the edge of the cabbage patch. We soon found more cuttlefish, another moray peeping out of the cabbage, a filefish scurrying across our view, a couple of honeycombs sheltering in small bommies, some darting squids, a cowrie shell with a starfish moving slowly nearby, and a couple of batfish.

Ten minutes into this video I shot a remarkable segment of over 5 minutes of continuous filming. For the first 3 minutes, I start with another pair of cuttlefish. I pan from them to catch a free swimming honeycomb moray writhing gracefully on its search for a hiding place. My camera turns back to the cuttlefish. It seems we've stumbled on their mating grounds, as we see several presenting with their tentacles raised, turning white with excitement. I dwell on one pair who have locked tentacles and are turning into cuddlefish. Next in the same long segment, we see our dive leader Arif give the shark sign, and point just beyond a fishball, which we swim quickly past to spend a splendid two and a half minutes following a cooperative whaleshark. We end the dive with batfish at the safety stop, and a free swimming honeycomb moray sprinting across the top of the reef.

On the last dive of the trip we changed locations to the island just east of three sisters, one whose name Arif said translated to 'big fish'. It started as a fairly normal dive but soon a whaleshark appeared. We found a ray and ended the dive in a resting leopard shark with a honeycomb ray poking out of a nearby rock.

The location of this dive site was I believe the far eastern island on the map below though it could be the one just east of Three Sisters. The far east site is called Hayut, which means 'whale' in Arabic, i.e. a big fish, but this is not what Arif called the site. The map also shows the location of the Aquarium, which is a reef, not an island. I got this map here:

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