SOMETIMES YOU HAVE an image of a place in your mind’s eye.
For us, Oman conjured up stark, gold desert landscapes, shimmering blue water, a minaret soaring above a mosque. And quite honestly we have no idea where that impression came from, because we have seen very little of the Arabian Peninsula.
Oman first hit our radar as a diving destination way back in the 1980s. We met an Omani expat through work, and he proudly showed us a photo of a pretty coral reef with rainbows of soft coral in clear water.
That image was stuck in our heads for a long time, so we were glad when we finally had the chance to turn it into a reality. The funny thing was that as we came into land over Muscat, the mental polaroids proved to be pretty accurate.
The coast around the capital city is dry and flat, while to the south the distant Hajjar Mountains hover beneath a vague purple haze.
The late winter sun was cutting through the early morning as we travelled along the coast to Barka, a town and development area that gives divers easy access to the Daymaniat Islands.
Regarded as the country’s best diving area, nine flat, rocky islands stretch in a chain running east to west and paralleling the coast about 11 miles offshore.
The Daymaniat Islands (aka the Al-Dimaniyat Islands) were designated as a Nature Reserve in 1996, but the reserve is aimed mainly at protecting the populations of birds and nesting turtles.
Walking onshore between dives is quite something, as you share the arid environment with ospreys, terns, reef herons and regal sea eagles, while the sandy beaches reveal tracks of nesting turtles – some old, some as fresh as a night or two ago.
The landside wildlife is only a precursor to what is under water. There are perhaps 25 dives around the craggy and tortuous coastlines. The water is deeper off the northern sides of the various isles, although never much beyond 25m, while sites on the south side are far shallower and better for snorkelling as well as diving, because they notch up a few metres’ depth in places.
Our first dive was a mixture of both styles. Sira is the most easterly dive site, and marked by a few sharp rocks breaking the surface.
We knew that we hadn’t come in peak season, so we were expecting the conditions to be less than idyllic.
All the same, as we rolled back into the water, what we found was a surprise. We bobbed back to the surface gasping at the 21° water (and no, our 5mm suits were certainly not warm enough) before submerging to see what lay below.

THE WATER WAS EMERALD-GREEN, and visibility a mere 3 or 4m, but as we dropped to the shallow seabed, we started to see some great marine life.
The start of the dive involved passing through a channel where there were morays, morays and more morays. The short swim became quite a comedy as, everywhere we looked, there was yet another toothy grin, from honeycomb to yellowmouth to reticulated, then – fantastic! – a zebra moray.
Descending slowly, we reached a fairly barren seabed and found lionfish and clownfish, shrimp/goby partnerships, raggy scorpionfish and an inquisitive cuttlefish that followed us about.
Turning west, the dive changed again. We had reached the ocean side of the island, and the terrain became more dramatic. Aggressive jack were darting through dense schools of variable-striped fusiliers and big-eye snapper, scattering them in different directions.
Later, we decided that Sira had been a microcosm of Daymaniat sites, but the ones we liked most were those along the ocean sides of the islands.
Over the centuries, the sea has sculpted dramatic geography into these submerged reefs, softer rock crumbling away to leave soft coral-clad pinnacles, small caverns and occasional caves.
Garden of Eden on Kasmah Island had the most pronounced wall, and at its base our guide Mauro called us over to see a leopard shark at rest.

MAURO STAYED ON THE SAND for a while before leading us lazily along the wall to admire the endemic Arabian butterflyfish and Arabian angelfish.
At the far end, a flat plateau was carpeted with tiny purple and yellow corals, interspersed with flower and diadema urchins. We bumped into a turtle, but he was quite skittish and disappeared quickly from view.
The dive site most promoted for the area is Aquarium. A long boat ride out from the hotel, this submerged, oval reef deserves to be the best known but sadly, at the time, was also perhaps best avoided.
It’s a favoured site for both its extensive pastel soft corals and a population of seahorses, but during the briefing we were advised that a lot of fishing nets had been seen recently.
These islands are a protected nature reserve, but not a marine reserve.
We were saddened to see so many nets, and the number of red-toothed triggerfish trapped in them. It was a shocking sight, as the reef was full of life, and we were glad when our divemaster, Roshan, diverted our attention to a glamorous Reunion seahorse.
Yet, in contrast to those awful nets, Aquarium was where we had the singular most amazing encounter of the trip. Across the reef on a flat plateau, we met three cuttlefish.
Two males were fighting for the heart of a lone female, tentacles raised in aggression. As we approached, one took advantage of the disturbance and chased the other off, then completely ignored us to mate with the waiting female.
A few moments later, they started to scout the surrounding hard corals, looking for spaces to deposit the eggs.
The activity went on for 10 minutes or so, until a free-swimming honeycomb moray swung through and disturbed the cuttlefish, which disappeared in a cloud of black ink.
Our favourite dive was at Police Run on our last dive day. Typically, the winds dropped, the sun was smiling on us and the water finally cleared to a nice aqua, with around 10m visibility.
Divemaster Denise decided that we simply had to do this site, and she was right. The terrain beneath the surface reflected the twisting shoreline, with lots of outcrops, channels and a fabulous swimthrough beneath the reef wall.
It was shallow, but bursting with dusky sweepers, cardinalfish, bannerfish, young batfish and glowing soft corals.
Outside, the reef surfaces were coated with more yellow and purple soft corals, and we met ever more morays, butterflyfish and some toothy parrotfish munching on the reef.
We emerged from that last dive knowing that the underwater realm hadn’t reflected that photo we had seen 20 years ago, but who knows It could have been taken in a different area.
Still, we were happy to acknowledge that sometimes a destination doesn’t have to live up to preconceived ideas – as long as it gives you something exciting to enjoy, it’s all worthwhile.
It’s worth adding that a day tour of Muscat did live up to the mental Polaroids, which would give us an excuse to go back to Oman and keep hunting for that other underwater realm – as if we needed an excuse.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Oman Air flies overnight from Heathrow to Muscat daily, and allows a very generous 30kg for luggage. It is also possible to fly Emirates, with a brief stop in Dubai, or with Etihad via Abu Dhabi. A visa can be obtained on arrival for 20 Omani rials or US $55, but note that the website for the Oman Embassy in London quotes £12 for advance purchase of a single-entry visa.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION:Extra Divers Al Sawadi Beach Resort is 45 minutes west of the airport in a quiet and isolated position. The resort includes everything you need for a holiday, and is the closest hotel to the Daymaniat Islands. To get about, you will either need to hire a car or take day trips. Extra Divers has good facilities. (www.hotetur.com)
WHEN TO GO:Despite sitting on the edge of the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, the climate in the Gulf of Oman is surprisingly variable. With typical desert contrasts, winters can be much colder than expected and high summer is blistering. Likewise, the water in the winter months can be a chilly 20ºC and visibility as low as 3m. Go in late spring, as the water warms and clears, or autumn, when air temperatures drop again. In March, currents were non-existent, although the winds would increase during the day and the water could be choppy.
MONEY:Omani rials.
LANGUAGE:Most Omanis speak English but most staff working in the tourist industry come from Sri Lanka, India and the Philippines and speak most European languages.
PRICES: Dive Worldwide (www.diveworldwide.com) has one-week package trips including flights on Oman Air, with seven nights’ accommodation with breakfast and dinner, and 10 dives from £1125.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.omantourism.gov.om