|LOADING UP THE BOAT at Pavilion Dive Centre, it is very obvious that I am in Dubai. Its not just the desert heat, its the Burj Al Arab Hotel on the opposite side of the marina - the big, white, sail-shaped seven-star tower that has become an icon of the region.
Departure is delayed. There is a problem with one of the outboards on the large boat. We had been planning to dive a pair of offshore wrecks, the Neptune and the Anchor Barge, but after an hour it becomes apparent that the outboard needs some parts. So we pile into the small boat for a local dive on the Cement Barge.
At only 9m to the seabed and just a couple of miles along the coast, this is the regular training site. The wreck is an 82ft lighter that foundered in 1971, overloaded with 1200 tons of cement destined for a hotel further along the beach. Some of the regular divers groan, but then smile as Ernst tells them that because the main dive was delayed, then cancelled, this is a freebie.
I am philosophical. Its a wreck. I havent dived it before. The guide book says it has lots of fish on it. Lets dive!
Before rolling in, I can already see batfish gathering in the shade beneath the boat. Visibility isnt stunning at 8-10m but its better than average for an inshore dive, especially with extensive dredging for artificial islands further along the coast (see News).
At the stern, I am immediately surrounded by blue and yellow Arabian angelfish. Despite the name, they are not an endemic species. I have seen them in ones and twos in the Red Sea and off Africas east coast. But these are whole families, and the largest fish are at least three times bigger and fatter than I have seen before.
Below deck there are a few holes to explore, behind the engine and along the sides of the holds, either side of stacked cement sacks. Anywhere sheltered reveals a writhing mass of fish which parts begrudgingly as I swim through.
Beneath the bow, the hull has broken open to make a steel cave, again filled with fish. I move into the middle and chill out. The fish get used to me and carry on with their fishy lives.
A day later, the errant outboard is fixed and the big boat heads out for another pair of offshore wrecks, some 40 miles west from the marina.
The Persian Gulf is a shallow dip in the desert, rarely deeper than 100m. Except for a few rocky islands, all the diving is on wrecks, which you may or may not appreciate. On the positive side, even wrecks this far offshore are within easy diving depth.
A couple of hours later, the search for the Ludwig begins. The dive centre has not been here before so the numbers are uncertain. An hour on the echo sounder reveals not a sausage.
Its a disappointment but not a disaster. The Ludwig is one of three similar 1200 ton tankers sunk by the Emirates armed forces for target practice within a few miles of each other. Pavilion has visited the other two before and their positions are in the GPS. At Lion City, the echo shows straight away, rising 5-6m from a 26m seabed.
I drop from the line as soon as I see the starboard side of the wreck below, and drift out among a shoal of barracuda. Perhaps I should have stayed on the line, because after the dive I discover that the divers behind me met a sea snake following the line up.
Back on the wreck, I have a look round the superstructure before settling in with a shoal of co-operative batfish beneath one of the boat davits.
Film mostly gone, I drag myself away and follow the catwalk to the bow, or rather, I follow a writhing, elongated shoal of snapper that has swallowed most of the catwalk.
The wreck of the Jasim is similarly easy to find and hook, the boat tying off while everyone relaxes, gorging on fresh fruit. The two-hour surface interval soon passes and were back in the warm bathwater of the Persian Gulf.
The Jasim appears to have landed upright but then broken to starboard just above its engine. The superstructure looks as intact as Lion Citys, but further forward the wreck is a mess.
Having concentrated on batfish on the previous dive, this time I explore the wreck a bit more, in and out of the cabins, above the engine and beneath the stern. I meet James cutting away sections of a fishing net that is still ghost-fishing, judging by all the live and dead fish trapped in it.
There is too much to clear it all, so I settle for cutting a couple of angelfish free and creating windows where the net crosses openings in the wreck. James gathers chunks of loose net and twirls it into tangles that fish can see and avoid.
Usually my overseas trips for are organised by a tour operator, a dive centre or a tourist board, but James Edward is an independent instructor in the UAE and put the whole project together, with the support of dive centres each providing a few days diving, and Scuba Dubai, the UAEs major equipment retailer, which sponsored my flight.
Diving is a thriving leisure activity in the Emirates, both among resident expatriates and locals, and, like divers everywhere, its exponents enthuse about their local diving. Tourist divers are part of the scene but in a minority.
The Emirates Diving Association invites me to a traditional dinner. The EDA is divings governing body, borne from the traditional pearl-diving industry. Nowadays the directors include locals from all backgrounds who have fallen for diving as a leisure activity.
As we sit on the carpet eating dishes of meat, rice and vegetables with our hands, conversation proceeds in a mixture of Arabic and English, with those who speak better English helping to translate. The Arabic is much softer than I am used to.
The EDA is becoming increasingly environmental. A marine biologist is employed to manage fish and coral-monitoring programmes. Educational programmes promote eco-awareness and discourage spearfishing and littering. Clean-ups have been organised, artificial reefs sunk and marine reserves are on the way.
They still occasionally pearl-dive, using traditional techniques, not because there is any economic value in it, but because it is part of their heritage. Historically, these are people of the desert and the sea.
With many more wrecks to go in the Persian Gulf, its with some reluctance that I pull myself out of bed for an early start and a drive across the country to Khor Fakkan, part of the Sharjah emirate on the Gulf of Oman coast.
Geography in this corner of Arabia is confusing. When the UK pulled out in 1971, the seven emirates were too small to survive as individual countries and worked together to form the UAE. It is generally geographically contiguous, but each emirate owns areas of land here, there and everywhere.
Thats why Khor Fakkan on the east coast is part of Sharjah, even though this emirates main city is north of Dubai on the west coast.
We begin a few miles north of Khor Fakkan with the wreck of a small 58 ton service boat, Inch Cape 2, sunk as an artificial reef. I can barely see the wreck for the shoal of snapper that engulfs it like a giant amoeba.
There are only four of us, taking turns to dive in pairs. Any more and such a small wreck would have been overcrowded. As it is, the effect is magic.
The magic continues at Martini Rock, a similar distance to the south of Khor Fakkan. Save for a patch of bare rock at the top, the entire reef is covered in a forest of purple teddy-bear soft corals.
You have to be there to appreciate this magic, because lit by a camera flash the coral becomes bright red. Additional light does wonders for everything else in the picture, but those walls of soft coral look better in the original blue light.
Come the weekend and 7-Seas Divers boat is full. Weekends in the UAE fall on Thursday and Friday and this one is extra busy, with a public holiday for the prophet Mohammeds birthday.
Dive-centre owner Mohammed is running the boat. He arrives every weekend from Abu Dhabi, where he has some other job that no one really understands. Everyone congratulates him on his birthday.
Following a first dive at Martini Rock again, the cooler box is opened and the usual fresh fruit cut and distributed. Ã’Fresh from my fathers farm,Ã“ jokes Mohammed. Mineral water is handed round. Ã’Fresh from my fathers well,Ã“ he says.
Second dive for everyone else is in the shallows at Shark Rock, named for the blacktip reef sharks that can be found right in the shallows at one end of the small island, more often by snorkellers than by divers.
I have already dived here, so I am dropped further offshore in the Gardens. I amble into a forest of gorgonians, yellow-green soft corals and sea pens on a sandy seabed, trusting a compass bearing as there is no appreciable slope to the sand. I pause to ask directions from a bright green spotted moray, but he is no help.
Forty minutes or so later, I am beginning to have doubts about my compass when another huge shoal of snapper pulses in front of me, spreading in all directions seemingly as far as the surface 20m above. As I swim forward, the shoal parts to reveal an escarpment of rock.
I move up to decompression depth in the shallows. Familiar rock formations reassure me that my compass is accurate and that I have not swum all the way to Pakistan. The boat is above, with the last of the divers just entering the water.
Drinking laws vary between the emirates. Sharjah is dry, so Mohammed invites everyone to Ilyas villa in Fujairah, the next emirate to the north.
Ilya used to work as a dive guide, until someone offered him a job running an ostrich farm. Now he looks after the birds and occasionally teaches Russian tourists to dive.
We drink cans of beer by the poolside. The sound of cows on steroids being strangled comes from the darkness but I learn that this is the noise ostriches make. Dinner is an Arab style take-away - spicy barbecued chicken and other meat, humous and chopped salad. Special birthday dinner, cooked in my fathers restaurant, says Mohammed.
Returning to the confusing subject of local geography, the Persian Gulf is separated from the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean by the Strait of Hormuz.
To the north of the strait is Iran, to the east Pakistan. The tip of Arabia that forms the southern edge of the Strait is the Musandam Peninsula. By a quirk of local politics, this is actually part of Oman, the main part of which borders the UAE to the south-east.
The only practical way to dive there is by liveaboard. We drive north to the port of Dibba in the Fujairah emirate, just south of the mountains and the border with Oman and the Musandam.
The Charlotte Anne has to stay clear of the quay while a tanker docks. In the desert heat, I try to find shade behind the car while getting to know the other divers. Musandam diving is something they all rave about. Mountains rising straight from the sea, inaccessible by land, strong currents and complicated inlets reminiscent of Scandinavian fjords. Its the isolated bit of Arabia that Slartibartfast designed while practising for Africa.
With the tanker secured against the quay, the Charlotte Anne carefully backs into the gap between the stern of the tanker and rows of traditional fishing dhows.
The line-up provides a remarkable contrast. The scabby tanker looks ready to become another wreck, like the Jasim or Lion City. The dhows are colourful and charismatic, but obviously working fishing boats. Between them the Charlotte Anne is an item of classic boating beauty and desire.
A lovingly restored traditional wooden working boat, superficially similar to a trawler, it is in fact a Danish Arctic survey vessel built in 1949. In places the oak hull is 60cm thick.
Its a relief to be at sea. The air is still hot and dry, though now with a refreshing breeze across the deck as we chug north into the growing darkness.
We navigate into a black inlet for the night with naval precision, skipper and owner Chris Hurndall moving from deck to radar to GPS then chart table as one of the crew steers to his directions. I am unsurprised to learn that Chris used to captain a submarine in the Royal Navy.
Having the right contacts from his Navy days proves useful. The Musandam is one of those annoying places that falls on the join between three charts, but Chriss friends at the Hydrographic Office have printed him a one-off chart covering the coastline of the entire peninsula.
Some of the dive sites are featured in the Underwater Explorer guide book, while others are Chriss own discoveries. Its at one such site that I see the only genuine coral reef of the trip. I have seen sprigs of hard coral on wrecks and rocky reefs, and plenty of soft corals, but in this small bay everything from 15m to the surface is solid coral, in all its splendour.
Checking the guide book, a few other locations with full coral reefs are listed. Elsewhere in the world, water as warm as it gets here would bleach coral to death, yet here it survives.
A dive that does feature in the guide book is Octopus Rock. One reason for the name is the obvious one, and the other is that below the surface the reef spreads out a number of arms. We arrive nicely timed for slack water. Above 7m the water is clear and like a hot bath. Below the thermocline, a merely warm bath feels cold by comparison, but visibility is limited by a plankton bloom.
On the plus side, this could be why the gorgonians are so dense and there are so many fish everywhere. I look under rocks for signs of eight-limbed sea creatures but without luck. There are too many hiding places.
Octopus Rock sets the scene for the type of diving to follow, as Giftun Wall would set the scene for any Red Sea reef, or Eddystone for any reef in south-west England. With the pattern of marine life established, its the scenery and chance encounters that make individual dives so rewarding.
At Ras Mirovia, a narrow hourglass cleft full of batfish and angelfish leads right back into the rock. Later, as I round the end of the island, white bones in the shallows turn out to be a turtle skeleton.
A broken headland at Ras Sarkan provides boulder caves, sting rays, lionfish and an enormous shoal of parrotfish.
I keep an eye out into the blue. Water conditions are ideal for manta rays and whale sharks, both of which I am told have been spotted on previous Musandam trips. The most likely location for big animal encounters is Lima Island.
Having explored down the wall and through some canyons, I hang out from the meeting of the slope and the drop-off, just above the thermocline in 7-8m.
I see no big critters, but do have fun with a shoal of barracuda on a patrol pattern that passes every few minutes, and a smaller shoal of trevally on a longer route.
We finish a final dive in some caves at Khormala, where at low water the tender drives right into the largest cave to drop us off. Even at liveaboard dive pace, two days have enabled us to journey only halfway up the Musandam.
Oh, for a chance to get all the way to the Strait of Hormuz and those screaming currents!
Heading back into Dibba, the wind picks up from the west. Chris warns that he may not be able to back the Charlotte Anne to the quay, and to be prepared to ferry everything ashore in the tender. More worrying for me is the prospect of diving in the Persian Gulf being blown out.
The first of these problems is resolved as Chris backs the Charlotte Anne in with characteristic precision.
Unfortunately, the second problem of heavy seas on the west coast means that a dive on a 320,000 ton supertanker has to be cancelled.
While the diving so far has been good, this is the dive I have been anticipating the most. Sharjah Wanderers BSAC club planned to take me to the stern section of the Energy Determination, which exploded and caught fire in the Strait of Hormuz in 1979. The blazing tanker was towed clear of the shipping lanes before the stern broke off and sank, the bow section being saved, then scrapped.
The wreck now rises from 80 to 25m in an aggressive current and is reported to be heaving with fish.
So much for the wreck I didnt dive. James makes some calls and the Dubai Sports Diving Club, another BSAC branch, invites me to join it to dive the Innis, a much smaller tanker, from the marina at Fujairah on the east coast. I am not surprised to learn that the city of Fujairah is actually to the south of Khor Fakkan.
I planned to dive the Energy on air, but have no such luxury with the Innis, which rises just 10m from a 70m seabed. My saviour is Bill who, having moved on to an Inspiration rebreather, lends me his twin-set and stage cylinders.
The plankton clears on the way down, somewhere between 40 and 50m. Once on the wreck it is reasonably clear, but not that bright.
The Innis is a small coastal tanker similar to the Lion City or Jasim. She sank some time during the 1980s, following an explosion somewhere near the bow, and rests upside-down, slightly canted to port, with the partly crushed superstructure holding the stern clear of the seabed.
With a few minutes spent on the descent and 20 minutes planned dive time, there is just time enough to see both the bow and the stern, with a few diversions into holes.
There isnt much life growing on the wreck, just hydroids and a few small soft corals. Shoals of tiny glassfish fill every hole and overhang. Larger fish are limited to grouper hiding beneath the deck and a pair of trevally passing in the distance.
As I begin my ascent, my now dark-adjusted eyes spot a sting ray on the sand below, then at the 9m stop a small manta does a half-circle before resuming its course. Perhaps it is heading north to the Musandam.
|Dive boat in the marina in Dubai, with the Burj Al Arab hotel in the background |
|Cuttlefish at Shark Island in Sharjah |
|Porcupine pufferfish at Martini Rock, also in Sharjah |
|Snapper inside the wheelhouse of the Inch Cape 2 at Khor Fakkan, Sharjah. |
|Hawkfish and... |
|moray eel, both at Shark Island |
|Propeller of the Jasim in Dubai |
|Snapper in a cave at Khormala in the Musandam |
|Fusiliers, damselfish and soft corals at Lima Island, Oman |
|The Charlotte Anne at anchor |
GETTING THERE: John Liddiard flew from Heathrow with Emirates, www.emirates.com.
DIVING: Diving Unlimited, www.divingunlimited.biz. Pavilion Dive Centre, www.jumeirahinternational.com/diving.7 Seas Divers, www.7seasdivers.com. Charlotte Anne, www.charlotteannecharters.com. Scuba Dubai, www.scubadubai.com.
WHEN TO GO: Avoid the summer months, which are just too hot. For non-divers: Duty-free shopping, sunshine.
CURRENCY: Dirham, about Dir 7 to the£1.
COSTS: Standard scheduled flights are about£600 although, as with all flights, shopping around for discounts could halve this. A twin room for seven nights ranges from£175 in town to more than£2000 in some of the prestigious beach hotels. Diving costs around£26 for two dives.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Emirates Diving Association, www.emiratesdiving.com. Underwater Explorer by Carole Harris & Tony Schroder, www.explorer-publishing.com
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