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September 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 32, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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MV Saman Explorer, Oman, Arabian Sea

hot, damned hot; dives with highs and lows

from the September, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

Twenty surface marker buoys popping up around the boat in the early morning were a sure sign that a checkout dive in view of the Mirbat Marriott was going on. Again it immediately showed, "German sausages" are the longest. It had been an inauspicious start.

Oman's Typical CoastlineThough three turtles passed by in the milky water, during the checkout dive, there wasn't much else to see on the sandy bottom, so my buddy -- we had selected each other after the first briefing -- and I cruised around under the boat to get acquainted with each other. Simultaneously, we spotted a dive computer sticking out of the sand. I picked it up -- a brand-new one. A diver had dropped it when jumping in, but never noticed it missing until she was back on board. Hallelujah for her. But, never even noticed she was missing a computer on a checkout dive?

The next dive, as soon as the rundown Zodiac was loaded, the guide pointed excitedly at the water. I saw gray with white spots and splash -- I hit the water, nothing there. Guests from the other Zodiac followed suit, and one guy landed right above the whale shark. The whale shark was a good omen for me.

This was my third trip to the Gulf of Oman -- Iran is on the eastern side -- and this time I was aboard the Saman Explorer for a 10-day cruise in May from Mirbat (near Salalah) to Muscat in Oman. Having once toured the Red Sea, she's an older lady with a 110-foot (34m) steel hull and a 30-foot (9m) beam. Though they said she was hauled and refurbished in 2015, she showed wear and tear, such as rusty patches on her hull and A/C water dripping from the ceiling into the lounge. The 20 guests hailed from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Britain.

The Saman Explorer offered three dives a day, plus occasional night dives. The dive deck, with a proper wooden floor, had plenty of space for each diver and his or her tank, with a personal storage box underneath the bench. The friendly crewmembers -- Omanis and Egyptians who spoke English -- were always right there if I needed a hand doffing or donning gear or climbing into the dinghy. Rinse tanks and a fresh-water shower are on the lower platform; we were urged to go easy to conserve fresh water.

On the second morning dive at the Halaniyat Islands, with a strong upcurrent, we dropped straight off the boat to 50 feet (15m), where a big stingray lay in a sandy valley between boulders. Around me cruised medium-sized groupers, while fusiliers, spadefish, goatfish, filefish, batfish, and sweetlips provided a rainbow of color. Honeycomb morays peered from their hiding places. After swimming over two leopard rays, we spotted a huge grouper. As planned during our briefing, the group surrounded it, slowly tightening the circle. Trying to escape, it went from one diver to the next giving the chance of great shots; then, it angrily shot between two of us and disappeared. We continued cruising in the 65-foot (20m) visibility, encountering a leopard shark in a coral tunnel. Surely an excellent dive? Back at the dinghy, the dive guide easily pulled himself up on the Zodiac, then pulled in the rest of us like sacks of potatoes.

Dive guides Karem and Timo thoroughly briefed us before dives and underwater were at good pointing out animals. My buddy and I, diving nitrox, could dive our own profile for longer than an hour. Viz usually ran about 30 feet (10m), sometimes better, and water ranged from 79F (26C) up to a coral-killing 91F (33C), not the least bit refreshing. Contrast that with shocking thermoclines as low as 72F (22C).

Oman - MapThe next day, I grumpily rose with the 5:30 a.m. wakeup call, early to let us get in three dives before a long haul eastward. On my first dive, I thought my computer was haywire when it showed the water at 91F (33C), but I could feel the heat. We cruised around boulders and canyons at 65 feet (20m), and great schools of mixed species -- sweetlips, snappers, fusiliers and so on were everywhere. A huge turtle, her back covered in algae, rested under a pinnacle, and then cruised around our group. When one diver stuck a GoPro Hero on a stick into her face, she tried to bite it. At times, the currents were mean and tricky.

In the afternoon, we followed the guide to a canyon and tunnel between trucksized boulders, with beautiful soft coral around the entry. One-by-one we passed through, with the fins from the diver ahead in my face and the diver behind pushing. Outside, swarms of colorful reef fish were in water so clear I could see the Explorer on the surface. As soon as we left the boulder, a stiff current hit us headon. I kicked deep down, watching the safety rope running from a rock to the Explorer on the surface, then followed it. I had to kick hard back to the boat, frantically grabbing a dangling weighted rope for the safety stop. Breathing fast, I took extra time to slow my pulse. Truth is, I love challenging dives!

Often, I had a beautiful dive where I became euphoric, followed by poorer dives not worth jumping in for. In fact, about 75 percent were "soup dives," typical for the Oman.

MV Saman ExplorerThe air-conditioned cabins have two bunks -- one on each side -- a private head and shower, and plenty of storage. There are six double cabins on the lower deck plus four and a master cabin on the upper deck, dive deck plus lounge and kitchen on main deck. Most of us gathered on the upper deck, where there are love cushions, chairs, and a small bar and fridge, for after-dive conversations. Some guys even slept above on the sun deck. I found a small place at the bow where I did my reading and enjoyed the night sky.

The crew made it interesting by adding exploratory dives, some in cool water (72F, 22C) with little to see. However, Shab Kaydah showed Oman at its best. We securely anchored in a strong current, and after a short Zodiac ride, the first group was dropped at the buoy marking our anchor. As the second group motored out, three worried divers hung on the anchor rope, bouncing up and down in a heavy swell before they let go and drifted back to the Saman Explorer, aborting their dive. Below, in the murky 16-foot (5m) visibility, huge schools of barracuda and jacks sauntered by, but photos were impossible. I saw two electric rays, a leopard shark, and clouds of fusiliers. Great fish life, but it needed clearer conditions for photography.

Rating for Saman Explorer, OmanAt the Cement wreck, I slowly descended, my eye on a gray shadow underneath the wreck. An enormous, nearly seven-foot (2m) guitar ray slowly lifted off the sand. For a while, I kicked around looking at flounder, but when I tried to get my bearings, all I saw was sand, no lines, and no wreck. I had not checked my compass, and to my disgrace -- hey, I've made 1900 dives -- I had to surface and determined we were only a few meters from the wreck. Back on it, schools of puffer and boxer held family meetings, while rays, jacks, fusiliers, guitar rays, cuttlefish, crocodile and scorpion fish, and many more species stood out in the good visibility. Some divers even encountered a whale shark. Pieces of fishing net hung in several places, a hiding place for some fish, and a deadly trap for others. And an urchin was a painful trap for me, as I inadvertently put down my hand to steady myself, resulting in 15 little black punctures. Damn, that hurt.

After motoring closer to the mainland, we anchored in one of the "Norway Fjords" and dove along walls with beautiful yellow and purple soft coral, but viz again was only passable. The water here was 91F (33C), but air temperatures, with the desert wind blowing, reached 118F (48C) on board.

Then came a dive on the 275-foot (84m) Munassir, which was built in 1979 for the Royal Oman Navy and sunk for divers in 2001. She sits upright, her propeller in the sand at 91 feet (28m), and is surrounded by fish, including eagle rays, and covered with soft coral and nudibranchs. I swam from one cargo hold into the engine room with two big diesel engines, catwalks, and gauges. One diver flickered her torch at me. I looked around, expecting something special, and she shined her light into silt. Later she told me, she wanted to call my attention to my kicking up silt. I was fifth in the line of divers and suffered the same from others. Still, I had no good excuse.

Oman Sifawy Boutique HotelMealtimes were enjoyable, with in-between snacks or sweets like milk rice. Breakfast after the first dip was always good: eggs, pancakes, cheeses and sausage, muesli, toast, jam, honey, Nutella, and peanut butter. One night we had soup, steak, mashed potatoes, salad with excellent Oman dressing and watermelon or flan for dessert. Often they served pasta or pizza slices, and once they served a whole fish, perhaps one I might have even encountered in the water, for which I had no stomach. Eggplant, ocra, beans, corn, and carrot and tomato salad were served with meals. Desserts were fresh fruits, coconut cake, chocolate crepes, or yogurt. All day you had free orange and mango juice, while you kept track of your soft drinks and paid. Alas, the coffee machine broke down on the fourth day. Instant was not a good alternative. As for alcohol, bring what you want; they don't provide it. It was Ramadan and we were not supposed to eat or drink too openly in public places -- a serious issue for Muslims, but not a real problem for the divers.

Mustafa, in charge of the lounge and meals, was the Saman Explorer factotum; fast, friendly and always ready with a joke. He did a great job, not only as our waiter, but also wherever he worked.

I think Oman is an interesting choice for North American divers looking for a new adventure: warm water, good reefs with plenty of life, at least in the right places at the right time. I had some very good dives that I might compare to the Maldives, with fewer huge swarms of fish and pelagics and lower visibility, but Oman offers lovely desert and wadi trips, hiking tours, biking, interesting towns and markets (souks) and the old culture.

-- M.J.

Our Undercover Diver's bio: Diving since 1974, M.J. has made more than 1,900 dives in more than 100 destinations worldwide. He says he's always looking for special destinations with'icing on the cake' like Phoenix Island, Kiribati, Rowley Shoals, Chagos Archipelago, Eparses Islands, etc.

Divers CompassDiver's Compass: I arrived on Oman Air via Muscat to Salalah, spending the first night at the Mirbat Marriott Hotel, an exceptional property with airport transfers ... I stayed the last five nights at Sifawy Boutique Hotel at Jebel Sifah Marina, closer to Muscat. Temperature outside reached 118F (48C). It felt like a hot hair blower hit my face. The dive center was closed due to Ramadan, which my travel agent forgot to tell me ... I booked a car to get to Qantab Divers at the Shangrila Hotel, an awesome setting. Driving through mountain scenery with goats on the street, mosques, small villages, and dry wadis was impressive, but it was so hot it was nearly impossible to stay outside ... Rate for 10-day trip was $2400, dive permit $10.40/day; nitrox $5.20/day, visa $52 for a 30-day permit ... Tanks are aluminum 12 liter (slightly larger than an 80) or steel 15 liter ... I had some difficulty in getting the E-Visa, eventually having to seek help from my embassy; using a travel agent might expedite this process ... Saman Explorer is operated by Extra Divers (it's based in Leichenstein) and runs Oman trip December to mid-May. www.extradivers-worldwide.com

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