by John Kinsella
A land of sultans and scimitars in the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Oman’s empire once stretched down the east African coast and competed with Britain and Portugal for control of the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Until the 1970s, the country was almost completely closed to outside visitors but it has since opened its doors and the dive world is richer because of it.
With vast deserts and rich history,the Sultanate of Oman is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination. The capital Muscat (the“walled city,”) is home to the Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace and the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. While these are fantastic sights and well worthy of a visit, divers will likely be more interested in the fact that Muscat is well served by PADI Dive Centers and Resorts. This means the capital city is a great starting place for exploration of what may be Oman’s greatest asset: its relatively untouched coastline.
Musandam, Oman's northernmost region, is a wild and remote land of rugged fjords and mountains. It’s separated from the rest of the country by the United Arab Emirates and juts into the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Nutrient rich waters, sometimes born by strong currents, underpin a massive amount of diversity and abundance of marine life. Diving here can be ripping drift dives, suitable only for experienced and appropriately trained divers. It can also be placid touring of vibrant coral reefs in sheltered bays and coves where divers can relax and enjoy vibrant reefs and focus on some of the staggering array of macro life and invertebrates. The choice is yours.
Far to the south, the area around Salalah in the Dhofar Directorate has a pristine coastline with seemingly endless bays and beaches. Here kelp forests, made possible by cool upwelling during the “khareef” (or monsoon), which drenches the mountains and turns the desert green, die back in late September as conditions improve and diving is reliable from October to May. Dive centers stay open year round, but you'll want to check ahead during the beautiful “off” season to make sure diving is still possible.
There is a staggering variety of diving along Oman's more than 2000 kilometres/1200 miles of coastline and much of it sees little activity. Perhaps it's time to visit this gem before the secret gets out.
This string of small, rocky, islands encircled by coral reefs is a nature reserve and an important turtle nesting site about 20 kilometres/12 miles off shore, north of Muscat. Abundant fish (including large pelagics) and lush coral reefs down to 30 metres/100 feet are the backdrop for this style of island diving. Many feel that the diving here is the best in Oman and there are sites to suit divers of all levels. You can only land on the island from May to October and permits (which your PADI Dive Center or Resort can arrange) are required.
The dive sites of Bander Khayran are located within a series of coves and bays about 20 minutes southeast of Muscat. The diving is predominantly on relatively shallow coral reefs but the area also features drop-offs to 30 metres/100 feet and one of the best wreck dives in Oman - the Al Munnassir. The Oman government sunk this 84-metre/276-foot vessel as an artificial reef and she now lies upright on the bottom in about 30 metres/100 feet of water. Giant morays, large schools of snapper and goatfish as well as turtles and rays all now call the vessel home.
Just about 4.0 kilometres/2.4 miles offshore, Fahal Island is about 30 minutes from Muscat. This small limestone island covers just 2.5 square kilometres/1.0 square mile but offers excelling diving with swim throughs and reefs as deep as 40 metres/130feet. It's also know by another name - Shark Island -due to frequent sightings of these toothy citizens.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort in Muscat
Here, the ocean has eroded a series of chambers and tunnels into the surrounding limestone rock, which provide hiding spots for spiny lobster, cleaner shrimp and other creatures from the turtles cruising by. Depths are relatively shallow and it's a popular second dive. Bring a torch and make sure to dive within your limits of training and experience.
At Lima Rock's two dive sites, you’ll find coral encrusted walls to depths of 20 metres/66 feet along with caves and crevices created by erosion of the limestone substrate that extend to well beyond 40 metres/130 feet. Schools of jack and tuna prowl the open waters adjacent to the rock and divers will have the chance to spot whale sharks in the cooler months. Currents can affect dive site choice so rely on local guides and between dives, don't forget to look up every once in a while to see the ospreys and sooty falcons that call Lima Rock home.
This wall dive drops to the bottom at 15 metres/50 feet, where divers are rewarded with a field of coral festooned boulders. Currents can be a factor so drift diving is popular.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort in Musandam
Many of this region's dive sites are reached safari-style by four wheel drive vehicle but there are also boat trips available. These often go to new sites, which are being discovered regularly. The coastline is dotted with small bays and beaches, which offers access to coral covered rock outcrops populated with morays, sharks, octopus, snapper, turtles, dolphins and the occasional whale. One big draw to this area are the small kelp forests. Growing up to 10 metres/33 feet tall, kelp thrives in the cool upwelling (water temperature can drop to 13o C/55o F), which is common from May to September. The kelp dies back in late September and some dive centers close during this time, so advance inquiries are encouraged.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort in Salalah
Depths: While depths greater than 40 metres/130 feet are possible (and some regional dive centers offer tec diving services), depths generally range up to 30 metres/100 feet and there is an abundance of good diving available in shallower water.
Visibility: Visibility averages 15-30 metres/50-100 feet but can be affected by a variety of factors, including nutrient rich water. This lowers visibility but generally increase marine life abundance.
Currents: Some areas can have significant current and drift diving, while others have no current and are ideal for newly certified divers. Check with your local guide.
Water Temperature: 19-28o C/66-82o F
Dive Season: With the exception of the monsoon season in the south, you can dive in Oman all year.
Weather: Generally, it's hot with little rainfall. The Dhofar Mountains in the south have seasonal rainfall and heavy fog from June to September, but some parts of the coast may have no rain at all in any given year. Air temperatures vary from 22-37°C/72-99°F and can peak at 50°C/122°F.
Access: Oman is well serviced, with most diving by boat. Four wheel drive vehicles are sometimes also used, particularly in the southern part of the country.
Skill Level: Entry level and up. PADI Drift Diver, Wreck Diver and Cavern Diver Specialty course certifications may also be useful.
Scuba Gear: You'll find 3mm suits adequate during the warmer months and 5mm preferable during the cooler ones. While equipment is available for hire, it’s advisable to bring as much of your personal gear as possible.
Length of stay: As with most destinations, you'll want to stay long as you can manage. Be sure to leave a few days for topside exploration.
Featured Creatures: In addition to the diverse reef life, you'll have the chance to see numerous whale and dolphin species, turtles, rays and sharks.
Language: Arabic, with English widely spoken at resorts.
Currency: Omani Rial (OMR)
Tipping: Although tipping isn't customary, you'll want to tip your dive crew.Those who provide extra service will also appreciate small tips in the local currency.
Transportation: Taxis, rental cars etc.
Major Airports: Muscat Airport (MCT), located in Wilayt As Seeb, is the primary airport in Oman. Salalah Airport (SLL) is the other international airport in Oman. Oman Air has direct flights to Salalah.
Religion: Predominately Muslim
Electricity: 240 volts, Type G (3 pin, BS 1363)
Airport Entry/Exit fees: Visas and valid passports are required and travelers from many countries can pay for a visa on arrival. The fees varydepending on length of stay, check the link below for details.
Ministry of Tourism, Sultanate of Oman
Oman Embassy - Washington DC
Oman Airports Visa Information