Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An amazing weekend on (and in) the sea!

Last weekend, we spent a memorable time on a dhow off the coast of Oman.

Our yellow dhow

There is so much to do in and around Dubai, but it's too infrequent that we actually "get up and go", so thanks to a friend who organized the whole trip, we got up and went!
It was a 2 hour drive to Dibba, a small fishing port on the border of Oman and the UAE. We arrived and collected our SCUBA gear and boarded our home for the next 2 days. It was basic, but had the essentials. 6 bedrooms (all sleeping 3 people and en suite bathrooms), an air conditioned "lounge" and a spacious and open top deck.

Everyone arrived by 8pm and we sat down for dinner at the same time as the boat set sail for the open waters.

It was a beautiful evening, certainly the most perfect time of the year to undertake such a trip. As we settled down and got to know each other, the kids went off to bed and I enjoyed a nice single malt as the Hajar Mountains faded into the night sky and the last of the phone signals dropped out to leave us alone with ourselves and totally relaxed.

As everyone slowly retired, one by one, I chose to sleep on deck. Perfect weather and a totally clear sky exposed the stars, clearer and brighter than I had ever seen them. With no city lights glowing to distract, the constellations were crystal clear. Spectacular!

I woke the next morning feeling very fresh. The rocking boat and sea breeze did their trick, and the first thing I saw was simply stunning. Waking at daylight, naturally, I saw that we were anchored in a bay and surrounded by cliffs and the most stunning rock formations I had ever seen. As the sun was rising in the sky, its glow highlighted some amazing orange shades. It was fantastic, and with everyone else still asleep, I could savor this moment in total silence.

The magnificent colours of nature, first thing in the morning

Slowly, as the rest of the boat woke up, the divers amongst us grabbed a light breakfast and then suited up for an early morning dive. I hadn't been diving in about 5 years, so I had some nerves, but as I kitted up, it all started to come back to me and my nervousness turned to excitement. And justifiably so … that first dive showed us a few eels and some magnificent Eagle Rays.

Being anchored in a quiet bay, the waters around our dhow were calm and serene. As I returned from my first dive, the kids told me of the adventures they had during that time, canoeing and snorkeling and exploring. Too tempted to resist myself, I went with my daughter on the canoe to have a closer look at the cliffs and the fascinating formations they were talking about. They are awe inspiring as you get up close, and the layers of rock that comprise them are a reflection of the history that built them. We came right up close and found a small cave, and as I tried to maneuver into it, we lost our stability and capsized! I smashed and cut my knee and ankle on some sharp shallow coral, and I looked out for Tia who was fortunately safe, but panicking. I focused on calming her down and getting her to relax and get a footing on some shallow rock before I thought about turning our canoe back over. Tia is a strong swimmer. She was brave and composed herself fast, and as we re-boarded our canoe, I realised the camera had fallen off my wrist. I thought about jumping down to salvage it, but a mixture of not wanting to leave Tia alone right now and the blood that was starting to flow quite freely from my ankle cuts encouraged me to return to the boat and come back later for the camera (it was an Olympus "Tough", so this was going to a thorough test of its claimed facets).

Back on board, we were straight to first aid to bandage up our wounds ... I had to bow out of the next dive, and instead rowed back to my earlier "crash site" with my wife ... the brave volunteer for the camera salvage operation. As the accident had occurred near a cave and in relatively shallow waters (maybe 2 meters), it was unlikely that the camera would have drifted much. So I pointed Reena to the spot where I felt it should have been, and after a couple of minutes searching, she spotted it. Under the water and wedged between 2 rocks, she made a valiant effort to go down and retrieve it, and on her third attempt, it was retrieved ... Intact, working and all pictures safe and sound!

Shaan exploring the shores

As the diving group returned from dive 2, we all got ready for lunch. On the various boats I have been on, I am always impressed with the quality of food that can be prepared in such limited size kitchens and with how much stock of ingredients can be crammed on board.

After our sumptuous meal, we kitted up and I went off for my second dive. This time the visibility was better and the marine life even more abundant. The highlight for me came as I came around a large rock and came face to face with a turtle. It was resting on the coral and must have been close to 2m in length, looking not to have a care in the world. As more of us gathered around, it lifted up easily and gracefully and glided off, passing just a few centimeters beyond my outstretched hand as it disappeared slowly into the distance. The whole experience would only have lasted less than a minute, too fast to get the cameras ready and take a picture, but it has cast a lasting mental impression on me of the beauty and serenity that can and does exist in pockets of this world.

Before dinner, we raised anchor and sailed back down south, in the direction of Dibba. Our aim was to find some new dive sites for the next day and a new calm bay to stop for the night. The scenery was simply stunning at dusk and with no phone signal, I was able to relax with my family around me and no pressure of work.

Everyone was tired by dinner. Most ate and went to bed, but a handful of us stayed up, and we enjoyed some Dalwhinnie whisky, 15 years old, that I had brought from my trip to Scotland in the summer. I slept on deck again that night and enjoyed star gazing again before I dozed off for another deep and peaceful sleep.

The next morning, I woke up with another stunning vista, Surrounded again by the mountains and their amazing colors, exaggerated as the sunrise illuminated the entire landscape around me.
Early morning, in my bed!

More stunning views on the morning of day 2
The same routine as the previous day, we had a light breakfast and then headed off for our "early" dive. A deeper site this time. As we rolled backwards off the boat into the water, I saw a steep wall of coral beneath the water, bright and full of colour. We descended down vertically heading towards the sea bed at 24m, but as we crossed 10 and them 15 meters, I felt a mounting pressure in my head. I tried to equalize the pressure and even loosened my mask, but it didn't help. As we reached 20m my headache got worse and I signaled to my buddy that I had a problem and decided to avoid any unnecessary risk and re-surfaced and went back to our dhow. It was a disappointment, and a worry, but at least I got more time with the kids again ... with more canoeing and snorkeling in some interesting new rocks and crevices, but this time with a lot more caution than the previous day.

Shaan exploring the mounatin crevices

Later that morning, I went back underwater. I stayed above 15m the whole time, but it was a disappointing last dive. I was pleased my headache didn't recur, and I could accept the strong current we had to battle against, but I was horrified with the amount of man made garbage there was on the sea bed. Bottles, cans and plastic bags littered the reefs. It was a tragic site. It had to have been the low point of this entire trip that was accentuated by perfect nature and idyllic surroundings ... All this spoiled by ignorant and selfish people who couldn't care less for the beauty and wellbeing of our environment.

Before the last dive

Back on board, we had our final lunch, which included some freshly caught lobster (sadly not by me). Then it was time to pack and enjoy the final 2 hour cruise back to Dibba. As we enjoyed these final views of the mountains, more boats came into view, the phone signals returned, our isolation ended and we eased ourselves back into "real life".

Our fresh lobster lunch

It was a truly excellent and totally relaxing weekend. Thank you to my friend Gilles for arranging it.

I just couldn't wait to get home and have a long hot shower!

Our first dive site

A Moray Eel

A couple of Eagle Rays, disappearing into the distance

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