THE FAR COUN­TRY

OMAN HAS BEEN AT THE CROSS­ROADS OF TRADE AND EX­PLO­RATION FOR THOU­SANDS OF YEARS. TO­DAY DIVERS ARE THE LAT­EST TRAV­EL­ERS TO FALL IN LOVE WITH THIS ARA­BIAN SEA DES­TI­NA­TION.

Scuba Diving - - CONTENTS - BY MARY FRANCES EM­MONS

Oman has wel­comed vis­i­tors from afar to the Ara­bian Penin­sula for thou­sands of years, but few Western divers have dis­cov­ered the joys of ex­plor­ing the Hal­laniyat Is­lands un­der­wa­ter.

Free-range camels have right of way in Oman, where they are part live­stock, part beloved pets. They’re also smart, cu­ri­ous and full of per­son­al­ity. Op­po­site: Harder to spot but keenly sought by divers and un­der­wa­ter photographers are dragon morays ( Enchely­core pardalis).

MMANAGE YOUR EX­PEC­TA­TIONS, I TELL MY­SELF.

We’re out here at the edge of the world, where “all dives are ex­plo­ration dives,” cruise di­rec­tor Shaker Mo­hamed says in our first brief­ing. Let that be enough, I think.

Still, you can’t help but won­der what might be out here, just off the an­cient town of Mir­bat, around 75 miles from Oman’s Hal­laniyat Is­lands.

In the back of ev­ery diver’s mind: the Hal­laniy­ats’ elu­sive pod of Ara­bian Sea hump­backs, per­haps the world’s only non­mi­gra­tory group, now so iso­lated from the global pop­u­la­tion that they might be con­sid­ered a dis­tinct species.

We never do spy whales, but some­thing big shows up on that very first dive. And it’s get­ting big­ger as it ap­proaches divers and gains scale in the hazy viz. A shark, for sure. Tiger? Big­ger.

And then the white stars on its dark skin be­gin to shine. Whale shark! A ju­ve­nile, less than 20 feet long, as gen­tle as can be, mes­mer­iz­ing a half-dozen divers with just the wide, smooth swish of its mag­nif­i­cent tail. As we’re high-fiv­ing, a dozen mob­ula rays fly through, sil­hou­et­ted against the green­ish, par­tic­u­late-filled wa­ter. As we’re di­gest­ing that, back comes the whale shark, mak­ing an­other leisurely pass, clearly undis­turbed by our pres­ence.

Divers are rel­a­tively new here, so it’s hard to guess what it’s think­ing — per­haps just cu­ri­ous. It’s mu­tual.

LAND OF FRANK­IN­CENSE

Ever since early man ex­ited Africa and took a right down the Ara­bian coast at least 100,000 years ago, cu­rios­ity has driven the urge to roam. More than 2,000 years be­fore the Vic­to­ri­ans would make leisure travel ac­ces­si­ble, we jour­neyed not only for knowl­edge, but also for gain. And few en­deav­ors stood to pro­duce as much gain as the trade in frank­in­cense, a fra­grant resin made from the sappy tears of a scrubby lit­tle desert tree. Val­ued by the Ro­mans as dearly as gold, counted among the Magis’ gifts to the in­fant Je­sus in the Gospel of Matthew, frank­in­cense was pro­duced al­most en­tirely in Oman’s rugged, moun­tain­ous Dho­far re­gion, home to Salalah, de­par­ture port for the new Oman Ag­gres­sor.

At Sumhu­ram, an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal park and UNESCO World Her­itage Site 25 miles east of Salalah, the frank­in­cense trade flour­ished for nearly a thou­sand years, from about the fourth cen­tury B.C. to the fi fth cen­tury A.D. Vis­i­tors to­day can clearly see that here the sea was paramount — provider and de­fender — carv­ing a per­fect har­bor be­low the butte from which the bustling fortress com­manded the coun­try­side.

In the heart of Salalah lies the re­mains of the port of Al- Baleed, an­other World Her­itage site that sup­ported the frank­in­cense trade from about 800 to 1600. To­day it’s home to a ter­rific his­tory and mar­itime mu­seum and a huge ac­tive ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site, ex­pos­ing the bones of a city that wel­comed for­eign vis­i­tors for 800 years — Marco Polo vis­ited Al-baleed in 1290 and pro­nounced it beau­ti­ful.

It still is. Present-day Salalah is a hol­i­day beach town for both Arabs and Euro­peans, with a gleam­ing, mod­ern city cen­ter — any Amer­i­can mall rat would be at home in mul­ti­story Salalah Gar­dens, with its food court and movie the­ater — and mile upon mile of glo­ri­ous white- sand beach fronting pale-jade surf of sur­pris­ing clar­ity.

Oman Ag­gres­sor is based here at a newly built ma­rina and ho­tel com­plex for about six months of the year. ( The yacht also dives the Day­maniyat Is­lands from Mus­cat, Oman’s cap­i­tal, and Mu­san­dam, in the Gulf of Oman.) Mir­bat is our first dive, but our true tar­get this week is the Hal­laniy­ats, about 25 miles east off the Dho­far coast.

When part of Vasco da Gama’s ar­mada came through these is­lands in 1503 — the wreck of his Es­mer­alda lies in a re­stricted area off Al-hal­laniyah, the largest of the fi ve is­lands — it took months to get here from Lis­bon. To­day there are nu­mer­ous direct flights from the U.S. to Dubai, just a two-hour con­nec­tion from Salalah. In­creas­ingly easy travel and a cul­ture long used to for­eign­ers ex­plain why Oman is one of the fastest-grow­ing tourist des­ti­na­tions in the world.

It’s hard to imag­ine an eas­ier or more-pleas­ant form of travel than Oman Ag­gres­sor, a 148-foot lux­ury yacht ren­o­vated from the hull up — “re­ally a piece of art,” Mo­hamed says with pride, and he’s not wrong. Its mostly Egyp­tian crew cut its dive teeth in the Red Sea, and is both ex­pe­ri­enced and ea­ger to please; its at­ten­tion and care will make you feel like the Queen of Sheba, who, co­in­ci­den­tally, is said to have had a sum­mer palace at Sumhu­ram — Dho­far frank­in­cense was among her gifts to Solomon.

“IN­CREAS­INGLY EASY TRAVEL AND A CUL­TURE LONG USED TO FOR­EIGN­ERS EX­PLAIN WHY OMAN IS ONE OF THE FASTEST- GROW­ING TOURIST DES­TI­NA­TIONS IN THE WORLD.”

SEABIRDS AND SHERBET

We rise the next day to a cres­cent moon and bright stars, sym­bols of the Mid­dle East since Ne­buchad­nez­zar’s time, hung in a sky streaked like lay­ers of peach, rasp­berry and tan­ger­ine sherbet (de­rived from the Arab

word sharba, a drink). Seabirds are silhouettes sketched against the sparkling lights of Mir­bat’s minarets. Coastal moun­tains soar to 2,000 feet, jagged black out­lines that soften with the sun’s rays into folds of un­du­lat­ing stone. It’s all heart­break­ingly beau­ti­ful, in a Lawrence of Ara­bia sort of way.

Un­like most of the 13 divers aboard, Jim Maxwell, a re­tired U. S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cer from Carls­bad, Cal­i­for­nia, has ex­pe­ri­ence trav­el­ing in the Mid­dle East. While not much tops his first whale shark — “on the very first dive!” — he was drawn here by “the his­tory and the cul­ture. I wanted to see the frank­in­cense trail, and a part of the Mid­dle East I had not ex­plored.”

Ex­plo­ration is why most of us are here. Ev­ery­where we’re con­scious that, at least un­der­wa­ter, we are see­ing places not many have seen, in an area that re­ceives very few divers a year. Brief­ing us on a plunge that, like many in the Hal­laniy­ats, starts with an un­der­wa­ter pin­na­cle and ends in the blue, Mo­hamed re­as­sures us: “If you find a big boat, it’s us.”

At a site called Hasikiyah Arch, off tiny Al-hasikiyah is­land, we leave the “big boat” aboard Oman Ag­gres­sor’s two pan­gas and drop down over huge stone fin­gers to a glass­fish-filled cav­ern, bump­ing into one of the big­gest day oc­to­puses I’ve seen. Me­an­der­ing along wide, sandy chan­nels be­tween fin­gers, we find a school of sweep­ers that moves like a liv­ing piece of Ara­bic script, form­ing straight lines that sud­denly make flow­ing arabesques be­fore turn­ing in a new di­rec­tion en masse. Mag­i­cal. We could have stayed all day.

At Gotta Qi­b­liyah off Al-qi­b­liyah, the Hal­laniy­ats’ east­ern­most isle, a tri­an­gu­lar open­ing in the wall gives way to an arched cathe­dral, where our lights make gor­geous patterns; nat­u­ral light leads to the exit, where we spy a shy dragon mo­ray, Enchely­core pardalis. Non­sting­ing (mostly) jel­lies of a del­i­cate pink with darker ac­cents mes­mer­ize on our safety stop, many with a tiny fish in­side; whether com­men­sal trav­el­ers or doomed prey, we can­not say.

All of us re­mark on the eels we’re see­ing on ev­ery dive. Oman is lousy with morays, most of a girth that amazes. Not im­pressed with eels? Con­sider the lit­tle lilac-gray geo­met­ric mo­ray — Gym­notho­rax griseus — whose del­i­cate black-spot patterns, traced on its head, can re­mind you of the in­tri­cate

“THIS, AS AL­WAYS, IS WHY WE ROAM: TO BE­HOLD THE WON­DER­FUL AND STRANGE, THE THINGS WE HAVE NOT SEEN, AND PER­HAPS NOT EVEN IMAG­INED.”

henna de­signs you might glimpse on the hands of lo­cal women. A “si­mul­ta­ne­ous hermaphrodite,” it can re­lease up to 12,000 eggs per spawn, which might ex­plain why they’re ev­ery­where. Maxwell, my dive buddy, is taken with per­haps the most com­mon eel here, the mas­sive hon­ey­comb, or laced mo­ray, Gym­notho­rax fa

vagineus. “I’ve never seen one be­fore — so huge!” he ex­claims. It’s not just the eels. Ev­ery­thing seems big­ger here, from par­rot­fish to rain­bow run­ners to black-blotched rays to the gazil­lion ac­tive nudi­branchs — many 6 inches or more in length, in­clud­ing a cou­ple of Span­ish dancers in the 15-inch range — gal­lop­ing across nearly ev­ery site. (Mo­hamed spots 15 on our first dive alone.)

Again and again we en­counter vast schools of many types of fish, con­tigu­ous but dis­tinct, lined up like chap­ters in a book. Packed with a den­sity that’s hard to con­ceive, they can be parted only by swim­ming through them, like en­ter­ing the beat­ing heart of a many-celled or­gan­ism, one gi­ant liv­ing thing.

But noth­ing tops a won­drous an­i­mal we en­counter at An­gry Grouper, a su­per-fishy site off Al-hal­laniyah.

Kick­ing hard against a de­cent cur­rent, we fly over a soft-coral­cov­ered seamount and tuck into a sandy cross chan­nel where we star­tle two rays the size of cof­fee ta­bles. Fin­ning through a lovely, lacy field of the bushi­est black co­ral ever, we sail over the next ridge and right into a ray per­haps 4 feet across. Over an­other hill and — bam! Some­thing big, maybe 8 feet long, rests on the sand. A nurse-type shark, but what the heck? Mush­room brown with dark spots, an enor­mous scythed tail and ridges run­ning the length of its back like a leatherback tur­tle, it was the con­fus­ingly named ze­bra shark, Stegos­toma fas­cia­tum — ju­ve­niles boast black-and-white stripes — a bucket-list en­counter with a strange and beau­ti­ful crea­ture.

This, as al­ways, is why we roam: to be­hold the won­der­ful and strange, the things we have not seen, and per­haps not even imag­ined.

THE HU­MAN CON­NEC­TION

For all the gains Oman has made since the present sul­tan be­gan build­ing a mod­ern state in 1970, life here can seem strange to Amer­i­cans. Oma­nis live un­der an ab­so­lute monar­chy with zero guar­an­tee of the ba­sic free­doms Amer­i­cans take for granted. For some, that might be a rea­son not to come. But how then does the un­known world be­come known?

I keep go­ing back to an en­counter at the Salalah Gar­dens food court. As I passed a ta­ble of chat­ter­ing, black-clad women draped head to toe, one was fran­ti­cally beck­on­ing to me. I paused, un­sure — for a stranger to ap­proach such women could be bad man­ners at best or an in­sult at worst.

But even through her veil, I could see she was beam­ing, her eyes tele­graph­ing a huge grin. Her hand ges­ture was just a wave. I shyly re­turned her greet­ing and moved on.

What did she want from me that I could give in that mo­ment? A smile. A con­nec­tion. For thou­sands of years now, it’s been a good place to start.

Clock­wise from top: Oman Ag­gres­sor an­chored off Al-qi­b­liyah; blue-barred par­rot­fish in­habit the shal­low Mar­riott Wreck off Mir­bat, a fish-filled dive; a ze­bra shark — so named be­cause ju­ve­niles have black-and-white stripes — rests at Anemone Reef off Al-hal­laniyah.

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