Oman: Dive in to a magical world

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Wildlife Special: Oman is full of intriguing forts and bustling souks, but some of its most spellbinding sights are underwater, says Kate Humble

There is something magical about seahorses. They have a sort of aloof beauty which sets them apart from even the most colourful or acrobatic of their fishy counterparts. In all my years of diving, I have only ever encountered a few.

My first sighting was in the placid waters off the coast of a little Caribbean island called Carriacou. My eye caught something unnaturally yellow which I took to be a piece of coral, but on closer inspection proved to be a tiny seahorse, anchored by its tail to the reef. I've also seen and filmed them off the Dorset coast. Britain has two species of seahorse that inhabit the fragile eelgrass beds in places such as Studland Bay. In the summer they live in shallow water of not much more than a couple of metres – but they are masters of disguise and are often impossible to find among the waving fronds of grass. So it was a totally unexpected delight to come face to face with a rather large, handsome seahorse in the very first moments of my very first dive off the coast of Oman.

The dive site was, appropriately, called "The Aquarium". It lies at the furthest reaches of the Daymaniyat Islands, which themselves are scattered off the coast north of the capital, Muscat.

Oman has mountains and wadis, and the story-book dunes of the Empty Quarter. But it also has more than 1,000 miles of spectacular coastline. It begins among the rugged fjords of the Musandam Peninsula in the north, and then after a break – when the UAE takes over for a stretch – picks up again with the islands and reefs conveniently close to Muscat. The shore then runs south to the turtle-laying beaches (now a protected reserve) and beyond to the huge, largely undeveloped stretches of beach in Salalah.

Sometimes, as when I was there, the visibility can be a bit murky, but plankton-rich waters like these attract lots and lots of fish. On that first dive I didn't just see one seahorse, but several. They were calm and unflustered in the midst of flashing shoals of fusiliers and snappers. I also found giant nudibranchs – sea slugs – which defy the unromantic image conjured up by the word "slug" and do their best to outshine the corals with a fanciful display of tufts, horns, frills, patterns and colours.

Outshining the corals was no mean feat. The reefs were ablaze with a profusion of vivid clashing soft corals in lime greens, purples and oranges. Tucked in the crevices and shielded by the bright coral garden skulked lobsters, parrot fish and red-toothed triggerfish (indigo-blue creatures with a perfect crescent for a tail but with an alarming vampire grin which shows off the bright red teeth that give it its name).

When not submerged in Oman's marine world, I indulged my husband's love of forts and castles and my own love of food markets and local eateries. The present sultan has been developing and modernising Oman and there is an ever-increasing network of roads. As a rule, I'm a big fan of public transport as a way of getting beyond the tourist façade of any country, but in a place where petrol is virtually free, there isn't much of a public transport system. Hiring a car is the easiest way to get around.

We drove to Nizwa, where the splendid circular complex of the fort has been so meticulously restored it's hard to believe it dates from the 17th century. What it lacks in romantic, crumbling walls and stone worn down by centuries of marching feet, it makes up for with well–placed props to illustrate how rooms were used, along with descriptions of what went on where and an almost too-detailed account of how intruders were repelled. (Trapdoors over spike-filled pits, plus boiling date juice.)

At Rustaq, there is another fort, believed to be one of the oldest in the country. It is so vast and complex that its inhabitants could have wandered around for days trying to find each other, or, like us, struggled simply to find the exit. There are turrets and passages, staircases, ingenious bathrooms and loos with views, living quarters, kitchens and mosques. Despite being on the burningly hot coastal plain, its main rooms – those used by the men of the household – were designed to apprehend the slightest breeze. Water was supplied by one of the many irrigation channels, or falajs, as they are known locally, that are still in use around more rural parts of Oman today.

My favourite fort was the one at Nakhl. On the approach it looks rather uninspiring, but it has a charm and homeliness the other two lack. The rooms and courtyards are built along the contours of the rock on which it stands, with views across forests of date palms to the alluringly rugged mountains in one direction and in the other, over the plain to the sea.

Modern-day Oman is a rich ethnic mix of Arabic, Indian and Pakistani cultures: a biryani is as easy to come by as a plate of hummus. We found little local restaurants, some barely more than a doorway and a couple of formica-topped tables, but always spotless and selling delicious curries for less than an orange juice costs in a hotel.

The souk at Rustaq is reputed to be one of the best to wander around absorbing local colours, smells and flavours, but we couldn't find it. We asked, we searched, we lost ourselves down side streets and alleyways, but no luck. Finally, someone told us it was being rebuilt after heavy rains which had rendered the old maze of stalls and passageways unsafe. The souk had been temporarily relocated to a big building on the outskirts of town.

The warehouse may not have been particularly pretty, but its contents were everything a true local market should be. Piles of fruit and vegetables, hessian sacks of rice and flour, scurrying cats, coils of rope, mysterious farm implements, furious bargaining, young men with boxes piled high on their heads weaving between the shoppers... I was entranced by the chatter, the gnarled handshakes, the tiny glasses of tea being handed out on tin trays.

I wondered if that first dive with the seahorses had spoilt me and that I would only be disappointed by the subsequent dives. True, a couple were memorable only for the fact that the visibility made the experience like diving in green soup; I almost decided that I would give my final planned dive a miss. Thank goodness I didn't. I entered the water just off a tiny island. I didn't need to go very deep, barely below 10 metres, to find a riot of glorious corals and anemones, all close enough to the surface to be lit up beautifully by the sun.

A pair of cuttlefish, translucent and ghostly, hung in the water on the edge of the reef, their huge eyes seeming to follow my every move. A turtle flapped serenely by and then settled to graze on a patch of algae. Shoals of fish flittered and skittered, a constant stream of colour and motion – and below all the hustle and bustle, lying immobile and stately on the seabed, I found a shark. It was a leopard shark, with skin spotted and marked as intricately as that of its feline namesake. I stayed as still as I could, hardly daring to breathe, hoping it would allow us just to admire from a respectful distance.

A shark is like a perfectly designed racing car: sleek, gorgeous in a slightly "yes, but you can't afford me" kind of way, and astonishingly quick and powerful. Seeing a shark never fails to quicken my pulse; there is always a frisson of danger, simply because they are so perfectly designed to be in water and we are not. As if to prove it, the leopard shark decided to move off. With one casual flick of its tail it was gone, a silver streak like the trace of a shooting star.

Travel Essentials: Oman

Getting there

*The writer travelled with Oman Air (0844 482 2309; omanair.aero), which flies from Heathrow to Muscat.

*British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow via Abu Dhabi.

*Specialist tour operators offering diving holidays in Oman include Regal Dive (01353 659 999; regal-diving.co.uk) and Dive Worldwide (0845 130 6980; diveworldwide.com).

Visiting there

*Car hire, diving and accommodation was arranged through Muscat Diving and Adventure (00 968 24 485 663; omandiving.com). Packages start at 120 rials (£192) for two people, which includes two nights' B&B, a day of diving and permits.

More information

*Oman Tourism: 020-8877 4524; omantourism.gov.om.

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Life & Style
life
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit