Clean-up scuba diving at Bandar Al Khairan

It’s time to get this fishing net out of the ocean!

Last month, EuroDivers led a day of no-cost scuba diving at Bandar Al Khairan to clean up some popular dive and snorkel sites, and it was awesome. As I was reading through the April EuroDivers planner, I saw “FREE DIVES” and I signed up immediately. It meant taking the day off work, but would you rather sit in your office all day or go scuba diving for free to help the environment? The answer is obvious.

I was able to recruit one friend to come with me, and we piled into the dive boat at Marina Bandar Al Rowdha at 8 am, along with six other divers and two dive leaders, to make the short trip to Bandar Al Khairan. We reached the dive site, where we were given scissors, knives, and mesh bags, and then the real work began! Our goal was simple: remove as much garbage and nets from the ocean as we could before we got low on air or had been underwater for 60 minutes.

Nets and ropes

Working on cutting the net apart

The team found an enormous fishing net underwater, resting on the reef, and we got to work cutting it into segments and carefully removing it from the coral. We were intentionally over-weighted because we knew we’d be spending most of the time at shallow depths. When you aren’t very deep and your air tank is less than half full, staying at the bottom can be a challenge. So, maintaining a neutral buoyancy in this case was a little challenging.  We had to hover over the spiky coral and sea urchins, taking shallow enough breathes that we wasn’t moving up and down constantly, while hacking at this fishing net and dissecting it away from the coral. It was like doing hovering underwater coral surgery.

We filled up the mesh bags with garbage, large segments of fishing nets, ropes, plastic bottles, and anything else we could find. Once the bags were full, we took them to the surface and handed them off to the boat captain, who would empty them out and give them back. Then we’d go back down to pick up even more. It was challenging, tiring, and rewarding work!

Yes, that’s a shoe.

Our maximum depth was about 8 or 9 meters for each dive, and each dive was about an hour, and everyone was making multiple trips to the surface to drop off the garbage. After my last trip up, I descended where I thought I saw bubbles (which means other divers are below you). But the current was so strong, it had pulled me away from everyone else and when I got to the bottom, all I could find was a sting ray. I watched the ray glide away and then I ascended.

One thing to note: the water is warm enough that it’s possible to wear a shorty instead of a full wetsuit. I opted for the full, which, in hindsight, was a smart choice. I spent a lot of time kneeling in the sand, and several of the other divers wearing shortys cut up their knees and elbows. The full wetsuit zipped up in the front, I just unzipped it after I put on my BCD and there was enough water circulation that I didn’t overheat, even though it was physically strenuous work.

If you like the idea of scuba diving for free to help the environment, you’re in luck: EuroDivers is planning to do clean-up dives once a month. They are during the work week and you need to be Open Water scuba qualified. Contact EuroDivers at eurodivemuscat@gmail for more info.

A red-toothed trigger fish and Arabian butterfly fishes

A juvenile yellowbar angelfish

It looked like they were having a meeting!

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Ain Sahban Sulphur Springs

Surreal Ain Sahban

I’d seen photos of Ain Sahban but I could never figure out 1) what it was called, or 2) where exactly it was. But then one day some friends mentioned it, sent a GPS point, and invited us to go on an adventure. We can’t say no to that!

The drive there went great until we were literally a mile from the springs. We reached a point where the road was blocked by a bulldozer and a rock cutting tractor-thing. A rockslide had completely blocked the road and these guys were working on clearing it. We had driven 2 hours and 45 minutes, and we were not giving up. So we parked the cars, gathered all our water bottles, slathered ourselves in sunscreen and walked towards the springs in the hot 100 degree mid-day sun. Luckily after about five minutes of walking an Omani driving an SUV came towards us and told us he’d give us a ride. Woohooo! It was about a 5 minute drive to the springs, and we were all very grateful to not have had to walk the whole way.

Along the road to Ain Sahban, before we encountered the rockslide

The springs are a beautiful light blue, like cotton candy. The water was nice and cool, and it didn’t smell bad, which was surprising since it’s a sulphur spring. There’s clay in the rocks and M got his first-ever spa treatment! We spent over an hour exploring the spring, climbing around, floating in the crazy-colored water and coating ourselves in clay.

The view looking up Ain Sahban

The water looked like cotton candy

All that white residue made the rocks really easy to walk on and not slippery

One thing that I loved about Ain Sahban, especially compared to every other rocky place with water in Oman, was that it was not at all slippery. The sulphur left a chalky residue on the rocks, and you could literally walk up the little waterfalls. It’s also mostly pretty shallow, so it’s a great spot for kids. The water gets deep in the narrow part between the spring walls, but otherwise it’s no more than three feet deep. But M wore his floaties as a precaution, just in case.

We walked up these little waterfalls!

This narrow section is the only deep part

Floaters!

Now, how to get there. Plug “Ain Sahban” into Google maps and you’ll drive north towards Sohar, turn left towards Al Buraimi, and eventually find yourself on a dirt road. If you follow that road until the end, you can park, and carefully climb down through the terraced farmland into a wadi. Turn left (away from the ruined watchtower to the right) and follow the wadi upstream. You’ll eventually reach the springs, after maybe a 5-10 minute walk. Apparently there are also beautiful deep pools by the watchtower.

The view towards the watchtower from the parking area if you decide to hike in

The relatively-dry wadi hike

Conversely, while driving on the dirt road that ends by the wadi, you’ll see a sign for Ain Sahban telling you to turn right. You can follow that sign (and a few clearly-marked others) and you’ll find yourself on a road right next to the springs. If you’re not up for adventure, this is the easiest route. The other route is definitely more fun and interesting. You could do the first route in a sedan, where you hike in to find the springs, although you’d have to take it pretty slowly. The second route has a wadi crossing, which was dry when we went, but it could involve crossing some water, so I’d recommend a higher clearance vehicle for that one.

I’m glad we finally had a chance to explore Ain Sahban, which is now one of my favorite surreal spots in Oman!

Cramming it all in

I already miss my morning runs along the beach.

In my last post I mentioned making a list of all our remaining weekends so we can make sure we cross everything off our bucket list. At this point that strategy has been paying off and we’ve been able to visit several old favorites and also cross some new destinations off the list! I’m not letting myself go down the “this is the last time I’ll ever see x, y, or z” path because that would just be too depressing. Instead I’m enjoying every minute and soaking in as much as I can.

One of my favorite views in Oman: The Al Ain beehive tombs and Jebel Misht

A few weeks ago we went back to Wadi Damm and I was reminded of why it’s easily one of my favorite wadi hikes. It’s not too challenging (in fact, every time we figure out how to make the hike even easier) and the payoff with the beautiful pools at the end is top-notch. This last time we went a week after some big rain storms and I’ve never seen that much water in the wadi before. It was incredible. What’s usually a dry drive was full of splashing through puddles and streams. On the hike out of the wadi we got to talking with some young Omani men and they invited us to share lunch with them. Two hours later, we left the wadi stuffed with watermelon, rice, and chicken. We topped if off by stopping to explore some new ruins that, somehow, we’d never noticed before. The road that leads to Wadi Damm is quickly becoming one of my favorite roads in Oman, there’s so much neat stuff to do off of it. Plus, there’s a really nice clean public toilet that even has toilet paper!

Wadi Damm

How had we never noticed this huge ruined village right beside the road?!

Date palm plantations and a small stream behind the ruins

We were planning to go to Thailand over Eid, but instead we’re going to stick around and squeeze everything we can out of our remaining time in Oman. We’ve done a lot of exploring, but it’s shocking how many new places there are to see! Last weekend we went to Ain Sahban, which deserves its own blog post. That place was incredible. We have plans to finally go camping at Jebel Shams and Jebel Akhdar, and to stay at one of the fancy mountain resorts. There are dive sites I haven’t been to yet that I want to try, ruins to wander through, and a few forts that look interesting.

Sunset by the Mutrah souk

The most scenic chunk of sidewalk in Muscat

I finally printed some of my favorite photos from our time in Oman, and I have plans to go to a framing shop. We’re so used to electronic copies of photos, sometimes it’s hard to remember to actually print them. I also finally took the gemstones I bought in Sri Lanka to a jeweler in the souk to get set and made into jewelry. I don’t know why I decided to save all these things to the last minute, but better late than never, I guess.

Taking care of business at the jeweler

We’re lucky we have an amazing onward assignment to look forward to. If we were going someplace crappy I don’t know I’d manage leaving here. I’d be an emotional basket case.

It can be hard to be present in the Foreign Service, and that’s something I’m really mindful of.  It’s easy to get caught up in the future and what’s coming, sometimes even if it’s a long ways away. But we haven’t left Oman yet: we are still here. I shouldn’t be sad about leaving when we still have 10 more weeks to make the most of and enjoy with our friends.

We are trying to eat as many masala dosas as we can before we leave

Departing means cleaning out the pork drawer in the freezer! Carnitas tacos, yummmmm.

PCS tips from someone who may or may know what they’re doing

Dhaka pack-out: Just a few of the boxes 

 PCS, or permanent change of station, time is upon us! We are leaving in Oman in less than three months. Yikes. We are preparing for our third PCS and, while I am by no means an expert, I have some helpful advice for folks that are PCSing, especially for the first time. This is mostly in chronological order, and I hope it’s helpful!
Make a bucket list and strategize to get it all done. For me this meant that in January I made a list of all our remaining weekends in Oman and started planning what we were doing when. I know it sounds crazy, but I wanted to make sure we could fit it all in! Or maybe you have several big purchases to make, like art, furniture, or carpets. Make a budget and start finding the best places to procure what you’re looking for.

We made sure to find time to go back to Wadi Damm

Start sorting through your stuff several months ahead of time. This way you can sell things of value that you don’t want any more rather than frantically giving them away a few days before your pack-out.

Order the essentials and ship them several weeks before you are scheduled to arrive. Do an Amazon or jet.com box full of Tupperware containers, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, parchment paper, fluffy toilet paper, and whatever else you think you might need. Along these lines, change the address for your Amazon subscribe-and-save well in advance and then your subscribe-and-save items are there waiting for you.

Don’t spend too much time prepping for your pack-out. Yes, you should carefully consider what you want to put in UAB, but that’s about it. Put your UAB in a separate, easy-to-identify location and then let the movers do their thing. In normal circumstances, there’s no need for colored post-its, a careful labeling system, or any of that. Ultimately, all your shit will get packed and it will arrive where it’s supposed to. Unless the boat sinks or something.

Pack your suitcases and then shove them away in a bathroom with a sign on the door telling the movers not to enter. This way you know how much will fit in your luggage and you have all the necessities (for us this means passports, VPN router, my favorite kitchen knife, AppleTV, expensive jewelry, clothes, etc.) all in one place and you know they won’t get packed).

Watching all our stuff get packed up during our very first pack-out in Alexandria

Ship your mattress. I am so glad we did this. Nothing is worse than sleeping on a bad mattress for two years or more.

When you arrive, say “yes” to everything. Even if you’re tired or it seems like something you might not enjoy, do it anyways. Take advantage of every opportunity to meet the community members and learn more about life in your new location. It’ll be exhausting and sometimes challenging, but you never know when you’ll meet your new best friends.

Let the movers unpack the boxes. Put all the leaves in that dining room table and be prepared ahead of time! When things are strewn all around your house and everything is covered in stuff, you are much more likely to put everything away than you would be if it all stayed in the boxes. Also, it is so much easier when the movers take away the boxes and packing materials versus having to do it yourself. Maybe the idea of strangers touching all your stuff makes you uncomfortable, but at least have them unpack anything breakable. Otherwise you can’t document what arrived broken and you won’t be able to submit a claim.

Our kitchen in Dhaka after our HHE was delivered. Believe it or not, we were able to make dinner in our kitchen that night

Our kitchen in Muscat following HHE delivery. This is a great way to make sure everything gets put away as quickly as possible. As someone who likes an organized kitchen, this is hell.

Hi, my name is Kathryn and I have a china/glassware problem.

I hope this was helpful, and it’s time for me to start following my own advice!

A trip to the Oman Aquarium

The coral reef exhibit at the Oman Aquarium

Recently the Mall of Muscat opened in Seeb, and it contains the Oman Aquarium, which is supposedly the largest aquarium in the Middle East.

A few weeks after its opening, M and I decided to go check it out! It’s nice to have something new indoors to do close to Muscat, especially with the heat of the summer months upon us.

So many sharks!

In a nutshell: I’m glad we went, but it’s not worth visiting more than once.

The aquarium does a good job of showing the indigenous fish and creatures that you’ll see in different habitats in Oman. You’ll see a lot of the same animals in the exhibits that you’ll see in the mangrove swamps, reefs, and wadis throughout the country.

Sea life in a traditional Omani village

Getting up close and personal with turtles (in what may have been a Daymaniyat Islands exhibit? I don’t know. There were no signs)

Black-tipped reef sharks and sting rays in another interesting, but un-explained, exhibit

There’s also a neat shallow reef area with sea cucumbers and starfish, were you can put your hands in and touch everything. There was even a hand washing station next to it. It reminded me of that scene from “Finding Dory.” “Hands! Hands!”

The penguin exhibit was also pretty cool, and M was really excited about it. He also loved the few jellyfish exhibits. They even had the same jellyfish we saw in Musandam!

Penguins!

There’s a really cool huge under-the-sea exhibit with lots of fish and sharks, plus a few rays and turtles. There were several different viewpoints into the exhibit, and each offered something different. The huge eagle ray preferred to just relax in the sandy area in one particular spot, and we spent a lot of time standing there watching him relax next to a leopard shark.

A huge eagle ray!

Brought to you by Bank Muscat

Unfortunately a lot of the sea life didn’t look very healthy. Aside from sea anemones, there was no live coral. The eels were lying there on their sides, barely opening their mouths. The yellowbar angelfish were grey rather than blue. There were dead fish lying at the bottom of some of the exhibits.

Healthy, happy yellowbar angelfish the waters of Musandam

 

This is what eels are supposed to look like

I was looking forward to finally figuring out the names of a lot of the fish and other things we see while snorkeling and diving, but there were hardly any signs or informational panels.

Lastly, the cost. It is expensive. For something that you can easily see in 45 minutes, the price tag is painful. It’s 8.5 OMR ($22) and 6.5 OMR ($17) for children ages 3 and up.

A note on logistics: go early. The aquarium opens at 10 am every day but Friday (I think, I could be wrong) and I’d recommend getting to the mall by 9:45. You’ll have time to get a good parking spot and find the aquarium entrance on the 1st floor.

Unfortunately I just wasn’t impressed by this aquarium. Given that it’s Oman’s first major aquarium, I thought it would rival the Dubai aquarium in the Dubai Mall. It doesn’t. Not by a long shot. Maybe they’re still sorting out the kinks, putting the signs up, and getting everything sorted out. I’ll give the aquarium the benefit of doubt and say that it’ll probably be better in the future. Insha’Allah, as they say!

The tunnel is supposed to resemble a mangrove swamp (I think. Once again, no signs.)

Snapshots: Petroglyphs in Musandam

Can you spot all the petroglyphs?

There’s not a ton of cool stuff to do near Khasab without a boat or a 4WD vehicle. These petroglyphs, however, are very easy to get to, even in a sedan, and are only a 15 minute drive from Khasab! Drive to the coastal town of Qadah and then take the main drag through town into the wadi. The approximate location of the petroglphys is in Google Maps as “rock carving”, but as you’re driving in they are on the left in an area that is overrun by goats. There are several different rocks with petroglyphs on them, and climb on the rocks and boulders around the area to spot even more. We lucked out because a tour came through and the guide pointed out a bunch that otherwise we might not have noticed. M loved running around pointing out all the camels and horses on the rocks!

A hunter riding a horse with a bow and arrow

Camels?

More camels? Or horses? Who knows.

Another hunter riding a horse, next to a goat enclosure

A handprint!

Snapshots: Khor Najd in Musandam

Khor Najd, located 15 minutes past Khasab

If you see a photo of Musandam, it’s probably a photo of Khor Najd. With the winding road in the foreground, turquoise water and rocky mountains dropping into the sea, it makes for a lovely picture!

There’s not a whole lot to do at the lagoon itself, unless you’re taking a boat from there. It’s a working beach, full of slimy rocks, boats on trailers and a few boat slips. There’s one area where you could theoretically camp, but it’s rocky and there’s zero privacy. It also get hotter than hell once the sun comes up because there’s no breeze.

A photo stop at Khor Najd definitely needs to be included on your Musandam itinerary!

The rocky green beach at Khor Najd

 

This lagoon off Khor Najd was full of black-tipped reef sharks and sting rays

Fishing boats inside the lagoon

Mountains dropping into the sea

Fjords past Khor Najd

Snapshots: Khasab Castle

The Khasab Castle

As far as castles and forts in Oman that teach you about what life was like in the area when the castle was built, Khasab Castle is a clear winner. There are lots of neat exhibits with signs in English, both indoors and outdoors, and kids love running around and exploring. There’s also a nice, clean bathroom.

Cannons at the main entrance

The courtyard inside the castle

A rock house (explained here) and a summer house

A not-at-all-creepy exhibit inside the castle

The bathroom is handicap-accessible!

The central keep and palm trees

The view from the castle walls

Dhow trip through the Musandam fjords

An unusually dark and stormy day for Oman

We did a full day dhow trip through the fjords of Musandam, and, in extraordinarily rare turn of events for Oman, the weather was cold, windy, cloudy, and rainy. It was definitely not the sunny, snorkeling-filled day that I’d envisioned. But we made the most of it and had a memorable day.

Clouds!

Our dhow left from the Khasab port and we made our way into the fjords, towards Telegraph Island. In the 1800s the British set up a telegraph repeater station there to strengthen the Karachi-London telegraph cable line. Those that were stationed on Telegraph Island regularly went insane, due to the hot temperatures, isolation, and attacks by local tribes. This phenomenon gave rise to the expression “going around the bend,” because, to get to the island, you have to go around the bend in the fjords. Interesting, huh?!

Telegraph Island

Our snorkeling spot with Telegraph Island in the background

We stopped for swimming and snorkeling, and only a handful of people got in the frigid water. M watched one young man dive off the side of the dhow and declared him a “silly little guy.” Indeed.

The “refreshing” snorkeling/swimming spot

Lunch was surprisingly good. It was a delicious hot buffet of rice, chicken, stewed vegetables, flatbread, hummus and some salad. The boat also had all the karak tea and Omani coffee that we could drink, which was particularly appreciated given the weather.

A delicious lunch!

There are a number of villages on the coastal inlets in the fjords, and they are really interesting to see. The guide explained how they built these rock houses which were used to store food and other valuable goods when villagers had to leave during the summer to seek out cooler temperatures. By building the houses out of the same rocks that make up the mountains, the houses were practically invisible until you were right on top of them. The floors were dug out by about a meter, and the doorways were child-sized. Then once you made it through the doorway, it room was of normal height. The door also had a double-locking mechanism (that I don’t fully understand) which generally prevented the thieves from entering. But, on the off-chance that a thief spotted the house and was able to enter, villagers stored foodstuffs in huge clay jars too large to fit through the door to keep thieves from stealing anything.

One of the coastal villages 

Old village on the right, new village on the left

After lunch we explored the other side of the fjords and headed back to port. The sun never came out, but it did eventually stop raining. Poor M wanted so badly to see dolphins, which never happened. There were a lot of enormous jellyfish though, and he had fun pointing them out. These jellyfish weren’t poisonous, and when one of the snorkelers caught one and brought it on deck, M was very excited to touch it!

These jellyfish were huge!

Nate went snorkeling and got this neat shot

The weather unfortunately didn’t cooperate during our dhow trip and we spent most of it trying to stay dry and warm. But we still had fun and we appreciated the novelty of being cold and rainy weather someplace where the sun shines 99% of the year. Hey, at least we weren’t hot!

A cloudy and cold day in the fjords

The sun was trying to shine

Did I mention it was cloudy that day?

Scuba diving in Musandam

Blue sky, fjords and the Omani flag

Our first day in Musandam was, as it turned out, the one and only day we would have good weather. Luckily we had planned to spend the day scuba diving! We went with Ras Musandam Diver, and it was a great experience. The Ras Musandam dive boat left from Khor An Najd, so we got to explore different fjords than we would have on a dhow trip or something leaving from Khasab.

Fjords by Khor An Najd

The diving wasn’t spectacular, but we still enjoyed it. It’s always fun to explore a new place and the I love the thrill I get from descending someplace I’ve never been before. In this case I was reminded why it’s important to look down when you’re descending: I almost went crashing down on the reef and sea urchins, which were much shallower than I expected them to be!

The problem with diving is that sometimes the conditions are perfect and sometimes they’re not.  That day the sea was too rough to go very far out towards the open water and visibility was mediocre. We didn’t see anything particularly different from what we see in and around Muscat, although there were more Arabian angelfish and clown fish.  I also finally got to play around with the diving filters on my GoPro (with varying levels of success).

Arabian angelfish

That lobster’s antennae were as long as my arms

Territorial clownfish

Taking the boat through the fjords was cool, and during our surface interval we went on shore and walked around the ruins of a village on the beach. Our dive leader, Fawzy, also took us to a shallow beach full of black tipped reef sharks! Nate went snorkeling there, hoping he get to see the sharks, but they stealthily stayed away from him. It was a lovely day in and out of the water, and definitely the most fun we had on the entire trip.

Ruins on the beach

Another view of the beach ruins

More about Ras Musandam Diver: they went above and beyond to give us the best experience possible. Fawzy recruited his sister when our child care plans fell through, and on the drive to the boat slip he stopped for photo opportunities. Nate and I were the only customers on the boat, and they had towels, water, juice, snacks, pizza, Egyptian pastries, and coffee for us. Fawzy was in no hurry and really just wanted us to have the best day possible. He even threw extra tanks in the car when I asked if we were doing two dives and he said, “Oh, you want to do a third?!” If you want to scuba dive in Musandam, we highly recommend Ras Musandam Diver!

Fawzy, our awesome dive leader, and Gemel, his assistant