Time Out takes the plunge and finds out exactly what things are like below the surface of Bahrain's seas
I am skimming along southwards in a speedboat belonging to Ahmed Al Khafan, the skipper and manager of Scuba Master dive shop, but I have no idea what I’m letting myself in for. This is my first dive in Bahrain and, as I lean over and ask Ahmed what to expect, I’m surprised that he replies with a question: what is my previous diving experience?
As it happens, diving is one of the few sports I actually know a little bit about. Over the last 10 years I’ve worked my way up to a Padi dive master certification and plunged into some of the world’s best locations. On hearing this, Ahmed tells me to lower my expectations a little. This, he says, is Bahrain diving.
Unfortunately, as part-time instructor Salman Bushehri tells me, diving on the island has been affected by dredging for land reclamation projects, which stir up silt and smother coral. ‘Thirteen years ago I used to go diving in the south and it was so colourful with lots of juvenile fish, sea snakes, hard corals – you name it. The coral bed was alive and colourful,’ he tells me. ‘Now it’s totally damaged and there’s no colour, which is very sad for those of us who’ve been diving for a while.’
But despite the doom and gloom Salman says there are a couple of nice features to Bahrain’s underwater scene, which is known for its pearl diving. Few spots in the world have such an abundance of oyster beds, and divers are free to collect as many shells as they can carry on specially organised pearl-diving trips run by both Salman’s company, Eco Dive Centre, and Scuba Master. According to the statistics, you might find one pearl of value in every 100 shells and you can always get lucky. Salman recalls one punter who cracked his very first shell to find an exquisite mother of pearl – not a bad reward for a day’s diving.
If that’s not your cup of tea, Salman lets me in on a bit of a secret; the one reef in Bahrain that has remained largely unharmed by reclamation practices, Bulthama. The small dive site is about a two-hour boat ride to the north of Bahrain and boasts an abundance of marine life, from beautiful hard and soft corals to moray eels, sea snakes and hundreds of species of fish. There’s only one catch, it can be quite difficult to get there.
Any strong breeze makes the Gulf’s shallow seas too turbulent, and the site can only be reached at certain times of the year, when weather conditions are perfect. Its limited accessibility and apparent beauty has given Bulthama a revered status among the divers that I’m travelling with. Some have been and others are waiting for their chance, but from what I can gather it’s the Eldorado of dive sites in Bahrain.
The best times to get there are in March and October, and in both March and April there is also a good chance of seeing a whale shark. Swimming with whale sharks, the gentle giants of the sea, is an experience that tops the list for any diver, and one which has so far narrowly eluded me.
Unfortunately, it’s not a dive we can do today. Nonetheless, Ahmed has still managed to pack his boat with 10 eager divers, who are a mix of ages, nationalities and experience. These guys are paying BD30 a pop for two dives – which, today, will be in the south. We dive only to a depth 6m, and while there is a vast expanse of reef, it is covered in a layer of silt, has no colour and there are few fish. The only highlight is finding a couple of large cuttlefish, which have the remarkable ability to change their skin colour with flashes of fast-changing patterns.
For me, however, diving is enjoyable no matter what you see. A few breaths underwater can wash away all the stresses of the real world. There is no communication, no noise, you’re weightless, relaxed and hear only the sound of your bubbles. Scuba Master (17 292 154, www.scubamaster.ws) offers regular boat trips (from BD12, excluding equipment, or BD30 inclusive), as well as Padi Open Water courses (BD180 including crew pack and four dives).The dive shop behind Gosi Centre is open Sat-Thu 9am-1pm and 4pm-9pm; Fri 9am-6pm. IDCS instructor Salman Bushehri of Eco Dive Centre (39 333 123) offers weekend dives (from BD12 per person, plus BD18 for full gear) and personalised dive training up to assistant instructor level.