Yanbu from Saudi Arabia joins the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities
RIYADH: Saudi Arabia may be famous for its endlessly flowing sand dunes and rugged mountain ranges, but it’s also home to a lesser-known and vastly different environment – one that’s cool, still, kaleidoscopic, and teeming with wildlife.
This is the underwater world of the Kingdom’s coastal zone, which is fast becoming a global diving destination, with a simultaneous increase in the number of Saudi divers.
But for all its wonder and beauty, scuba diving can be dangerous and even deadly without proper training.
PADI, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, a global organization based in California, provides training and certification and has been active in the Kingdom for decades.
Raul Ausemestre, a Riyadh-based PADI Master Instructor with 20 years of diving experience, explains the certification process.
“The first part is the knowledge check, that’s the theoretical aspect,” he told Arab News. “It consists of nine chapters with a test at the end, which is either manual or online.
“Then you’re qualified to move on to confined water training in a swimming pool, where you’ll learn a total of 24 skills, including assembling your scuba gear, learning about the regulator, removing gear, and so on.
“Once you complete the confined water training, you go to the actual open water training and testing, either in Jeddah on the West Coast or in Alkhobar in the Eastern Province. This consists of four dives over two days practicing these 24 skills again at a depth of less than 60 feet.
“There is a formula for how many minutes you can stay at a given depth, and you must stay within the limit to avoid decompression sickness (aka bends). If you go too low and come back up too quickly, you risk air bubbles forming in your blood or even your brain, potentially fatal. Today, the calculations run automatically on a dive computer that you wear on your wrist like a watch.”
Total training and certification costs range from SR2,000 to SR3,000 ($500-$750).
All the gear, including bodysuit, oxygen tank, regulator, mask and fins, can cost you upwards of SR 4,000, but you can rent them at any of the numerous dive centers that have popped up in recent years.
The kingdom’s diving scene has been transformed by recent social reforms, allowing Saudi women to dive without restrictions. This was a blessing for Noura, who declines to give her last name.
“I’ve been fascinated with scuba diving since I was a child because several of my family members were qualified divers,” Noura told Arab News. “Also, I’ve always enjoyed swimming and snorkeling, so scuba diving was a natural progression.
“I got my diving license in 2016, but until a few years ago I couldn’t go on a boat without a male companion – brother or father or husband – so I was limited to diving from shore. This was quite frustrating for me as I wanted to check out some of the wrecks and coral reefs further offshore. Now I’m free to do all of that.
“My greatest experience as a diver was in Jeddah. I was diving with a buddy and there was nobody else in the water. It was octopus mating season and this was the first time I had seen an octopus in its natural habitat. There were two of them doing a dance and changing colors. It was a fascinating demonstration of what they could do with their bodies and a unique moment for us to witness.”
Saudi Arabia has so far been spared the mass tourism that has scarred the shores of Egypt and most Mediterranean countries, and its coastal waters remain clear, with many pristine marine environments.
Reefs near Yanbu on the Red Sea coast and around the Farasan Islands further south are particularly spectacular, with colorful coral and an abundance of marine life including sharks, which are mostly benign, scorpion fish, manta rays and even the occasional whale .
Diving in the kingdom also serves a more serious purpose. A team of marine archaeologists is now excavating an 18th-century Egyptian shipwreck containing a hoard of some 2,000 ceramic tableware objects, while Ausemestre led a group of geologists in a study of the underwater landscape and the life it contained. near the border between Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
But this surge in underwater human activity risks damaging the delicate fabric of marine life, threatening the very qualities that make Saudi Arabia unique as a diving destination.
Medylene Ocampo – who couldn’t even swim when she came to the Kingdom from her native Philippines and later became a diving coordinator at Riyadh-based RDA Divenet (a PADI qualified training organization) – warns that the expected explosion will hit tourism in Saudi Arabia could endanger its marine ecosystems.
“Just touching or kicking a coral growth could potentially destroy it, and many novice divers don’t understand that,” Ocampo told Arab News. “There is a bright future for tourism of all kinds in the Kingdom, but that must be matched with a commitment to taking care of the ocean.”
“It’s great to see the growing interest in diving,” Noura said, “but I also want to see more protection for the marine environment.”
She described the increase in people interested in sports as “a nice thing”, which would also benefit the maintenance of the underwater world.
“Divers are invested in this world,” she said.