Could this new five-star underwater school shake up Dubai’s diving scene? Time Out investigates
I’m nervous. It’s 9am on a Saturday morning and I’m zipping up the Palm Jumeirah towards Atlantis. But it’s not the taxi driver’s speed that’s scaring me. It’s the fact that I’m going to be spending the day diving. Or, to put it more precisely: breathing underwater – something that’s quite clearly not natural.
It’s not as if I’m a novice. I completed my PADI course last November, started filling in the shiny log book immediately and have even received my official PADI ID card. I just haven’t dipped below the surface since. Why? Because, to be honest, taking my own life into my hands via vaguely technical equipment scares the living daylights out of me.
Thus, I thought it would be a good idea to go over the basics and do another Discover Scuba Diving course at the new Atlantis Dive Centre. Until now, Al Boom and Pavilion have pretty much had a monopoly on diving in this town, sitting at opposite ends of the spectrum (Al Boom is cheap and cheerful, Pavilion is more of a five-star operation). Where will the Palm’s new venture fit in?
First things first, it needs to make its location less obscure. After asking three separate members of staff, my speedy taxi driver and I eventually find the entrance, hidden behind a huge barasti gate; my friend, meanwhile, is directed to wait for a park-and-ride bus she doesn’t actually need to take. Once in, however, we’re greeted by a shiny new centre and facilities, with incredibly sparky (for this time in the morning) staff from all over the world: New Zealand, the UK, Australia, the Philippines and the States. We fill in a short form accepting full liability for our own safety (erm…), watch a brief, charmingly cheesy video explaining 20 diving skills (never hold your breath, don’t touch underwater creatures and so on), then complete a quick true-or-false quiz. After managing to get all the quiz questions right, my stomach settles. It’s time to get in the pool.
Atlantis Dive Centre’s training pool is one feature that really separates it from the competition. Located indoors, filled with salt water and at a somersault-friendly three metres deep, it gives students a very good feel for the seas before hitting the open waters. Our friendly twenty-something instructor, Kiwi Kate, calmly and patiently demonstrates clearing her mask, what to do should our tanks run out of air (don’t panic!) and a handful more simple skills that we copy until we get them right. We then have five minutes to practise buoyancy and, seeing as we’re feeling more and more relaxed, those somersaults.
After grabbing lunch in the hotel (we opt for Rostang’s gut-busting burger – what with all the calories we’re about to burn in the water, we figure we need some energy), we return, struggle into the full wetsuit (unfortunately they don’t have any ‘shorties’ – yet) and hop on one of the two boats to head just offshore towards the Palm Monorail line. That’s right: in a classic ‘only in Dubai’ moment, we discover the best spot for beginner divers is directly beneath the train tracks, circling the clam-covered cement pillars. It certainly beats a two-hour trip to the East Coast, where the UAE’s more renowned dive sites are found.
I master the horrid backwards roll into the water (again, with very detailed advice from Kate) and we duck down just eight metres or so. Though the temperature is a bath-like 28°C, visibility is unfortunately less than a metre, and I spend a lot of time simply watching Kate to make sure I don’t lose her. But as my confidence increases and I get to grips with the various bits of equipment – I even manage to clear my mask! – I start to look around, noticing dozens of angelfish, starfish and even a big grouper. We keep the dive short, at just 30 minutes underwater. It’s the first time I haven’t had to perform skills during an open-water dive and I feel as though I’ve just experienced the fun side of the sport – the most important part.
As a reward after the long (though not particularly gruelling) day, we end with a sunset boat trip around the Palm, on a route chosen by us. By the time we step back onto land, I’m both windswept and incredibly relaxed. I’m even keen to go ‘breathing underwater’ again soon – and, with its competitive rates and five-star facilities, I may well be heading back to Atlantis. The Discover Scuba Diving course, including one dive, is Dhs400. The sunset cruise is Dhs350 per person. Call 04 426 3000 or see www.atlantisdivecentre.com.