Underwater world

Time Out makes the acquaintance of Flipper, Jaws and all manner of sea life, as it dives into a world of sub-aquatic adventure


It’s hardly surprising the UAE and surrounding areas make for unforgettable marine life experiences.

Whether you’re after a delightful little dolphin kiss, snorkelling with neon tropical fish or something altogether more sinister (sharks just love the Indian Ocean’s warm hospitable waters), you’re spoilt for choice round here. Read on to discover just what’s on offer and where you can do it.

Swimming with dolphins

Okay, so it’s a bit cutesy, but swimming with dolphins really is a great experience. They are beautiful and intelligent creatures, and to have the opportunity to be that close to one is incredible. Of course, when it involves the animals being kept in captivity, it is also shrouded in controversy, and Dubai’s two dolphin centres are no exceptions. Atlantis’s Dolphin Bay, the newer and shinier of the two, wins the pool size battle hands down, with 4.5 hectares of outdoor lagoons that are rearranged from time to time to keep the dolphins stimulated. Dubai Dolphinarium, meanwhile, is an indoor facility which, somewhat controversially, has seven dolphins living in a pool that measures just 22m x 12m (smaller than an average-sized swimming pool).

If you want to frolic with dolphins at Dolphin Bay, shallow water experiences are on offer, but Time Out has personally tested out the deep water interaction and, trust us, it’s pretty awesome. After pulling on a snug wetsuit, you get into the water and interact with the flippered creatures; one exercise involves the dolphin gently nudging your hand so you spin in a circle while the ‘marine mammal specialists – explicitly not ‘dolphin trainers’ – sing Kylie Minogue tracks. In another exercise you lightly grip the dolphin’s pectoral flippers as it swims across the pool, pulling you along with it. The price tag is eye-watering (and the same goes for the photos they sell at the end) but this is a true once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Dolphin spotting

If you’d rather see dolphins in their natural habitat, it’s hard to beat a dhow trip in Musandam. The beauty of these magnificent creatures is perfectly offset by dramatic fjords and imposing, stark mountains, with nothing penetrating the silence but the haunting whistling sound the fishermen make to tempt the playful creatures above the surface. It would be an odd day indeed for you not to see at least a couple racing alongside the boat, vying for the tourists’ attention. The boat trips alone make for a truly enjoyable day out: big cushions are scattered all over enormous soft rugs on deck, and the snorkelling stops you make in between Flipper sightings are enough to make you forget all your Dubai traffic-based woes.

Swimming with sharks

Snorkelling with clown fish is all well and good, but once you’ve lived in Dubai for a while it becomes a little like seeing a sparrow in Europe. Push yourself to the next level of underwater extremity with a scuba diving trip involving much more than pretty tropical fish. While the species of sharks you can find – black tip, whale, reef, zebra, guitar – are harmless, they’re also less sociable than dolphins and are likely to scarper if they come face to face with your big masked mug, it’s often a case of ‘now you see him, now you don’t’. But swimming with sharks? Now there’s a boast. So, what can you see and where? Some say you can see guitar sharks in Dubai, at the Barge Sarraf wreck, at a depth of 22m. But the best places are undoubtedly Dibba and Musandam. The former is fantastic for sighting blacktip sharks, while the latter is a popular stomping ground for whale, zebra and reef sharks. If you want to know more about specific dive sites, there’s a comprehensive guide available online at www.tdicenter.com.

Turtle watching

For a unique marine experience without even cracking out the Speedos, you can’t beat spending time with turtles. There are plenty bobbing around the water at Khor Kalba mangroves. If you don’t manage to explore the area in a kayak, you can spot them if you stand on the bridge leading to the mangroves. To get more up close and personal, head to Ras Al Jinz Visitor and Science Centre in Oman where you can watch the shelled ones lay eggs and babies making a break for the ocean. Conservationists will teach you all about this oh-so-cute species in guided tours – the activity is popular so advance booking is essential (tours cost around Dhs30). The best time of year to visit is from June to August. Early birds can join the 4am walk, with the added bonus that photography is permitted as soon as the sun rises.

Dolphin dilemma

While dolphins are generally a friendly bunch of maritime mammals, swimming with flipper and friends in the wild, does have its risks...
You can thank Flipper for the cute dolphin thing, though it’s unlikely the bottle-nosed community will share your enthusiasm. As recent propaganda movie The Cove demonstrated, these intelligent animals suffer stress as easily as we do, and being forced into humiliating and repetitive displays can result in depression and illness.

Thankfully, the dolphins regularly seen in the Saadiyat channel and swimming off the coast of Sir Bani Yas Island, both just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, are not in captivity, and frolicking alongside your boat as you snap pics is their choice entirely. This doesn’t mean you ought to leap in and ride them like prissy sea ponies, of course. A dolphin that feels threatened will attack, and those cutesy noses are as soft as truncheons when swung deftly at a hug-seeking ribcage.

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