There is something magical about seahorses. They have a sort of aloof beauty which sets them apart from even the most colourful or acrobatic of their fishy counterparts. In all my years of diving, I have only ever encountered a few.
My first sighting was in the placid waters off the coast of a little Caribbean island called Carriacou. My eye caught something unnaturally yellow which I took to be a piece of coral, but on closer inspection proved to be a tiny seahorse, anchored by its tail to the reef. I've also seen and filmed them off the Dorset coast. Britain has two species of seahorse that inhabit the fragile eelgrass beds in places such as Studland Bay. In the summer they live in shallow water of not much more than a couple of metres – but they are masters of disguise and are often impossible to find among the waving fronds of grass. So it was a totally unexpected delight to come face to face with a rather large, handsome seahorse in the very first moments of my very first dive off the coast of Oman.
The dive site was, appropriately, called "The Aquarium". It lies at the furthest reaches of the Daymaniyat Islands, which themselves are scattered off the coast north of the capital, Muscat.
Oman has mountains and wadis, and the story-book dunes of the Empty Quarter. But it also has more than 1,000 miles of spectacular coastline. It begins among the rugged fjords of the Musandam Peninsula in the north, and then after a break – when the UAE takes over for a stretch – picks up again with the islands and reefs conveniently close to Muscat. The shore then runs south to the turtle-laying beaches (now a protected reserve) and beyond to the huge, largely undeveloped stretches of beach in Salalah.
Sometimes, as when I was there, the visibility can be a bit murky, but plankton-rich waters like these attract lots and lots of fish. On that first dive I didn't just see one seahorse, but several. They were calm and unflustered in the midst of flashing shoals of fusiliers and snappers. I also found giant nudibranchs – sea slugs – which defy the unromantic image conjured up by the word "slug" and do their best to outshine the corals with a fanciful display of tufts, horns, frills, patterns and colours.
Outshining the corals was no mean feat. The reefs were ablaze with a profusion of vivid clashing soft corals in lime greens, purples and oranges. Tucked in the crevices and shielded by the bright coral garden skulked lobsters, parrot fish and red-toothed triggerfish (indigo-blue creatures with a perfect crescent for a tail but with an alarming vampire grin which shows off the bright red teeth that give it its name).
When not submerged in Oman's marine world, I indulged my husband's love of forts and castles and my own love of food markets and local eateries. The present sultan has been developing and modernising Oman and there is an ever-increasing network of roads. As a rule, I'm a big fan of public transport as a way of getting beyond the tourist façade of any country, but in a place where petrol is virtually free, there isn't much of a public transport system. Hiring a car is the easiest way to get around.
We drove to Nizwa, where the splendid circular complex of the fort has been so meticulously restored it's hard to believe it dates from the 17th century. What it lacks in romantic, crumbling walls and stone worn down by centuries of marching feet, it makes up for with well–placed props to illustrate how rooms were used, along with descriptions of what went on where and an almost too-detailed account of how intruders were repelled. (Trapdoors over spike-filled pits, plus boiling date juice.)
At Rustaq, there is another fort, believed to be one of the oldest in the country. It is so vast and complex that its inhabitants could have wandered around for days trying to find each other, or, like us, struggled simply to find the exit. There are turrets and passages, staircases, ingenious bathrooms and loos with views, living quarters, kitchens and mosques. Despite being on the burningly hot coastal plain, its main rooms – those used by the men of the household – were designed to apprehend the slightest breeze. Water was supplied by one of the many irrigation channels, or falajs, as they are known locally, that are still in use around more rural parts of Oman today.
My favourite fort was the one at Nakhl. On the approach it looks rather uninspiring, but it has a charm and homeliness the other two lack. The rooms and courtyards are built along the contours of the rock on which it stands, with views across forests of date palms to the alluringly rugged mountains in one direction and in the other, over the plain to the sea.
Modern-day Oman is a rich ethnic mix of Arabic, Indian and Pakistani cultures: a biryani is as easy to come by as a plate of hummus. We found little local restaurants, some barely more than a doorway and a couple of formica-topped tables, but always spotless and selling delicious curries for less than an orange juice costs in a hotel.
The souk at Rustaq is reputed to be one of the best to wander around absorbing local colours, smells and flavours, but we couldn't find it. We asked, we searched, we lost ourselves down side streets and alleyways, but no luck. Finally, someone told us it was being rebuilt after heavy rains which had rendered the old maze of stalls and passageways unsafe. The souk had been temporarily relocated to a big building on the outskirts of town.
The warehouse may not have been particularly pretty, but its contents were everything a true local market should be. Piles of fruit and vegetables, hessian sacks of rice and flour, scurrying cats, coils of rope, mysterious farm implements, furious bargaining, young men with boxes piled high on their heads weaving between the shoppers... I was entranced by the chatter, the gnarled handshakes, the tiny glasses of tea being handed out on tin trays.
I wondered if that first dive with the seahorses had spoilt me and that I would only be disappointed by the subsequent dives. True, a couple were memorable only for the fact that the visibility made the experience like diving in green soup; I almost decided that I would give my final planned dive a miss. Thank goodness I didn't. I entered the water just off a tiny island. I didn't need to go very deep, barely below 10 metres, to find a riot of glorious corals and anemones, all close enough to the surface to be lit up beautifully by the sun.
A pair of cuttlefish, translucent and ghostly, hung in the water on the edge of the reef, their huge eyes seeming to follow my every move. A turtle flapped serenely by and then settled to graze on a patch of algae. Shoals of fish flittered and skittered, a constant stream of colour and motion – and below all the hustle and bustle, lying immobile and stately on the seabed, I found a shark. It was a leopard shark, with skin spotted and marked as intricately as that of its feline namesake. I stayed as still as I could, hardly daring to breathe, hoping it would allow us just to admire from a respectful distance.
A shark is like a perfectly designed racing car: sleek, gorgeous in a slightly "yes, but you can't afford me" kind of way, and astonishingly quick and powerful. Seeing a shark never fails to quicken my pulse; there is always a frisson of danger, simply because they are so perfectly designed to be in water and we are not. As if to prove it, the leopard shark decided to move off. With one casual flick of its tail it was gone, a silver streak like the trace of a shooting star.