Early in 2016, Oman announced the discovery of the oldest known shipwreck from Europe’s Golden Age of Exploration, located off the coast of Dhofar. Believed to be part of a fleet led by the legendary Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the boat has been identified as the Esmeralda, one of two boats who sank during stormy weather in 1503.
The site of the Esmeralda wreckage was originally located in 1998, but only now, after years of painstaking excavation and careful research, are archaeologists confident to declare that the sunken vessel was one of the craft Vasco da Gama took on his second trip to India; though, by the time the Esmeralda had sunk, the famous adventurer had already returned to Portugal and the Esmeralda was part of a small flotilla left under the control of his uncles, Vicente and Bras Sodré.
The Sodré brothers had been specifically charged with the defence of the newly established Portuguese spice trade route, but elected instead to raid the nearby Arabian Peninsula. During this incursion, the brothers sought shelter from bad weather in a bay on the island of Al-Hallaniyah, but ignored the advice of local fishermen on where to drop anchor. When the powerful storm eventually hit, the ships were ripped from their moorings, sails and rigging torn asunder. The Esmeralda was reported at the time to have been smashed against the rocks, with the resulting damage so extensive that it slipped beneath the waves, to remain undisturbed by man for nearly 500 years.
It is a fascinating backstory for a wreck that holds some fascinating discoveries, and if the remains do belong to the Esmeralda, as it appears they do, it would be the earliest known example of a ship from a time lacking in primary sources of historical evidence. Surpassing the drowned carcass of the São João (discovered near Port Edward, South Africa) by 49 years, and adding a treasure trove of knowledge to what historians understand about this enigmatic era.
Although you can’t dive it yet, the Esmeralda is sure be an incredible place for adventurous divers to reconnoitre and, perhaps, come across a relic or two. In the meantime Oman has plenty of other wrecks for you to explore. Let us submerge you into the underwater ruins of Oman with an overview of the best four.
The City of Winchester
The City of Winchester, a cargo steamer once owned by the British Royal Merchant Navy, is one of the best dives in Oman, and for many is the diving highlight of the region. Lying just off the coast of Al-Hallaniyah island, at a depth of 92 ft, the ship was sunk on August 5, 1914 by the SMS Königsberg of the German Imperial Navy, giving the beleaguered vessel the honor of being the very first casualty of WW1. Blanketed with soft coral, sea anemones and sea fans, the 394-foot-long wreck – which collapsed under its own weight long ago – is a cornucopia of marine flora and fauna and also teases the possibility of catching sight of humpback whales and manta rays in their natural habitat.
The MS Mimoona
MS Mimoona, a sunken cargo ship, also commonly known as the Quriyat wreck, is a wonderful diving experience mixing striking and unique features that make it stand out from the already exceptional crowd of the Oman diving scene. Easily accessible by boat from the mainland, and just 52 ft below the waves, the site is a perfect spot for divers of all levels from beginners to the more seasoned pro’. The relatively shallow depths involved allow for a gentle and serene pleasure dive, where you can find all manner of sea life including multiple ray species – sting, torpedo, and eagle – as well as turtles, seahorses and vibrant coral gardens.
Originally built in England, the Al Munasir wreckage was deliberately scuttled in 2003 by the Royal Navy of Oman, once it had reached the end of service and had been decommissioned, with the aim of creating an artificial reef near Muscat. Fourteen years on, and Al Munasir is covered in a beautiful layer of soft and hard corals and is teeming with life; the 275-foot-long wreck has become a playground for an endless list of underwater creatures. You might find yourself coming face to face with moray eels, boxfish and angelfish and amazed by the shoals of cavorting snapper and goatfish, as they flow joyously around the hull. The Al Munasir wreck has evolved into a stunning and unique diving spot, and is an absolute must for divers traveling to Oman, though be warned this is not a dive for newbies and experience is necessary to take the plunge into this awe-inspiring site.
The Tug and Barge
Best known for the extensive range and quality of its marine life more than its history, the Tug and Barge site is a paradise for exotic fish, whales and whale sharks, not to mention the occasional bottle-nose dolphins which delight in swimming through and around the two wrecks. The site, sitting in 79 ft of water, can be reached in just 20 minutes on a boat from Muscat. In the water, the popular hard-to-get-to site will require a guide to navigate the way, as it is very difficult to find on your own. Once on the scene you will be met with a proliferation of corals, sponges, colorful fish and the glorious technicolor of the nudibranch – a type of soft-bodied, marine gastropod mollusk noted for their extraordinary, almost psychedelic appearance.
Like all dive sites in Oman, the Tug and Barge has a high density of plankton which, dependent on the conditions at the time, can affect the visibility on your dive. The upside to this is an abundance of plankton means an abundance of fish, so your experience will be memorable whatever the weather!
That is just four of the many numerous dive sites that can be found in Oman, but there are several others – like the Daymaniyat Islands, where you can see a selection of corals, eagle rays and dolphins, and if you are a turtle fan make sure to visit the Ras Al Hadd resort, especially developed for the conservation of marine turtles. You’ll find there’s more than enough to keep you occupied until such time that the Esmeralda site is open to the public and you can investigate the mysteries that lie within yourself.