Reforms in Saudi Arabia’s education sector are producing highly skilled young people: minister
RIYADH: Saudi Arabia may be famous for its sand dunes and jagged mountain ranges, but it is also home to a lesser-known and quite different environment – a cool, silent, kaleidoscopic environment teeming with animal life and vegetable.
This is the underwater world of the Kingdom’s coastal zone, which is rapidly becoming a global scuba diving destination, with a simultaneous increase in the number of Saudi divers.
But for all its wonder and beauty, diving without proper training can be dangerous and even deadly.
PADI, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, a global organization based in California, offers 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 exam, which is the theoretical aspect,” he told Arab News. “It is made up of nine chapters with a test at the end, which is either manual or online.
“Then you are qualified to move on to confined water training in a swimming pool, where you learn a total of 24 skills, including how to assemble your scuba gear, becoming familiar with the breathing regulator, removing equipment, etc
“Once you complete confined water training, you move on to open water training and testing, either in Jeddah on the West Coast or Alkhobar in the Eastern Province. This consists of four dives over two days, again practicing these 24 skills, to less than 60 feet deep.
“There’s a formula for how many minutes you can stay at a certain depth, and you have to stick to the limit to avoid decompression sickness (also called bends). If you go too far and come back too fast, there is a risk of air bubbles forming in your blood or even in your brain, which is potentially fatal. Today, the calculations are automated on a dive computer, which is worn on the wrist like a watch.
The total cost for training and certification is between SR2,000 and SR3,000 ($500 to $750).
All the equipment including bodysuit, oxygen tank, breathing regulator, mask and fins can cost you upwards of SR4,000, but everything is available to hire from one of the many diving that have emerged in recent years.
The Kingdom’s scuba diving scene has been transformed by recent social reforms allowing Saudi women to dive without restriction. This has been a boon for Noura, who refuses to give her last name.
“I have been fascinated with scuba diving since my childhood as several members of my family were qualified divers,” Noura told Arab News. “Plus, I’ve always loved swimming and snorkeling, so diving was the natural progression.
“I got my diving certificate in 2016, but until a few years ago I couldn’t go out on a boat without a male companion – brother, father or husband – so I was limited to diving ever since. land. It was quite frustrating for me as I wanted to go and see some of the wrecks and coral reefs further off the coast. Now I’m free to do all of that.
“My most incredible experience as a diver was in Jeddah. I went diving with a buddy and there was no one else in the water. It was octopus mating season, and it t was the first time I had seen an octopus in its natural habitat. The two of them did a dance and changed colors. It was a fascinating showcase of what they could do with their bodies, and a unique moment in which we were witnesses.
So far, Saudi Arabia has been spared the mass tourism that has plagued the coasts of Egypt and most Mediterranean countries, and its coastal waters remain clear, with many pristine marine environments.
The reefs around Yanbu on the Red Sea coast, and around the Farasan Islands further south, are particularly spectacular, with multicolored corals and an abundance of marine life, including mostly benign sharks, scorpion fish , manta rays and even the occasional whale.
Plunging into the Realm also serves a more serious purpose. A team of marine archaeologists are currently excavating an 18th-century Red Sea shipwreck of Egyptian origin with a hoard of around 2,000 ceramic tableware items, while Ausemestre led a group of geologists on a landscape survey submarine and the life it contains, near the Saudi border with Jordan.
But this spike in underwater human activity poses the risk of damage to the sensitive tissue 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 arrived in the Kingdom from her native Philippines and became a diving coordinator with RIA Divenet, based in Riyadh (a PADI-qualified training organization) – warns that the explosion expected in tourism in Saudi Arabia could jeopardize its marine ecosystems.
“Just touching or stepping on a coral growth could potentially destroy it and many newbie divers don’t understand that,” Ocampo told Arab News. “There is a bright future for tourism of all kinds in the Kingdom, but this must be accompanied by advocacy to care for 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 growth in the number of people interested in the sport as “a beautiful thing” which also helps to take care of the underwater world.
“Divers are invested in this world,” she said.