Dateline: February 21, 2011 – Dibba, Oman
Late one stormy night a few days before this trip, in the darkness of my downstairs office, I sat hunched over my computer closely studying a map. I had intended to look at the Dubai coastline, but my eyes kept drifting east, to the border with Oman. I knew Oman was a real country, with a Sultan and everything, but I had no idea it was so close to Dubai – a 90-minute-drive kind of close. If there is anything better than adding one country in a whirlwind mileage trip weekend, it’s adding two. Remembering my non-negotiable travel rule about avoiding gunfire, I was a bit skittish. But some research showed that the Arab Spring revolts hadn’t reached Oman. Yet.
As if you couldn’t have guessed.
So I made a few phone calls, and was surprised to learn that Oman was not only very close by, but that it also has an easy border crossing, a convenient port … and fish. Game on. There is precedent for these “two countries in two days” things – Poland and the Czech Republic in 2009, and Luxembourg and Austria in 2008. I have also pulled off some ill-advised stateside itineraries: catching fish in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire in a 4 day period in 2005. But the worst was my Red Bull-fueled midwestern saga with Ryan Kreitzinger in 2009, when we hit Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas in one very long, unplanned day. An itinerary of this nature does not permit much sleep, but imagine the sleep I would lose if I got home and realized I had lost a chance to add a country. Or, gasp, a species! I probably wasn’t going back to Dubai any time soon, so I wanted to make it happen when I had the chance. Carpe diem … although those live in fresh water.
The drive was surprisingly beautiful. Dubai itself is not the most attractive terrain – it’s pretty much flat desert that runs right into the sea. But the landscape changed as we headed east toward the border. There were rolling hills, then stark mountains that were wonderfully steep and scenic in the changing light of morning. Winding our way through narrow, arid passes, we spotted the ocean, then a 7-11 and a McDonalds! We reached the port of Dibba at around 8:30 and met the tour guide Noor and the skipper, Mohamed. In sharp contrast to the sometimes-pointless opulence of Dubai, Dibba was a working class harbor – full of old dhows, nets hung up to dry, a small fish market, and some tourist boats here and there. Noor didn’t have anything planned for the day, so he came along to act as translator.
We boarded Mohamed’s boat and eased out of port. As we ran up the coast, the scenery was wonderful – the steep desert bluffs dropped right into the ocean. The seas were flat and calm while we powered north along the Musandam peninsula toward the fishing grounds. We chatted as best we could about fishing conditions, species, and locations, but conversation also wandered to families and politics. Both men were married and had young children, and even though they ducked giving any opinion on the political stability of the country, it was clear they were worried about what was happening throughout the region.
Heading north out of Dibba. (Toward Iran)
Suddenly, we saw birds. And not just a few, but the kind of swarm usually reserved for Tippi Hedren. They were bunched, low over the water and diving to feed. Under the birds, there were hundreds of boils from below the surface. These were tuna. Seconds after we cut the motor, they were EVERYWHERE – next to the boat, zooming under us, jumping across the bow. They looked like longtails, a species I had not caught and one of the species required for an IGFA lifetime tuna slam. I tied on my favorite tuna-killing slab spoon with trembling hands and cast out into the frothing school, confident I would hook up in seconds. They ignored it. I cast again, dumbstruck that the tuna-killing slab spoon had not been crushed. They ignored it completely, like Lindsay Lohan ignoring good advice, so I re-rigged. I had a lot of different lures with me, and none of them were interesting to these tuna. I kept casting for at least an agonizing hour, yelling constructive things like “EAT IT YOU VEGETARIAN #%&*$ !!!” Noor and Mohamed smiled politely. I tried fast retrieves, slow retrieves, surface baits and jigs, and I just could not get a sniff, but the feeding frenzy continued unabated. I can’t tell you how much this frustrated me. OK, so this wasn’t going to be an epic big-game adventure, so I finally, reluctantly asked Mohammed to move us up the coast for some bottom fishing. Grumble. As we got under way, I looked over my shoulder and saw the aquatic fracas continue non-stop until it was out of sight. (Somewhere, I could hear Jaime Hamamoto giggling. What, I ask, would be so wrong with pepper-spraying her the next time she does that?)
About half an hour later, we anchored over a rocky reef. This first bottom fishing stop leads me to explain my “Theory of the Dominant Pest.” I believe that most tropical reef and rock structures hold a huge variety of fish. But I also believe, through hours of bitter experience, that there will be one species of fish on a given reef that is faster or hungrier or just more determined to piss me off than all the other species, and it will be that species – the dominant pest – that winds up as the bulk of the catch. Introducing today’s dominant pest: the Red Tooth Triggerfish.
The Red Tooth Triggerfish. OK, it’s pretty, but not after you’ve caught a hundred of them.
It was the first thing I caught after I gave up on the tuna. And it was the second, and third, and twentieth. The only redeeming fact was that, according to the IGFA record book I always bring along for just such an occasion, the Red Tooth Triggerfish record was open. (Oh, and I had added country #68 – I guess that’s important too.) I had caught a couple close to a pound, so now all I needed to do was get one at that magic 16 ounce line and I could redeem myself. And who has a world record from Oman? (Answer: Noman.) I figured I could do this quickly, which of course means that it took well over an hour of catching seemingly endless 14 and 15 ounce Red Tooth Triggerfish. But I finally got one at “sweet sixteen,” and into the livewell it went to be weighed officially in the harbor. So even though I had not yet added a species, I at least had a pending record. I thought of the tuna and accidentally bit my tongue.
Explaining the world record process and paperwork to Noor took a lot of elaborate hand gestures and pointing, but trying to explain why I wanted to go into the shallows and use really small hooks positively bewildered both of them. But they both wanted to see me have a good time, and if I wanted to do it, they were OK with it. The rest of the day was very pleasant. It was warm and a bit hazy, the seas were calm, and the sand-colored cliffs seemed to tower straight up into the clouds.
The Musandam Peninsula coastline. If you zoom in enough you would see a bunch of tuna laughing at me.
I managed to get a few interesting creatures – specifically, the Notchfin Threadfin Bream and the Arabian Monocle Bream, both new critters on the list and bringing the total to 1034. I also got a few groupers, and all kinds of interesting stuff in beautiful blue/green pools up against the cliffs.
Three-Spot Dascyllus. It’s called that because it has one spot.
The notched threadfin bream. Apparently these are highly regarded as table fare.
This would be the Arabian monocle bream.
Indo-Pacific Sergeant – pretty, cooperative, and common. It might be related to the Kardashian sisters.
Mohamed certainly knew his way around the local recreational fishing, and he was very keen to keep trying new tactics and spots. Fishing is a tough way to make a living, by the time gas and bait and commissions and taxes are all paid – and he worked his tail off. Two species and a world record is plenty to remember Oman by … what a beautiful place. You can be assured I am coming back to get those tuna. I can still hear them laughing in the distance. Someday it’s going to be sushi time for you, Mr. lockjawed @#$%, and I’m bringing the wasabi. Oops. Did I say that out loud? Normal people don’t hold grudges against fish, Steve.
Mohamed, Steve, Noor, in that order. Noor, who was not an experienced angler, really loved it. Note that he is holding a handline even as we take the photo.
The twilight drive home took us back through the austere, cavernous mountain passes, but by the time it got dark, we were back in the featureless desert. Then it was off to another very nice dinner – the opulence of Dubai felt very strange and not a little uncomfortable after spending a day in Dibba. I caught a few hours of sleep, constantly interrupted by dreams of snickering tuna. (Disturbingly like the dream sequence in “Hansel and Grundel” see – https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/10/09/hansel-and-grundel/)
Tuesday morning held an unexpected fishing trip. Well, OK, it wasn’t really that unexpected. I could only spend so much time wandering around my expansive hotel room before I would either get bored, exhausted, or lost. The place was ridiculously huge – see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hiqh_k_a0o – but it did overlook a rather attractive marina, and the hotel salad bar had shrimp for bait. Because I had a bit of time to kill, I decided to head out and try to scrape a species or two out of this protected water. I was a bit concerned about security, as there were patrol boats running around, but I figured I would risk it – sometimes, acting like you belong there is half the battle. So I casually wandered over, through a construction area, through a couple of gaps in fences, and out onto a short concrete pier. I thought I would be asked to leave quickly, but no one really noticed and I set to fishing. It was a very pleasant morning, with my own private little beach amidst the skyscrapers.
The dude in the background needed a bigger swimsuit.
There was a cloud of fish in the coral by the base of the pier, and they were biting. I got the usual suspects (usual in the sense that I had caught them in the last two days,) but I did manage to catch one wretched little new species – a type of mojarra. Mojarras are a family of small silver fish that live in shallow sandy areas worldwide and take great delight in being difficult to identify. I thought I was stuck with an impossible ID, but Dr. Alfredo Carvalho of the University of Sao Paolo pinned it down to Gerres oyena, the blacktip mojarra, and a new critter was on the list.
Gerres oyena. I should hate Mojarras, but a good species hunter has no shame.
After that, it was off to a tour of the Atlantis hotel and its fabulous if frustrating aquarium. (Some people may see beautiful fish when they go to a place like this – but I see everything I hadn’t caught earlier in the day.)
“Look, there’s another species Steve hasn’t caught.”
After that, I had dinner with some good old friends (the ones who stand too close together) before heading off to the airport. From there, it would take me 27 hours to reach San Francisco. I would like to say I went home and went to sleep, but I had a hockey game to play that night and my next fishing trip to plan.
Late that night, I pulled up CNN and read that riots had started in Oman. I thought of Mohamed and Noor, with young families, now half a world distant, and it all seemed very real to me.