x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Try this: scuba dive with dolphins at Atlantis, The Palm

We try out scuba-diving with a dolphin at Atlantis, The Palm's Dolphin Bay and find it a magical experience.

Scuba diving with dolphins at Atlantis, The Palm. Antonie Robertson / The National)
Scuba diving with dolphins at Atlantis, The Palm. Antonie Robertson / The National)

I am three metres underwater, grabbing on to a dolphin’s dorsal fin with both hands while it drags me along at an exhilarating pace.

This was the finale of a 30-minute encounter with Sol, one of the 28 Indo-Pacific bottlenoses kept at Atlantis, The Palm’s Dolphin Bay enclosure.

Yet, a few days previously, I’d never scuba-dived in my life.

My hasty introduction to the subaquatic world was thanks to the hotel’s new Learn to Dive With Dolphins package. It’s an intensive course that involves being tutored in the bare essentials of floating and breathing via oxygen tanks -underwater.

It starts at the hotel’s own Al Boom Dive Centre. The cheery Filipino Mario Tapales, who runs the centre and tells me he’s been diving for more than 20 years, is the man to indoctrinate me in the Padi (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) course.

It seems diving is a lot more than just donning some goggles and strapping an oxygen tank on your bank. First, you need to complete an online test where you learn about buoyancy techniques, underwater hand signals, how your equipment works and what to do in emergencies.

Then, Mario and I get into the dive centre’s deep saltwater tank, where we learn potentially life-saving tips, like what to do if your mouthpiece falls out or your mask slips off. After this, we head down to the depths, learning how to equalise pressure in our ears as we descend.

This is followed in the afternoon by another dive, this time in the somewhat murky seas off the shores of the Palm Jumeirah. After this, we’ve passed the first stage in my becoming a fully qualified diver.

However, I’m far from being Jacques Cousteau yet. My buoyancy control still leaves a lot to be desired and I continually stray upwards and downwards as I float through the waters.

Hence I fear if I was really let loose in the real ocean, I’d probably crash into coral reefs, harming both myself and the delicate ecosystems of the sea.

Nevertheless, I’m accomplished enough to be allowed into the relatively shallow, three-metre deep dolphin centre at Atlantis.

The experience starts with a brief tutorial by the marine mammal specialist Lauren Crank. The information she imparts ranges from the inanely obvious (“Dolphins aren’t fish, they’re mammals,” she tells us) to the really quite useful (“Don’t touch their blowholes or eyes or they might not be so -friendly”).

We then paddle out to the centre of the dolphin lagoon, sink down to the bed and wait for the fun to begin.

First of all, Sol swims by, allowing a quick stroke of his back, then we feed him a fish and he gives us a quick peck on the cheek.

Then we get to hug him and, if you’re wondering, he feels a bit like a rubbery dog.

Next up, there’s the aforementioned joyride being yanked along on his fin, before Sol shows off some of his underwater acrobatics. Then it’s over and we’re splashing our way back to the shallows.

Of course, removing any animal from their natural environment – especially such intelligent ones as dolphins – is a contentious issue. Many could argue that these creatures are being exploited for the entertainment of people, and hence find this whole experience morally dubious.

Nevertheless, Sol was waiting for us in the shallows as we prepared to dive and seemed to enjoy the rituals of performing tricks for us. And with a 4.5-hectare sized pool to live in, his lot is much better than many other dolphins kept in captivity.

So, not only have I had an amazing 30 minutes of interaction with this beautiful cetacean but, thanks to the scuba qualification, I’ve also had the magical underwater world opened up to me.

The Learn to Dive With Dolphins package costs Dh1,999 if booked before October 30. Call 04 426 3000 or visit www.atlantisthepalm.com for more information