Al Ain, one might reasonably conclude, isn't exactly the ideal location for a diving instructor to live, being entirely landlocked and at least a three-hour drive from the UAE's favourite underwater playgrounds of Fujairah.
But needs must for British expat Sarah Jones, 45, who has lived in the oasis city since moving to the Emirates in 2011. Jones hails from Anglesey, the North Wales island in the United Kingdom, and works as a senior dental nurse at a hospital, but her free time is spent on an activity that has become "the centre of her life" here.
When she left school in 1989, Jones joined the Royal Navy, where she gained the nickname “Spanners”, in deference to her abilities with repairing and maintaining equipment. During her time in the forces, in 1993, she got her first taste for diving, while participating in combat exercises in Singapore. While “life got in the way”, that initial thrill and fascination with what had until then been a foreign world never fully left her, and after she turned 40, she resolved to do something about it.
In no time at all, Jones had not only qualified as a diver, but also as a certified instructor, with the National Association of Underwater Instructors. And now, she says, there isn’t a weekend that goes by that doesn’t see her in the water. “Sometimes the beaches are closed and nobody is allowed in the sea because the weather conditions are too rough,” she says. “When that happens I’m like the proverbial mermaid out of water – I’m not much fun to be around.”
Jones says that to dive on a regular basis like she does, you need commitment. “It’s an expensive hobby, but totally worth it. My spare room at home is full of gear that my students can use and, yes, to be able to run this as a business full-time would be a dream come true for me, but that’s on the back-burner for now. My nursing has to be a priority.”
Despite its geographical position, Al Ain does have a fairly active diving community, whom Jones says she loves spending time with. “I’ve made some amazing friends here, especially with the Emirati divers who have taught me so many valuable lessons.”
While recuperating from an extensive operation on one of her shoulders, instead of getting down about not being able to indulge in her favourite pastime, she decided to learn a new skill that would open up an entirely new avenue: underwater photography.
“Again, it was my Emirati friends Juma bin Thalith and Mohammed Jaber who helped me with this, introducing me to techniques that have worked for them, explaining what to look for and where. I bought a special diving camera – an Olympus TG-4 with a housing that allows for deeper dives – and it’s brilliant, because it’s compact enough yet has a macro facility that allows extreme close-up shots.”
Her photography is enough to get even the most ardent thalassophobe eager to jump into the big blue. And the results have been impressive enough to be featured on diving social-media sites around the world. “Some of the brightly coloured creatures I photograph are absolutely minuscule and I love being able to show people how much undiscovered beauty there is under the waves.”
Her top dive sites are Dibba, Musandam and, naturally, Fujairah, where the Barracuda Diving Centre has become her second home. “That’s where the real life is,” she enthuses. “A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to have an encounter with an enormous whale shark – a breathtaking experience. Such a majestic, beautiful creature that moved with grace and unbelievable speed. The sounds underwater as it passed were incredible. It was a real bucket-list item to tick off.”
She has had one or two scares over the years, including having a jellyfish wrap itself around her face, Alien-style, which left her in agony for two days ("it was like being stabbed in the face with knives"), and encountering a "school of between 150 and 200 barracuda" in Musandam.
“They are really dangerous, especially in large groups like that, and they’re attracted to shiny things. So instinct kicked in and I made sure the two students I had with me weren’t going to get into any bother. Thankfully, the barracuda weren’t interested in us and they went on their way.” It’s all part and parcel of the magic of the sea for Jones, though.
With the world’s spotlight now turned on the oceans and the amount of plastic pollution in them, is that something she has had to contend with here? Unfortunately, it is.
“There’s less evidence of it in deep waters, but the coastline is where the impact can be seen – people just throw their rubbish overboard from ships and boats. I did a dive off the coast of Dibba once and collected seven bags full of just plastic water bottles. I’ve seen tyres, televisions, bicycles and even ladders in the water. As humans we really need to change our behaviour – the oceans deserve much better.”