- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

DIANI, Kenya — With clouds above and choppy waves battering the boat, my diving trip in Kenya didn’t seem to be starting on a good note.

The boat jumped over the waves and thumped against the water; rain spattered the 25 wet-suit-wearing divers onboard. I felt slightly seasick as I recalled that a fishing boat capsized here in 2001, killing four people.

The captain navigated wildly — if effectively — through a “mlango,” Kiswahili for “gate,” a gap in the reef where boats exit the lagoon through deep water. Finally we made it to calmer seas, and the divers broke into applause.

My queasiness subsided as I remembered what had brought me here: a barrier reef and tropical waters teeming with marine life such as manta rays, turtles, dolphins and even the elusive whale shark in one of the least-known but most spectacular dive sites in the world.

We were in Diani, a beach along the Kenyan coast, 322 miles east of Nairobi. Despite the area’s natural beauty, these days its five-star resorts are semideserted. The area has been hurt by local crime and a lack of marketing, but also by the post-September 11 climate.

The U.S. State Department has issued advisories against unnecessary travel to Kenya and other parts of East Africa because of concerns about terrorism. A 1998 car bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi killed more than 200 people, and a 2002 attack at a hotel close to Mombasa killed 10 Kenyans and three Israeli tourists.

Yet Kenya’s coastal population relies on tourism to make a living, according to Ralph Winter, general manager of Diving the Crab, the company that organized our trip. “If 40 percent of tourism-related jobs are no longer in existence, you can imagine how many people are affected,” he said.

We divers, an international group who were mostly German, French and Italian, chose to ignore the advisories for a chance at underwater paradise.

We were heading to a wreck — an old fishing trawler that the dive center had sunk in 2002 at a depth of 85.8 feet.

All the dive sites along Diani lie parallel to the coastline, between 1,650 and 2,310 feet from the shore, part of a 125-mile-long barrier reef.

Diving takes place beyond the reef, where the must-see creatures live. It is an ideal location for beginners because dangerous sharks are rare here. The site also appeals to experienced divers, especially those craving a glimpse of the whale shark. At up to 10 tons, it is the largest-known fish.

Whale sharks allow divers who encounter them to get very close before they swim away, and they have never been known to attack humans. Among scuba pros, seeing a whale shark is a prized goal.

While doing our buddy checks, I began to feel nauseous again. I sat quietly in my gear, waiting for my group’s turn. The ultimate cure for seasickness is jumping in; fortunately, only a few moments lapsed before we hit the water.

Every diver has a favorite moment; mine is right after jumping in, when my head is completely underwater and I start breathing through my regulator. As I descended into the waters off Diani with my group, the water got murkier and chillier, and the prow of the wreck came into view.

Schools of tropical fish surrounded us. Swimming around the wreck, we saw barnacles, trumpet fish, triggerfish, batfish, guitarfish, soldier fish, bigeye fish, banner fish, angler fish, frogfish, rainbow runners, jackfish, snappers, sweetlips, grouper, barracuda, scorpion fish and a resident lion fish.

Our time underwater flew by; after 40 minutes, we emerged for our surface interval — the time required above water between dives to rid the body of excess nitrogen from breathing underwater.

The rainy weather had given way to bright sunshine. On the boat, the friendly dive guides and instructors offered us fresh fruit and coconut to re-energize. We relaxed and soaked up the sun for a little more than an hour before gearing up for our second and last dive of the day.

We moved to a reef called Kisima Mungu. As we descended once more, we caught a glimpse of a three-legged green turtle as it swam away. We next encountered a friendly pilot fish, which looks a bit like a barracuda. It tried to bite our fins; for a moment, we worried that it was, in fact, a barracuda looking for prey, but it departed after a few minutes.

As we left, I kept thinking of the family of dolphins I had gotten accustomed to seeing during the breaks onboard, and I made plans to return. Although I didn’t see any whale sharks on my first trip, I did see them on a second visit to Diani. I only hope more international travelers and divers consider Kenya as a vacation destination; Diani is one of the most beautiful and serene places I have ever been.

Long trip for dives is worth the effort

SN Brussels airlines flies direct between Brussels and Mombasa. Otherwise, take East African Safari Airlines or Kenya Airways from Nairobi to Mombasa. Many major airlines fly to Nairobi from European cities, including Lufthansa, KLM and British Airways; East African also has flights to Nairobi from Paris, Rome and other cities. Charter flights are available from Germany, Britain and Italy (Condor, Air Europe, Volare, Monarch).

Mombasa Airport is on the mainland, but the town of Mombasa is across a bridge on an island. Rent a car or take a taxi from the airport and a ferry from Mombasa town to Diani, on the southern coast. Matutus — local buses — are the cheapest way to get around, but you have to take one matutu to the ferry, then a second matutu to your final destination. Matatu prices from Mombasa to Ukunda/Diani are about 40 cents one way.

Packages are available through European tour operators. For information on booking a trip, contact Paola Safaris at www.paolasafaris.com; phone, 254-0-40-320-3141 or 320-2262; fax, 254-0-320 3141; mobile, 254-0-733-75-21-80.

Thirteen of 15 hotels along the coast offer beginner’s certification plus advanced and specialty courses, along with excursions to the nearby islands of Chale and Wasini. At Diving the Crab, prices range from $90 for two dives to $390 for a 10-dive package; contact www.divingthecrab.com or phone 254-40-320-2003.

Shimba Hills National Forest Reserve and Sheldrick Falls are an hour’s drive inland; the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary, home to African elephants and sable antelopes, is linked to the reserve. Hotels and local tour operators offer day trips to the reserve and sanctuary.

December is the best time to visit. It’s the dry season, with air and water temperature both around 82 degrees.

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