Scuba diving in the Red Sea
by Elizabeth Willoughby
Leaving the chaos of Cairo’s airport for the tranquillity of Sharm el Sheikh’s is rewarding, but leaving Sharm’s artificial oasis for some of the best diving in the world — in the Red Sea — is the big payoff. Here’s why.

015 Red Sea diving

The port in early morning is all hustle and bustle as crews are loading up the ships. Trolleys and wagons carry crates and equipment down the dock past a long row of vessels' sterns. Dive tanks are tossed from man to man and slipped into slots ready for the first dive, or clanged into piles on decks for the subsequent ones.

Organised and energised, it is a comforting sight. Gone are the disarray, jumble and filth of Cairo. We exit the van that picked us up from our hotel, pass the accumulation of plastic bottles floating in the water, manoeuvre around the working hands and head to the upper level of our boat to keep out of the way. A short time later the ship begins to vibrate as the engine starts up; lines are tossed aboard and we head out. We're the first off the dock, which means we'll be the first in the water at the dive site, which means no crowds, at least for the first dive.

En route, we lounge and sip coffee until our guide calls us for the briefing. Here we are reminded of diver etiquette, informed that we may not separate from the group, and are introduced to the hand signal communications that our guide requires from us when we are at half tank and at almost empty. She tells us our probable underwater path and what we can expect to see.

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We suit up. Each diver tests his tank's nitrogen/oxygen mixture with a digital metre. Uncomfortable with the potential risks of diving with nitrox — an oxygen enriched mixture of gases that can provide extended dive times without the need for decompression stops, but that also bears higher risks of oxygen narcosis if you dive too deep, stay down too long or if the mixture is not correct — I stick to old-fashioned compressed air and check my tank pressure and computer.

The dive is at Near Garden with choppy water and a heavy surface current. Below is clear visibility and 27 degrees Celsius. I immediately spy a grey reef shark and a blue spotted stingray, and pairs of two-banded clown fish are burrowing into anemone like scenes out of Finding Nemo. We roam around for almost an hour enjoying a colourful array of creatures, some familiar to me but most are not.

The next dive site is more crowded, not only because we aren't the first anymore, but the underwater garden lies just off the shore of a hotel complex. The fauna does not seem to mind. A giant moray eel meanders by, Arabian cleaner wrasse float about the red seafan coral, and hundreds of tiny, transparent silver glassfish swarm around a coral tree, swirling in circles in unison. The giant clams and blue sailfin tang are not as impressed with the choreography as I am.

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A hot lunch buffet on board the ship gives our captain time to head to the next dive site — Ras Burg in the protected Ras Mohammad Park at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Then after lunch, an underwater smorgasborg: green broccoli coral that really looks like broccoli, salad coral that really looks like a head of lettuce and leather coral that looks like mushrooms. We see also fire coral that burns if touched, enormous sea fans, white table coral and twig-like whip coral. A school of barracuda swims by seemingly slowly but passes quickly out of sight, and a crocodile, which is only a fish that looks like a crocodile, reclines in the sand, undisturbed. So much life in such clarity and comfort, it is remarkable. Back on board I scan my Red Sea fish guide and try to figure out the names of the fishes I've seen so far — they're mostly like the pictures but always slightly different.

Awesome dive sites

The next day we leave the hotel at 3 a.m. since the boat trip will be longer; we snooze on deck until after sunrise. The captain is heading into the Strait of Gubal in the Gulf of Suez to the dive site of the sunken Thistlegorm. They say the ship was sunk in World War II by German bombers returning to base. They also say the wreck's location was discovered by Jacques Cousteau, who kept it secret and removed various artefacts from it. Whatever the case, now rediscovered, Thistlegorm still contains many of the supplies it was bringing for the war effort and is one of the most popular dive wrecks in the world.

Suiting up, someone discovers that the nitrox metre is not working properly. The guide outlines the choices: either trust that the tanks were filled properly or don't dive. As I meander through the wreck at almost 30 metres below the surface, I am happy to be on compressed oxygen instead of nitrox, and trusting my computer. There is something unique — ghostly yet not eerie — about floating through the ill-fated ship, into the captain's quarters past his sink and bathtub, through the hold past motorcycles, jeeps, airplane appendages and weaponry, deep into the dark recesses and out around the ship's huge propeller.

Bright yellow butterfly fish, red soldierfish, tiny violet-blue cleaner wrasse and orange and yellow scalefin anthias provide colourful contrast to the dull, rough exterior of Thistlegorm, unlike the crocodile fish which looks much like the hull it is lying on.

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On the last of our five days we venture out early again, this time by van to Dahab, then by jeep to The Canyon dive site. We suit up quickly on the beach under a strong sun and enter the shallow waters of the sandy lagoon. Our guide leads us across the coral garden where we spy long, pale, tube-like cornet fish and colourful butterfly fish, grey morays nervously slithering through gaps in coral formations and blue giant clams dotting the terrain. We spot a field of bubble-streams trailing upwards. Shards of sunlight dart down into a deep narrow fissure — we've reached The Canyon. We enter and swim along the long crack in the earth that is overgrown with hard and soft corals. I look up and see a gathering of lionfish silhouetted overhead. The multitude of spines and fins, dotted and striped, appear more like long, delicate feathers, moving gracefully, floating gently — a blatant deceit of a venomous predator that has no interest in me, for which I am grateful. I've never seen them in a group before.

Exiting the Canyon through a man-sized opening, we re-enter the coral garden. Camouflaged in a patch of coral is an octopus. Our guide retrieves it and its soft body rolls over our hands, its tentacles swirling and reaching. Another smaller octopus closes its eyes, probably wishing us away so we move on. A cleaner-fish darts at the guide's mask. She removes her regulator and bares her teeth. The fish starts pecking at them. She laughs. It enters her mouth. She almost swallows it.

Two kilometres further by jeep, past tourists riding camels, is the famous Blue Hole. Literature describes it thus: Situated a few kilometres north of Dahab, the Blue Hole is circular, around 50 metres wide, around 100 metres deep and connects with the sea through a 26-metre-long tunnel at 52 metres.

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By the seaside Bedouin restaurant are several head stones with epitaphs to those who tested their limits in the Blue Hole and lost. A short walk beyond the memorials, we enter the water at El Bells. Here a blue pool forms at the top of an underwater chimney that is open towards the sea along its 32-metre descent. Exiting before the bottom of the half-tube, we take our time swimming back towards the Blue Hole along a vertical wall with a rich growth of black corals, sea fans and four-colour chromodoris, the most colourful and stylish slugs ever. We remind ourselves to look out towards the sea occasionally for a chance spotting of tuna. A Napoleon wrasse, over a metre long, heads towards us and floats by near the wall. We approach the Blue Hole and enter over the shallow bank at around five metres. The inner walls are packed with corals and reef fish; we swim the entire circumference.

The exit point is barren of sea life save for snorkelers and swimmers. We remove our flippers and walk back to the jeep to change. Quiet and contemplative, we're ready to test some Bedouin cuisine. Jacques Cousteau called the Red Sea the corridor of marvels. He really knew.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2009

This article was published at ©WorldGuide 2009 and with permission at Global Writes 2010

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