Words and Pictures
By Richard Booth
After several trips to the Red Sea on Live-a-Board’s, Richard Booth joins on a mixed BSAC / PADI organised Trip to experience Day Boat Diving.
I last visited the Egyptian Red Sea in 1996. Up until that time I had enjoyed the good fortune of visiting this area on several previous occasions. These trips had always been liveaboard based and the brief time spent ashore at Naama Bay at the end of each charter had revealed an expanding resort where the winds of change were starting to blow a gale, with an ever increasing level of building development. These changes were also reflected at local dive sites in the area, with more and more day boats and liveaboards appearing at the local dive sites, so much so that on my last visit in 1996, I silently vowed that I would seek other places in the World that still offered the promise of more adventurous and remote diving, free from over commercialisation and mass tourism.
So I moved on and explored other places, and thought little more about the Egyptian Red Sea, until January of this year when suddenly I found myself with leave to use up and a burning desire to escape from the stresses of work and the cold dark winter weather of the North East climate. When a friend told me that there was still a place available on a forthcoming diving trip to Egypt curiosity made me reach for the cheque book. This time however, I would be opting for a land based trip.
Within a fortnight I found myself boarding an aircraft from Manchester to Sharm with an increasing curiosity about what I would experience on my arrival in the Sinai. How well had the coral reefs stood up to the ever increasing tide of tourist development? Would my worst fears prove to have been well founded?
I was also mindful that the politics of the region had changed markedly from my earlier visits. Britain post Iraq invasion is currently not the most popular of nations in the Arab world. Television screens had recently been full of news stories concerning the Muslim outrage caused by the Danish cartoon controversy. Only a few months earlier, Sharm el Sheikh and Naama Bay had also been deliberately targeted by terrorist bombs, causing considerable carnage and destruction. What effect would these events have upon the attitude of the local people towards British tourists like me? This question appeared particularly pertinent given that I had signed up for a land based option.
On arrival as Ras Nasrani airport, it was soon clear that much money has been invested into developing the infrastructure of the airfield since my last visit. Whilst the airport undoubtedly looks much smarter and grander than on my previous visits, there was still the familiar feel of rigid Egyptian bureaucracy as we queued to pass through customs and waited patiently for the required visa stamps.
One noticeable change from previous visits however is the background chatter of different languages. On previous visits some ten years ago, one mainly heard English and German, but now I was surrounded by the unfamiliar but unmistakeable sounds of Russian, another sign of how the World has moved on. Having passed through customs we were soon moved on by the waiting reps and herded onto the waiting coaches for the short onward journey to our hotels.
Naama Bay now boasts a range of hotels including establishments in the 5 star quality ranges. In my own case I had opted to stay at the Ocean Bay hotel, a recently built establishment situated on the south side of Naama Bay, but only a short walk from the centre of the resort. The hotel has a dining area, plus two bars. It appears to be an establishment largely aimed at meeting the needs of the land based diving guest, and indeed many of those resident during my brief stay appeared to be other visiting divers. Situated at the back of the hotel is a swimming pool, a small pool side bar and the Ocean College dive centre.
The rooms are air conditioned and come fully equipped with their own private bathroom, telephone and satellite TV. In my own case I had opted for the bed and breakfast price option. Whilst food is offered in the Ocean Bay hotels bars, it is only a short walk down into the centre of the Naama resort to explore a wide choice of alternative restaurants and bars.
The town centre has been radically transformed from the last time I walked these streets. It now boasts a range of smart shopping malls, restaurants and drinking places. Wandering around these busy streets and surveying the people in the restaurants and shops, it is apparent that Naama Bay has radically changed from a laid back sleepy little place catering for the needs of the diving tourist, into a sophisticated resort very much aimed at the mass tourist commercial market The tourist diving industry, whilst no doubt still important for the local economic market has long since ceased to be the main driving force behind the resorts development.
In the light of the recent bomb attacks on Naama Bay and Sharm el Sheikh the question of effective security measures was always at the back of my mind. Tourism is clearly a major source of income to the Egyptian economy, and as such the threat of further terrorist attacks is of serious concern to the authorities not least because of the negative impact that such outrages have upon the economy. Police road blocks are in evidence all along the main roads leading into the resorts. Within Naama Bay itself, all routes down into the town are also blocked by further police road blocks to all traffic accept a few authorised vehicles. The threat of further terrorism in Egypt remains real, just as it sadly does in other ‘tourist areas’ of the world including the streets of London.
I booked a 6 day dive package with the Ocean College dive centre. This package included two boat dives per day. Whilst hire of dive cylinders and weights were included in this package price, any additional dive kit has to be hired at extra cost from the dive centre.
Prior to diving taking place, those intending to dive will have to produce proof of their diving qualifications and log books. Individuals who have not dived in the last six months may have to complete a ‘check out’ dive with a member of the dive centre staff, for which they will be charged an additional cost to the dive package charge.
The daily dive trips usually leave the hotel around 8:00am each morning. The hotel minibus runs each dive group down to either Sharm el Sheikh harbour or to Shark Bay pier for embarkation upon the charter day boat.
In our case, we used the services of two boats, the Mundi 1 and the New Age. Both boats are Egyptian crewed and operate regular charters for the Ocean College dive centre.
Whilst soft drinks and bottled water are offered free of charge as part of the charter price, an excellent quality lunch of Egyptian food was offered on both boats for a small additional cost.
The crews proved to be very friendly as well as extremely helpful in helping guests put on their dive equipment. Likewise the standard of seamanship of both boat crews appeared high. The rapid growth in local charter boat operators has resulted in some tales of horror regarding poor safety standards, a fact brought home when one morning we came across one unfortunate dive boat stranded on Shark reef and rapidly taking on water and sinking at the stern.
Perspective visitors booking a basic dive package should bear in mind that whilst dive sites at the Tiran straits and along the Sinai coastline close to Sharm el Sheikh are included in the itinerary, trips to sites further a field such as the wrecks of the Dunraven and the Thistlegorm are not normally included in the basic package price. Visits to these sites can be arranged at cost extra. Likewise diving within the Ras Mohammed National park also incurs an additional park charge of five Euros per day.
Should individuals and groups wish to have a third dive during the day, this too can also be organised by prior arrangement with the dive guide but at an additional cost of 20 Euros per dive. Likewise Nitrox is also available at extra cost, in our case 80 Euros per individual for the weeks diving. When planning a trip for a land based option these extras should be financially planned into the overall costs of the trip as they will inevitably add considerable expense to the overall costs of the holiday.
Dive sites visited during the week
This site was chosen for our first dive of the trip. It is a sheltered site situated close to Sharm El Sheikh harbour. Whilst perhaps not offering the most exciting of introductions to Red Sea dives, this site nevertheless offers sheltered diving free from strong currents along a gently sloping sandy bottom interspersed with outcrops of coral pinnacles. This site also provides a good place to sort out individual’s weights and buoyancy control in an area which minimises potential damage to the fragile coral ecosystem. During our dive, careful hunting around the coral pinnacles revealed some interesting finds, including a colony of banded cleaning shrimps, as well as clown fish at home in their host anemones.
Ras um Sid
This site was completed as a gentle drift dive along a coral encrusted wall. I was pleasantly surprised by the relatively good condition of some of the large fan corals to be found along this site, given the number of divers who explore this area.
This dive site is just offshore of a new resort development. There is a nice coral lined canyon that begins in 15 metres and drops down onto a coral wall at 30 metres. This wall however, does not have a lot of interesting life, and appears to be covered in a fine covering of loose sandy particles. To what extent the extensive resort development has contributed to this state of affairs is difficult to say, as it is not a site that I have previously visited. Closer to the shoreline, however the coral appeared to be in better condition, and I came across several lionfish, close to the surface in broad daylight openly hunting small schools of young fish that were seeking the protection of the coral outcrops at the top of the reef.
Another nice gentle drift dive along a beautiful coral wall. This site still has some lovely fan corals, whilst the shallower areas were noticeable for the quality of the hard corals that covered the upper areas of the reef. Fish life observed included a family of clown fish in an exquisite red anemone, as well as scorpion fish, and a young napoleon wrasse that followed us along the wall at a discrete distance.
Between the Sinai coastline and Tiran Island lies a series of coral shoals known collectively as the Tiran Straits. These reefs potentially provide some of the best scenic diving in the northern Red Sea area. These reefs emerge from deep water around which large volumes of water are channelled by powerful currents. It is this movement of water and the nutrients swept along in its currents that have resulted in the richness of life that line the steep coral walls. The Tiran straits are also a natural highway for large pelagic predators as they travel up and down the Gulf of Aqaba and as such, diving here provides a good opportunity for observing sharks and other open water species gliding past out in the open blue water.
The position of the four main reefs, Gordon, Thomas, Woodhouse and Jackson reefs makes them a natural hazard for shipping, which over the years has claimed a number of casualties. The remains of two of these wrecks lie stranded on top of Gordon and Woodhouse reefs. Other vessels have also collided with these reefs but now lie in deeper water well beyond the safe limits of recreational sports diving.
On this trip we were fortunate enough to experience the scenic diving provided by both Woodhouse and Jackson reefs. The exposed open water nature of these sites means that diving on them is dependant upon the weather and sea conditions, as well as the experience level of the dive group. Both reefs however offer great diving on walls encrusted with a rich covering of coral and fish life.
Ras Mohammed National Park
The park lies at the very tip of the Sinai. Within the designated park area are a number of well known dive sites, such as Anemone City, Jack Fish Alley and the Observatory.
Diving within the Ras Mohammed National Park area attracts an additional park fee of 5 Euros per day on top of any dive pack costs.
Shark and Jolanda Reef. Perhaps the most famous dive sites within the park area, which we had the good fortune to dive on two occasions during the course of this trip. The two reefs are in reality pinnacles on a coral sea mount which emerges out of deep water off shore from the tip of the cliffs off the Ras Mohammed headland. Dropped off by the boat, the dive commences on the sheer oceanic drop off on Shark reef. Good buoyancy control is a prerequisite for this site as the wall drops dramatically away into the depths for hundreds of metres below you. Careful monitoring of depth and air consumption is also required as it is all too easy for the inexperienced to become disorientated on this type of dive. Below you and out in the blue, pelagic fish swirl in and out of your vision. Between Shark and Jolanda reef is a gently sloping plateau which is often swept by current. This area is frequented by a number of napoleon wrasse, although sadly the huge gentle bulk of George, a giant of this species who once frequented this reef has long since gone, having apparently been killed by an Italian spear fisherman back in the 1990’s.
On the other side of Jolanda reef, lies the debris from the wrecking of the cargo ship Jolanda. This vessel has long since slipped over the edge of the reef and now lies at 205 metres, as recently verified by two technical divers who made an epic dive on this wreck. The wreckage that still lies on the top of the reef consists of the remains of some of the cargo containers that thevessel was carrying at the time of its sinkingin 1980. These steel cargo containers have long since disintegrated leaving behind mounds of porcelain toilets, as well as the mangled remains of a BMW car. Whilst diving this area close to this wreckage, we came across a very friendly turtle, more preoccupied with munching the vegetation of the reef, than the attentions of the inquisitive divers that flocked around it. This site remains a superb dive, despite the high volume of divers that are attracted by its reputation as one of the world best wall dives.
Ras Za’atir A nice wall dive, which I dived for the first time whilst on this trip. Occasional pelagic fish drifted past out in the blue. Growing along the wall are some lovely outcrops of fan and soft corals. It provides superb diving and appears to be off the itinerary of many of the other local dive boats who crowd around the better known sites at the Ras Mohammed headland.
This wreck of an old Victorian steel steamship which sank in 1876 lies just off Sha’ab Mahmud reef, otherwise known as Beacon Rock, a small coral shoal in the Gulf of Suez. This ship ran onto this reef whilst on passage from Bombay to Newcastle, eventually sinking and sliding down to the base of the reef, where she now lies upside down and largely intact. The vessel was discovered in the 1970’s and was the subject of a BBC TV documentary which investigated the possibility of the wreck being a lost ship carrying gold to Lawrence of Arabia to fund the Arab armies fighting the Turkish occupation.. The wreck however was eventually identified as the Dunraven, a steam sailing ship built in Newcastle in 1873 and was actually lost in 1876, a long time before the outbreak of the First World War.
When diving this site, we were dropped close to the reef. Descending down this wall the upturned cylindrical coral encrusted hull soon loomed out of the depths. A gentle current swept the wreck, requiring a little effort to reach the area of the stern. The rudder and the remains of the ships propeller, minus one blade, still stand proud from the upturned hull. The lush soft corals however, that once graced the area have long since been brushed away by the fins of numerous divers that explore this popular site.
Access into the hull can be gained via a hole in the stern area of the wreck. Inside the cavernous hold area, schools of fish glide through the exploring diver’s torch beams. The ships boilers have long fallen from their mountings and now lie on the seabed inside the wreck. You swim up and over the boilers to exit out of the wreck. The rest of the forward end of the hull stretches out before you towards the reef. Close to the remains of the bow lies the base of the reef. Up on the right hand side of the reef, areas of scenic hard coral gardens can be found and explored.
The Dunraven is not usually included in the itinerary of most Sharm based day charter boats, because of the distance to the site. Visits to this site are therefore usually arranged as special trips, but at an additional cost to the basic dive package price.
The Kormaron, Laguna reef, Tiran Island.
Known locally as the Kormoran, this small cargo vessel was wrecked at the north end of Laguna reef on the 21st August 1984.This 1,582 ton ship, re-named the Zingara at the time of her last fateful journey, was on passage from Aquaba with a cargo of phosphate when she ran onto the reef. The exposed nature of this area of the reef has resulted in the rapid break up of the vessel. Today, the remains of the Kormoran are dispersed in shallow water on top of the reef. Situated in only 8 metres, she makes a good second or third dive after experiencing some of the other sites in the nearby Tiran straits. The stern of this wreck is relatively intact and very picturesque with the hand rails still in place. There are also still many recognisable features of the ship remaining within the scattered wreckage, including deck winches and her upright diesel engines. The exposed nature of this area makes this a dive site that is very prevalent to swell. Opportunities to visit this wreck are not frequent, so it is a site that is often ‘overlooked’ by many of the other local dive operations. This situation has resulted in a wreck where brass portholes can still be found lying openly in the wreckage, some complete with their glass still intact. The dive brief however was quite explicit, with a policy of ‘look but don’t take’, thus ensuring that other future divers can still enjoy the fairly unique experience of seeing real brass features on such a shallow wreck.
The Thistlegorm is perhaps one of the most famous and popular wrecks in the world. Originally built and launched in Sunderland in the North East of England in 1940, this 415 foot cargo vessel enjoyed only the briefest of seagoing careers, before being sunk on the 6th October 1941, after being bombed by a flight of German Heinkel 111 aircraft. Fire quickly took hold on the stricken vessel, and the fate of the Thistlegorm was sealed when ammunition in her rear holds ignited with catastrophic results. Nine people lost their lives in the ensuring inferno and the sinking of this vessel.
When lost, the Thistlegorm’s holds were packed with vital war supplies destined for the British and Commonwealth forces in North Africa. The forward holds of the ship are still largely intact complete with their cargo of military vehicles and hardware. This cargo includes motorbikes, Bedford trucks, cases of 303 rifles, as well as aircraft spares.
Apart from a brief visit by Jacques Cousteau in 1957, the Thistlegorm remained largely undisturbed until its rediscovery by the Red Sea dive industry in 1992. I was fortunate enough to first dive this sunken vessel later that same year and can recall a wonderful wreck that was covered in pristine corals over which large grouper patrolled along the decks. The galley still contained pots and pans, and many of the motorbikes still had their small tool kit pouches still attached to their seats. Over subsequent visits however it became increasingly evident that the wreck was starting to suffer from the sheer volume of dive traffic descending upon it each day. Having not dived the Thistlegorm for nearly 10 years I was therefore intrigued to see how the wreck had faired in the intervening years.
It was soon clear that this wreck site is still as popular as ever and at times can become overcrowded with dive boats vying for the best position to tie off on the wreck. There are no permanent buoyed lines onto the wreck, so each visiting dive boat is usually tied off onto any exposed parts of the wreck around which a line can be made fast. Unfortunately this practise has resulted in significant damage to parts of the wreck, with for instance the old handrails around the stern quarter having been torn off by carelessly fastened mooring lines. I can still recall these rails being intact and covered in colourful soft corals. Their destruction by careless seamanship is nothing short of scandalous. Elsewhere upon the Thistlegorm I was shocked to see other wanton destruction that has been inflicted by visiting divers. Once many of the vehicles had intact windscreens and you could shine your torch into the cabs and look upon a dashboard complete with instruments and steering wheels. Now most of the vehicles windscreens have been smashed and the dashboards pillaged and vandalised. To what purpose? I can only shake my head and despair at this apparent lack of respect shown to the 9 people who lost their lives on this vessel by some members of the diving community.
That said the Thistlegorm is still undoubtedly a tremendous dive. On this trip, the first dive was a guided tour around the outside of the wreck, commencing with an exploration of the stern area, complete with the two guns mounted on their deck platforms. Swimming over the gap between the stern and the rest of the ship, you quickly realise that the debris below is the remains of the rear hold, where the ammunition exploded with such disastrous consequences over 60 years ago. Amongst the debris field, unexploded shells still lie, along with the twisted remains of old vehicles, including a number of armoured bren gun carriers. Looking out onto the seabed off the port side of the wreck and the distant outline of a small upright steam train engine can be seen. This old engine, originally part of the cargo strapped down on the deck, is a testament to the force of the explosion that cast it high into the air and outwards from the main wreckage. Another engine lies off the starboard side of the ship some distance from the wreck. Ascending back upwards onto the deck of the forward part of the wreck, one swims through companionways and over the exposed cargo holds, towards the bow. Still fastened to the decks are more remains of the rail cargo carried by the ship. Coal tenders and other wagons are still fastened to the deck. On the bow, huge winches are still standing proud. Look over the front of the bow itself, and the heavy anchor chains still drop down to the seabed.
When planning to ascend back to the surface, one has to take into account the large number of similar looking mooring lines that you will inevitably encounter all tied off onto this wreck. This situation can lead to confusion when trying to identify which one leads back to your own boat. The dive guide on our trip however had come prepared for this problem and deployed fluorescent banners onto the mooring lines, thus aiding easy identification of the correct lines. The Thistlegorm is often subject to strong currents. Its exposed location does not make it a good site for making open water ascents, even with delayed SMB’s. Most day boats do not have tenders, and the manner in which the boats tie off on the wreck makes it a difficult affair to cast off and pick up drifting divers. It is therefore imperative that divers orientate themselves on the wreck and navigate carefully around the site in order to end the dive at their own boats mooring lines.
Likewise, in the excitement of exploring this wreck it is all too easy to forget to check your contents gauge on a regular basis, and suddenly find yourself low on air.
The second dive we made was a planned exploration of the surviving forward holds of the sunken ship. This particular dive made me appreciate the advantages of diving this site with an experienced guide who has good knowledge of the wreck. The dive brief we were given outlined the journey we were going to make, and the artefacts that we would be shown in each hold. Following the guide on the dive itself, we came across aircraft engines still in their packing boxes, crates of Lee Enfield rifles, generators, motorbikes packed onto the back of trucks. In short, with a knowledgeable guide I saw more in this one dive than I had seen on several previous exploration dives of the holds.
How did a land based option compare with my previous experiences of liveaboard dive trips?
Initially, the land based option appears the cheaper option. Divers considering this option however must take into account all the ‘hidden’ extra costs that can considerably increase the overall price of such a trip. When planning a land based option, careful budgeting for evening meals, social drinking, (especially if travelling in a group), plus additional diving costs such as payment for a third daily dive, trips to the Thistlegorm and Dunraven and park fee’s.
The liveaboard option however usually includes all daily meals. Furthermore trips to more flung far sites such as the Thistlegorm are part of their normal passage itinerary. Liveaboards can also include up to 4 dives per day at no additional charge. Having experienced both options my first choice is for the liveaboard option.
That said a land based option has clear advantages if visiting Egypt with a non diving partner and family. From personal experience I can recommend the service provided by Explorer tours, as well as the service provided by the Ocean Bay hotel and the Ocean College dive centre. In particular the dive guide, Doozer, one of the staff team from Ocean College was superb, managing to tailor the diving to the experience of the group, whilst giving very full and interesting dive briefs.
Finally how did the diving compare to my previous experiences of this area a decade ago? The quality of the reefs and wrecks, have undoubtedly suffered some deterioration from the sheer volume of divers that visit these sites, but overall this area still offer some fantastic world class diving. This statement proved especially true for those in our party who had never dived these waters before and who were clearly enchanted by the colours and life on the reefs, as well as the thrill of diving wrecks such as the Thistlegorm.
If using digital cameras and other equipment dependant upon alkaline batteries, then I would suggest that you buy them in the UK and bring them out in your luggage. Certainly on this trip locally purchased batteries had a tendency to fail very quickly, causing much frustration for those concerned.
The voltage in the hotel rooms is 220v, and 2 pin adapters can be purchased very cheaply from local supermarkets in Naama Bay.
Whilst it is useful to have some Egyptian currency on arrival, the exchange rate is much more favourable for the visitor in Egyptian banks than visiting your local UK high street bank.
Drink only bottled water never direct from the tap.. I would also recommend taking plenty of anti-diarrhoeal medication. There are a number of pharmacies available in Naama Bay where such medication can be purchased in emergencies…
Use plenty of high factor sun barrier cream, otherwise you will burn very quickly even on overcast days..
Carry a delayed SMB however, always try and avoid surfacing in open water. Instead, try and ascend as close to the reef as possible. Once on the surface remain close to the reef until you have successfully signalled your boat and it has manoeuvred as close to the reef as it can to pick you up. Following this simple rule will greatly reduce the risk of being run down by surface traffic, especially at the more popular dive sites.
The water temperature in February was 22 centigrade and whilst diving in a 5mm steamer I have to confess that I started to become chilled on some of the longer dives. Those that feel the cold may find it more comfortable to dive at this time of the year in a 7mm suit.
I would also recommend warm clothing for evening wear. It can also become quite chilly on the boat if the wind picks up. Those in t-shirts and shorts will freeze!
Explorer Tours: www.explorers.co.uk
Ocean College: www.ocean-college.com
Tyneside 114 website: www.tynesidebsac.co.uk
Recommended dive guide book: I was particularly impressed by the following guide book to local Red Sea dive sites that we visited during the week.
Sharm el Shiekh dive guide by Alberto Siliotti
Elias Modern publishing house
ISBN 88 97177 23 6