Bristol Channel Divers
Four BCD club members slipped off at the end of a chilly November for a week of Sun, SCUBA and...erm...more Sun! Friday 26th November sees our intrepid idlers (Steve, Grant, Ziggy and Roger) milling around Gatwick's North terminal waiting for Air 2000 to do its sardine routine on us! It's amazing what you can fit into one 757! At least the complementary in-flight magazine was December's Diver - we knew we were on the right plane.
Four and a half hours later and we're at Sharm airport re-living that age-old Egyptian tradition of hanging around handing over money right, left and centre and pampering the local bureaucracy. At least this year we were out of the airport and into our bus in less than an hour. Only two other guests accompanied us in our exclusive Regal mini-bus which dropped us off at the Kahramana hotel where we'd booked B&B for the week.
We were given our Regal info pack which told us that our holiday began with a "leisurely" 8am start the following morning as we were to be picked up by the Emperor Divers mini-bus. So, after unpacking, we went out for a very traditional Egyptian meal (Chinese!), a couple of recreational beverages and turned in; eager for the next morning and the lure of 26 deg C water - maybe.
8am - ugh! Kahramana doesn't serve breakfast until 7:30 so it's a rude awakening on the first full day of our trip (for those of us not used to 5am starts every day that is). We were picked up by a very bubbly Claire from Emperor who delivered us to the dive center with the promise of an exciting briefing from Jackie of Regal and an equally exciting dive briefing from the centre manager. The dive briefing covered all the things you'd expect, safety, repect for the environment, donations to the hyperbaric chamber etc, and included the advice to drink 6 litres of water a day which seems a little excessive but it's important to anticipate the combined effects of the dry atmosphere, the Sun, the wind and, of course, the diving. There was also the inevitable form filling and qualification examination. By 10am we were itching to get in the water... only to find our dive guide for the week had not turned up....
Emperor pretty quickly found us another guide. An ex Dive Center manager from Surrey, technical diver in the UK, PADI and BSAC instructor, Nick turned out to be an excellent guide, giving help and advice where needed, guiding dives if required or (once he'd seen us diving) prepared to leave us to do pretty much our own thing. Our boat was called President II and was captained by Mohammed - we hooked up with another 12 or so divers of varying levels each of whom had their own wishes and requirements. Nick very ably took us to dive sites which provided something for everyone and this, together with some very entertaining pre-dive briefings, turned a good diving trip into an fabulous one. Thanks Nick!
We booked a 12 dive package (2 dives a day for 6 days). Fortunately, the return flight departed at 8:15pm so we could dive the day before flying. It's always worth considering flight times when booking as it's easy to loose a day's diving if the flights are early. We generally departed from the quay in Naama Bay around 8:30am and stayed out on President II all day with the crew providing lunch for 25 Egytian pounds per day (5 GBP). Unlimited soft drinks were also available for 10 Egyptian if food was not required. Return to the jetty was about 5pm which, at this time of year means darkness in Egypt. The Kahramana is ideally situated being about 10-15 mins walk from the jetty although for those in other hotels, the Emperor mini-bus always seemed to be waiting at the jetty when we returned.
|27th Nov||White Knight||33m||55 min|
|27th Nov||Ras Bob||20m||57 min|
|28th Nov||Thomas Reef||39m||60 min|
|28th Nov||Woodhouse Reef||20m||58 min|
|29th Nov||Thistlegorm||31m||45 min|
|29th Nov||Thistlegorm||15m||38 min|
|30th Nov||Shark & Yolanda Reef||40m||55 min|
|30th Nov||Jackfish Alley||20m||60 min|
|1st Dec||Dunraven||29m||52 min|
|1st Dec||Lonely Mushroom||14m||73 min|
|2nd Dec||Ras Nasrani||40m||62 min|
|2nd Dec||Laguna Wall||16m||68 min|
First day's diving and we're all keen to get in that water. I'm still sceptical that it will be as warm as I've been promised but the sun is certainly out - sparse cloud and one hell of a wind is blowing. Wary of getting burned on the first day and not being able to get my wetsuit on. We arrive at the dive site of White Knight and are asked to do a buoyancy check. Fortunately, I checked my logs from the last visit and know that 9Kg will suit me fine in the very saline Red Sea. Sure enough, I'm spot on and ready to roll. A few first-timers on the boat are surprised at how much extra lead they need - and now appreciate why we have to do the check. We also discover that the water is indeed very pleasant 26 deg C as promised!
White Knight involves diving a gully which drops off quickly so we must be careful not to exceed the 30m limit Nick sets on this first dive. We're also told that Emperor insists that we are all observed on this dive so that the guide can guage our level of ability. This is important both for the safety of all concerned and for the well-being of the reef - poor buoyancy control could lead to untold damage to the coral - coral grows 1 inch every hundred years - look at the size of a fin and then figure the damage you could do! There's a wreck of a small boat of the type we are diving from at the furthest extent of the dive which we take a quick look round before returning along the reef at about 15m. We are encouraged to do long 5m deco stops whilst looking at the abundant fish and coral - something which proves very easy to do and will always pay off. Being BSAC divers, we deco'd at 6m although most of the time we did 9m and 3m stops as well - simply as there is a lot to see.
After lunch, we're down to Ras Bob where Mohammed ties off to one of the Shamandoras (sp?) which are fixed mooring points on the reef intended to avoid captains dropping anchors on to the coral. We descend the line and find ourselves in an eel garden at 20m. The sea-bed here drops off to 150m but this is not a problem with 20+m visibility. We meander around the reefs of Ras Bob observing Lion and Scorpion fish, large Wrass. There's a swim through for us to navigate and a number of caves in the reef which look inviting. One such entrance is guarded by a large crocodile fish which seems to be sleeping at the entrance to its lair!
The first thing to strike us about this dive site is that the wreck of the Lara (a distinctive landmark on Gordon Reef has been cut in half. A ship out of Eliat ran aground in the same place as the Lara was sitting managing to chop the stern of her. This has made the Lara even more unstable. Surely it can only be a matter of time before she falls of the reef!
Very windy again today and the trip out into the Straits of Tiran (of which Thomas and Woodhouse Reefs form a part) was rather exciting with a substantial swell and strong headwind. Visibility on Thomas Reef was upwards of 30m and your reporter is convinced that he saw a Reef Shark out in the blue and swimming directly downwards. As this was the only sighting of the week, the claim was disputed by many on the boat (purely out of jealousy of course). Similar to White Knight, a large and spectacular gully opened out below us at the start of the dive. Again, at a depth of 90m, exploration of this area will have to wait for another day! A number of Unicorn fish were spotted on this dive and were to make appearances throughout the week. Identified, unsurprisingly, by the long probiscus emanating from the forehead, these creatures are quite easy to identify even for those of limited fish-spotting ability. A mild drift along this reef also revealed large Napoleon Wrass and Pipe fish.
Lunch on board President II in the lee of Woodhouse Reef and, after a decent surface interval, we leapt in to the now rather choppy waters for a challenging surface swim to the Eastern edge of the reef. This side of the reef was in shaddow in the rather low afternoon sunlight which made for quite an moody atmosphere amongst the corals. Th is mood was enhanced by the sight of a large Barracuda meandering along in the gloom. We followed this magnificent specimen for a good five minutes before we were joined by a number of divers with huge photographic equipment. Of course, they were eager to film this majestic reef denizen and proceeded to swim vigorously towards it arc lights blazing.... with the predictable effect. No footage for them and the end of a sustained Baraccuda encounter for us.
"The minibus will pick you up at 4:15 tomorrow morning", were Nick's parting words as we left in search of a well earned beer!!! Of course, we knew we had this coming but we were supposed to be on holiday.
So, 4:15 finds us outside the Kahramana waiting for the mini-bus which is as punctual as ever! By 5:30 we're steaming out of Old Sharm bound for the legendary Thistlegorm via Ras Mohammed. With the early rise out of the way, it is possible to relax on deck and watch the shooting stars pepper the early morning sky as the sun brightens in the East and gradually picks out the headland that is Ras Mohammed in the West. By 9am, we're close to the dive site and the wind has dropped to nothing, the sea resembles the Carribean and, suitably satiated by breakfast aboard, we are briefed on the history of the sinking of the Thistlegorm and its discovery by Jacques Custeau.
The first dive is to be orientation. We drop down a line on to the bow section next to the railway trucks, down the starboard side to the stern, check out the rudder with its 6 foot blades before following the port side forwards to the bomb damaged section around Hold 4 to examine the guns and ammunition boxes. Then up on to the decks to look at the cabins and deck fitments and anchor winches on the bows. Then it's back to the railway trucks and on to the line for a safety stop. With quite a current running by now and about 15 people on the line, it's quite a little community at 6m. Max depth at the stern is 31m and we spent a total of 45 min checking over the outside of this magnificent wreck.
Due to the distance to get to this dive site and the limited daylight, we only have an hour's surface interval so we'll be limited on depth and time on this dive and will be extra cautious with the safety stops. This time, we're to go inside the wreck to look at the cargo which has made this wreck so famous. We choose to be guided by Nick to ensure we don't miss anything which turns out to be a wise decision as there's loads to see. We explore all holds of the ship and see rows of BSA motorbikes, lorries sitting in the lower holds, piles of rubber galloshes destined for Allied troops, mounds of ammo boxes lying where they fell after the blast tore open hold number four. In all, there were too many amazing sights; it would take a number of dives to do justice to this wreck - once the holds have been examined, there's the captain's quarters with bath and toilet, not to mention the hords of sea life which have made this wreck their home. Shoals of glass fish hang spectacularly in the holds waiting to surround the motionless diver - quite mesmerising!
So, another trek, this time down to the marine reserve of Ras Mohammed. Passports are needed to enter this area and there's a fee payable to fund the conservation work. Wilst we didn't touch anything on any of the dives, Nick was doubly adamant that we should not do so at Ras Mohammed - of course by this time, he knew that no one on President II was that way inclined and any buoyancy problems had been ironed out by now.
We dived this as a foursome and as a practise to 40m with check stops at 25m and every 5m thereafter. Having done this we ascended gently up the side of Shark Reef silently observing the wildlife. We travelled in a Westerly direction towards the gap between Shark and Yolanda making for the famous wreck of the Yolanda which gives the second reef its name. If you've never seen this wreck, it was carrying a cargo of bathroom fitments; toilets, baths, bidets, rolls of wallpaper etc - it certainly makes for a surreal sight to see loos sitting on the seabed - with the inveitable diver posing for a photo. There's even an old BMW - don't ask how it got there! We left the wreck and circumnavigated Yolanda Reef. Due to the depth on this dive, we spent a total of 25 min on deco which was easily done due to the tremendous amount of life in the shallows arount the reef.
After lunch it's off to Jackfish Alley - no prizes for guessing why.
A wall dive so we had to watch the depth carefully especially after the morning's dive. Shortly into the dive, we came across a diver whose fin strap had broken - her buddy was having real problems trying to fix it and the situation was deteriorating quite badly - they were sinking down the wall and looked as though they were likely to panic. The four of us split to take care of the divers and to fix the wayward fin. Fortunately, the divers in question were happy for us to help and normal service was resumed. The buddy pair were grateful for the help and thanked us afterwards. I for one was glad of the training we'd been given which allowed us to cope with this unexpected situation calmly. It was a good reminder as to how quickly you can be plunged into a "situation" which may not even be of your making. Even so, we ended up at 19m rather than the planned 15!
Anyway, the rest of the dive was uneventful other that the sighting of Glass fish, grouper and one Blue Spotted Ray. Again, on the extended deco' stop, we saw masses of coral both fan and table. After this dive, it's quite a treck back to Naama Bay so we only managed a total time of 60 min! Even so, it was dark by the time President II slipped back to the jetty. Another long and tiring day!
Another early start out of old Sharm harbour and another slog out over choppy waters towards the Dunraven. This dive is like the Thistlegorm in that it's an extra over and above what we'd paid for but we're all keen on " metal" dives so why not? The Dunraven ran into a reef out in the middle of the staits. In fact, this reef is called Beacon Rock - guess why - that's right, it's a dirty big rock and it's got a light on it...now figure how the captain managed to hit it.....it's a fair bet alchohol was involved!
The Dunraven was carrying Potassium (unlucky!) and went kind of BANG! as the water flooded in through the breached hull (Potassium does this in contact with water). Consequently, the whole of one side of the hull is torn open and she lies upsidown - kind of like the Hood in Portland - actually, on second thoughts maybe not!
Not allowed to moor here so we jump in and can see the hull, prop and rudder in 29m so we simply freefall straigh on to it - bliss. Round the stern and in through the first hole we find in the starboard side. From here you can swim the length of the wreck inside and can see out most of the time. There's no cargo left (obviously) but we do pass the giant engine amidships. Just past the engine and we come across an enormous shoal of Glass fish. If you drift really slowly into them, they open out and then close up behind you. It's an amazing sight to be surrounded by thousands of fish not more than 6 inches away. We also came across Noapoleon Wrass and Lion fish. We emerged at the bows. Nick had tipped us off that there was a breathable air pocket right up in the bows which we managed to find after a few minutes searching. It's rather strange removing your reg at 20m and then breathing.
Yet again back on board for lunch - what a routine! Then it's off to the Lonely Mushroom which is a mushroom shaped coral covered rock out on its own - odd that! The rock's only about 15m in diameter and sits in about 12m so we were able to circumnavigate it a number of times at different depths examining the life in minute detail. Ziggy and Rog went one way and Steve and Grant went the other - of course we kept meeting and exchanging the new "I'm getting dizzy" dive signal which involves pointing to the head and vigorously rolling the eyes. It was fascinating to notice how the rock teemed with coral and fish life on the South facing side and was barren and rocky on the North side. Millions of Goldfish teemed around enormous fan corals. Lionfish hid in small caves in the rocks while Clownfish defended their anenome homes. A veritable microcosm and all there for us to observe undisturbed and at one with our environment....until the photographers arrived!
The first time you know you've been joined by a boat load of photographers on a dive site is when you feel a shove from behind as something resembling a spaceship careens past arc lights blazing followed closely by a thrashing pair of fins whose sole purpose seems to be to remove your DV and mask in one swift motion. Twin-spot lamps to the fore and with tunnel vision f-stopped right down, these baffoons think the coral and fish life is there purely to expose on their film and think nothing of kneeling on coral or using it to steady their arm as they compose their "masterpiece". Nick did take one of these idiots up to the surface and give him a good telling off but the chap didn't seem to understand that wedging your fin between two soft coral growths was not really being very coinsiderate or environmentally aware!
Suffice to say, this litte episode really put the dampners on the end of that dive and we were glad to get back to the sanity (and safety) of our boat. We were united in condemnation for this group of selfish fools and a letter was duly composed and dispatched to the dive operator who had allowed these imbeciles in to the water. The matter was compounded later when we found out that the photography group worked for a leading Norwegian dive magazine!!!! They have not heard the last of this matter.
So, it's our last day of diving already - it feels like we only arrived yesterday. This time it's the more local dive site of Ras Nasrani. The atmosphere is a little subdued on President II. Nick has kindly rearranged today's dives so that we can do another deep practise dive on the sloping reef. Again, we descend as a foursome and check our depths and exchange "OKs" regularly to ensure we're all happy.
Ras Nasrani is a typical drift along the side of the reef where we see all the life we've come to know this week - fantastic coral shapes in all colours with a particularly lurid green hard coral which looks like small bushes. Again, thousands of Goldfish accompany us and Trigger fish drift by.
The final dive is on Laguna Wall where we are in for a real treat although we're not to know it yet! Again a bit of a drift along the steeply sloping wall. A large moray is spotted and pointed out the the rest of the group. He's peering out of his lair as they usually do - the fiersome black face and then spotted yellow body. A Stone Fish is also observed and it comes out of its cave to check us out as we float above it. He sits on a rock motionless. When a torch is shone on his body, he changes from a bright pink to dull greyish-brown to blend in with the rock he's sitting on.
Towards the end of the dive, we drift to the end of the reef. We catch up with the rest of our group here. As we approach we can see them all hanging motionless in the blue. We find that the end of the reef is bedecked with the most amazing coral features imaginable and is veritably teeming with fish life of all varieties from the miniscule baby goldfish through Glass fish to large groupers, Trigger and Parrot fish. This whole area (about 20 sq m) is bathed in sunlight and provides the most vivid spectacle of the week. We hang motionless and awestruck in the water at about 5m for as long as we can before having to tear ourselves away to return to the boat. Definitely a dive site to remember.
So that's the diving. 11.5 hours under water on 12 dives - not bad really. Not a duff dive in the whole week, no problems with anyone on the boat, great weather and I got my 26 deg C in the water too! And it was bucketing it down in the UK - we couldn't have had it better.
We had a great crew, President II appeared to be one of the better looked after boats that we saw. Mohammed had painted the decks the day before we boarded which made the boat look good but had the unfortunate side-effect of coating all our dive kit with white anti-fouling paint - no more barnacles on my wet-suit!
This week in Sharm was booked through Regal Diving who were as efficient and helpful as ever. The fact that I didn't know who was coming when I booked was not a problem and when I spelled everyone's name wrong, there was no problem changing the booking. I'd recommend both Regal and Emperor to anyone thinking of organising a trip similar to this one.
The Thistlegorm and Dunraven trips cost extra over and above what we paid for the 12 dive package. This is because the crew of the Emperor boats are contracted to visit certain dive sites and need to be paid extra for these. Considering the early start and the distances involved, I think this is quite reasonable and also well worth it if you can afford it and don't mind getting up so early. You can also pay for night dives if you wish or a 3rd dive on most days. Nitrox is available for 5 US per tank up to 40%.
The weather was pretty typical for the time of year as was the water temperature. The wind can be quite strong which can make some of the exposed sites a bit challenging and some of the longer boat trips rather stomach churning. We did pick up some large swells which meant more work for Mohammed, but only had to change dive sites once due to the weather. The wind seemed to be coming down the Gulf of Aquaba most of the time which meant calm sees could be found in the lee of the Tiran reefs and round Ras Mohammed.
If you hanker after some winter sun, are not a hard-core British diver who wouldn't be seen dead in a wet-suit, then I'd recommend doing what we did. Having done a similar trip in March (Grant's been in Feb) I think Nov/Dec is a better time - the water's warmer and it's pretty guaranteed to be horrible in the UK - what more could you ask for?
4th December 1999
Respect Our Wrecks!