Friday, October 19, 2007

Dive the Red Sea

We've just come back from a week's diving from the Red Sea 'resort' of Marsa Alam. The word resort is perhaps a bit misplaced, in that it's a hotel plonked where the desert meets the sea, and if you're not there for the diving, you're not there. Given the landscape, we might as well have been on the moon. Still, the hotel is very nice. This trip represented a lot of firsts for me - first time in Africa, first time in a Muslim country, first time in Egypt, first time in the Red Sea.
We had wavered between the thought of a live-aboard and day tripping out of a hotel, but to get the most out of a Red Sea live-aboard you need to have at least 50 logged dives in order to access certain of the more remote marine parks. Before this trip, neither me nor Sarah had reached that level. Besides, it's actually quite nice to be able to return to a proper room with a proper bed in the evenings.

The diving outfit, Emperor Divers, displayed the effortless air of multicultural professionalism we've come to expect from dive centres around the world. The diving community is a nomadic tribe, and we ended up diving primarily under the guidance of Mo and Chris, Egyptian and English respectively, and a motley crew of primarily UK divers. The Coral Beach Diving Hotel has no beach, but it does butt up to the harbour, meaning that we had a 30-second walk from the breakfast table to the boat in the morning, which was great. Each day of diving
followed mostly the same pattern - an hour or so on the boat to access a particular reef, and then two dives there, followed by lunch on the boat. The boat would then take us to a different reef, and we'd do a third dive, and then a mad rush to get back before the sun was two
fingers from the horizon; some local regulation. We'd signed up for a few extras - in fact, we signed up for all extras it seemed, seeing the bill - Enriched Air qualification ('NITROX') and trips to the Dolphin House and Elphinstone off-shore reefs, both of which included
ridiculously early starts. The Dolphin House reef somewhat unsurprisingly houses a resident school of dolphins. Access to this reef is commendably regulated to give the dolphins some space, meaning that the number of boats is limited, as is the diving area and the
time for the last dive set to 2pm. The dolphins had obviously cottoned on to this, and typically made their first appearance at 2:05pm. Still, we had some fantastic diving none the less. The Elphinstone is a demanding dive site, with potentially strong currents to contend
with, and with a significant proportion of it around the 30m limit, not a place for first timers. This is a good place to encounter hammer head sharks, but we were slightly too early in their season, so we were unlucky in that regard. Diving on Nitrox 33% I also found myself
focusing mainly on my computer at that depth, paranoid to stay above the 32m O2 partial pressure deck. Second dive at Elphinstone was out of this world though. A perfect drift dive along the seemingly endless wall reef with Nature's full range of Darwinian evolution on glorious display from Barracudas to Nudibranches.

Diving on nitrox appeals to the geek in me - hacking one's own gas mixture. It seems to be where recreational diving is heading, allowing as it does the no decompression limits to be extended such that they no longer run out before your gas does. Table calculations are
slightly more involved, but with a dive computer to handle that for you, most divers don't seem to bother anyway. With more oxygen in your mix, you also seem to settle down quicker into a calm breathing rate, and I found myself lasting longer on every nitrox tank.

The whole of the Red Sea is fringed with reefs, and to the Red Sea rim states, it represents a staggering income opportunity. There are signs that things are being managed in a responsible manner from the dive operators - fixed moorings to limit anchor damage for example, and the 'no gloves, no touch' rule. However, the level of on-going pollution is worrying. The locals appear to treat low tide as the bin man - simply leave all your rubbish on the beach, and the next morning it's gone. It may be gone from the beach, but it's evident on the reef. All boats have the 'short length of pipe' approach to toilet flush, and the general rule is don't flush if there's divers underneath, and bog roll goes in the bin, not the toilet.

But saying that, in the best moments, it's just magic - unsurpassed, perhaps only rivaled by Belize of the places I've dived.

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