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Dazzled by the deep

ISSUE 5
C
H

Suzy Bennett discovers a world of rainbow colours and exotic life among the coral reefs and wrecks of Egypt's Red Sea


Never laugh under water. They don't tell you that in the dive manuals. I learn the hard way, 30 metres under the sea, watching my dive buddy sit his wet-suited derrière on the captain's toilet in a World War Two shipwreck. Why I find this quite so hilarious, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's because watching someone sit on a WC as several dozen fish swim by is so surreal. Or perhaps the compressed air I'm breathing has gone to my head. But I'm not the first diver whose mask has filled up with water from giggling at this spot, and I won't be the last.


Vision restored, my buddy and I continue our dive. We are exploring the wreck of the SS Thistlegorm, a merchant navy ship that was bombed on its way from Glasgow to Alexandria in 1941. It is a truly astonishing site, an underwater museum, frozen in time for 72 years. Armoured vehicles are still stacked neatly in their holds and ammunition, motorcycles, aircraft parts, guns and radio equipment, recognisable – just – under a crust of corals, are piled high around us. Occasionally, a stray army-issue Wellington boot floats by. The wreck is a magnet for toothy and tentacled creatures: tuna, jacks, moray eels, lion fish, pipefish and corals all patrol its waters, eyeing us suspiciously as we glide by.


We are here as part of a four-day liveaboard scuba holiday, eating and sleeping on a boat, diving up to three times a day. The great advantage is that we are at dive sites long before the crowds on day boats arrive. It's the lazy man's approach: instead of lugging heavy equipment around every morning, you simply roll out of bed, roll into the sea, have lunch, roll into the sea … you get the idea.


For divers who are still finding their sea legs, day boats are the best introduction. Sharm el Sheikh is the centre for watersports around the Sinai Peninsula. With warm, Evian-clear waters, sheltered reefs and excellent dive schools, it's the ideal place to take the plunge.


You need to be a decent swimmer to dive - able to tread water for 10 minutes and swim non-stop for 200m. The first time you breathe underwater is disconcerting, but you soon get used to it. Some people struggle to overcome blind panic, so it's a good idea to do a 'try dive' before committing to a full course.


a living biology book


A four-day beginner's course with PADI, the main international qualification body, costs around £340 in Egypt. Some swotting from books and videos is required, so if you'd prefer not to spend half your holiday in a classroom, arrange to do the theory at home before you set off.


Once accredited, the underwater world is your oyster. Ras Mohammed, a marine reserve on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, is the most popular dive area famed not only for the Thistlegorm but for its coral gardens, caves, overhangs, vertical walls and sheer variety of marine life. It's a living biology book. Even as a beginner, you can see luxuriant fan corals, anenomes, star fish, eel colonies, sting rays, batfish, crocodile fish, unicorn fish, turtles, tuna, wild dolphins, moray eels, napoleon wrasse, snapper, barracudas and harmless reef sharks.


At the Straits of Tiran, to the north, four large reefs rise from the depths like vast underwater mountains. It's an example of a perfect food chain: nutrient-rich water wells up from the deep, which feeds the corals, which in turn attracts a large variety of fish, which in turn attracts the big predators.


Diving from Sharm can, at times, feel like a production line. Flotillas of boats leave its port every morning. If it gets too much, chilled-out Dahab, 50 miles up the coast, is a good escape. Diving here is just off the shore, so you'll need to carry your equipment to the beach, but there are rich rewards. Elusive seahorses flutter around Bannerfish Bay, while at the Blue Hole you plunge into a 150-metre wide, 120-metre deep chasm. It's here that free-divers come to practise. Watching them vanishing silently into the depths, wearing little more than a leotard, is one of my most memorable and eerie diving experiences.


At Egypt's second biggest diving destination, Hurghada, you can dive the famous shipwrecks of Sha'ab Abu Nuhas, and St Johns, a vast collection of majestic reefs garlanded with huge fan corals, where grey reef sharks, silver-tip sharks and hammerheads congregate.


The southern Red Sea is the preserve of experienced divers who are comfortable with drift diving in strong currents. Elphinstone Reef, seven miles off the coast of Marsa Alam, is the spot for shark lovers, Big Brother Island has a reef with a sheer plunge to unfathomable depths, while Little Brother has Gorgonian fan corals more than three metres high. At Abu Dabbab, there's the chance of spotting the rare and endangered dugong, while Fury Shoals has beautiful canyons, caves and passages.


diving with dolphins


Swimming with dolphins is the Holy Grail of any underwater experience. At Dolphin House Reef, off Marsa Alam, you're virtually guaranteed to share the water with them. Believe the hype: it will be one of the happiest experiences of your life. Try not to laugh while you're doing it.

ACTIVITIES FOR NON-DIVERS

Glass-bottomed boat or submarine

Observe the underwater world without even dipping a toe in the water..

 
St Catherine's Monastery

Lying at the base of the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, St Catherine's is one of the most important religious sites in the world..

 
See the sunrise from Mount Sinai

Early risers can leave Sharm in the small hours and be at the top of Mount Sinai in time for sunrise - a truly biblical experience.

 
Camel safari

Fulfil those Lawrence of Arabia fantasies by taking a camel ride across the desert.

 
Shopping and dining

Shopping and dining High-class shops, restaurants, even an ice bar at Sharm El Sheikh's upmarket Soho Square development (www.soho-sharm.com).

 

Visit a Bedouin community

Dine under the stars at a traditional desert Bedouin camp.

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