It’s 10.30am on a Thursday, I’m in a bikini, and I’m swimming in the bluest, calmest ocean I’ve ever seen. I’m above a shallow coral reef, and the water is so clear I can see the bright golden sand at the bottom, occasionally broken by the shadow of a small school of fish. The sun is already tingling my skin. I’m watching people jump off a boat into the aquamarine water and I’m wondering what I’d possibly be doing at work this week instead. Probably forecasts, or sending out another spreadsheet. But I’m not. I’m swimming in a gorgeous coral bay in the Red Sea, although it could be the Maldives, and I can’t think of any better therapy than this.
Although diving holidays, especially those on a liveaboard, aren’t always the most relaxing possible (dive, eat, nap, dive, eat, nap, dive, eat) this week has been one of the most chilled I’ve had in a long time. The work blackberry was left at home, and data roaming on the iPhone switched off, and I made sure I did very little but concentrate on the blue. And there turned out to be some fun things in it.
As many dive websites and tweeters have been telling me, right now really is a great time to go to Egypt. The Revolution has apparently put many people off going, and the fall in tourism being felt in Sharm El Sheikh; the diving capital of Egypt, which couldn’t be further from the political troubles in Cairo at all. It’s a shame for the locals, who seem to be feeling it the most, and some who are concerned what the perception is of them as a nation in the West. Although i did my best to assure them that we are behind their struggle for a better country, their is still an underlying worry, I think, and everyone, including Egyptians in the Sinai are keeping fingers crossed for the future to work out.
But in this interim period, as the troubles aren’t being felt at all on a small boat in the middle of the Red Sea, so what it does mean is a lack of divers on some previously overcrowded dive sites. And consequently, some excellent diving.
The Perfect Itinerary
Think of a perfect dive day in the Red Sea. How about a personal guided tour of the Thistlegorm with no one else on it, followed by playtime with a couple of dolphins? I don’t think it gets much better than that. I made the guides promise me hammerheads after that, as I’m not sure how to top it. (note: these guys keep their promises – see later).
The famous Thistlegorm, built in Sunderland of course, when we were actually good at making ships. We do reckon my grandad worked on the Thistlegorm, as he was in the yard when it was built, so I do always feel an affinity with her when I dive her. Heading down the shot line, we realised there was surprisingly little current, as well as even more surprisingly few divers. Having problems equalising at 20m and therefore changing the dive plan to do the bow instead of the deeper stern was a stroke of luck, as the rest of the party went one way, my buddy and I went the other, and being left with the entire front part of the huge ship all to ourselves. The Thistlegorm is the most dived ship in the Red Sea, so this was a massive treat. Getting some great shots of the bow, we floated over the winches, and into the captain’s cabin, past his now famous bath and sink, and finished the dive after about 40 minutes.
The second dive on the Thistlegorm is generally a night dive, but we were offered a twilight dive from the guides instead, and only four of us took up the offer…. Meaning the entire ship was ours to dive; something you wouldn’t have imagined possible a few months ago. The Egyptian Revolution has cut tourist numbers drastically, and the impact is right in front of me. And I’m torn between sadness for the locals, and the Egyptian economy, and the unprecedented experience of having the mighty Thistlegorm as a private dive, my personal playground for 45 minutes.
And then there were the dolphins. Last year when I did this dive, they came and played on our safety stop. I wound the guides up asking for dolphins this week. They sarcastically promised me dolphins. We got dolphins.
Just as I’d taken my gear off, two adolescents arrived, twirling and spinning in the water. Grabbing snorkel, fins and camera, I jumped in, coming face to face with these gorgeous mammals, who simply wanted to play. It’s amazing how intelligent these creatures are, as you can tell they’re not here to investigate, they really are here to play: they swam near us, then away, swirling together then apart, surfacing for breath than back again, under us, next to us, peering at us with playful eyes, then peeling away, daring us to follow. They are stunning creatures; I can’t think of any other wild animal that has such a consciousness, and that wants to play with strange beings…they seem to instinctively know we’re not there to hurt them. I do wonder how their brains process everything so intelligently, and how much awareness of themselves as individuals they have. It’s mind-blowing.
Our Floating hotel : Whirlwind
As always with Tornado Marine Fleet (I’ve done five of these bad boys now), the boat we’re on, Whirlwind, is in excellent condition, the crew are helpful, courteous and fun, and the guides are thoroughly professional and lovely, lovely people. Sameh and Yasser know every dive site as if they live on it, and share in all our post dive excitement (“I saw my first octopus!”) and even came for a beer with us on the last evening. Even the guide on another TMF boat remembered me from last year – how’s that for service?
The food is substantial, and more carbs than you should ever eat in a week (never come on a liveaboard expecting to lose weight), and the other guests are a nice mixture of a Lovely dive club, a family, a couple of solo travellers, and some mates. I managed to buddy up with Stephen, a very polite, older gentleman, and very experienced diver who suited my style – relaxed, easygoing and knowledgeable about the dives. We dived well together, and made some great friends.
So, how do you bring to an end a week of dolphins, empty wreck sites and floating in a coral bay under a blue sky? Hammerheads, of course.
Probably the bucket list of many divers will include whale sharks (check); mantas (check); and hammerheads (finally – check!). The most elusive shark in the ocean, hammerheads don’t really conform to shark-stereotyping. They are cautious, keeping their distance from anything they’re unsure of. They travel in pods, sometimes in the hundreds (but that’s a real treat) and usually send out a spotter-shark, to scout the area before them. So, if you see one…. You just need to be patient, as usually the others will follow. And follow they did.
Seven gorgeous, graceful, lithe shadows appeared in front of us, initially looking like reef sharks from the side-on, but as soon as they turn, and you see that so-distinctive head, and the eyes peering at you curiously, that shiver goes through your wetsuit and you know you’ve ticked one of the big three off your bucket list. Absolutely gorgeous, even from a distance. They are some of the most graceful creatures I’ve been in the water with.
I skipped the last dive after that…. There’s not really much point trying to top it really.
So, for a last minute cheapy, designed just to forget about work and recharge the batteries, the past week has done not only that, but provided me with three amazing experiences that I’ll be talking about for years. To anyone that will listen.
And given the political situation isn’t likely to change dramatically overnight, I’m happy to continue to support their push for a better country by returning to the Red Sea, and brining my tourist pounds to their economy.
I guess I have a little revolutionist in me, deep down. Or maybe it’s just the hammerheads.