Thursday, April 13, 2006


Sharm al Sheikh, Egypt

The OC is really spoiled when it comes to diving. We did our basic certification course with a small dive company on the beautiful tropical island of Koh Tao - a place that seems to exist solely to fulfill the needs of divers on and offshore. For the advanced course, we headed to Carins, Australia to do a four day live-aboard trip to the Great Barrier Reef. This journey afforded us four efficient dives a day among the world's most celebrated submarine scenery. Armed with this experience, we felt qualified to test the claim that Egypt has some of the best diving and dive facilities in the world.

The city of Sharm al Sheikh is not the kind of place you come to learn about Egyptian life or culture. The hourly flights bring mostly Europeans looking for sand, sun, and scuba. At times, it can be difficult to find any signs at all in Arabic. English, German, and Russian are duking it out for the honor of lingua franca. We phoned ahead to a dive center listed in the Rough Guide and they helped us arrange a hotel at a decent price not too far from Nama Bay where all the hotels, bars, and restaurants crowd together. The area is packed and busy, but it manages to avoid some of the worst sins of mass tourism, especially at night when the weather cools and the waterfront promenade and adjoining streets come to tasteful life.

All told, we did 8 dives over 4 days. The first was a check dive to make sure we had not forgotten the basics. It was notable only because it was our first dive from shore. I much prefer to dive from a boat. A rather plump snorkler leaped from a floating dock onto my head on the way back in. There was no repeat of this unfortunate meeting as all subsequent dives were done from boats over the next three days. A van picked us up early in the morning, drove us out to the very hectic port facilities, and returned us to the dive center afterwards.

Due to a sudden bout of cholera, Jason was unable to finish the advanced course back in Oz, so we did the remaining "deep dive" portion of that instruction on the second dive. This was not a total waste for me as we combined completion of Jason's course with nitrox instruction. Dive three was a straightforward float along a reef wall. It was scenic, relaxing, and effortless. The fourth dive featured a very cool cave and some nice coral formations. On the fifth, we got our first experience with a wreck. We swam among a pile of toilets left on the bottom by a poorly-navigated Russian cargo vessel. Dive six was another float along a reef wall and was remarkable only for the variety of sea life on hand. Rays are spooky.

The last two dives were easily the highlight of my undersea career. We went out of our way to arrange passage to the wreck of the Thistlegorm, a British cargo vessel from The Second World War that went down in shallow water after a bad blind date with a Luftwaffe bomb. On the first dive, we swam most of the length of the deck and examined the tanks and train locomotives that had been lashed to the deck, old artillery shells, and the mostly intact outer structure of the vessel. It was excitingly like living inside the Discovery Channel, but the best was still yet to come. On the second dive, we went inside the ship and swam among the still-full cargo holds, some internal passages, and the bridge. I would have been scared out of my wits if I was not so busy taking pictures and trying to restrain my amazement.

Two of our eight dive sites are listed by some experts among the top 10 dives in the world. This is assessment is spot on from where I am sitting. The Red Sea faced stiff competition from Thailand and The Great Barrier Reef and easily came out on top. Diving (like riding horses) is one of those things that I never really thought I would enjoy enough to pursue any further, but I definitely see myself spending more time underwater. The problem is that there appears to be little room for improvement.


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