Text and photography by David Oldale
I pressed the deflate button on my buoyancy compensator (BC) and dropped slowly from the surface through crystal clear blue water towards the magnificent colours of the coral reef some 10 metres below. A quick squeeze of the inflate button had me weightless and hovering just above the delicate corals that extended all around and down over the near drop-off into the abyss. I motioned to the Divemaster ‘wait', as I needed a few seconds to switch on and adjust the settings on the underwater camera. I looked back to give the okay signal only to see the Divemaster waving and pointing frantically in the direction of the surface. It took perhaps a second or two for my eyes to register on the large dark object that was gliding down towards us. I followed the ever-closing encounter through the viewfinder until I had the Green turtle composed and filling the frame before pressing the shutter release. For some time the Turtle glided and soared around us, presenting me with shot after magical shot before effortlessly continuing its forage along the Kebira Reef near El Gouna in the Egyptian Northern Red Sea .
Scuba diving started to have its followers within the UK during the 1950s but wasn't until after the televised exploits of Hans and Lotte Hass and then Jacques Cousteau some few years later that the pastime (sport) exploded to the forefront. Until as recently as 30 years ago diving had the adage of a macho type image and following – suitable only for the physically fit /strong swimmer. With advances in equipment design/manufacture, training procedures and foresight diving is now open to all. From the age of 10 to over 80 years people are getting into the water and learning to dive. With this in mind I was going away for an easy laid back week of diving in the Red Sea courtesy of Longwood Holidays (Red Sea Diving Specialists).
El Gouna is situated on the edge of the Sahara at a point where the desert sands drop gently into the deep blue waters of the Northern Red Sea . Some thirty minutes travelling time from the airport at Hurghada, El Gouna is a new, modern resort with a series of low, well laid out internationally known hotels erected within a series of man-made shallow lagoons – a picturesque location!
My flight and stay in Egypt from London Gatwick was with Astreaus Airlines arranged by Longwood Holidays in conjunction with the PR Company responsible to the El Gouna Tourist Board with accommodation at the 5 star Mövenpick Beach and Spa Resort. Some mention of the airline must be made as they pride themselves on providing extra legroom seats throughout their 757 aircraft – achieved by cutting 40 seats and spreading out the remainder. The 5 hour flight just oozed comfort and with excellent service and in-flight entertainment.
The Mövenpick complex on three floors was spread out within acres of colourful and palm-tree accentuated gardens set within a number of calm blue-watered sand lagoons. The on-site beach-fronted dive centre Dive Tribe is a fully recognised PADI 5 star IDC (disabled and abled) diving centre with one of its four large purpose built dive-boats fully equipped for the less-abled .
I presented myself at the requested and un-holy hour of 8am on the morning following my previous day's arrival – at the dive centre. Some two hours later I was floating off the stern of the dive-boat over a dive-site known locally as Erg Abu Nugar.
Through the clear turquoise water below I could see two fingers of a coral reef laid out and separated by a tongue of white coralline-sand. From a number of points on the sand jutted many multicoloured soft and hard coral heads. Venting air from my buoyancy compensator I submerged slowly to float above the sand at 10 metres. In front of me – around and within a coral head of pink, blue, white, green and yellow corals darted Nemos (Anemonefish), Dominofish (their patterned colouring closely resembling a domino piece) and the brilliantly coloured orange Anthias . As I moved in closer to take a picture of a male and female Nemo wafting in and out of the moving tentacles of a pink anemone the male came out to challenge my approach. The aggressive little blighter (size at no more than 8cm) could see his own reflection in my camera lens and was intent on seeing off the intruder. In the end it was he that backed down – at least this one didn't bite my fingers!
Within a group of 4 divers led by our instructor I drifted along the sand valley and out onto a plateau covered with large outcrops of light pink coloured table corals. It would be under these table coral that the very much larger predatory fish of the living reef would conceal themselves – in the waiting expectancy of their next passing meal!
The instructor was pointing to a particularly large specimen of table coral. At first I could see nothing beneath as the area was much in shadow from the overhead flat structured coral that allowed little light to penetrate from above. But when illuminated from the modelling-light within the underwater flashgun the largest of Giant moray eels could be seen, its 3.5 metre long bulbous body entwined and caressed around the thick base stems of the table coral. Whilst a Moray eel can inflict a savage bite it is very much of a pussycat really. The Moray's fearsome look comes mainly from the way it continually opens and closes its mouth (during its natural breathing cycle) showing a magnificent set of row upon row of long, pointed glistening-white teeth.
In the hollows high up on the reef wall hundreds of Glassfish sparkled in the penetrating sunbeams that filtered down from the surface above as they swished to and fro in the gentle current. There also cruised a blue-spotted brilliantly coloured vermilion Coral grouper that drifted over and around the corals in the hunt for its quarry – the Glassfish.
Everywhere on the coral reef existed a kaleidoscope of the most brilliant colour that would defy the imagination. Neither televised-film nor photograph could ever do justice to the scene witnessed first-hand.
After just over an hour beneath the surface with all our air supplies getting low we had to return to our world above but below – the life and death existence of the coral reef would continue on in much the same as it had for many thousands of years before. At the surface my kit was taken from me before being assisted back aboard the dive-boat.
“Well, how did you like your first dive off El Gouna then Dave?” questioned Rob (Instructor and owner of Dive Tribe ).
“Absolute rubbish!” I replied. For a brief moment he looked mystified and horror-struck. I could keep a straight face no longer as a smile spread from ear to ear – he would be quick to get used to my sense of humour!
“Did you get any good pictures?”
“Perhaps one or two,” I replied still with a smile on my face… And even if I hadn't I had the rest of the week to make up for it!
I tried to cast a very critical eye from the point of view of the newly qualified inexperienced diver travelling abroad wanting a relaxing away from it all holiday whilst also sampling one or two easy dives available from a vast programme. I also took into account the experienced diver who just wanted to get under and dive solidly on the distant reefs or Northern Red Sea wrecks. Dive Tribe could cater for everyone's requirements – from a quick shallow dive on the house reef to a mini-expedition out to the wrecks of the Thistlegorm, Dunraven, Kingston , Ghiannis D and others.
With Dive Tribe (being also a disabled Diving Centre) the less-abled who wanted to get under the surface to take in the spectacle of the living reef (on a try-it and see basis) or for that matter partake on a learn to dive course – I knew and saw that they were very well looked after.
The dive centre was located to the tip of the Mövenpick complex and quite a walk if ones hotel room was at the furthest end! A problem – not at all! A phone call to reception and a golf-cart would be at the dive centre or your room in minutes, so getting around was no problem! At the end of a day's diving I always walked back from the dive centre – there were a number of the Mövenpick bars to sample en-route with my newfound dive buddies! Whilst I was a person who liked to get out and about when I wasn't diving I found little need as the Mövenpick had all I wished for (including an array of shops) within the complex.
Back to the diving – It was all arranged, a two-day trip out to dive the Northern Red Sea wrecks – would I like to go? A silly question – I was on the jetty at 0900 hrs the following morning. The luxurious (liveaboard) hardboat could sleep 12 in comfort – there were just 3 of us on the trip – there was now as many instructors as customers! Now which cabin did I want?
Out of the shelter of the marina and reef the sea heaved; it wasn't long before my dream of diving the wrecks was vetoed – it was just too rough! But there were other places to dive. First stop Kebira Reef. I dropped down off the stern into clear blue water, the reef sheared down vertically in stages to – nothing… I paused at a ledge at 10 metres to set up the camera – just in case. I had very little time… as a dark shadow approached blotting out the sunrays that cascaded down through the water. The instructor was pointing, but my buddies were well to my rear and hadn't noticed; the camera was pointed – the shots were mine as the Loggerhead turtle cruised down, around and on top of me! Bloody hell I thought I just couldn't believe this, and just then when I thought I had got it all on film his mate appeared from behind a coral head. Two Turtles, half a roll of film exposed and just two minutes into the dive; my buddies still 20 metres off oblivious to the action around me until one of the Loggerheads swooped between them!
Everything that happened after seemed much of sameness – 5 Giant morays, Crocodilefish, massive Blue Triggerfish and more Lionfish than you could shake a stick at! I wanted the dive over – I had no film left!
Out of the turbulence and in the lee of the reef we stayed put. There was to be a night dive – I weighed up the pros and cons – a lemonade or two or get wet. The lemonade won! Never again will that happen as… my buddies who did the dive were buzzed, nibbled and played with by three wild Bottlenosed dolphins. Pig sick, you bet I was! Even then I slept the sleep of a thousand.
After breakfast (sumptuous) the boat moved to Dolphin House Reef – I dived, I got bored! Just the usual Nemos, Crocodile and Lionfish, Dominofish, Reef Sharks, Anthias, Glassfish, Coral Grouper, Giant Morays and countless others. The coral reef – a plethora of rainbow colours and everything in between! Was this the life – yes and then some!
Back to reality, I washed my kit at the dive centre, had a lemonade with my two new friends in the bar and packed ready for my afternoon departure back to Gatwick the following day. Was it good – No it was a fantastic trip, made the more so by Longwood Holidays, the Mövenpick Hotel and Divetribe…
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