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June 22, 2005

Diving Dahab

Monday, June 20 to Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Dahab, Egypt:

The Red Sea was formed over 30 million years ago as the plates between Africa and Arabia drifted apart and a flood of water rushed in to fill up the gap. The plates are still separating and it is estimated by scientists that in 100 million years the Red Sea will be larger than the Atlantic Ocean. Since its already one of the premier diving spots on the planet, this news makes scuba divers very excited.

I mention the shift in tectonic plates because standing on the sands of Dahab's beaches and looking across to the Saudi coast on the other side of the Gulf of Aqaba, it can be easy to forget the continental divide that separates one shore from the other. The dusty, bone-dry mountains that jut up sharply from the coast are really just the peaks of a range of mountains that drop off sharply at the brilliant blue waterline. This means that you don't need to take a boat out to go diving in Dahab: There are numerous sites at which you can spread a towel on the ground, lay your equipment out, kit up, and wade right in from the shore, very quickly finding yourself 100 feet below the surface and facing vast, seemingly endless drop-offs into the deep. Perhaps the most famous dive site near Dahab, the aptly named "Blue Hole," is about 15 feet off of a beach just a few minutes' jeep (or camel) ride north of the town. A wide circular crater, it plunges several hundred meters below the surface and trained (and suicidal would-be) technical divers are continuously pushing its limits. Unfortunately, one of the most reknowned divers to explore the Blue Hole is occasionally called on to retrieve the corpses of divers who lacked the know-how (or, even more foolishly, the equipment) to go to those extreme depths and come back alive.

The waters are teeming with multitudes of fish and immense and varied coral formations. The same barren, harsh and all but lifeless mountains that rise above the shore are rich with life and thousands of colors that are evident from nearly the second you step in, deflate your BCD, and submerge.

On my first full day in Dahab I met my dive master and a couple of other divers downstairs at the Divers House dive shop, which occupies the far side of the boardwalk across from the beachfront cafes, including what would quickly become a favorite hang-out, the Jasmine Restaurant (I would eventually build up a tab there, receiving my bill and just telling them "I'll pay you later" or, on several occasionals when I had money and they didn't have change, trusting them to give me credit the next time I came). The dive master was a German man named Raoul. However, having lived in Egypt for 12 years now, with a child and an Egyptian Muslim wife, he also went by the moniker "Mr. Abdullah." One of the two other divers was a quiet and extremely multi-lingual fellow from Denmark who was polite enough to translate his occasional German conversations with Abdullah for me and the second diver. That second diver was Adam, a 27 year-old Brit on a three-week holiday following his decision (complete with telephone hurled angrily at wall) to quit his high-stress computer/technical assistance job with a large British company and spend some time considering the next step. Adam was certified as a dive master and spent six months working at a dive shop in Vietnam. However, he hadn't had any time to dive in the past two years and Monday was his third day and second time diving since arriving in Dahab.

The procedure we followed on the first dive set the pace for the rest of my 11 dives out of Dahab. We would load our equipment into a pick-up driven by a maniacal local driver and rocket out onto the dusty roads to a spot just north or south of the town. On our way we would often pass small groups of Bedouins leading horses and/or camels, usually alone but sometimes with tourist riders in tow. On our arrival at one mountain-shrouded beach or another, the driver (who didn't speak English and wasn't so chummy, hence no name) would frenziedly rush about to help us spread a mat on the ground and unload our gear. Then we would kit up and Mr. Abdullah would --- after double-checking our equipment with encouraging German seriousness --- brief us on the dive. After that we would wade out into the water with mask and fins in hand and, teetering on one leg and then the other, put the fins on and give the final OK before heading under.

The first dive was at a site called "Golden Blocks," named for two giant blocks of coral that appear as a fuzzy yellow blur beneath the waves when viewed from the surface. Beneath the water they were buzzing with tiny red and silver fish, thousands of them scurrying through the hard and soft corals in orchestrated schools. There were few larger fish, but the coral was top notch. After swimming around the blocks we eventually descended to 100 feet where an enormous gorgonian (fan coral) sat.

Our second dive at the "Lighthouse," provided more coral, a green turtle, and an octopus resting at the mouth of a small cave, seemingly half asleep. When we returned to the dive shop we cleaned our gear and changed. Adam and I decided to grab a beer. It seemed we were both going to be diving together for a while, since he had just started his trip and I planned to be around for a few weeks, more or less. He also wanted to head down to Sharm el Sheik, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, where the diving is supposed to among the very best in the world, with large schools of large fish, numerous sharks and some world-famous shipwrecks.

Dahab was growing on me as night fell and the lights came on across the gulf on the Saudi side of the sea. There wasn't much to do but have some food (which is much better in Dahab than in most of Egypt), lie on the cushions on the floor of a tented, open-air cafe, and talk or read. I spent the first few days reading the 1980's-set novel "Money," by Martin Amis, which is by far one of the funniest novels I've ever read and full of very creative prose musings by its narrator-protagonist, the greedy, gluttinous, alcohol-saturated and conniving Brit, John Self: "Standing in the nordic nook of the kitchen, I can gaze down at the flimsy-limbed joggers heading south towards the park... Some of these gasping fatsos, these too-little-too-late artists, they look as though they're running up rising ground, climbing ground. My generation, we started all this. Before, everyone was presumably content to feel like death the whole time. Now they want to feel terrific forever... I peer through the spectral, polluted, nicotine-sodden windows of my sock at these old lollopers in their kiddie gear. Go home, I say. Go home, lie down, and eat lots of potatoes."

Dive by day and go home, lie down and eat potatoes, pizza and burgers by night. That became the Dahab routine, more or less. On Wednesday we dove at Bell's Wall, a sheer coral-covered wall that drop down hundreds of feet into the deep. At the end of the dive we swam into the Blue Hole where there isn't much to see other than the bottomless depths below. We weren't technical divers and there wasn't much difference between what we would see at 15 feet below and 100 feet below, so we stayed at 15 feet for a few minutes before exiting. During that time we saw a skin diver plunge down into the blue and come back, with little more than a speedo on and a knife on his ankle (not that there was a point to that here). We also saw two technical divers descend from the surface, down, and out of view, with only the lights from their powerful torches flickering up. Each diver had three tanks on his back and an additional tank strapped by each hip. To spend ten minutes at a maximum depth of, say, two-hundred and twenty feet below (the recreational, non-tech diving limit is one-hundred and thirty), they would then have to spend several long hours gradually coming back up to the surface in a series of "decon stops" so as to lower the risk of serious injury or death by decompression sickness (the bends) which would be inevitable without those stops.

By the end of Wednesday, I'd been to six different sites around Dahab. There were a few more places to see and some sites I wanted to dive again, but I was eager to head to Sharm el Sheikh to try some of the diving there. On Tuesday, Mohammed at Divers House informed Adam and I that he could put us on a Thursday trip to the Thistlegorm, one of the most famous wrecks in the world, for a better rate than we would get if we stayed in busy, touristy (and much more expensive) Sharm. We agreed --- and also signed up for a trip on Friday to the Straits of Tiran; we could sleep on the dive boat Thursday night without having to come back to Dahab.

The only inconvenience stemmed from the fact that the docks at Sharm are a 90 minute drive from Dahab while the trip from Sharm to the site of the Thistlegorm is about 3 1/2 hours by boat. Most boats leave very early in the morning to arrive at the Thistlegorm and ours was no exception; it would depart at 4 AM. Thus, the package required us to board an 11 PM Wednesday mini-bus to Sharm where we could sleep on the boat (a double-deck 50-footer or so) and during the ride out. But this didn't seem to be much of a problem so, on Wednesday night, I packed up a change of clothes, bought a few snacks, and hung out at the Jasmine Restaurant while waiting for the shuttle to arrive.

Posted by Joshua on June 22, 2005 12:21 PM
Category: Egypt (Again)
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