Thursday, 26 April 2012

Diving in the Red Sea: A week of fun before the work really started.

Oh my goodness, life is practically running away with me at the moment and subsequently I haven't had time to blog. Anyway, what a busy month I've had. I went to Egypt for three weeks, I came back and literally did nothing for a week (except sit back and enjoy said life, oh and worry about the next few weeks) and then last week I started the assignment that was set as part of the Egypt trip and last night frantically revised for the exam (also related to the Red Sea) this morning. I'm actually supposed to be tidying my pigsty of a room that my loving boyfriend kindly tidied whilst I was away. Needless to say the tidiness didn't actually last long and as soon as I returned it looked like a bomb had hit. It was my way of saying, “I'm baaaack”.

So where do I start?

Egypt was simply fantastic. I've been to the country before but only as part of a day trip on a cruise (docked at Port Said and visited Cairo – typical touristy thing to do but it was wonderful). This time we were off to Sharm-El-Sheikh to a) have a semi-relaxing week of diving with Ocean College and b) engage in an intensive two-week coral reef monitoring course led by Dr. Rupert Ormond and his wife Dr. Mauvis Gore, and also two of our own lecturers Prof. Callum Roberts and his wife Dr. Julie Hawkins. I think I'm going to do a separate post about the actual monitoring course because it is, to some degree, educational and I believe it'll be of interest to some of you at least. So, for the time being, here's a little insight into my first week in Egypt... 

Come fly with me, lets fly lets fly away.
I'm not going to bore you with the details of the flight,  nothing really happened except that I was sick (before I even got to Egypt? Wow!) My friends and I had a good flick through the Lonely Planet's guide to Egypt and taught ourselves some Arabic which was actually restricted to hello = Salām 'alaykum and thank you = Shukrān (the latter of which was used extensively during the trip). We arrived in Sharm-El-Sheikh, paid for our Visas (which were needed to leave Sharm, i.e. whenever we were going to Ras Mohammed National Park) and arrived at Ocean Club hotel round 10 pm. It was quite a nice place, very basic but we weren't exactly paying much and breakfast was included. 

Home sweet home for the next three weeks.
18th March 2012
After a really good night's sleep and some breakfast in the morning (bread, bread and ... bread?), we grabbed our bags, our snorkels, our masks, our fins and went to find the beach for a snorkel session. We vaguely knew the direction so we carried on walking, and walking, and walking until we found it. I'm not 100% sure of the name of the beach but a friend has just informed me it is in Ras Um Sidd (if anybody does know the name or recognises it from the photos please tell me).

Beautiful blue water with an incredible fringing reef.

Just before the sun began to set.
We decided not to bring the wetsuits with us since we didn't think the water would be that cold. I think we were in for about an hour in just bikinis and rash vests and it was freezing. Very beautiful site though and definitely one of the most beautiful reefs I've snorkelled over. We saw plenty of things for sure, at this point I didn't really know many of the names but I scribbled down what I could remember: Picassofish (Rhinecanthus assasi), blue-spotted stingray (Neotrygon kuhlii), either a Red Sea needlefish or houndfish (Belonidae), Blotcheye soldierfish (Myripristis murdjan), Lyretail anthias (Pseudanthias squammipinis), various butterflyfish (Chaetodontidae), damselfish (Pomacentridae), anemonefish (Amphiprioninae), wrasse (Labridae), parrotfish (Scaridae), surgeonfish (Acanthuridae)... Can you guess that I gave up trying to find individual species?

During the snorkel session. Maybe I should buy a different coloured rash-vest so I don't look quite so naked. Photo by Gemma Galbraith
We walked back, quickly showered and head out to Old Sharm market to find a fish restaurant 'Fares' that the hotel manager had recommended to us. It was an absolutely delicious meal with about 2kg of fish, unlimited bread, water, dip, roasted vegetables, rice, everything you could imagine for about 100 EGP each (£10 give or take). I couldn't help but notice the incredible number of cats in Sharm, also, something that I enjoyed (me being a cat lover and that). 

19th March 2012
The next day we were being picked up at 7.50am to go to the Ocean College centre at the Hilton Fayrouz. It was time to complete my PADI Open Water diving qualification with Catherine at last. We filled out the necessary paperwork and introduced to Clare who would be our instructor and our guide for the week (and helper for the monitoring course funnily enough) and proceeded to get kitted up, BCD and regulator time. To finish the dives we headed to a local site, Ras Katy, after we all boarded on our ride for the day - Gamila (beautiful in Arabic). Dive number one was extremely successful, although it was rather weird diving in the sea. I was originally kitted up with 10kg of weight, but needed to drop 2kg since I was too heavy at depth. I had a few issues with my ears (standard), I just couldn't equalise. I went up a few metres, did some jaw-wiggling and such and it finally sorted itself out. Clare suggested I should try swallowing just in case that would help, figures that I can equalise by swallowing and swallowing alone (I wish it worked all of the time though). Managed to make a big rookie error and signal out of air instead of 'something isn't right'! She knew what I was on about so that was good... 

We had a bit of a swim around after we completed the mandatory skills and saw plenty of lovely fish including the anthias, anemonefish and plenty of red-toothed triggerfish. Got back onto the boat, quickly completed the skill review (100% thankfully), had some lunch and had a bit of a sunbathe before the next dive. The second was at Katy St Temple and had a really good swim around. It was much better after ditching the 2kg. Noticed that whenever I was trying to deflate my BCD I was actually rolling over to my side as if I was cuff dumping (the procedure used for deflating when in a dry suit)... I quickly got out of that habit though. We managed to meet up with the others who were having a dive around. Catherine signalled that she was out of air and so went up to the surface. I stayed down with Clare and Tim for the remainder of the session since, for some reason I have pretty good air consumption. I put it down to having little lungs (and starting the dive on a decent amount of air). Over these two dives we saw some moray eels, blue spotted ray, sea urchins (plentiful), two lion fish (how cute!), masked pufferfish, Napoleon wrasse, peacock grouper (beautiful things) and another moray, this time a yellow edged one. It was a brilliant day and both myself and my friend Catherine came away as newly-qualified PADI Open Water divers - hoorah! I was that knackered, however, that when I get back to the room I proceeded to curl up in a hoodie and sleep.

Moray eel. Photo wasn't taken at this site, but it's such a brilliant photo I couldn't help but put it on. Photo taken by Gemma Galbraith

20th March 2012
Day two of diving was actually day one of our pre-booked dive package (4 days diving for £99). This day were on-board Sonya and were heading towards another local site - Fiddler's Garden. Whilst there were other divers on the boat alongside us 'uni lot', we stuck together as a group and Clare led us as our dive guide. The first dive was down a mooring line which was nice, it is a lot easier to manage your depth this way since you have some kind of guide.

Making our way down the mooring line, there's me at the bottom with the bright yellow fins! Photo by Tim Cross.
 My mask flooded a lot on the first dive which I wasn't happy about. I had no problems with clearing it however (thankfully that it one of the more useful skills we learn), but it was just an annoyance and as I'm only a beginner I was worried about my buoyancy at the same time. It ended up being that my mask was on a little too high (a common problem if the mask it too tight, it'll begin to slip). I slackened it off for the next dive and I had no problems at all. The second dive was much more enjoyable (due to a behaving mask!) and I managed to stay down for quite a while - 57 minutes for the first dive, and 60 for the second. It was crazy though, both dives I went in on 240 bar and came out with 70 bar. At both sites we saw plenty of fish and it never ceased to amaze me how wonderfully beautiful the corals were (bearing in mind I've never really seen any of this before, I can't imagine it ever getting boring though). We saw plenty of female lyretail anthias (below), octopus, anemonefish (yes, I did used to clap whenever I saw them - little overexcited me), butterflyfish, more moray eels, lion fish etc.

Anthias in the plenty. Photo by Laura Irvine.

Anemonefish in their home. Photo by Gemma Galbraith.

21st March 2012

  Day three of diving was on-board Sonya again, but this time we were heading to Ras Mohammed National Park. I was so excited about diving here, I didn't actually think I'd get to do it because I know it is a little more difficult due to currents and we have to take on board drift-dive procedures (actually very simple and fun if there's a good current behind you). The conditions were really good on the first dive although I couldn't notice much of a current (which I guess is good, knowing me I would've ended up drifting away to some faraway place). 
I was balancing, not posing... Honest! Photo by Tim Cross
A tuna was spotted on this dive, but unfortunately I didn't see it. There were a fair few bluefin trevally (Caranx melampygus) though which are lovely fish, they belong to the jack family (Carangidae). The best sighting on this dive, however, had to be the sea turtle we saw just lazying around. Thankfully everyone managed to have a quick look at the beautiful creature before he swam off to the surface. 

Hello buddy! Photo by Gemma Galbraith

Swimming away. Photo by Tim Cross.
The second dive was equally as wonderful, this time we were at Shark Reef and Yolanda Reef. This is one of Egypt's most prized diving locations and I can see why. It is definitely ticked off as my favourite site. These reefs are two mountain-like spots with a sandy bay in the middle that you need to hug in order to not get caught in with the current. We dropped in by Anemone City which was nice and gentle (hey, I'm a beginner) and then made our way first passed Shark Reef and then to Yolanda Reef which is a site made up of the remains of a shipwreck which was carrying bathroom fittings as cargo. As you can imagine, coming across a reef of bathtubs, toilets and sinks is quite remarkable. We saw another turtle on this dive which was amazing, and I managed to spot my first ever Nudibranch. I was so excited to see the little fella, they're so cute. This one was a Pyjama Chromodorid (below).

Pyjama chromodorid (Chromodoris quadricolor). Photo by Gemma Galbraith.

Crocodile fish, also spotted on the dive. Photo by Tim Cross.
Just before we were ready to do our 3 minute safety stop at 5m, we spotted an absolutely massive Titan triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens). I didn't realise they were so territorial however, and they actively defend a cone-shaped territory, so whilst you think you might be out of their range... You aren't. Thankfully, none of us actually got in its way but I've heard they can deliver quite a nasty bite. By the time we were doing our safety stop, I was getting quite low on air. This was fine, I knew I was close to the surface, but unfortunately it did make me pretty buoyant (remembering that I had to drop the 2kg weight as I was too heavy). I had a little bit of trouble keeping at the 5m depth but I managed it in the end. I did find it pretty tiring getting back to the boat, I ended up on 50 bar and I could feel it pulling a little, plus it was hard work getting onto the back of the boat at the end.

22nd March 2012
It was day four and I was, admittedly, getting a little tired. We were on-board Noble Sheikh and were originally heading for Tiran but unfortunately the rough conditions did not permit this. We did one dives within the straits instead (at Ras Bob) and then managed to get to Tiran for  the second dive at Gordon's Reef (thanks Clare for clearing that one up with me!)

Just hanging around. Photo by Tim Cross.

 The first dive was beautiful, as the others, and we managed to see two swimming lionfish - such beautiful fish. One of them was a clearfin (with white spines). There was a lovely patch of sand that we had to hug and we came across a little patch of Red Sea garden eels, they are adorable. Unfortunately, being the excited being I am I got a bit too close to them and clapped (yes, yes I get it, I need to stop doing it) and a few of them shot back in their little holes. I'll learn... One day. I managed to stay down for 60 minutes and return with 90 bar (see, told you, little lungs). Upon returning to the boat myself and Gemma had a fun time rolling around on deck attempting to peel off wetsuits and change tanks for the next dive. I think we provided A-class entertainment for the guys on board.

The wreck at Gordon's Reef
The second dive was in a lovely location. We actually stopped here for lunch and tried to take a few photos of the wreck but unfortunately my camera just isn't good enough. I tried however (above) and I think it came out okay. This was another beautiful dive but I spent half of it diving around half-blind as my mask kept fogging up. It is such a common problem with a new mask but I thought I had de-fogged it quite well (toothpaste trick to remove the film). The dive itself didn't particularly start well either. The swell from the boat meant it was rather difficult to 'step in' and I ended up practically lunging forward and being semi-pushed in. I wasn't a happy bunny! It was another long dive, though, and once I had got into the routine of fogging - flooding - emptying my mask it was all a-ok. 

23rd March 2012
Everyone bar myself, Catherine and Bex had completed their 4-day dive package and so it was just us left. We were back on Noble Sheikh and it was the last day of diving. We returned back to Shark and Yolanda Reef for a lovely dive, it really is practically untouched (relatively speaking) and the amount of colour on the reef is spectacular. Conditions were quite bad again for this dive, and yet again, I ended up flailing around and got pushed in when I wasn't quite ready. I didn't even have time to cover my mask or regs. As soon as we got in we had to go down to 5m (otherwise we would be pushed against the rocks and coral) and that's where the problems began for me. Now, not wanting to scare anybody off diving I need to say that this was most likely due to my own error and panic. I'm a nervous person, naturally, so when something isn't right or I'm rushed to do things I do tend to panic a little bit. Anyway, I went down to 5m and everything was fine. Descended a little bit more and just could not equalise. Finned my way up a few metres and everything was fine, and then somehow I dropped and just kept dropped to about 23m. Going at that speed and not being able to equalise at the same time meant I was left with very sore ears. It was a completely unintentional drop and I made my way back up to 16 or 17m but my ears were still sore (although not squeezing any more from the pressure). Despite the panic I still managed to finish my dive on 110 bar (bottom time: 56 minutes). It was a nice multi-level dive, however, so that's probably the main reason for it.

Our surface interval for that dive was quite long, say about 3 hours, and I just did not feel well at all. I tried to have a bit of a sleep to a) get some energy back and b) hopefully drain my ears since I was half-deaf. My right ear was in a bit of pain and I just did not want to take the chance of diving again and damaging it. The dive instructors (and those much more experienced than me) said I definitely made the right decision and that I was being wise... I mean, I wanted to dive on the coral reef course (the week after) and I didn't want to hinder my chances of doing so by blowing my ear drum out. 

The end of a fantastic week
Despite missing my boyfriend a lot, missing food (I was on an epic mission to avoid all fruit and vegetables... in the end we tried them and we were all fine so that was good) and missing some home comforts, I had an absolutely fantastic week diving in Sharm-El-Sheikh. It was nice to get our bearings in a new place, be broken into the heat (it got gradually hotter as the week went on) and see some amazing sights before we started the coral reef monitoring course. Returning to Sharm and diving with Ocean College is definitely on the to-do list in the future, and it would be interesting to see whether the reefs do degrade any more over the next few years or whether divers, snorkellers and beach-goers alike can learn to look and admire but most definitely not touch. An unlikely event but, we shall see. 

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