Red Sea checkout

Dont dismiss that first-morning warm-up dive as an insulting waste of your time, says John Liddiard - in the Red Sea it could be just the kick-start you need

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Anthias

Holiday 2005
Bonaire
Red Sea
El Hierro
Maldives
Majorca
Philippines
South Africa
The Weather


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Its the first day and the first dive of the Red Sea trip you have been looking forward to for months. You have read up about the steep and deep coral walls, the wrecks, the big fish and perhaps even the small fish. You have a few famous-name dive sites in the back of your mind and youre all keyed up for something exciting. So why does the dive guide insist on the first dive being above a shallow, sandy seabed
Its the check-out, or warm-up, dive. A nice safe and easy dive site where mistakes can be made and sorted out before you get onto the real stuff. You may feel a little peeved about having to do the check-out dive - after all, you have dived before. You have your qualification, so you must have mastered the basic skills.
But rather than get stressed about it, just chill out a bit and observe. The whole purpose of a warm-up is as much for your benefit as the guides.
As a boatload of divers drop into the water, the reasons for beginning with a safe and easy site immediately become apparent. One diver floats on the surface and needs an extra weight or two. Three divers are so overweight that they plummet and hit the bottom in a cloud of sand. Its a good job there wasnt a valuable bit of coral beneath them or, less critically (depending on whether you value divers or coral most), that it wasnt the 1000m-deep wall.
Out of those who avoid splatting or floating and hover skilfully above the sand, some look a little uncomfortable, with BCs well inflated. They could also do with a little less weight, but had enough experience to compensate for it.
One camera leaks and gets handed out quickly before too much water gets in. One diver seems to have outgrown his wetsuit since it was last used and has to leave it unzipped. He will need to hire a suit to stay warm tomorrow.
Another diver has a regulator that breathes rather wet and heavy. He cant understand why. After all, he just had it serviced specially before coming on the trip. Later, on the boat, another diver who may know a bit more about regulators pops the cover off the second stage and finds that the diaphragm isnt seated properly. The guide comments dryly that the time your regulator is most likely to fail is just after it has been serviced.
With all this entertainment, a check-out dive is never boring, and thats without whatever fish, corals and macro-critters you can find. In fact, getting in the right frame of mind for fish, corals and macro rather than expecting a spectacular big scene is the trick to enjoying most check-out sites.
There is no better demonstration of this than at Gota Abu Ramada, one of Hurghadas most popular sites for check-out and training dives. To be honest, last time I was there I wasnt diving it as a check-out dive. We had just dived the plateau and wall at Abu Ramada, the boat was moored up for lunch, and I took the opportunity to fit in an extra dive and shoot another film.
The seabed is barely sloping sand from 10-15m, deeper if you swim far enough out. On one side is a solid slope of hard corals, then on the sand are occasional coral heads of varying size, from fridge to Volkswagen Beetle.
Valleys in the main reef and isolated coral heads are swarming with fish, and the fish are almost tame. Gota Abu Ramada has gone through the bane of being over-dived, with all the fish scared off, and come out the other side, where divers are an accepted part of the marine environment. Its hordes of fish treat us as they would anything else with which they share the reef.
Straight in, I was among a shoal of barracuda before I even reached the bottom. The heads of coral were home to shoals of Red Sea bannerfish and golden butterflyfish, both endemic species.
Both also proved a bit of a problem further along; they kept on getting in the way as I was trying to photograph a shoal of black-spotted sweetlips.
The golden butterflyfish even made it to the cover of DIVER (February 2004). A cover shot from the check-out site says all you really need to know about it.
On the other side of the Red Sea at Sharm el Sheikh, the popular sites for check-out dives are Temple, the Gardens and Ras Caty, which, being a phonetic translation from Arabic, is also known as Katy or Kati, and sometimes even gets an h as Khaty.
Temple early in the morning is a dive site you are unlikely to forget, not so much for the diving, but for the beach aerobics session in front of the big Italian resort that sits above the cliff.
Under water, it is a series of coral pillars descending from 6 to 20m, then the seabed sloping away to deeper water with scattered smaller corals. I had to check back in my logbook and files of photographs to remind myself of what I had seen last time I was at Temple.
I remembered the pillars and swarms of anthias, but somehow the clownfish, pipefish, lionfish, moray eels and scorpionfish had been overshadowed in my memory by the pre-dive entertainment.
The Gardens splits into three dive sites running into each other - Near, Middle and Far Garden. Its all typical fringing reef dropping vertically in most places from just a few metres to 10-15m, some shallower sand plateaus good for training, then a moderately steep slope with scattered corals leading off to the depths of the Gulf of Aqaba.
Again, this is more of a fish-spotting dive than one on which to admire the big scenery, though there are some caves full of glassfish and the impressive coral formations after which the site is named.
The last but one time I dived at the Gardens, I snapped golden butterflyfish, an Arabian picassofish and a good-sized star pufferfish, then down on the slope shot gobies with their shrimp room-mates doing the housework.
Interactions and associations between fish are always interesting to look out for and understand. You quite often see wrasse or snapper following goatfish as they ferret in the sand, hoping to pick up a snack from whatever the goatfish uncovers.
At the Gardens I followed a chocolate- dipped wrasse following a goatfish, the wrasse deriving its name because its front half is brown and the rear white. In English it is a lyretail hogfish, but the other name is more fun.
Ras Caty also features in my logbook as a bit of an unusual dive.
The only time I have dived there was on a series of dives to take spoofed pictures of mountain bikes racing under water. The seabed is a much gentler sandy slope with small coral heads, an even easier dive.
Further north in the Gulf of Aqaba, Lighthouse is often used for a warm-up or check-out dive at Dahab. Like most Dahab dives, this is a shore dive and the entry point is on a sandy cut just south of the headland.
I have dived Lighthouse only at dusk - not quite a night dive, but definitely not daylight. On an uneven sloping reef with sandy ledges and jutting outcrops, the anthias were just calming down and the featherstars were out.
Among bigger fish I encountered were a lyretail grouper, assorted wrasse, snapper and bigeye, but the highlight was within a few metres of the entrance, where I found a lizardfish with a half-swallowed purple anthia poking out of its mouth, still alive and struggling.
Coming full circle, I check my logbook for 1988 and my first trip to Hurghada. Check-out dive at Gota Abu Ramada. 13 metres, 68 minutes. Shallow reef and corals. Lots of fish. Many lizardfish. Grotto of lionfish near top of reef. Moray eel.
I couldnt remember it without my logbook, but it seems that even back then I enjoyed the check-out dive.

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Black-spotted sweetlips at Gotu Abu Ramada, Hurghada

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Lizardfish trying to swallow an anthia, at the Lighthouse, Dahab

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A chocolate-dipped wrasse follows a goatfish hoping to pick up a snack at the Gardens, Sharm

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An Arabian angelfish at Gotu Abu Ramada

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A bigeye spotted at the Lighthouse

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FACTFILE

Sharm el Sheikh: Fly from Manchester (Sundays) and Gatwick (Thursdays and Sundays). A seven-night package including return flights, transfers and B&B from£293. Six days diving£145 with Ocean College, 0020 69 664305, info@ocean-college.com. In the UK book with Explorers Tours, 01753 681 999, www.explorers.co.uk.
Dahab: Seven-night package with transfers, accommodation and five days diving, US $336 with Poseidon Divers, 0020 626 40091, www.poseidondivers.com. Flight only to Sharm with Explorers Tours from£279.
Hurghada: Fly from Gatwick (Fridays). Seven nights including flights, transfers and B&B£336 or, with 15 dives,£433, with Easy Divers, 0020 65 548816, www.easydivers-redsea.com. In the UK book with Crusader Travel, 0208 744 0474, www.crusadertravel.com.


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