The celebrated wreck of the Cedar Pride - the cherry on Jordan's diving cake.


WERE 20M DOWN ON THE WRECK of the Cedar Pride when we have one of those Blue Planet moments. A shape-shifting cloud of sardines cascades above us, exploding round the tangled mast of the cargo ship, panicked by a yard-long barracuda. Theres no sub-aqua semaphore that can really convey the excitement. All that fin-tugging and pointing and those twin-fisted okaaayys! barely do it justice.
Theres not a lot you can say about what happens next, either - though in this case, strangely, you can actually say it. Ascending gently in one of the giant holds of this rusting hulk, you get the strange sensation that youre about to surface. You check the dial - 22m - but you see reflections in a mercury ceiling above you.
Our leader Gary drifts up into it and his head disappears. He sinks back down and beckons. You float up cautiously to find that youve broken into a huge air pocket, two decades worth of divers exhalation trapped in this rusting iron lung. Occasionally, when the wreck shifts in the after-shock of a high-speed ferry, ribbons of bubbles wheeze out of its sides, giving the vague impression that its alive.
But this really is bizarre. I hang there watching for a minute as various heads bob up, tear out their regs in astonishment, shout the first thing that springs to mind - Classic!, Oh my gosh!, F*** me! - and drop back down again.
You wander slowly back to the surface, past triangular boxfish looking like a childs cartoon, and Red Sea bannerfish guarding their anemone patch, over vast landscapes of coral and sponge, secure in the knowledge that, in five minutes time, youll be gently basting on the astro-turf beneath an azure sky where someone - not you! - will be forking legs of chicken off a metal barbecue nailed to the stern and passing up mugs of sweet black tea.
You squint at the four countries visible from the dive boat - on this bank Jordan and Saudi Arabia, over the water Israel and Egypt - and slip back into one of those dozy dive-boat conversations youd started before you went back under: So anyway, whys it called a hornless unicornfish
A horned fish with no horn! Surely thats just a fish And youve still 10 dives and a big old week ahead of you.

I WAS OUT IN AQABA last October and couldnt see anything wrong with the place. Above the surface, a dusty collision of Westernised shops and bars with a neon-lit market quarter where you can flag down a grilled sea bream for under four quid, and where the call to prayer crackling from the minarets is a heady reminder that youre several thousand miles from home.
And below the water, three different types of terrain to explore - walls, lawns and wreck-strewn reefs - but none of them any great challenge.
If you can resist that nagging suspicion that the deep is where the action is - which is hard when you tip off a cliff edge and start to sink into the blue - then Dive Aqabas collection of off-coast boat-dives will suit you perfectly. There are real advantages to cruising at 15-20m. The colours are brighter, the water a little warmer, the visibility nearly 40m, and even habitual air-gulpers like me can stay down for more than an hour.
And youre not missing much, as most of the wildlife sticks to the shallows. Patches of sand produce motionless lizardfish. There are pyjama slugs, wonderfully-named bluescale emperors and the occasional parrotfish gnawing lumps off the rock face.
Power Station, just offshore by the electricity plant, is a symphony of coral, a psychedelic allotment full of bright green sea cabbages, broken honeycombs, tube sponges, even the odd branch coral, its twig-like extensions hung with molluscs like presents on a crustacean Christmas tree. Both times we dropped in we saw the resident green turtle - aka Myrtle - so diver-friendly she practically mugs for the camera.
Eel Garden offers that sight that never dulls, a vertical tangle of pipe-like eels pinched over like periscopes surveying the neighbourhood.
Creep up on them, weightbelt in the sand, and some rise nearly two feet from their burrows. But ascend too suddenly to get a better look, and they shrink back down as if mown by invisible shears.

THE CEDAR PRIDE WRECK is the cherry on this fairy cake of sub-aqua scenery. Its 80m long and was artfully sunk to lie sideways, so its masts stretch out over the seabed.
You can explore the holes in one side where the explosives were strapped. Its been there since 85, so all manner of weird and wonderful plant-life now clings to its barnacled hide. Even its crumbling cables are lit with herbacious borders like little pink flowers.
My favourite is the clapper coral, with its forest of tiny parasols filtering the water; they look as if theyre applauding as you saunter past.
Tubeworms suck their red and white veils back into their pipes if you get too close, like a movie in reverse.
Its hard to imagine, as you drift across these spectacular sea-gardens, that the 150 different species of coral in the Red Sea are in a constant war of attrition. What appears to be the very picture of blissful co-existence is, apparently, a battle as brutal as the lives of the creatures that hide in it.
Each coral army is quietly poisoning, devouring or generally duffing up its next-door neighbour in a vicious struggle for supremacy. Though its years before youd notice the difference.
Just off the wreck lies the barge that towed it out there, its deck a huge bare surface like a trampoline. Its standard Dive Aqaba practice to stop by on the way to the big boat for a spot of moonwalking. Take your fins off and hang them on a bollard, empty your BC, and its the nearest youll ever get to taking one giant leap for mankind.
Even the least gymnastic can jump 5m in the air, turn a somersault and land back on their rubber feet again.
A few months ago they held an underwater wedding here - bride in a white veil, groom in a top hat, assorted friends and family with cameras.
Do you take this man to be your lawful wedded dive buddy, in high or low air consumption, from this dive forward, for nitrox or trimix, in narcosis and in health etc You wonder what they used for confetti.

OUR THIRD EXCURSION to the Cedar Pride was at night, a different experience altogether. Our phalanx of divers drifted silently above Rainbow Reef like
a mothership with its searchlights scouring the seabed, picking out those pitch-black shadows in the seaweed that take you unawares.
Does anyone else get a touch of The Fear after lights-out The wreck is rolled on its side straddling two reefs. leaving a narrow channel at 27m where you can pass beneath its hull.
This requires a bit of focus even in daylight, but at night - lit only by lamps, lanternfish blinking in dark corners, gothic weeds dancing either side of you, a touch of sediment to blur the vision, spectral shapes in the corners of your mask (which turn out to be a loose BC strap) - your reporter feels a sudden shiver.
I take a deep breath and turn into a chandelier, a cloud of bubbles, hanging onto the rigging so I dont cork it to the surface. Sixty seconds of Zen-like concentration and the moment passes, and were coo-ing at a pink and white spotted sea slug as if nothing has happened.
The return journey is such a textbook series of set-pieces that you start to wonder if Dive Aqaba isnt releasing things from cages every five minutes just up around the bend.
Its all here, right on cue. Hermit crabs scuttle across the seagrass. A squid belts off in a mist of ink. Another little boxfish dithers back and forth on its tiny paddles.
Metre-long cornetfish reverse away like submarines, their huge eyes the size of watch dials. And - the final curtain call - an octopus uncoils from its lair and tries to nick one of our torches.
We arrive back on land to find the weekly barbecue in full swing, hosted by the irrepressible dive centre manager Ash, Jordans answer to Alexei Sayle.
Theres hummus, chicken and ribs, bottles of Corona and even the odd hubble pipe bubbling contentedly in the corner for those wanting to wash away the taste of tank-air with a moist lungful of apple-scented tobacco.
Its a solid weeks entertainment in Aqaba. Dive Aqaba is very friendly and efficient, and was particularly good with the disabled diver on our trip.
The skies are usually cloudless and the sea warm year-round.
It wont suit the sub-aqua big-game hunters, as theres nothing much larger than a turtle on the horizon, but each dive is rammed with life and colour.
The contrast couldnt be more different. You look out at the sand-swept landscape as you prepare to go under and think that - apart from one solitary red eagle and some Bedouin camels - you didnt see a single living creature in this desert all week.
Stick your head below the surface, and its a very different story.

Divers
Divers make their move from Dive Aqabas boat.
This
This anti-aircraft tracked vehicle in shallow water is known as the Tank and is a popular
Divers
Divers have fun exploring the Cedar Pride.
One
One of several species of nudibranch.
An
An octopus tried to half-inch a torch during the night-dive.
The
The distinctive royal angelfish.
Want
Want to get hitched on holiday Some people gurgle
Mark
Mark Ellen
Divernet

FACTFILE

p>FLIGHTS: Fly direct to Aqaba with Royal Jordanian, www.rja.com. Mark Ellen flew with British Airways to Amman (to take in Petra and the Dead Sea), flying via Beirut.
DIVING: Dive Aqaba (www.diveaqaba.com).
ACCOMMODATION:Alcazar Hotel (and Mark reckons the Ali Baba facing the central square is a great restaurant).
WHEN TO GO: Year round, but avoid midsummer if you cant take the heat.
MONEY: Jordanian dinars. Remember to take some to get your visa on arrival.
PRICES: Flights cost around £440 return. Dive Aqaba charges £220 for 10 dives plus a night dive and equipment. The Alcazar Hotel costs 95 for five nights inc breakfast.
TOURIST INFORMATION: 020 7371 6496, www.visitjordan.com