DIVERS HAVE LONG LOVED EGYPT, but few realised how oppressive its regime was until, on 25 January, 2011, we saw the Arab Spring rolling into Cairo, and protesters on the back of a truck calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down.
The “Day of Revolt” saw thousands take to the streets of Cairo and other major Egyptian cities.
Mubarak called on his security forces to restore control over his unhappy, desperate people and shut down Internet and cellular access. It didn’t work. On 28 January, he unleashed
his supporters and secret police onto peaceful demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo, sparking off a series of violent clashes.
In public he appeared to make concessions, but few believed him.
He withdrew the police, put the army onto the streets and allowed criminals to escape from prison in a bid to intimidate protesters, but all this caused was a wave of anger and defiance,
and the true revolution was spawned.

AN EMERGENCY LAW that had been in place since the previous president Sadat was assassinated had given the Mubarak regime carte blanche. People complained of police brutality, endemic corruption, high food prices, high unemployment, censorship, low wages and the electoral fraud that they said had kept him in power for more than 30 years.
On 2 February, pro-Mubarak thugs rode into the Tahrir Square protestors on camels, wielding swords and other basic weapons. As more violence erupted, there was speculation of a military coup.
Mubarak had underestimated the power of social networking and international news reporting. He saw the raw hatred and perhaps decided he couldn’t face it. He surrendered, and is now on trial along with members of his family and inner circle.
Unlike Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, however, Egypt was taken under the wing of the military, and has been slow to change. This has maintained a level of tension in the capital.
Continued demonstrations in Tahrir Square are commonplace, so the UK is wary about advising citizens to return to Cairo and certain other areas, including parts of the Sinai Peninsula.
Visitors fled the country during the demonstrations, the lifeblood of the Egyptian Red Sea’s economy dwindling overnight, even though there wasn’t a breath of trouble in the popular resorts.
Travel outside resort areas is not recommended by the Foreign Office, and the UK travel advice website warns of a high risk of terrorism throughout Egypt. Yet on a recent visit to Sharm el Sheikh, I never felt threatened or saw any issues connected to demonstrations or terrorism. There are plenty of armed police checkpoints and, sadly, a dearth of tourists outside the compounds that are all-inclusive resorts.
I had travelled out with Oonasdivers, one of the Red Sea’s stalwart companies. It uses a base a few miles north of Na’ama at Shark’s Bay, close to Sharm airport.
Umbi Diving Village is a classic Bedouin-run establishment with a hotel, restaurant and dive centre with day-boat, shore- and safari-diving capabilities.
This year it is launching a new high-end liveaboard, which looks superb.
Owner Umbi has been part of the Egyptian diving industry almost since its inception. The dive centre is managed by his daughter Hosna, who told me that although the 2010 shark attacks and 2011 uprising hit the fortunes of the tourist industry she is optimistic about the future. She admits, however, that recovery will take time.
Dive-guide Nour explained how his life had changed subtly, in that he no longer feared unfair treatment at the hands of the police, though people still had to oil the wheels of bureaucracy to get things done quickly. That, he hoped, would change in time.

Once the first democratically elected president in a generation was installed, said Nour, he could see great things ahead for Egypt. Its people just needed to be patient.

OVER A CUP OF HIBISCUS TEA in Sharm’s old market, a trader agreed with Hosna and Nour that the end of the Mubarak regime was great for Egypt, but that the unstable political situation was bad for the tourist business.
I could see what he meant. Sharm old town should have been bustling, but the handful of British and Russian visitors were greatly outnumbered by locals.
And most of those visitors were wearing brightly coloured wristbands – the tell-tale sign of an all-inclusive resort.
All-inclusive holidaymakers bring little real wealth to a local population. Two packed aircraft, including mine, took off from Gatwick within 10 minutes of each other, bound for the Sinai Peninsula, but the number of dive bags at Sharm airport’s baggage collection was pitiful, and the in-flight magazine of choice was more likely to be Hello or Heat than DIVER.
My observations are unscientific, but dive crew and town traders backed up my feeling that many divers are heading elsewhere. Financial turmoil in Europe is contributing, but those full charter aircraft showed that not everyone is staying away.
Leaving port on the first day, we headed out to the reefs off Tiran Island in the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. Behind us streamed a small flotilla of snorkelling boats. I saw a handful
of dive-boats during the week, but divers now seem to be in the minority.
As the bubbles cleared and Gordon Reef came into view, I could only wonder why divers seemed to have left Sharm. The place is stunning.
The corals of the Tiran chain are force-fed nutrients by the gentle currents that wash around the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. This has kept them pristine even in the face of the onslaught of dive-boats that used to visit here. Few places on the planet can have seen so many divers and snorkellers, yet they look as if they have never been dived.
Was the good coral condition a result of the shark attacks and political situation in Cairo Possibly, but hard corals don’t grow that fast.
I think it’s always been the same, but we divers have let the place slip in our consciousness. Now it’s snorkellers who get to enjoy the tiniest fraction of it.
At Thomas Reef I was blown away. Not by the reef itself or the abundant life – I’ve seen enough coral reefs in the past 20 years – but by having all these reefs to ourselves.
The few boats around us were full of snorkellers, mainly British and Russians, flopping into the water with life-vests and rubber rings and flailing around like injured seals. It added to the surface-interval entertainment.
We anchored on the eastern side, sheltered from a small sea that had kicked up somewhere to the north and come down the Gulf of Aqaba.
The current was slight, but it was pushing around the north and south of the reef and making headway uncomfortable. It did give the orange anthias a chance to display properly, and the purple males looked resplendent as they tried to woo the females.
I had expected to do a near-shore check-out site on this first day, but with an experienced group and favourable weather, Nour had taken the chance to explore the Tiran reefs. This left me among gorgeous scenery with a macro lens strapped to my camera, though I did find a generous selection of macro and fish subjects on which to work.
We headed back to Tiran the next day for dives on Woodhouse and Jackson reefs. Woodhouse, the longest, is generally dived as a drift depending on the current, which was weak.
This was the first dive on which we came across other divers in the water, but an instructor with two novices was hardly a distraction.
The coral was as fit as most Olympic athletes should be by now, and orange anthia clouds coated the reefs in colour.
The marine life reminded me of my first trips to the Red Sea in the early 1990s, before fin-kicks got sloppy and dive-boats as numerous as flies.
All the intervening dives have left little mark, especially on Jackson, now one of my favourite Red Sea dives. The nearest reef to Tiran Island, it offers more shelter in rough weather. But the currents can make diving here tricky at times, and the reef has benefited.
It was only here that we came across hawksbill turtles, and the reef has also become famous for red anemones with two-bar anemonefish on the wall at 28m. There are several patches of gorgonians, and plenty of delicate soft coral.
A shallow plateau at the western and eastern edges you might expect to be smashed-up, but its colours, variety of species and jaw-dropping beauty were a delight.
My room looked down onto Umbi Diving Village’s jetty, one of the best for reaching the Tiran chain.
Boats from old Sharm and Na’ama Bay pick up guests bussed in from various resorts there. It was heartening to see so many people wanting to sample the Red Sea, but sad to see so few cylinders being loaded.
Changing tack, we headed for Ras Mohammed Marine Park, where we sampled Ras Ghozlani, Jackfish Alley, Yolanda and Shark Reef (the last two a single dive).
Ras Mohammed is as magnificent as ever. Sharks are no longer commonly seen, but I couldn’t fault any of the sites.
Vis at Ras Ghozlani was impressive, and as we swam along the side of the reef I looked back and saw the coral wall from the surface down to the sand flat at 15m and extending off into the distance. This was one of those “flying moments” dive guides tell new students about.
Jackfish Alley starts at the mouth of the cave that has turned so many photographers into competition winners. Entering, I saw familiar spots of light on the sandy floor. I hadn’t dived here before, but all those images made me feel as if I had.
Exiting at 9m, we swam over a broken coral bommie and sand seabed. It was too early for summer’s snapper and jack shoals, but the coral at this and all locations exceeded my expectations, and the fish life was as abundant as you might expect from a world-class diving destination.
The weather precluded diving Yolanda and Shark Reef for a couple of days, so we headed south for the Thistlegorm, a site I had vowed never to dive again.
I dived here in the 1990s before it grew so popular that diving became a game of miss-the-propeller as you surfaced.

SADLY, THE RED SEA DIVING INDUSTRY trashed this wreck. Some still deny this, but it’s a shadow of its former self. I can remember seeing soft corals festooning the railings, the holds neatly packed with war supplies and the whole ship, with the exception of the bomb-damaged hold, intact and spectacular.
In 2008 protective mooring buoys were installed around the wreck, but they were too light and the lines too long for the prevailing weather above.
The moorings got dragged and the buoys removed, so dive-boats must now once again moor on the wreck itself.
At least I can report that the ship is in no worse a state than it was when I last dived it eight years ago. Happily, the Thistlegorm’s demise is the only negative thing I have to say about the area.
The wind had shifted, so we could dive Yolanda, which as usual was superb, even though selfish idiots have moved some of the toilets, because it’s the Yolanda wreck’s cargo that effectively makes up this dive.
The subsequent swim to Shark Reef revealed a wealth of marine life, and I finished the dive among a shoal of batfish getting cleaned by the wall at 5m.
Egypt is a country watching a new dawn rise slowly over the desert, but the downturn in the fortunes of the tourist industry is cause for concern. All-inclusive resorts are not enough to pump-prime this country.
Divers brought resort towns such as Sharm to life, and it should be us who see them into the future.
The diving is there in abundance and the hospitality is waiting – all that’s missing now is you, dear reader!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Sharm can be reached using either the daily Easyjet flights or several charter flights. Gavin travelled on the Thomson Airways flight from Gatwick. No visa is needed for visiting Sharm but it is for diving and visiting Ras Mohammed Marine Park. This is easiest to buy at the airport – it costs £13.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, but take a 5mm wetsuit and a 7mm in winter.
MONEY: Egyptian pound, although sterling and euros are widely accepted at resorts. Banknotes are best.
PRICES: Oonasdivers can arrange a week’s diving holiday in Sharm el Sheikh for you from £595, staying at Sharks Bay - Umbi Village on a B&B basis, with flights from the UK, transfers, and five days’ diving, 01323 648924, www.oonasdivers.com
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.experienceegypt.com