SWIMMING OVER ACRES of featureless sandy seabed at 6m deep for more than half an hour doesn’t sound very appealing, does it
Marsa Shona is a large bay in which some liveaboard dive-boats come immediately before returning to Port Ghalib at the end of a charter. It has a small amount of very ordinary coral reef at its northern end, where it meets the sea, but otherwise there would appear to be little reason to dive there. It’s shallow, and the visibility can be quite poor.
So there I was, 35 minutes into a dive on which I would barely have been able to keep any other members of my group in sight were it not for Nina’s white fins, and I was getting bored.
It was not as if there was enough seagrass to cause a passing green turtle to pause, although my boredom had been punctuated for a moment when I noticed such an animal making its way to the surface for a breath. Then it had disappeared, like the famous Roman Ninth Legion, into the mist.
Something caused me to stop finning, however. I had been pushing ahead in my impatience to find something worth looking at, and when I turned back I discovered a dugong gliding gracefully up behind me through mid water.
One lucky click with my camera as it passed a few inches from my head and I found myself swimming furiously to keep up with it. The dugong knew where the seagrass was, and soon settled down to suck some up.
A dugong is a marine mammal, a strange combination reminiscent of whale and elephant, with the grazing habits of a cow.
Dugongs gave rise to the legend of mermaids among early mariners, and I suppose if you’ve been at sea for months with nothing but the company of a lot of scurvy-ridden salt-caked men, misapprehensions can arise.
Dugongs are not sexy but I suppose they could be said to be beautiful in their own special way.
Of course, unbeknown to me, the dugong was acting rather like the Pied Piper. A lot of divers were chasing to keep up with it in the murk. It munched away while some fat and happy remoras cleaned up behind it. There were no cowpats in this field.
Divers then cavorted around it with their cameras, me included.
An inflatable even delivered a posse of snorkellers, who occasionally managed to swim down and momentarily touch the animal’s back.
It took no notice, ignoring the intrusion.
Feeding is a serious matter, and the seagrass was so sparse here that the dugong obviously needed to consume a lot to satisfy its hunger. From time to time it would lift off from the bottom and head up to the surface in a stately manner before returning to its meal, unperturbed by the gaggle of air-bubblers gathered to watch it. It was a great end to a fascinating week.
We had set off from Port Ghalib on Blue Pearl, a liveaboard in the Blue Planet fleet, for a week’s diving in the sea off southern Egypt. The passengers included a number who had been drawing their pensions longer than I had. We called it “the voyage of the bewildered”. Hearing aids should be obligatory for dive briefings once you reach pensionable age!
Austrian Nina and Egyptian Ashraf took to their roles of dive guides combined with geriatric nurses well. Nina had a wonderful turn of phrase to describe most dives.
A young female passenger, a lung-specialist from Tooting well into her 40s, jokingly commented that next time she was going to ask the average age of the other passengers before she confirmed her booking! For our part, we took comfort in having a doctor on board.
Our first real dive had been on the eastern side of the Elphinstone, named after the incumbent Viscount of India by Commander Moresby, who was in charge of charting these waters.
We were divided into two groups. Mine, led by Nina, soon left me in its wake when I stopped to photograph an over-curious hawksbill turtle.
Luckily none of them saw me holding it gently by one fore-flipper to fend it off and stop it trying to eat the glass dome-port of my camera housing as I captured its portrait.
Ashraf’s group had yet to appear along the reef wall. The turtle was not put off by my touching it, and continually lunged at the glass dome, trying to bite it.
The silly thing wasn’t doing its make-up in the reflection. I assumed that it thought the glass dome was a jellyfish.
I turned the corner over the tongue of reef, the plateau at its southern end, and made my way back up to the boat, only to be buzzed by a couple of oceanic whitetip sharks, cruising about on their long pectoral wing-like fins in the hope of some opportunistic meal.
They’d cruise close by before deciding I wasn’t a good prospect as potential prey. The prey becomes the hunter when it’s armed with a camera, and they’d twitch in turn as each made a sudden dash for the safety of open water away from me. This is what Red Sea diving is about.

OCEANIC WHITETIPS were similarly waiting for us when we reached Daedalus Reef to the south. The sharks here trailed short lengths of fishing-line, but at least there seems to be no more fishing by liveaboard crews in the Marine Parks since heavy penalties were imposed recently, thanks to an exposé in DIVER (Not Heaven, Not Freedom, November).
As Mao Tse-tung would have said: “Shoot one and scare a million”. Alas, there was no sign of the schooling scalloped hammerheads that can usually be seen frequenting the deeper water.
The latest incarnation of mv Aida was delivering a new crew and supplies to the lonely lighthouse on the reef-top while we were there.
I reflected that I had dived the wreck of the first Aida lighthouse support vessel at the Brother Islands, and that of a later Aida wrecked in the lagoon at Sanganeb in the Sudan.
Impressive though the latest vessel might be, sinking has too often been the fate of vessels that must spend their time near these perilous-for-mariners places.
From Daedalus we made a crossing with the sea on our beam, south to Rocky Island and Zabargad.
With the sea hitting us from the side, the vessel rolled dramatically, and sensible passengers made themselves secure in their cabins. Some of us, the more foolhardy, did not.
Rocky Island has some pretty soft corals and plenty of barracuda, while Zabargad is home to the mysterious wreck of what some say is a Russian spy-ship. It’s the size of a trawler but has powerful engines and propellers in shrouds to make full use of the thrust they provided.
It isn’t big enough to be a freighter, but during the Cold War every Russian vessel was a spy-ship of some sort. All we know is that some of the brass plates carry both English and Cyrillic writing.
Umm Arouk means “the mother of coral towers”. It’s an area dotted with tall pinnacles that almost reach the surface, and the water squeezes between them, causing a distinct current effect.
St John’s is home to a reef known as the Caves, a playground for divers in the form of a series of shallow tunnels, many of which have openings that give plenty of daylight.
I’ve been there many times, so elected to stay outside and try to photograph one of the many big Napoleon wrasse that habitually cruise around the moored dive-boats, along with a lot of red-tooth triggerfish that school there.
This proved more difficult than I had hoped, and by the time I’d gained sufficient confidence of one such super-male, it had drawn the attention of a number of camera-bearing divers, appearing out of the caves on their way back to the boat.
I fondly remembered the days when underwater cameras were comparatively rare, and felt like saying: “Get your own wrasse!”
Schooling divers soon surrounded me, but I still managed to get the shot, the big green fish waggling its pectoral fins and suspiciously rotating its big eyeballs to keep me in sight.
By now it was time to head north from St John’s to that area protected by the large promontory of Ras Banas that’s often called Foul Bay. The wreck of the British WW2 destroyer HMS Myngs can be found here, but few Egyptian skippers want to risk stopping because it’s directly offshore from a secret naval base.
Instead I had to be satisfied with diving a wreck off Mikauwa Island, often called Sernaka, that I’d never dived before.
The Il Kamash was a 35m trawler that came to grief when one of its nets got caught up in its propellers. The evidence is still there to be seen.
It’s on the deep side for some leisure divers, at about 50m to the deepest part, which is the bow, but the net boom at the stern is at only 25m up the sandy slope to the reef itself.
It’s not the most exciting wreck in the Red Sea but it gives a good insight into a disaster-in-the-making, because it looks to be in very much the same state as it was when it went down, with all its nets and deck equipment in position.

FURTHER NORTH AT FURY SHOALS we visited a wreck with which I was very familiar. In fact I first encountered it many years before, after its owner had transmitted an SOS message.
It was a Santiago-class yacht, a sloop with a steel hull, and its steering gear had failed in the night, putting the vessel and its single-handed owner onto the reef at Abu Galawa Soghayr.
We took the marine radio and put the unfortunate man ashore before going back to see what we could salvage, only to discover that itinerant fishermen had stripped the hull bare overnight.
The same could be said of two diving liveaboards that had run aground in the weeks before our latest visit. Both had been stripped of everything removable before salvage teams could set to work.
Now the hull of the sloop lies as it has done for 20 years, on its side on the sand at the bottom of the reef at about 20m.
I photographed our mob of divers investigating what it had to offer, and then went back to it after marvelling yet again at the architecture of the hard corals that make up that great reef structure, to photograph it lying there forlornly and alone.
Many passengers took advantage of the chance to snorkel with the resident pod of common dolphin that can often be found in the lagoon formed behind the three-mile-long reef.
Finally, it was back north to Marsa Shona and the encounter with the dugong, to end another great week’s diving in the Red Sea.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Thomson Airways flies direct from London Gatwick or Manchester to Marsa Alam. Baggage allowance is 25kg on production of a diving C-card.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Blue Pearl has en suite cabins for two people sharing, www.blueplanet-liveaboards.de
WHEN TO GO: Any time. Take anything from a 3mm wetsuit to a drysuit depending on the time of year.
MONEY: Egyptian pounds, credit cards
PRICES: Oonasdivers can offer a week aboard Blue Pearl including meals, return airfare and visa from around £1195, www.oonasdivers.com. Alcohol and nitrox are extra, and we suggest US $100 tip for the crew and dive-guides.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.egypt.travel