I LIFT MY HEAD from the water and bid the silent world adieu for the day. The sun has just dipped below the horizon and, reflecting the colours of the dusty sunset, the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba have turned a burnt orange.
I’ve done most of my diving in the Red Sea along the Egyptian coast, but now I am in Jordan and facing west, so finally I am witnessing a beautiful demonstration of how this narrow body of water probably got its name.
I stand waist-deep, letting the view wash over me. The jagged mountains of Sinai are stacked up in a series of silhouettes. I have a big smile on my face. It is my first day in Aqaba and my camera is already showing more than a 1000 photos taken!
We’re at a site called Black Rock, which, in keeping with scuba tradition, has a name totally unrelated to its attractions! The reef is a sloping, hard-coral-dominated affair, with a pleasing mix of reef fish species including several I’ve overlooked or that are uncommon.
I hope the others have forgotten my over-excited gesticulating when I spot my first Red Sea flasher wrasse, before realising there are hundreds of them, all misbehaving, with males racing about flaring their flashy fins to females and rival males.
One male was so pumped up that he raced up to my camera displaying his beautiful plumage. Perhaps he spied his reflection in my port
The rest of the reef offered standard Red Sea game: pretty corals, damsels, lizardfish, plenty of lionfish, anemonefish, butterflies and angels and more. I took about 60 shots (a light load for me).
Then we arrived at the Berenice jetty, which is a T-shaped construction, supported by 5-6m-long legs at the deep end. The jetty is home to a huge school of silversides, the legs are covered in colourful soft corals and 20 or so young lionfish are ploughing through the schooling fish, hoping for a meal. It is a stunning scene in the afternoon light.
There is a famous jetty dive at Arborek island in Raja Ampat that underwater photographers travel halfway around the world to photograph. It is a very similar size and depth – but it is not as rich as this one in the Red Sea.
The silverside school is so large and dense that it creates a false ceiling under the jetty. The legs disappear up into the mass of fish, like tree-trunks reaching into the canopy. This is photographic heaven and I stay here shooting until the light is well and truly gone.

I PROMISED THE EDITOR that I’d assess Aqaba as a diver first and photographer second. But I keep being taken to dive-sites that are amazing for underwater images. I know that makes me sound like the sex-addict who blames his psychologist for showing him dirty pictures instead of inkblot cards!
The next day, my addiction is tested further when we head to the wreck of the Cedar Pride. There can be few more photogenic ships anywhere, particularly during the afternoon when the wreck is beautifully illuminated by the sun.
In the heat of July 1982 the Cedar Pride was ravaged by a fire in which two of the crew sadly perished.
She lay abandoned but afloat for three years, before HRH Prince Abdullah (now King Abdullah II), an experienced diver himself, organised her sinking as an attraction for divers.

HAVING BEEN UNDER WATER for 30 years, the Cedar Pride has attracted a lot of marine life. The hull is plastered with hard corals; the superstructure hung with soft corals.
I watch a school of glassfish race between the bright red branches as they are pursued by a pride of lionfish, and a hawksbill turtle swims lazily by.
There are usually giant frogfish on the wreck, but I can’t find them today. The calm conditions mean that the wreck has remained intact, and it’s a perfect size for fisheye photography, with impressive stern and bow sections. We squeeze three dives in on it during the week, but I could do many, many more.
Nearby – well, nothing is far on this short section of Red Sea coast – is the underwater tank. This small wreck sits upright on a shallow sandy plateau and can be visited at the start or finish of a shore dive out to the nearby reef.
The tank is ex-Jordanian military and is a US-built M42 Duster, fitted with a pair of anti-aircraft cannon.
It’s incongruous to see a tank under water, and the sensation is only heightened as it is largely intact, sitting upright with its tracks in the sand.
It’s attractively coated in coral growth and small fish and I spend almost half an hour shooting it from most angles.
The quiet northern reaches of the Gulf of Aqaba are famed among the cognoscenti for their strange sights. Critters such as seahorses and frogfish that are a very rare sight further south in the Red Sea are relatively common here.
We’re diving at a site called Kiwi Reef, a mix of seagrass and patchy reef. I am hoping to see a yellow frogfish that the dive centre has nicknamed Lemon, and watched grow from the size of a coin.
We find Lemon posing in his favoured clump of leather coral. He clearly got the memo that he could be in DIVER!
Other treats lie in store: more Red Sea flasher wrasse and the black-and-white Red Sea angelfish. Although both species are named for a sea where I have logged hundreds of dives, I have never seen them before coming to Jordan.
There are striped Red Sea anthias too, which I’ve seen regularly in Egypt, but never found posing like this.

SHALLOWING UP, we pick our way back through the seagrass. First we meet a pair of seamoths shuffling along on the bottom, then a beastly devil scorpionfish and finally a huge pink stonefish, sitting on a coral outcrop.
Our guide spots a seahorse hiding in the grass and we watch it feeding, sucking tiny creatures, too small for me to see, into its tubular mouth.
I surface exhilarated and very impressed by our haul of critters. Last month in DIVER Lisa Collins promoted wide-angle in Lembeh, and now the Red Sea is out-crittering Indonesia!
The week flashes past. There are no direct flights to Aqaba from the UK, but we fly with Turkish Airlines with a short stop in Istanbul. Its service is on another level to the charter and low-cost flights that serve Egypt and it deserves credit and our support for continuing to carry a dive-bag for free, in addition to standard hold baggage. Bravo Turkish Airlines!
Calm, clear waters and relaxed shore-diving make Aqaba an ideal destination for both newer divers and underwater photographers, who enjoy benign conditions and plenty to see.
There are deep wrecks and an active technical-diving community, though I didn’t sample their sites. Thrill-seekers who enjoy big currents and big animals will find the diving less to their tastes.
Jordan offers many of the classic cues that we know and love from the Red Sea, but remixed, served up with a different twist both above and below the waves.
I’ll be back.

CORAL CARE
Jordan’s Red Sea coastline is far bigger than neighbouring Israel’s, if still small compared to Egypt’s. But I was encouraged to see so much effort being made to preserve and restore it.
We joined scientists surveying the reefs and saw their coral propagation tables (right). The Royal Marine Conservation Society of Jordan organises regular beach and reef cleans. There are 23 main dive-sites and 21 of them are within the Marine Park.
When it comes to the marine environment, I very much got the impression that Aqaba cares.

JORDANIAN SURF AND TURF
That title is a little misleading: there are few crashing waves in the protected northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, and the desert landscape is not reminiscent of a manicured lawn.
Yet my most vivid memories of Aqaba do come from both below and above the surface.
As a Red Sea regular, it was impossible not to contrast it with Sharm el Sheikh, and arguably the bigger contrast is on land.
Aqaba is a real town, not a tourist development. For thousands of years, it has been a locus of trade routes and is rich in culture and archaeology, from Aqaba Castle to a 3rd century Christian church, thought to be the oldest in the world.
Today this is a town for the people, with souk markets and excellent local restaurants. It is safe, friendly and an ideal size for walking around in the evening.
Aqaba is also in easy reach of three attractions of global significance:the Dead Sea, the jaw-droppingly beautiful Wadi Rum desert (the backdrop of Lawrence of Arabia), and the spectacular ancient city of Petra, cut into the Shara mountains and officially one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Experiencing more than the sea is a must.
FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Plenty of options for flying from the UK to Aqaba, although none are direct. Turkish Airlines is recommended for its diver-welcoming baggage policy.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Alex Mustard stayed at the Mövenpick Hotel, www.moevenpick-hotels.com and, being on a press trip, dived with different operators each day. He says that the standard was very high and that all had good facilities and experienced, well-trained guides.
WHEN TO GO The Red Sea is a year-round destination, but winter can be surprisingly cold and windy (especially January-March) and the high summer (July-August) very hot on land. Water temperature varies from 20° to 28°C.
CURRENCY Jordanian dinar.
PRICES Return flights via Istanbul with Turkish airlines from £400. Seven nights’ stay at a 3* hotel with breakfast from £125pp (two sharing). Aqabas Anchor Diving Centre offers 10 dives with full equipment including a night dive for £250, www.aqabasanchor.com
VISITOR INFORMATION www.aqaba.jo/en/l