PERCEPTORY OVERLOAD IS NOT A TERM I USE LIGHTLY. But when you mix three species of shark, two of ray, humphead parrotfish bombers and perfect visibility in one dive, there is a danger of the concentrations of neuro-transmitters sending my brain spinning into denial.
That was the feeling I had two days ago, as our group discovered a plateau of immense beauty which, so far as we could tell, had never been dived before.
As I write, everything is north, Red Sea diving-wise. Even what most people consider south is north. Reefs with names such as Elphinstone, Zabargad and St Johns are so far north they might as well be at the Pole. Even the exceptional Shaab Rumi and Sanganeb are north.
Thats because if you had a map of Sudan, found Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast and headed southwards, you would come to Suakin, now a ruined town, once a major trading port. From here head almost directly east towards Saudi Arabia and a good map will show you where I sit - in a sheltered lagoon named Shaab Anbar, 15 minutes west of the 38 east longitude line.
plot and guess
We are exploring; on a voyage to discover new Red Sea reefs which in time will become the new Elphinstone, Brother Islands or Sanganeb.
From Port Sudan the ex-research vessel Ciprea turned south and navigated a channel between the coast and a large, heavily reefed section of sea. The areas Admiralty Chart showed great swathes outlined in blue and marked Uncharted. The chart is a mish-mash of surveys, most of them completed 100 years ago or more, when a weighted line was the most accurate way of testing depth.
Our captain, luckily, has been through these waters before and is accustomed to the plot and guess navigation technique. He is also one of the few people to have dived this region.
The first site was a new one for everyone, including the captain. Shaab Ata is at the far southern end of the uncharted area, crowned with a small beacon to warn anyone stupid enough to wander out of the nearby Port Sudan entry shipping lanes that the area is fraught with danger.
Atas coral platform is sausage-shaped on the surface and the gradation of blues radiating outwards looked promising.
Hitting the water and looking down as the first person to see a new reef fills you with a sense of achievement. Stepped ledges led towards the depths and at 30m we stopped and started forward. The hard corals were pristine and the number of intact and healthy table corals were, Im sure, reminiscent of how the northern Red Sea used to be.
On popular dive sites, these delicate, slow-growing corals are the first things to be sat on, smashed through and toppled over. Here everything was untouched. Fishermen sometimes came here, but their small boats caused little if any damage.
Finning along the south side of the main reef, we were shadowed by a small dogtooth tuna - small in the way that a baby elephant is still a fair-sized animal. It broke away from its patrol only when the last person was back in the boat.
We were not far enough from shore to find many pelagic species, and large reef fish were hard to find. Grouper numbers were controlled by the fishermen, but we saw a large shoal of black snapper, the odd batfish, coral trout, a mass of butterflyfish and angelfish and several juvenile Napoleon wrasse. It was a pretty reef, not exciting but with the beauty of a glamour model.
We headed east into the oceanic Red Sea to one of the few places that provide sanctuary from wind and waves. Heading beam-on was the quickest though not the nicest way to make a crossing, and with a north-westerly blowing there was little alternative, but the Ciprea is a metal vessel, built for the North Sea and rode the water well, hamdoo lilla!
The Admiralty Chart shows Shaab Anbar as a long, slightly bent line of coral just below the surface. In reality, it is a long, slightly bent collection of broken reefs surrounding a sheltered lagoon towards the northern end. It has a north point, west and east walls, a south wall and a south-eastern plateau.
Some of it has been dived before, but most of this five-mile obstruction to shipping is virgin territory. The wind blew out diving on the north side, so we started on the west wall in late afternoon. The swell effect disappeared at around 5m and the wall was less sheer than I had imagined. Small shelves and gentle slopes made for an interesting topography.
Hard formations of coral, usually so delicate and consequently so often broken, were commonplace here and with orchestral precision constructed a pretty wall.
Our first shark of the trip appeared here, a decrepit whitetip reef shark with the face of a 90-year-old women. It ambled through the reef as if carrying two heavy Sainsburys bags, and it was heartening that it had reached such an age without losing its fins to fishermen.
From 10m almost to the surface the wall was superb, turning from steps and slopes to indentations and small pinnacles. Each indentation became its own small bay, with resident small fish and regular larger visitors. Large coral trout patrolled the edges, waiting for small wrasse or fusiliers to make a fatal mistake; soldierfish hid in dark recesses and, at one point, the coral was obscured by a densely packed shoal of yellowkeel unicornfish.
The east wall looked similar. Starting at the northern edge it descended quickly into a steep slope full of sea whips and small coral outcrops. A massive globular formation followed, but other than some alien spacecraft crashed centuries ago, I couldnt imagine what had formed it. It contained nothing but sand and encrustation, so I left perplexed.
The reef at once returned to slopes, shelves and indentations, with a host of coral species shrouded in anthias, butterflyfish, angelfish and groupers. A small group of barracuda flitted past, but there was nothing to get our socks off.
At 5m a pufferfish hurried away flustered as I followed it inside one of many small openings into the lagoon. The coral gardens were pretty and well-populated and in northern Egypt this would be a good dive site in its own right, but our experienced group craved more thrills, preferably with teeth.
This was after all a voyage of discovery, so we took a 50-minute journey across choppy seas in an inflatable - the shallow reefs south of Shaab Anbar are no place for liveaboards. We sat in the lee of the reef kitting up, desperately hot in the Sudanese sunshine. Dont worry, theres probably nothing here anyway, came the voice of British optimism.
Our target was the south-west point, the big toe that Shaab Anbar sticks into the Red Sea. If Shaab Rumi and Sanganeb to the north could have stunning plateaus, why not Anbar Two-metre breakers pounded the 4m plateau, but in front of that was a deeper piece of real estate, the sort of flat area which in the ocean is more valuable than a studio flat in Fulham.
I rolled in and headed down out of the surge which was threatening to separate me from my lunch. The plateau, 24m below, was sand, with coral visible only at the rim, providing a crater-like look. We headed deep over the plateau and saw little. Oh, dear.
Returning, I caught sight of a whitetip reef shark resting on the sand. Coming up carefully over the lip I saw more - four altogether. Things were looking up.
Continuing along the rim of coral against the current and looking out into the blue, I saw two grey reef sharks. Although not particularly large or even dangerous, grey reefs look the part - quick as jet fighters when they want to be and with the equivalent natural weaponry. They were joined by another slightly larger individual, and then a scalloped hammerhead.
Ask most divers which shark they wish to see most and this is the one. At 2.5m this individual was not exceptionally large, but everyone stopped to watch.
Further on, the coral rim merged into the wall of the main reef. Turning, we saw a spotted eagle ray descend the reef wall and glide over the plateau. My senses were feeling frayed and put upon. There is only so much one should see on a dive, but swimming back at 17m above the plateau towards the wall, the water ahead glistened with twisting barracuda.
A shoal of maybe 50 hung in a ragged line from 15m to near the surface. I reached the wall and found myself surrounded. Spotted sweetlips, in numbers I had never seen before, hung swishing in the surge. The shoal was immense and flanked by giant sweetlips, both species flicking in and out of the coral heads and looking worried.
It was a wonderful finish to a sensory-overloading dive, I thought, but then a large male hawksbill turtle swam off the plateau top. No more, my brain told me - get up now.
We couldnt leave Shaab Anbar without once again diving Jerrycan Point (so-called because a barnacle-encrusted container was floating past when we first dived it), and it still held surprises. The next morning the breakers over the shallow plateau might have had surfers across the world salivating in anticipation, but for divers they looked alarming.
After 40 minutes in the harsh sun, however, we were keen to get wet. Straight down was the rule, then we could drift slowly to the bottom, feeling sorry for the boatman. Whitetip reef sharks again rested peacefully on the sand as we made our way across the plateau to the coral rim, where we descended to around 30m and looked into the blue.
A large whitetip swam by, saw us and high-tailed it away, soon followed by a grey reef shark which cruised past a couple of times and then made its way above us and swept across my head within touching distance. Sharks, especially grey reefs, dont seem to like bubbles and usually move away at the first sign, but this little madam swam straight through my jacuzzi before turning and heading down the reef.
The end of the rim came quicker this time without the hammerhead. We headed for the main reef and I glanced up to see, descending in front of me (and you, dear reader, will think I made this up) an eagle ray - probably the same one as the day before - and a huge shoal of massive humphead parrotfish.
Like a wave of WW2 bombers they swept in out of the sun screaming: Bandits dead ahead! Then they simply opened their bomb-bay doors and released a hail of synchronised defecation. Humphead parrotfish are the grim reapers for coral, crunching through tons of the stuff each year. Once the nutritious animal part is digested, the leftover limestone is dumped out of their systems, adding more sand to the plateau.
They dived over and around us. I wasnt sure if they meant to scare us away or were perplexed as to what we were. So, like big bulking dimwits, they swirled around looking uncertainly at each other and us.
The barracuda were still there, but scattered. The coral wall was quite something, and I hadnt even noticed it the day before - densely packed hard corals punctuated with soft corals and sponges, and reef fish in exceptional numbers.
Our appetites were not just whetted, they were drenched. It was time to find a really serious, adventurers dive. A lonely place chattered about only by seabirds resting on the exposed coral. Such a place is Shaab Quisier, a narrow slice of reef which just reaches the surface from the depths. It has a beacon, so someone has been here before.
The swell was doing us no favours and the north wall was a no-hoper, but we edged as far around the eastern side as we dared and jumped in as late as we could. The reef lanced up from a 60m plateau, then dropped off into the abyss. The chart said 560m.
In a small cleft another shoal of big humphead parrotfish descended like rugby players onto a tiny, terrified juvenile whitetip shark, which hastily retreated. The parrotfish were obviously inquisitive about us and were soon joined by a shoal of bigeye trevally to play follow the leader.
The reef geography remained vertical throughout the dive. Rainbow runners, dogtooth tuna and Spanish mackerel came in from the blue, then turned away. A spotted eagle ray glided past far below. It was an enjoyable dive even for such spoilt eyes.
Nakhalat al Qaseer, however, shifted us back into overdrive. A speck of light blue in the dark blue of the Red Sea, this reef has yet to reach the surface.
I descended a little way off the reef and saw a dazzling concentration of corals, every millimetre covered in table, brain, encrusting and staghorn corals and draped in whip corals and gorgonians. Swarms of anthias, wrasse, emerald green triggerfish, damselfish, clownfish and butterflyfish shrouded it but never strayed far into the intermediate zone patrolled by trevally, tuna, jacks and fusiliers.
Only about 100m in circumference, Qaseer is easily navigable in one dive. As soon as we reached depth a grey reef shark appeared. As we followed the east wall another came in for a look, then turned and disappeared before returning, cruising over the 42m-deep northern plateau with a hammerhead and several whitetip reef sharks.
This was a Godzilla of a dive. It would be a tough one to match, but Pender almost did it.
Two minutes after descending on the larger, also sunken reef called Shaab Pender, a hammerhead described a slow arc above us before heading out to sea. The coral concentration was again intense and at times my field of vision was full of fish, which blossomed from the reef wall like a cherry tree in spring.
A shoal of dogtooth tuna led by a large individual appeared from the blue, turned and came around again, though this time twice as many showed up. Tuna are well-developed creatures and unusually inquisitive, like the bigeye trevally that arrived shortly after the tuna had left.
But its the coral-building that deserves the credit at both Qaseer and Pender. Both reefs top out at 6m, perfect for a safety stop, in a dazzling array of species in perfect condition.
Almost as good was lonely Shaab Jibna, or north Jibna Shoal. Its corals were not at first our concern, however, because cruising just off the reef were around 100 densely packed and unusually inquisitive scalloped hammerheads. One 1.5m long shark repeatedly swam directly at divers, breaking off only metres from a collision. The others, though a little more wary, came into the reef several times for a look.
The depth ensured that our time with these beasts was limited, but if I had to choose a word to describe the experience it would have to be a simple - wow!
One thing the southern area of Sudan lacks is a decent wreck, or at least one that has been found. So to start any trip, either going north or south, you dive the Umbria, made famous by diving pioneer Hans Hass in the 1950s.
This 150m Italian freighter sailed out of Trieste in 1940, laden with general cargo and war supplies bound for East Africa. Port Sudan was under British control and the fact that Italy was about to enter WW2 on the other side was no secret.
A British frigate shadowed the vessel from Suez and on reaching Port Sudan the authorities requested that it put in for a paperwork check. The captain anchored in Wingate Reef.
The British held up the vessel, hoping that Italy would enter the war while it was still in their possession so they could grab the 360,000 aerial bombs, detonators and general cargo and make life in Port Sudan a little easier.
When the captain heard the news on his radio, however, he ordered the ship scuttled, and by the time the British realised what was happening, it was too late. The Umbria heeled over onto her left side and settled on the seabed.
After the war, diving the wreck was banned because of the live munitions, but Hans Hass went ahead anyway and returned with some stunning black and white photographs.
The Umbria is a popular dive and retains its beauty because no anchors have touched it since it sank. They dont have to - the starboard lifeboat davits just break the surface, so liveaboards tie up to the buoys provided and inflatables to the davits.
This has ensured that the railings and walkways in the top 10m are as intact as those lower down.
Hard corals cover the hull, sponges and soft corals drape over the railings and reef fish live, feed and breed on the superstructure. In the holds the bombs are visible, as are bags of cement. In the hold in front of the wheelhouse three Fiat 1100 Lungas lie side by side, a sight to make a classic car enthusiast cry.
The Umbria is penetrable on a novice or expert level and the engine room is a favourite with experienced divers, a large open space, clear of marine growth and just as the engineers left it when the order to man the lifeboats was given on 9 June, 1940.
The Umbria caused my eyes finally to divorce my brain. My neuro-transmitters couldnt cope with the workload and my time in Sudan had run out. I lost count of the number of sharks I had seen; the clouds of fish Id swam through and the amount of pristine coral Id witnessed.
In the Red Seas northern reaches you can often count those experiences with one hand and still have fingers to spare. If you are a coral-reef enthusiast, a shark nut or just someone who appreciates diving that comes up from the depths and slaps you in the face, get there before everyone else does.