|ITS NICE TO SEE THE OCCASIONAL SHARK patrolling the reef. They rarely come close enough for a good photograph unless they are lured in by some method. This year I found myself confronted with the problem of getting good pictures of the sharks at Shaab Rumi, in the Sudan.
Shaab Rumi means Roman Reef. It lies a few miles north of Port Sudan and was a perfectly circular reef with no safe passage into its lagoon - until, that is, Jacques Cousteau and the crew of the Calypso blasted two passages in with dynamite. This was where he based his Conshelf 2 undersea-living experiment.
Looking at the film he made at the time with hindsight, one can see that the script lent itself more to theatre than to fact.
For example, it would hardly seem necessary to travel down to the living quarters in a submarine when the experiment appears to have been based only about 12m deep.
However, although the Starfish house has gone, the garage for the submarine, the tool-shed, the remains of a fish-reaction-to-colour experiment and a shark cage still lie there as testimony to history, and it cannot be denied that Jacques Cousteaus TV programmes did much to popularise scuba-diving.
Attitudes to sharks have changed among the well-informed, too. No longer do we consider watching most sharks from the confines of a cage. At the long tongue of reef that points out into the ocean at the southern end of Shaab Rumi lies another discarded shark cage, at around 22m deep.
In 1992, as a dive guide, I used to attach pieces of dead fish with wire to this and we would watch as first blacktips, then grey reef sharks, were attracted in.
These in turn would abdicate their position as top predator to magnificent silvertip and enormous silky sharks - bigger silkies than I have seen before or since, as they too arrived from the outer ocean.
Before long we would enjoy the spectacle of a mass of sharks circling round, tempted by the smell of easy pickings. One thing Shaab Rumi was famous for was lots of sharks.
Alas, the Yemeni longline boats took their toll until they were finally banned by the Sudanese authorities. No blacktips, silvertips or silkies seem to be in evidence now, though the grey reef shark population is making a slow recovery. Shaab Rumi still has more than half a dozen grey reef sharks in evidence.
Our skipper Rosie didnt like the idea of taking down shark-bait, for reasons of personal safety, so the task befell me. I had to think of the best way to do it. I didnt want simply to feed the sharks, only to draw them in.
My first attempt was with a dead fish tied to a 2kg weight. I intended to stash this safely out of reach under the old shark cage but, with a camera to get ready, I was confronted with too much task-loading.
In my haste to get the fish and weight out of the pocket of my BC before the guys in the grey suits took it from me, I failed to get it far enough out of reach.
While I was unfolding the arms of my flashes and turning the units on, a particularly energetic little shark managed to get into the gap and take both fish and weight.
My second attempt was little better. This time I tied the fish to the weight, with a short length of string separating them. As I went to position it, I drew the attention of a shark, and again my haste caused me to foul up. I dropped the bait, a grouper grabbed it and took it up the reef, where it was robbed by a shark that sliced easily through the string attaching the weight before making off with the bait.
I had to buy more time, and the solution was to use a large screw-top glass jar. I placed a dead fish in this, with a lead weight on top to stop any moray eel putting its head in and making off with the bait. Only the smallest fish could get in to feed. The jar was filled to the brim with fresh water before submerging, to ensure that no air space would cause the lid to jam on tightly.
I was able to swim down with this jar among the unsuspecting sharks and position it at my leisure. I took my time and prepared my camera, and only when I was ready did I remove the plastic top.
The fish soup that had formed in the less-dense fresh water immediately poured up out of the jar and gave the sharks olfactory senses a jolt. Instantly they came in, circling but unable to locate the source of their interest. Other fish were drawn in too, including a large triggerfish that took its chances with the sharks but was unable to get at the meal.
A large moray eel tried vainly to mouth the dead fish through thetransparent glass and the sharks circled closely, driving both off each time one of them approached.
The effect of the lure was to keep all the sharks circling closely in one location, which was good news for those divers in our group who felt uneasy with the knowledge that they might meet a shark face to face elsewhere on the dive.
It also made it easy to get dramatic close-up photographs.
Watching these animals sweeping round in turn, one could not help but admire their superb bodies, perfectly designed for slipping through the water, but it was also noticeable that they were unable to stop and give the jar a considered look. It was as if they were on a merry-go-round that they could not get off.
So they just continued to circle, nudging the area of the reef near where the jar was hidden with their snouts. They never seemed to grow tired of this. As long as the smell of dead fish was there, they pursued the prey as patiently as Pavlovs dogs, triggered by a dinner bell of a different kind.
It also made it easy to check the number of sharks present at the location. I counted seven grey reef sharks at Shaab Rumi and only four at nearby Sangeneb Reefs southern end.
In the past I might have counted 30 or 40. Its a sad indictment of the worlds shark-finning industry.
The lure of the dead fish was over only once enough tiny reef fish had eaten every last morsel of the meal. This could take some time and I often had to recover the jar and the weight during the next dive at that same location. I certainly was not going to try to swim in and replace the screw-top lid during the shark action. Every time I returned, I found the jar with the weight lying next to it, but never a scrap of dead fish.
Sangeneb Reef is topped with a British-built lighthouse, a legacy from the days when Britain ruled the Sudan. You can climb its steps (did I count 258) and get a great view of the reef.
The Sangeneb lighthouse marks the initial approach to Port Sudan. Twenty years ago an enterprising Jack Jackson ran diving holidays from here, his visitors camping in the courtyard of the lighthouse. It was something of a hardship posting!
Although there seem to be fewer reef sharks than there were, the diving is still top-class. There are resident schools of jack and both slimline and chevron barracuda, endless yellow-margin triggerfish and some titans too.
Schools of bannerfish loiter, and if you are lucky you will encounter schooling scalloped hammerhead sharks in deeper water, though I saw only the occasional example scouting the reef in the distance and keeping the main body of schooling sharks warned about our presence. Then there are all the usual suspects you might encounter further north in Egyptian waters.
I foolishly tended to use up all my film on the sharks that performed so impeccably to order for me, but I tried to save some for that other star performer of the Sudanese reefs, the giant bumphead parrotfish.
Both ends of Sangeneb reef have resident schools of these unusual and magnificent animals, which cruise the reef-tops like so many bison in a herd. They butt the coral with their massive heads and smash off parts, crunching it up with giant front teeth fused into a beak-like weapon thats perfect for the job.
In the shallows at either end of Sangeneb Reef, I was able to insinuate myself into a group. The fish looked at me in their peculiarly bovine way while I used up the last couple of frames in an effort to get a rare group portrait. I confess that I put by enough unexposed film to take advantage of the incredible chances I made for myself with them.
At the north end of Sangeneb I found their cleaning station and enjoyed the attention of a few cleaner wrasse on the hairs in my ears, while I in turn concentrated on a close-up viewing of the bumphead parrotfish as they waited their turn with the marine manicurists.
The wreck of the ss Umbria, formerly called the ss Bahia Blanca, was once said by Hans Hass to be the finest shipwreck in the world. There have been endless magazine articles and guidebook accounts of how this Italian ocean liner was impounded by the British on suspicion of carrying arms to Eritrea, the day before Italy declared war.
The Umbrias Italian captain heard the news on a small personal radio that the British Naval boarding party had failed to confiscate. He decided to scuttle the boat under their feet, while they were taking the ship into Port Sudan. The Umbria now lies on its side in 24m on Wingate Reef, its starboard-side davits still breaking the surface.
What makes this such a good shipwreck is the fact that it was never salvaged. It was loaded with so many thousands of tons of shells and bombs that it was estimated that a detonation would cause a tidal wave able to wipe out Port Sudan. So it was left to rot.
The wreck became encapsulated in coral and only now is the steel rusting and crumbling. However, you can still enter the holds and see great rows of bombs and shells stacked one upon the other. There are also piles of wine-bottles and bags of cement. Some pre-war Fiat cars can be found deep in her mid-deck holds in rather less than mint condition. Rosie does a perfect guided tour.
Apart from the odd yellow-spot angelfish, there is little in the way of animated marine life, but its a great thrill to swim in the spacious engine hall, pass up companionways, swim through the public areas like the dining room, investigate the heads, marvel at so many massive steam winches and suffer serious propeller-envy while looking at the one that remains above the mud.
The Umbria certainly deserves a couple of dives, but dont waste time searching for the bell. Evidently a young Doug Allen took it during a Cambridge University expedition led by Peter Vine many years ago.
And if its more recent casualties that take your fancy, theres the recently sunk wreck of a modern freighter nearby. Dont entertain any hope of finding the bell on that either. It was reported to me that it came back on the same plane from Port Sudan that I was on.
Sudan was once almost impossible to reach. Now you can fly there as a tourist, albeit with many forms to fill in, a close customs inspection and heavy taxes. |
There is even a Hilton hotel in Port Sudan. When I was there this year, the harbour seemed to be full of liveaboard diveboats, though some seemed less than basic.
Rosie Frampton (above), a Scottish aristocrat, is only 25, but she has decided to base her little luxury trawler-yacht, the mv Connda Vennessa (below), in Port Sudan.
Rosie has spent much of her adult life as a dive-guide in Egypt. She is a qualified skipper, accomplished marine engineer, speaks five languages including Arabic and, when not busy with operating the boat, she is doing a degree course. In her spare time on-board she plays the electric piano or the guitar and is inclined to give passengers the benefit of her belly-dancing skills, complete with Tam OShanter and red wig. Oh yes, she is also the dive-guide!
When its time for a dive briefing, the vessels big audio system booms with heavy metal, rock Ã”n roll, or Scottish reels. Life on board reflects the larger-than-life personality of its owner.
The Connda Vennessas previous Italian owners operated her in the Red Sea, but Rosie had her refitted in the Mediterranean and the vessel is in immaculate condition. She is not a conversion. She was massively built in Ireland from heavy imported hardwoods to be a luxury vessel that could go anywhere. An incredibly reliable, low-revving Kelvin fishing-boat engine gives her the necessary range.
Despite her pocket dimensions (72ft long), the boat feels like a bigger vessel. She can take up to 10 passengers in a variety of different-sized cabins, including a spacious honeymoon suite. She has twin generators, water-maker, air-conditioning, satellite communications and an enormous RIB that speeds you to dive sites in an exhilarating if bumpy moment.
|Bumphead parrotfish grow to prodigious size at Sanganeb |
|Cousteaus toolshed at the remains of his undersea living experiment Conshelf 2 |
|grey reef sharks, also at Sanganeb |
|soft corals |
|Starboard propeller on the ss Umbria wreck |
|artillery shells in one of the holds |
|damp start - the remains of Fiat cars |
|diving along a companionway |
GETTING THERE: Fly to Port Sudan via Egypt. Visas for EU residents are available on arrival by pre-arrangement but cost US $210 - in cash. That includes diving taxes, and taxes in and out of Port Sudan. The liveaboard agent retains your passport while you are at sea. Passport-holders with evidence of visits to Israel are disqualified from entry. You also need two entry visas for Egypt (US $15 each in cash). Keep three to four clear pages in your passport for stamps!
DIVING : Diving in Sudan is organised to suit experienced divers. Take your own gear, including a good surface marker device such as a flag. Sudan is not a good place to learn to dive and there is nothing for non-divers to do!
WHEN TO GO: The Red Sea is subject to strong winds and in August it is exceedingly hot. Go between April and July, or in September or October. The popular choice of wetsuit/semi-dry is a 5mm one-piece.
ALCOHOL: Sudan, including its airline, is an alcohol-free area. However, liveaboards usually have a limited amount of beer etc available.
HEALTH:Sudan is a massive country subject in some parts to yellow fever. Because of this, your entry into Egypt will be subject to a health official insisting that you visibly commence a course of antibiotics supplied on re-entry to Egypt - even though the Sudanese officials will give you a certificate to say that you have not visited a risk area, and regardless of whether you have an International Certificate of Vaccination. There are no mosquitoes at sea fortunately, but Port Sudan is a malaria area, so cover up when you pass through it at night, and use lots of insect repellent..
COST: John Bantin travelled courtesy of Tony Backhurst Scuba Travel (0800 0728221, www.scuba.co.uk). An eight-day trip travelling from London with overnight stays in Cairo en-route each way typically costs around1295. That includes flights, transfers, full-board accommodation on-board but not packaged drinks, use of the satellite phone or tips. Longer charters are available.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.sudan.net
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