Beat the Rush!

JORDANS Red Sea coast is twice the size of Israels popular strip, and lies next to virgin waters. Now a marine park looks set to make Jordan a mecca for divers, says Bernard Eaton

Sport diving has been called the sleeping giant of tourist potential in Jordan, that tiny Middle East kingdom surrounded by Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Well, it seems that the giant is about to awake, for Jordan is all set to become a new mecca for divers in the Red Sea. To begin with, it has ambitious plans to make the whole of its waters in the Gulf of Aqaba a marine park.

The Jordanian coastline is 27 kilometres long compared with the Israeli coastline - on the opposite side of the Gulf - of only 14, and underwater it is all of similar excellence.

The difference is that divers going to Israel are usually taken further down the coast into Egypt, and along to some of the most popular diving sites in the world.

But on the other side, next to Jordan, lies Saudi Arabia, untouched underwater and offering an incredible range and diversity of diving.

If it were possible to dive the full length of that eastern coast of the Gulf, Jordan could offer diving virtually unsurpassed in the world - and that is what it hopes will one day be possible. In the meantime, Jordan seems intent to set it own seas in order, firstly by declaring Aqaba a marine park by Royal Decree.

The intention then is to introduce a series of zones in the Park to cater for all the interests concerned.

Zone A will be a marine reserve, excluding fishing, diving and any other such activity, the aim being to give the reefs time to recover from whatever damage they may have suffered.

The idea is for the reserve eventually to be moved to another area, where the process will be repeated, the first reserve then being opened up for diving.

Zone B will be designated for recreational activities, such as diving, handline fishing, and some other watersports.

Zone C will permit light commercial activities, such as boat operations for waterskiing for the areas in front of hotels, and fishing with nets.

Zone D will cater for Aqabas port authority and heavy industrial users.

Drop net fishing by private citizens will be declared illegal anywhere along the Jordanian coastline.

Plans for the marine park include the anchoring of 16 mooring buoys for dive boats so that the coral reefs wont be damaged.

There are 10 major sites that dive centres take their customers to, but some 30 sites have so far been identified. The Jordanians are keen to get their act together and are part of a regional coastal clean-up campaign with other Middle East nations called EcoPeace.

More than 70 divers took part in Jordans first project - a series of underwater clean-up dives in one of the countrys major bays.

Anyone who is familiar with Israeli waters will recognise the underwater environment off Jordan, for only a few miles separate the two countries, and below the surface the scenery is virtually the same.

I had time only to dive with the Royal Diving Centre, a BSAC School run by Brits Alan and Bunny Colclough, from which the shore diving is both easy and memorable.

From the end of the Centres jetty you simply step into the warm, clear waters of the Red Sea and take off south down a sloping terrain.

Alan said it was a bit like heading for Moses Rock - a well known spot off Eilat - but in this case the seabed was blessed with more than one coral head and was appropriately, if not uniquely, named The Coral Gardens. This was typical Red Sea diving, rich with corals and sponges and teeming with fish, one coral head housing a couple of morays that had been there for more than 11 years. Vis was 20m plus.

On the other side of the jetty - North Reef - the entry was similarly easy and interesting. A bit of a current going, but nice and effortless coming back!

Diving the wreck of the Gizon, a freighter resting in about 22m, was again typical of the Red Sea as far as shore entries go - a stumble or crawl in the shallows over rocks before reaching deeper waters.

Normally this is a dive by boat, which was in for service, but the crawl was worth it for the wreck is close to shore and is quite spectacular, a photographers delight.

The wreck lies on its port side, is fast growing marine life, and the vis is good.

But diving is not Jordans only appeal, for this tiny country has an astonishingly rich historical heritage which is within easy reach of every visitor and ought not to be missed by any.

Close to the international airport by the capital city of Amman, for instance, is Jerash - a Graeco-Roman city known as the Pompeii of the East for its extraordinary state of preservation.

Dating back to the 1st century AD, it is possible to walk among the original temples, theatres, plazas, baths and collonaded streets, all enclosed within the remaining city walls.

On the way down south is the truly amazing city of Petra, dating back to 312 BC, known as the rose-red city, half as old as Time.

Petra is surrounded by coloured sandstone mountains and is reached only through a narrow gorge, and the rock-hewn temples and tombs around the city ruins are magnificent. The site was rediscovered as late as 1812 by a Swiss traveller.

Even further south is Wadi Rum, where Lawrence of Arabia camped before attacking Aqaba.

In short, Jordan is a highly suitable venue for a diving holiday with a difference - and one for the family if thats what you might have in mind.

The conventional way to reach Aqaba is to fly to Amman, then to connect to a flight to Aqaba. Visits to Jordans historic sites can be arranged as add-ons to diving holidays.

There are, of course, other dive operators apart from The Royal Diving Centre, including The Red Sea Diving Centre and the Sea Star Watersport Centre.

  • Tour operators includeRegal Diving (01353 778096), who use three hotels at different prices - the Petra International, the Alcazar, and the Coral Beach - and
  • Aquatours (0181-255 8050), who use the Alcazar Hotel.

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