|I could see nothing but sand. I searched in the distance for a shadow, an outline that might suggest some irregularity, something man-made. We had reached the end of the sea grass and if what I sought was going to be anywhere, this was it. And suddenly, there it was. Parked perfectly upright on the sea floor stood an intact Jordanian military tank.
It looked as if it had been driven there rather than sunk. Its gun pointed towards the nearby reef, as if trained on an advancing enemy. The King of Jordan, King Abdullah, is, like his late father, an avid scuba-diver, and had arranged for the vehicle to be sunk just a few months before.
He had taken great interest in choosing its resting place, his desire being to ease the pressure on the coasts fragile shallow reef system with an artificial reef.
A family of lionfish had already moved in under the tanks wheels. Beside them, a grey moray eel arched its body in as close to the rusty tracks as it could. A shoal of anthias danced in and out, using the body of the tank for protection. On its far side, growing from one of the wheels, was a sea fan, twice the size of a£2 coin but amazing, considering that the tank had been submerged for such a short time.
Jordan has a chequered history of invasion and conquest, so it was fitting that one of my first dives there should confront me with one of its war relics. But since the signing of the Israeli peace treaty, there has been much more optimism about the countrys future.
Tourism is on the march, especially in the main coastal resort, Aqaba, just a few miles over the border from Israels Eilat. The contrast between the two towns is stark. Eilat is amazingly built-up, while Aqaba remains an old-fashioned sort of place. More hotels are in the pipeline, with a new Mšvenpick opening this summer, but its hard to imagine Aqaba ever becoming an Eilat.
Much of the 17 miles of coastline between Aqaba and the Saudi border is taken up by the town and harbour, so diving and snorkelling is restricted to the six or so miles towards the southern end of the coast.
Jordans Marine Peace Park is intended to protect the reefs. When it was set up five years ago, the plan was to install moorings and prevent fishing, but progress seems painfully slow. Special car parks have been built and diver access controlled, yet illegal fishing and the use of primitive stone anchors continues.
Its vital for the future of tourism in Aqaba that the Peace Park works, and divers can help by contacting the Aqaba Regional Authority if they come across any transgressions. With no divers in key positions in the authority, they find it hard to understand what its like down on the reef.
But diver pressure is far less in Jordan than in other parts of the Red Sea. Certain shallower areas reveal damage by snorkellers, and some patches of reef have suffered from those anchors, but most of the reefs are in excellent condition. Many of the sites have fantastic pinnacles and coral gardens, and some are blessed with fields of colourful soft coral.
Most sites are accessible from the shore, but Im lazy and prefer plunging over the back of a boat.
Luckily Aquamarina dive centre offers boat diving. Its manager is ever-smiling Egyptian Yul Brynner-lookalike Osama Roshdy, the man with the amazing assortment of gold round his neck. He has been diving in Jordan for longer than most. There are five dive centres in Aqaba, the best-established being Aquamarina, Seastar and Royal, and all have excellent facilities.
Some sites are dived by one centre and not another: Seastar dives several excellent sites in Big Bay, just north of the Royal dive centre, which has sole access from the shore to the Aquarium and Coral Gardens sites. Aquamarina is able to dive these by boat.
The centres also tend to have their own names for sites and it can get a little confusing if you dive with more than one: for example, Olivers Canyon, where we dived the tank, is also known as Fishermans Shack and New Canyon.
The Aquarium offered beautiful table corals smothered in soft corals, pinnacles full of fish and a spectacular fringing reef with a wall of giant fire corals. Next door, at Coral Gardens, a gradual sloping bed of seagrass gave way to sand and a scattering of bizarre coral heads, full and purple and pink soft corals, sponges and spectacular bushes of black coral.
Like little oases, they attracted all sorts of fish, from angels to butterfly puffers and lionfish, shoals of golden anthias and battalions of Red Sea bannerfish, which swarmed back and forth around us as we glided down the slope into deeper water.
Generally currents are very slight in Jordan but Coral Gardens is an exception and is not really suitable for beginners. Gorgonian 1 is different. It takes its name from an impressive solitary fan, located in 18m. Equally impressive was the table coral perched atop a small pinnacle nearby.
Towards the shore in just 9m of water were three lovely coral pinnacles, widely spaced but almost in a row. Near the third one, close to where divers enter from the shore, was a cabbage coral the size of a house! Around the pinnacles, lionfish and coral groupers lay ready to apprehend stragglers from the shoals of sweepers, while yellow-mouthed moray eels poked their heads from gaps in the coral as I passed.
There were plenty of unusual sightings - I came across dwarf lionfish, stonefish, toadfish, frogfish and a six-striped soapfish, which I later discovered to be quite a toxic species.
Most divers like sheer walls, even if they only hover over the top rather than plunging over the edge. Jordan has several, the most popular being on the Saudi border, where there are fantastic hard-coral formations and dramatic vistas.
The wall starts off sloping gradually, then plunges steeply to 40m and more in places. We swam through a canyon, between two walls and emerged to be greeted by a turtle.
Reef sharks are occasionally seen along the top of the wall, as are manta rays between February and May and whale sharks between April and July. I didnt encounter a manta here, but I did at one of my favourite sites, just up from the Aquarium and simply named Paradise.
A 10-minute boat ride from the Aquamarina Hotel, the Power Station is another impressive wall, but it is dived more often and the reef plateau is showing signs of wear. The wall starts as shallow as 10m at the southern end and plunges well beyond sport-diving levels. Turtles and Napoleon wrasse are regularly seen, as are the occasional daddy-sized barracuda and huge fusilier shoals.
We found a cable which plunged from 30m into the abyss here, adorned in soft corals.
A favourite with divers is the wreck of the 90m freighter Cedar Pride. Intact and resting on its side in 25m, it is festooned in soft corals and home to many different fish species, from Napoleons to barracuda and snappers.
Originally the San Bruno, this Spanish-built ship was renamed Cedar Pride in 1982, after being bought by a Lebanese company. Months later, while a cargo of phosphates and potassium was being loaded, fire broke out. It raged for days, and a crew-member died trying to put it out. The ship was doomed but didnt sink. She sat in the harbour for three years until the owners donated her to the King, who enthusiastically had her sunk as an artificial reef.
The Cedar Pride is one of the most colourful wrecks in the Red Sea. The first thing I noticed on entering the water was the magnificent stern, bathed in sunshine. The wreck rests on its side like a sleeping giant. We headed beneath it to see the pink soft coral hanging from the hull like massive Christmas decorations. A sand channel led us up and through to the other side, where we finned quickly towards the bow.
Passing a small shoal of Arabian angelfish, we rounded the corner and saw the scenery shift. Under the bow, a magnificent garden of sea fans, basket stars, wire and soft corals appeared. Lionfish hovered inches above the corals, waiting to ambush their prey, while groups of map and emperor angelfish weaved in and out of them.
A lone barracuda shot skittishly into the blue, and up on the bow mast we almost bumped into a pufferfish hiding beside a bush of black coral.
A few fin kicks on, we encountered the most awe-inspiring sight of all, the masts and crows nest silhouetted against the mid-morning sun. The soft coral growth on the sunny side of the ship was fantastic. Every inch of metal seemed to be covered in life, including sponges, delicate sea fans and some good hard coral too.
We surveyed our surroundings with satisfaction, a large snapper watching our every move.
It is possible to penetrate certain areas of the ship, such as the stern cabins and bridge, but theres no need - youll spend most of your time enjoying the wonderful shapes, colours and textures.
If youre planning a trip to Jordan, save a dive on the Cedar Pride until last, and leave on a high note.
|PETRA - SURFACE BREAK
We dont normally go on at length about non-diving activities but Petra is something else. Just two hours drive from Aqaba, hidden among the ancient canyons of Jordans southern desert, this 2000-year-old city is one of the wonders of the world. Carved into the naturally pink rocks are an incredible mixture of roads, houses, temples, a theatre and an outstanding monastery, the Al Deir. To reach it you climb 800 steps up a steep mountainside.
You start your adventure Indiana Jones-style, either by horse, carriage or preferably on foot, through the Siq (left). This is a long narrow gorge with 100m cliffs, and through the keyhole at the end of it can be seen the towering Al Khazneh (The Treasury), more than 40m high and 30m wide and thought to be a kings tomb.
Petra can take up a whole day, perhaps even two, but the desert landscape of Wadi Rum, an hours drive from Aqaba, can be enjoyed in an afternoon. This was used as a setting for the film Lawrence of Arabia - most people watch the sunset and head back but some stay on and eat a traditional meal under the stars with the local Bedouin. Far from any city lights, the desert here is a wonderful place from which to star-gaze.
GETTING THERE: Fly to Aqaba via Amman, Jordans capital, or take the cheaper charter flight to Ovda, just north of Eilat in Israel. The transfer by minibus or taxi can take two hours or more and be prepared for the Ovda airport and border security checks, because they arent much fun. A visa is obtainable in Jordan for£23.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Prices start at£360 for return flights (via Ovda), transfers and B&B accommodation at the three-star Aquamarina 111 Hotel. Also known as the Royal Hotel, this offers good views over the city and the Gulf of Aqaba, but the dive centre (Aquamarina 1) is about a mile away on the beach and you pay£100 more to stay there. Contact Aquamarinas European office on 01733 391 611 or book through Aquatours 020 8398 0505; Goldenjoy 020 7794 9767; or Regal Holidays 01353 778 096.
WHEN TO GO: It is warm all year round in Aqaba (although in places such as Petra it can snow in winter). Water temperature is 26C in summer and 20C in winter (Dec-April).
English and Arabic. Jordanians are very friendly and hospitable, and a few words of Arabic will work wonders.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Jordan Tourist Board 020 8877 4524.
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