|TUCKED AWAY IN ITS LITTLE CORNER OF THE RED SEA, Aqaba could easily be overlooked. Divers have to share Jordans 17 miles of coastline with marinas, busy freight ports, the Jordanian Navy, industrial complexes and a ferry terminal.
Yet I dont need to make any allowances for this in my assessment of the diving. Immediately beneath the Royal Diving Clubs jetty, the house reef is a steep bank of sea grass and scattered patches of coral in first-class condition. For once, the name Coral Garden has been aptly given; a garden of corals on a sloping lawn of grass.
My host Ahmed leads me down from coral to coral, each its own microcosm of reef. For taking fish pictures or macro pictures, I actually prefer such a seabed to solid reef. The fish life is wonderfully concentrated about the patches of coral, most fish preferring to stay close to the shelter of their small patch of reef to venturing out across the open prairie.
Then, once I have found a subject, there is plenty of room to get down low and line up my lens without bumping anything. Its just what I had requested to get started.
Its a good beginning, but only a one-dive day. I had arrived in Amman late the night before, and it had taken until early afternoon to drive across miles of rocky desert. While interesting in its own right, these things all add up to eat into the time available for diving. It will all have changed by the time this account is published. A new airport at Aqaba has already opened and charter flights will be coming direct from the UK with a streamlined immigration process.
There are about 60,000 residents of Aqaba. As we make our back into town from the Royal Diving Club, it seems that Ahmed knows everyone. We stop off here and there as he shows me round and greets people.
The centre of town is a pleasant blend of Arab and Mediterranean, with open spaces, grass, trees and fountains. And it stays open and clean. No one has set up shops, shacks or stalls in the open spaces.
Its not until my second evening in Aqaba that I notice something else that is different, and why the town centre is such a pleasant place in the evening.
I have not been hassled by any over-enthusiastic shop-keepers, hawkers, beggars or any of the other pushy people who plague so many destinations. People are genuinely friendly, relaxed and dont jump in for the hard sell.
Meanwhile, we get on with the diving and have a day of wrecks. The one that everyone has heard of is the Cedar Pride, an 1161 ton freighter scuttled for divers in 1985.
Like many of Aqabas dive sites, it is easily accessible from the shore. Heading out across quite a cheerful reef, I have to restrain myself from becoming distracted, settling my mind for making mental notes of attractive corals and interesting fish in case I have any film left after the wreck. I know I am conning myself because I dont expect to put the notes to use, especially when the stern of the wreck separates from the blue haze ahead.
After 18 years under water, the hull is now sparsely colonised by nuggets of branching corals, with magnificent clumps of soft corals off the masts and other projecting parts. It is altogether far more attractive than the burned-out hulk that had lain derelict between 1981 and 1983, when the late King Hussein decided to buy the wreck and turn it into an artificial reef. The present King, (who was Crown Prince Abdulla in 83), still drops in for the occasional dive.
Our second wreck is a US-built M40 anti-aircraft tank, sunk in water shallow enough for it to be suitable for a first open-water training dive, and for snorkellers. Its a nice photographic prop, though as it has been down only since 1999, it does not have the same covering of corals as the Cedar Pride.
A tank of air lasts a lot longer than the time it takes to examine a tank from all angles. It just isnt really big enough to fill a whole dive, so after 10 minutes or so we head off down the reef and into a valley of corals.
My attention is caught by some bright green balls of cabbage coral. Where most corals are in more subdued colours, why is cabbage coral such an optically abusive shade of green Is it just a trick of the light, or something to do with the zooxanthellae algae living inside
My marine ecology textbook says: ... zooxanthellae pervade the coral tissue, imparting to it a dull brown, green or blue coloration. I suspect that the book was generalising - after all, we also get bright yellow corals, and green corals with red spots.
The Aqaba wreck at the top of my list to dive is the Taiyong barge, discovered only in January 2004 when a group of three divers exploring deeper along the reef stumbled across it.
To get to the Taiyong, I have to switch dive centres. Its a little too far from the coast to shore-dive comfortably, so I join a dive centre with a boat.
At Dive Aqaba, Ahmed introduces me to Rod Abbotson, co-owner of the centre, my buddy for the day and also one of the three divers who discovered the wreck. Considering that it is within sight of one of the marine park boundary buoys, I am amazed that it remained undiscovered for so long.
The boat drops Rod and me at the buoy, then heads inshore so that everyone else can dive the shallower reef at Japanese Gardens.
The top of the wreck is the port side, where I stash my stage cylinder at 35m. As a crane barge, the Taiyong did not have its own propulsion. Diesel motors attached to hard points near the bow and stern used to turn winches and cable drums. At the stern, the A-frame of the crane juts out across the seabed, undisturbed soft corals dangling into the centre of the A.
I could get 58-60m beneath the stern, but I limit myself to 54, concerned more about the amount of time I can have on the wreck than how deep I can get.
Twenty-five minutes later, I follow Rod up the reef, having had a pretty thorough look at the wreck and retrieved my stage cylinder. We cross two hills and a couple of valleys before we get to Japanese Gardens and complete our decompression in 3m beneath the boat.
Its a classic example of how a dive computer can make for a far more enjoyable deco dive than tables.
The outer hills of the reef between the Taiyong and Japanese Gardens are atypical of the reef I have seen so far in Aqaba, and turn out to be atypical of the reef for the whole trip.
These hard corals have suffered a massive die-off at some time in the past, but the reef does seem to be recovering. Big domes of grey and dead coral form a foundation for new sprigs of coral that are growing bright and healthy.
I ask Rod about this, then Ahmed that evening. Both agree that the damage was probably a result of silting from where a trench was cut to lay a power cable across to Taba on the Sinai side of the Gulf of Aqaba, 10 or more years ago.
I am relieved that the pollution from the fish farms that is causing so much damage in nearby Eilat does not appear to be significant in Aqaba, or hindering the recovery.
We take advantage of the boat to dive another site that is not accessible from the shore. The wall by the old power station is certainly close enough to the shore, but the main road runs right along the waterfront here.
It was getting too dangerous for divers to park on the other side and cross with kit on, then get over the roadside crash barrier and climb down, so shore-diving the Power Station Wall was closed.
From the shoreline the wall drops to 10m, then theres a slope to 25-30m before it disappears in an overhanging wall that is steep and deep.
With the overhang to contend with, reef-building coral is mainly limited to the lip and occasional buttresses. The shadow from the lip provides lighting conditions more appropriate to the depths of the abyss, with tubes of sponge and sprigs of black coral hanging in the blackness.
Downtown Aqaba comes alive after sunset. As the air cools, the shops, cafés and restaurants become busy. For alcohol, many restaurants serve beer and wine. The hotels all have bars, and there is even a Rovers Return pub.
Having browsed around town, I arrive at the café to find that Ahmed has yet to arrive. There are no tables free. Two Jordanians suggest that I join them.
I assume that they are friends of Ahmed, but no, they had just noticed me looking slightly lost and were being hospitable. Both had been students in Britain and I am sharing a table with what seem to be the only two people in Aqaba who dont know Ahmed.
One is a bank manager, the other a corporate lawyer - a sign of the times. ASEZA, the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority, is cultivating growth of a free trade area in hopes of duplicating Dubais economic prosperity. Finance and law are just part of the business infrastructure growing alongside industry, distribution and tourism.
On the border
It helps to put everything in perspective to realise that diving is only a small part of a much larger tourism sector that encompasses everything from family beach holidays to antiquities in the desert, and is itself just part of ASEZAs development plan.
Seventeen miles of coastline seems small, but there are more than enough dive sites to keep me busy for the week and more I have available for diving. Even so, I want to push 17 miles as far as it will go, so my last day begins at a dive site aptly named Saudi Border.
Outside the marine park, the shoreline is scruffy with litter, as is the shallow water just off the beach. The Royal Jordanian in-flight magazine had a good feature on dive centres, school-children, other locals and tourists getting together for an annual beach clean-up.
Perhaps the clean-up will work its way this far south, given time.
Further out, the sandy slope gives way to a steeper valley of hard corals, leading out to a sloping wall. Coral species that would form boulders in shallower water form shelving crescent plates like fungi on the trunk of a tree.
I finish back inside the marine park, with a deliberately shallow dive at First Bay to allow myself time to decompress. I want another scattering of shallow coral heads on the sand to concentrate the fish life so that I can work on some portraits.
Having said that, the same coral heads with glittering orange clouds of anthias could just as easily have been a good subject for my wide-angle lens.
Among an eel garden, moray eels, cleaner shrimps and adult and juvenile emperor angel fish, Rod finds a walkman scorpionfish. Buried almost up to its eyes in the sand, it waits anonymously for dinner to swim into its mouth.
Early next morning I am back on the road towards Amman, a few thousand feet above sea level past Wadi Rum, then diverting off to the west for a few hours to explore the carved city of Petra.
Like the diving, it is magnificent, though walking down the narrow canyon to the temples I cant help but wonder what a fantastic dive site it would make if it were flooded by the sea.
|A peppered moral eel at the Coral Gardens |
|The anti-aircraft gun turret of the M40 tank |
|a lionfish by the main winch drum of the Taiyong |
|white-spotted pufferfish. |
|Ahmed at the stern of the Cedar Pride |
|bright green cabbage coral at New Canyon |
|The walkman scorpionfish at First Bay |
|clown anemonefish at the Saudi Border |
|and a temple carved into the sandstone rock in Petra |
GETTING THERE: Fly from Heathrow to Amman with Royal Jordanian, then transfer by road. Or take a charter flight directly to Aqaba.
DIVING: Royal Diving Club, www.rdc.jo. Dive Aqaba, www. diveaqaba.com. Seastar, www.seastar-watersports.com.
WHEN TO GO: Good for diving year round.
COSTS: A one-week hotel package costs from£580 to£800 on a B&B basis with two sharing, depending on time of year and accommodation. Diving costs£120 for a five-day/10-dive package combining shore and boat diving. Check with Aquatours, www.aquatours.com.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Jordan Tourism Board www.see-jordan.com.
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