Shake-out day for us and our equipment. In two minibuses, our group of 19 hurtles down President Hosni Mubarak highway to the Aquarius Dive Centre, north of Naama Bay.
The two Arab drivers seem intent on racing each other. They hoot, they shout, they gesticulate. Were thinking of our precious divebags piled high on roof-racks, without so much as a piece of string to hold them down.
One of us suddenly shouts: Stop! Too late. We watch as a dive bag takes off in what seems like slow motion and is run down by the pursuing minibus.
Thats my bag, whispers Henry in a state of shock.
Dont worry, soothes the holiday company guide, Simon from Neilson. Well put it right.
At the dive centre, we hand over our dive cards (PADI) or qualification books (BSAC), collect our weights, learn the weeks programme (12 dives at two a day from a dive boat) and are given a series of dos and donts.
I havent been to Sharm el Sheikh for a while, but things certainly seem to be tightly controlled. Do look, but dont touch, take or destroy. Do not go below 30m or surface away from the reef, or become separated from your dive group.
Each group has a dive guide who has to be told when the diver has reached 100 and 50 bar, at which point he or she is dispatched to the surface.
We are given 12 litre tanks filled to 200 bar. Nitrox is not available from this dive company, which is not much of a disadvantage with these bottles. However, we could have had 15 litre bottles had we ordered them in advance.
Henry is more interested in going through his now much-travelled-looking dive bag to see which bits of his equipment he can still use. Ill have to fax head office, says Simon.
The first dive is round the corner from Sharms port, at a place called Ras Katy.
The bottom is sandy, so overweighted divers dont destroy coral when they plunge to the bottom. I am preoccupied sorting out my camera, and lose my group. A shoal of cornetfish pass by - an extraordinary sight, three foot long and barely three inches in diameter.
I head off down the sandy slope and onto a steeper slope covered with coral heads. I look at my computer. Ah, Im at 35m. Thats the second or third cardinal rule Ive broken so far. Deceptive and exhilarating stuff, this viz. Everything appears much nearer when youre not used to underwater vision of 20m or more.
Aquarius guide Terry Aguilera reads us the riot act after our first dive on Woodhouse Reef in the Straits of Tiran.
Ive been checking your computers and some of you have been below 42m, he says. You know the limit here is 30m. The police carry out spot checks on equipment, including computers, he warns us. They also have divers who will note depths and follow you back to your boat and catch you when you get back to port. If youre caught, thats the end of your diving, the skipper loses his licence for three months and Ill lose my job and be put on the next plane out of here.
He then has a go at our group discipline, or rather lack of it. It was chaos down there. Some of the second group overtook the first and some became completely separated way behind the last group. Ouch, that would be myself and Lance, busy taking photographs.
You must keep together and be picked up in your groups. The skipper doesnt like searching up and down the reef for divers. He could refuse to take us if this continues, says Terry.
We look at each other in bewilderment. Isnt that what dive-boats do, pick up divers from the water wherever they may be I ask myself.
It was a great dive if you could ignore the other divers, finning along a vertical wall that disappeared into the blue depths, and with fish and corals of virtually every shape and colour at the top of the reef.
We try to do everything correctly on our second dive of the day, on Gordon Reef. Some divers are ecstatic after spotting a whitetip shark and a turtle.
We go to the other end of Sharms dive area, Ras Mohammed, and dive on Sharks Reef and Yolanda. This is a nature reserve and you have to pay£25 Egyptian to dive here on any day. Yolanda is named after a wreck that disappeared into the depths, leaving behind lots of toilets.
I get a shot of Terry sitting on one. Gotcha, I think.
It was rough getting to Ras Mohammed on Galaxy Sharm, our flat-bottomed boat, wallowing in the seas. When we surface, the seas are worse. Dive boats everywhere are being tossed about. The weather is exceptionally bad.
Suddenly Galaxy appears, the Arab deck crew excitedly throwing us lines.
Camera! Camera! shouts one.
I manage to hand it over and haul myself up the ladder, to be greeted by Henry and a dive deck that is a jumble of cylinders, BCs, regulators and fins.
Its been carnage here, says Henry. It had been a terrifying experience for those in the first group trying to get back on the boat, with dive ladders one minute in the air, the next submerged.
Our youngest diver - 14-year-old Dean - had caught his BC on the ladder and been slammed repeatedly against the boat. The video camerawoman from Neilson had panicked, screaming on the surface: I cant breathe, cant breathe! Terry had rescued her.
Ollie, who had organised the trip, Henry and a couple of others got the rest safely on board. Many were in no fit state to do anything. They were busy honking. Some thought the boat was going to capsize. I had surfaced with the last group further around the reef, where it wasnt so rough. No more diving around here today. Its too dangerous, says our guide, stating the obvious.
We go instead to a little-dived site at Mangrove Island, which is full of congers and redtooth triggerfish. There is also one turtle to which I fail to get close enough to photograph.
The news from Neilsons head office is not good. Henry is told to claim on his travel insurance, which has a£50 excess charge. Henry takes legal advice. One of the group members is a lawyer.
Whats happening As we leave port, I count 20 boats high-tailing it into Sharm.
Theyve turned back from Tiran because of the weather, says Terry, after speaking to the skipper.
No one is going far today. Only two boats have ventured in the opposite direction - Ras Mohammed - after what happened yesterday.
It wasnt just us, there were lots of boats in trouble picking up divers, says Terry.
Round the corner, the sea is full of white horses. We head for one of the local dive sites, the Temple, along with most of the diving community.
Henry is still in negotiations with Neilson.
Its back to Ras Mohammed, but we have to hang around port for an hour because the lunchtime food hasnt arrived. The port is packed. Every day, 3000-odd divers go in search of their 200 dive boats. There isnt enough room for everyone, so boats have to queue to get in.
We have a wonderful dive at Ras Zaatar, which is a vertical wall full of large gorgonians. A barracuda follows us and lets me get close enough to snap it.
We retreat to Marsa Bareika - halfway back to Sharm - for lunch. The sandy shore is just 50m away and looks very inviting.
Cant go there, says the guide. National Park regulations. Half an hour later, two taxis arrive, followed by a coach, and disgorge their contents onto this prohibited beach.
My attention is caught by a couple of snorkellers. They are becoming frantic, screaming, waving and trying to fin all at the same time. Why Their boat is steaming off towards Sharm.
Other boats take up their cause. Not by moving, but by sounding their horns. Eventually the departing boat gets the message and turns round.
Hardly has this incident been resolved when a group of divers on the other side of the cove also start shouting. One even takes off his yellow fin and waves it high above his head. Their boat is also leaving, and it disappears from view around the headland. It, too, eventually reappears, but only after two boats intervene.
The afternoon dive at Ras Gaslani is magical. We finish at an underwater stack, a dramatic sight, with dense shoals of fusiliers circling. Between the stack and the vertical wall there are many large holes or caves full of groupers.
Tomorrow, if conditions are right, we are promised a dive with hammerheads off Jackson Island in the Tiran Straits. This will be a treat for those not going to the Thistlegorm, the Mecca for wreck-divers.
Henry is smiling. Ive reached an amicable settlement with Neilson, he announces to us.
Were on a new vessel, Horus, for the last day. Take all your equipment to the new boat, we are told. Most think the instruction doesnt include weights. It does.
The boat has no weights, so we are held up for an hour and a half while Aquarius rummages around for 60kg.
Its still looking good for the hammerheads, says our new guide Vicky, as we finally leave port. She is the wife of Terry, who is taking the other half of the party that has opted to dive the Thistlegorm.
Half an hour out, she has reduced the odds on seeing the hammerheads to evens. The weather is deteriorating, she explains.
An hour into the journey and the hammerhead dive is now off. Its too rough. Well have to dive the other side of Jackson Reef. Itll still be a great dive, she beams at us.
As we approach Tiran Straits we see a line of white. Its not waves but boats. I count 40 of them.
Im afraid we wont be able to get to Jackson Reef. Too many boats already there, Vicky announces. I look behind and see another huge flotilla heading this way.
The only site that isnt packed with vessels is Woodhouse Reef, which we dived on day two. Oh well, Im sure it will be just as enjoyable today.
I find it difficult to feel Im not a fish in a glass bowl. Above us are snorkellers looking down at us and diving groups below, behind and ahead. The Egyptians must be making a fortune out of this reef.
While those on the other dive boats are having lunch, we have our second and last dive of the holiday. This is on Thomas Reef and its wonderful. Vicky spots a whitetip shark and then we get picked up by a current and whisked along the wall past huge gorgonians, bluefin jacks and countless other fish and corals. Its a truly memorable drift dive.
The Thistlegorm gang are on a high too, after their dive. Henry has had a lucky escape. He sucked his 12 litre tank dry and switched to a spare tank tethered to the boat, until halfway through his decompression stop, when one of the Arab crew started hauling in the line.
A tug-of-war had developed, with other divers coming to the aid of Henry. He managed - just - not to lose his bottle.
Boats had been tethered in groups, with one mooring line from each group anchored to a bit of the wreck. Terry reckons the Thistlegorm will have broken up within three years. Its being pulled apart by the boats moored onto it - you can see it moving - and the trapped air from divers is corroding the plates, he says.
A debate ensues. Perhaps diving should be banned, says someone.
Why bother replies another, its going to break up eventually. You might as well enjoy it now.
Its Camel Bar time and we grab a taxi to Naama Bay, as we have done every night bar one. Its also Ramadan, which may explain the behaviour of our cabbie.
Accelerator on the floor, he becomes obsessed with Lance, who is 6ft 4in and has a grey beard. He starts ululating - lalulalula - as he nuzzles up to Lance, bends one arm round the back of his head and starts tickling his beard, while occasionally steering with his free hand.
Wide-eyed, he drives like a maniac, but he has us all in stitches, apart from Lance, who maintains a very stiff upper lip. Like many other cabbies here, ours drives an old Peugeot with a defunct speedo and a copy of the Koran on the dashboard. Allah no doubt keeps him safe on the road.
Its bedlam. Suitcases that have gone through check-in are piled pyramid-fashion in the hall. They are going nowhere. It seems as if there are thousands of us stretching resources to breaking point.
It takes an hour to get to the check-in, where we are handed a five-sheet list. Find your name! we are told.
Some cant. OK, says the official, and still stamps them through. Baggage-handlers ensure that we part with what Egyptian money we have left.
On the plane a row breaks out between Lance and a German woman. Both have the same boarding pass ID. Eventually a flight attendant realises that the Germans boarding pass is for the Manchester flight that has just taken off.
Another does a head count and announces: We should have four empty seats but we only have two. She smiles sweetly and tells passengers to prepare for take-off. Allah be praised, and please look after us on our flight home.
|a moon grouper on Woodhouse Reef |
|dive buddies ecstatic at Ras Zaatar |
|a pre-dive briefing |
|morning rush-hour at Sharm el Sheikh port |
|A lionfish spreads its lethal rays |
|divers at the start of the Shark Reef dive |
|room for one more Dive-boats at aRas Katy |
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