|It was like the Alps under water. All around us, stretching out of vision, were mountains of Acropora palifera and Psammocora digitata corals. Between them were some enormous brain corals and winding paths of sand, but these paths were far too small to support the motorway of divers passing by here.
This might have been one of the most beautiful coral gardens I had seen in the Red Sea, but it was also one of the busiest. In the first five minutes of the dive, I counted more divers than fish!
I was at a site called Shaab Sheer, an 80 minute ride by day boat from the Egyptian town of Safaga, which lies fewer than 40 miles south of Hurghada. It was one of the most popular dives on the outer reef system, more than a mile long and offering good shelter from the prevailing winds.
Stranger in town
This was my first visit to Safaga. I had come to research some unfamiliar dive sites, having always chosen to dive out of Hurghada or Sharm before, like most British divers.
Now it felt strange to find myself the only British person in my hotel, the only British person on the dive boat and, seemingly, the only British person for miles around!
Safaga might not be popular with the Brits but it sure goes down well with the Germans. I was diving with German groups and German dive guides from a German-run dive centre and, of course, our dive briefings were in German too. Fortunately the guides spoke excellent English and were very helpful, usually giving me a separate briefing and sometimes taking me on unofficial dives, like the one we were on now.
One of their number, Tony, seemed to have adopted me and was willing to show me round. Finning as quickly as we could, we left the throngs and made our way down to a wide, sloping plateau of broken sand and coral heads.
The scenery here was less dramatic than the mountains of coral, but it was more peaceful and there were more fish.
We passed small shoals of bigeye snapper, masked angelfish and a couple of colourful groupers on our way to a garden of gorgonians. The fans were a good 15-minute swim from the boat and, being in deeper water and in an area of Shaab Sheer prone to strong currents, only the more experienced divers ever made it here.
Home to all sorts of life, from hanging soft corals to shimmering sweepers, the garden was well worth a visit. We hovered for a while watching the sweepers being herded one way and then another by black grouper, squirrelfish and the occasional swooping jackfish. All we needed was an accompanying orchestra!
Eventually we headed back to the dive boat, against the current, via one of the coral islands I had earlier seen breaking the surface.
These islands drop straight down, providing mini-walls full of overhangs, crevices and the odd black coral bush encrusted in colourful soft corals.
We managed to avoid all the regular divers, though we did catch up with someone trying out a rebreather, apparently a local fanatic enjoying his day off.
There are two reef systems off the coast of Safaga. The inner reef is situated within 30 minutes of the dive centres and includes several great sheltered dive sites, ideal for novice divers. The outer reef system, some 10 miles out, offers challenging and potentially breath-taking dives.
HalHal is one of these, another site rarely dived, as it consists of two small pinnacles which reach to within just 3m from the surface.
When the weather is right, you can find yourself among some spectacular soft corals and gorgonians, with shoals of goatfish, bannerfish, snapper and unicornfish and, if youre lucky, circling jacks, barracuda, turtles and even sharks.
We followed our dive at Shaab Sheer with another on the nearby circular reef of Shaab Sheer Soraya. Here masked butterfly and Red Sea bannerfish schooled and I discovered a small erg, or pinnacle, full of sweepers and a watchful moray eel.
Probably the most spectacular dive in Safaga is the drop-off at Abu Kafan. Sheer walls covered in soft corals and gorgonian fans plunge seemingly forever into the deep blue sea.
To the south of the reef is a beautiful erg, connected to the main reef by a short plateau in 18m, while to the north are two huge coral towers, in the middle of a plateau in 20-25m. Shoals of barracuda hover menacingly, tuna cruise up and down and fortunate divers will run into sharks, even hammerheads.
These often put in an appearance in late summer, and no matter how many times youve seen one, it remains an incredible buzz. It will be a while before I forget my experience eye to eye with a modest-sized scalloped hammerhead here.
Abu Kafan is the most distant of all Safagas sites and is usually dived as a special two-tank morning dive. You have to depart at a rather early 5am, but you can always sleep all afternoon, and perhaps prepare for a night dive.
Night dives in any location are special, and Safagas proved to be no exception. The inner reef sites of Gamul Soraya and Tobia Kebir revealed all sorts of surprises, including a brilliant Spanish dancer, a huge sleeping Napoleon wrasse, some stunning basket stars, cowries and a sleepy pufferfish.
Two other outer reef dives are worth mentioning. Panorama, one of the best-known, is the closest to Safaga and, like Abu Kafan, is often visited by a stream of safari boats heading south from Hurghada.
The reef plunges away dramatically on all sides but to the south a sand plateau slopes from 15-25m before dropping into the abyss. The currents can be very strong here but they bring with them a string of pelagics. Jacks, barracuda, tuna and whitetip sharks and Napoleons are commonly seen, and theres a chance of seeing eagle rays, dolphins, grey reef sharks and, very occasionally, a silvertip shark.
Middle Reef, some three miles south of Panorama, is also a good dive, but you need to be really fit if you want to explore the drop-off, as it is separated by a wide plateau.
Crossing this plateau is no hardship, as it is home to a fantastic coral garden, with all the expected reef fish along with black and white snappers, turtles and moray eels.
One of the best spots I found at Middle Reef was a shallow garden of beautiful brain corals, located on the south-east end of the plateau.
There arent too many wrecks in the Safaga area, but there is the tragic Salem Express. This large roll-on, roll-off car ferry collided with a small reef that breaks the surface just south of Hyndman Reef, close to Shaab Sheer, during a winter storm just eight years ago.
Although officially 690 people were listed as being aboard, with 180 survivors, locals believe as many as 1500 lost their lives. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in history.
The ferry sank so quickly that there wasnt even time to send an SOS. Amazingly, the alarm was raised by one of the survivors who, in horrendous conditions, swam several miles ashore, crossed the desert to the main coast road and flagged down a passing car.
Those aboard were nearly all pilgrims returning from Mecca and there is a feeling among many folk in Egypt that the wreck should be left alone.
Many captains are reluctant to go near the site, whether out of respect, superstition or both. I have heard all sorts of stories about weird incidents and was a little apprehensive about making the dive, but was glad I did.
The wreck is very impressive. It is totally intact but resting on its starboard side. It lies in 20-30m of water and, when the sun is out, there can be no doubt that its crows nests make a tremendous silhouette photograph.
The twin propellers are also photogenic and can be seen quite clearly separated by the massive rudder.
The main cabin area has been sealed, and entering the wreck is of course forbidden. The Salem Expresss lifeboats can be found sitting on the bottom, still attached to the ship, an eerie reminder of just how quickly it sank.
The wreck is slowly becoming colonised, with hard corals growing in many shallower sections of the hull and soft corals in darker, deeper places, such as below the funnel and on the starboard propeller. In time it will become a classic Red Sea wreck, but for the moment it is still uncomfortably fresh in peoples memories.
Doughnuts and ergs
Back to the wildlife, and Safagas inner reefs offer not only novice outings but some stunning dives. One of my favourites, Tobia Arbaa, was featured in Mark Websters Ergs Over Easy in Diver last November. Seven fantastic coral ergs make up this site, with each tower only 15-20m from the next and two connected to one another.
My favourites were numbers one and two Ð those most crowded with soft corals, sea fans and shoaling anthias. I sat for ages here watching groups of lionfish and colourful coral groupers stalking hundreds of shoaling sweepers, which moved back and forth in one big silvery ball. I also spotted the most enormous grouper inside the second tower, half hidden by a mass of silvery bodies and soft corals.
The variety of different dive sites and habitats at Safaga was refreshing; each location had something fresh to offer. At Ras Abu Soma, just to the north of Tobia Arbaa where the bay of Safaga really begins, a steep drop-off slowly peters out to a lovely sloping terrace of spectacular table corals. Gamul Kebir, a doughnut-shaped reef with ergs at both the south and north ends, harbours a shoal of resident barracuda.
Gamul Soraya, one of the closest sites to the dive centre, offered life in profusion on an excellent dive. To the south of the main reef, a colony of garden eels disappeared like rows of dominoes as we approached. The reef is fairly small and has four tiny ergs, one with a hole right through it, in the east side of which a sea fan grows. The fish life here was amazing. Sweetlips, lionfish, butterflyfish, bannerfish and snapper all cruised around the ergs, hoping to catch the resident silversides and sweepers off guard.
This was one of the best inner reef sites, but even those which didnt appear very interesting could reveal something unusual. On my last afternoon, Tony took me to a gorgonian fan at Tobia Kebir and pointed out a fish so well hidden against the background that it took me ages to work out what he was showing me. It was the first time I had seen a frogfish in the Red Sea, and it was a fitting way to end a great week of diving.
The sites around Safaga are of a much higher standard than those at Hurghada and, despite the sheer numbers of divers arriving there, the reefs are holding up reasonably well.
German divers seem to be better than most at taking care of the coral. The dive guides I saw appeared to be controlling their groups well and, although there are increasing pressures on the reef, it isnt all doom and gloom. Even the crown of thorn starfish numbers are said to be under control at Safaga, with dive masters regularly organising special collection and disposal days,
I would consider returning, if only to see some of the sites I never made it to. Perhaps, when I do return, Ill no longer be the only Brit in town!
GETTING THERE: Fly to Hurghada. Safaga is a 40-minute drive from the airport. .
DIVING: Ducks Dive is located at the Holiday Inn (www red-sea.com/ducks). It has a house reef near the pier, complete with seahorses. The centre is run almost in an American style, with a donkey to carry divers gear to and from the boats. Nine dive boats leave the pier promptly at 8.30 each morning, each taking some 18 divers for two dives and returning at 4.30pm, in time for anyone who wants to swap boats for the night dive. Decide where you want to go by signing on the appropriate boat sheet at the dive centre office. Gavin Anderson particularly enjoyed the Sea Man, which he says served excellent food and had a fun-loving skipper!.
There is a large choice of places to stay, from the busy Holiday Inn and Menaville, to the Shams Hotel, Robinson Club or the exclusive Sheraton resort, situated at Ras Abu Soma. Gavin stayed at the new Amari hotel, which had a rooftop swimming pool and bar and proved clean and comfortable. It is just two minutes from Ducks Dive, the largest dive centre, which offers pick-ups and drop-offs..
COSTS: A weeks holiday, with flights, transfers and half-board accommodation, starts from£359. A five-day dive pack costs around£110..
FURTHER INFORMATION: Gavin Anderson travelled with Scubaway - call 01273 746261 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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