|Rocky Island is nothing more than a triangle of rock with a small beach at one corner. It marks the border between Egypt and Sudan. It is close to the larger island of Zabargad, around 25 miles from Ras Banas on the Egyptian coast, and its northern shore is scored by turbulent surf.
Its a difficult place from which to get in the water from a RIB, and you certainly wouldnt want to try to get back out. This is where the current strikes and squeezes round Rocky Islands steep undersea walls. Its here that big pelagics like to bask, hovering in the current with cool, oxygenated water flowing over their gills. Its a place to see shoaling hammerheads and big silky sharks, but its not a place for new divers.
The current can be so strong at times that if you delay leaving the surface you could be swept off the point and around the eastern side before youve seen any of the action. We went in and down - fast, everyone for himself, all the rules of buddy diving broken.
At 36m I found myself alone, secreted against the jagged reef wall, watching a dozen hammerheads out in the blue. What curious freak of evolution dictated such a design of predator Their blunt heads turned to scan the reef, their muscular sides shimmering in all their bronze magnificence in the clear light.
Hanging on in the unrelenting flow, I had the choice of raising my camera for a shot and unwillingly departing in a hurry, or staying there bemused and pictureless.
The hammerheads looked at one moment cool and unperturbed and then they were gone. It was as if they had never been there. The enormous oceanic whitetip that had scattered them eyed me curiously.
It swam slowly back and forth, affirming its status as the big fish on this particular block. I noted its long aircraft-like pectoral fins and broad dorsal fin, daubed with white. A solitary pilotfish raced to keep station at its nose. I suddenly felt rather vulnerable, and decided to go. Instantly I was out in the current and Rocky Islands underwater scenery rolled effortlessly by.
I watched the big shark patrolling. He watched me, seeing me safely off his patch. I kept close to the wall. It was not the moment for the shot of a lifetime. The last shot of my lifetime!
Forty minutes later I was back in the boat, ecstatically boring those who had managed only the fast drift.
The wall at the southern tip of Rocky Island is the prettiest place, covered in all manner of corals. There is not much water movement here and it makes a good second dive, or so I thought until I saw the unmistakable shape of a thresher shark pass below me. Oh, for a closed-circuit rebreather and the time it would have given me to sit patiently waiting with my camera.
As more people want to dive in the Egyptian Red Sea, the development and infrastructure necessary to support a booming tourist industry creeps inexorably south.
The well-respected New Holland diving guide-book, published as recently as 1997, describes the area around El Quesir as Southern Egypt. The area around Marsa Alam, 100 miles further on, it calls the Deep South. Yet the developers have already started work on building Marsa Alams international airport.
South of that you will find Marsa Shagra, with its popular dive camp. Another 100 miles further south still, the headland of Ras Banas and the nearby Roman port of Berenice marks the point from which, 2000 years ago, Cleopatras daring seafarers set off to India in search of rare spices.
Its arid and fiercely hot. Its a cruel landscape with nothing but red rock, and little has changed here since WWII. There is a good road through the desert now, but you wouldnt be surprised to meet Sylvia Syms and John Mills driving the other way in a military ambulance, in search of that elusive ice-cold lager.
However, plots have already been marked out and the construction crews are beginning to move in. Some of the rooms in these yet-to-be-built hotels have already been reserved for this year.
As far south as you can get in Egypt, many of the locals believe that if you pass this point you will simply fall off the Earth!
Marsa Wadi Lahami is as undeveloped as it could be. Within 12 months a beautiful air-conditioned holiday resort will stand on what is nothing more than the point where a scorched and rocky wilderness meets the sea. There will even be a jetty. For now this area is as undeveloped as Sharm el Sheikh was 20 years ago. The live-aboard dive boat is an oasis of luxury in this otherwise uncomfortable world.
WARM, STILL WATERS
Between the Sudanese border and Berenice lies St Johns Reef. Here we find what will become the regular sites for five-day boat-diving packages from the new resorts. They will be the Giftun Islands or Straits of Tiran of the south.
It is a place where hard corals have flourished. With the destruction of hard corals throughout the world as a result of global warming, it is gladdening to see that down here most are still alive and seem to be surviving. This is especially so as we experienced shallow-water temperatures of 32C and saw many table corals bleached white.
There seem to be few strong currents, so colourful soft corals are rare, but if its easy diving you want amid a spectacular underwater landscape, this is the place. At one site, now christened St Johns Wood, the coral stands in a collection of mighty trunks, like a forest of massive ancient oaks.
There are many habilis to dive. Habili is Arabic for unborn, and these are thought to be recently formed reefs not yet in sight of the surface. Here the diver encounters shoals of juvenile fish.
But the ultimate prizes for divers are the offshore sites such as Daedalus Island and Rocky Island. These are now marine parks and permission is required, with departures only from Hurghada.
A little further north is Fury Shoal, with deepwater dive sites such as Shaab Mansour. This exciting diving is now within a seven-day trips range of dive-boats which embark their passengers as far south as Marsa Alam.
Shaab Mansour has a topography reminiscent of the Elphinstone further north. A long tongue of reef extends out into deep water at its northern end. Surrounded on both sides by deep water, this reef is subject to the strong currents generated by the ebb and flow of the tide. These benefit both the soft corals which bedeck the reef and the sharks which browse its margins.
The deep water is cruised by hammerheads. At 30m, my buddy and I routinely encountered both grey reef sharks and whitetip reef sharks, while the less-experienced divers in our group stayed shallower and thrilled at the experience of a close call with a manta ray instead. Buy now while stocks last!
GETTING THERE: Charter flights from London to Hurghada and transfer by boat or road..
DIVING DETALS: John Bantin travelled with Oonasdivers (01323 648 924) on board Guido Cherifs my Coral Queen. Egypt is the most popular diving destination with UK divers and is offered by many travel agents. Refer to the advertising pages for a suitable package..
ACCOMMODATION: Refer to travel agent..
LANGUAGE: English widely spoken..
MONEY: Egyptian pounds. US dollars are widely accepted..
FOR NON-DIVERS: Sun and watersports..
HAZARDS: Tropical sunshine and normal marine hazards. Strong currents at offshore island sites..
BEST TIME TO GO: Any time..
WATER TEMPERATURE: 22-28C.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: Everyone, depending on the dive-sites..
COST: An eight-day live-aboard trip, including return flight from Gatwick, transfer by air-conditioned bus from Hurghada, accommodation on Coral Queen and diving costs£940 through Oonasdivers..
PROS: Egypts coral reefs assume a greater importance as others of the world are destroyed by global warming. Inshore reefs have dramatic hard-coral formations and are relatively undived. Offshore islands offer some of the best diving in the world..
CONS: Much longer total journey time than for the northern Egyptian Red Sea. Inshore reefs tend not to have the dramatic drop-offs of the north. Offshore diving tends to be advanced due to strong currents. Live-aboards must depart from Hurghada, making them unsuitable for seven-day trips.
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