I CONFESS. I USED TO BE A RED SEA BORE. I am guilty of having told people that the Red Sea is not as good as it was, especially after they have just surfaced all excited after what they considered to be a great dive. A selective memory is a wonderful thing. I remember the good old days!
So what was it really like My friend Harveys dad, Alex Flinder, was a true Red Sea pioneer and wrote a book about his experiences. Inspired by that, my first trip there, one January in the early 80s, found me travelling with Tony Daniels, an unknown actor who had just appeared unseen in the first Star Wars movie as the gold robot C3PO.
Our expectations were coloured by the sales pitch from the travel agent. He had said we would fly from Luton to Eilat, cross the border into Egypt and get onto a liveaboard. It would be like a little ocean liner, a little bit of Britain. It would all be easy.
Reality was a little different. We flew to Ovda, a military airfield in the middle of Israels Negev desert, and took a two-hour bus ride to the border with Egypt, which took around another two hours to cross. The contrast between the first and third worlds was becoming apparent. After another four hours of bumping through the Sinai in an ancient Bedouin taxi, the exterior view black as pitch, we spent the night in some wooden huts, with no facilities other than lots of sand, on an otherwise empty, windswept beach.
We enjoyed the most vibrant display of the Milky Way against a perfect night sky, though it was rather lonely.
Next morning we strolled, unwashed, along the desolate shoreline of this godforsaken place called Naama Bay. The bitter wind drew patches of dust up into mini-twisters. We worried about where the boat was, and what had happened to the man who had taken our passports before disappearing the previous night. He had left us with the comforting words: Dont worry, I am your friend.
Later that day, our friend returned. We passed into the military port at Sharm el Sheikh and, after endless formalities with heavily armed soldiers, boarded our vessel, the then doyen of Red Sea liveaboards, the mv Lady Jenny V. Built in 1936, she looked a lot more rusty in life than she had in the brochure, and leaned over at a quirky angle. It was two whole days since we had departed. This is not the middle of nowhere, said British captain Adrian ONeal, in his briefing, while the boat was anchored (with yards of heavy, destructive chain out) at a site called the Temple. This is the end of nowhere! The nearest emergency medical facilities were far away in Israel.
We set off to dive around Ras Mohammed and the Straits of Tiran, also visiting the desolate shoreline of the Sinai to dive such sites as the Tower, Ras Umm Sid and the shallow wreck of the Jolande at Ras Mohammed. Yes, it really was shallow before it fell off the reef in a storm the following winter!
I had brought a light tropical wetsuit, but the water was cold both in the sea and in the showers. Not that we took many showers. There were only three between the 18 guests, and limited supplies of fresh water.
The heads were frequently out of action. I spent a lot of time in my bunk, trying to get warm.
The boat had twin cabins so small that only one person could stand up at one time. When the noisy generator was rested, we used candles for light. Food was basic, because supplies were hard to get in the Sinai.
All passengers had brought in their luggage some essential spare part for the boat, sometimes instead of an important item of personal equipment, such were the stringently enforced weight restrictions on the plane out. The clever ones brought chocolate for the crew, too!
The crew were drawn mainly from former backpackers who had made it down the coast from Israel and learned a bit about diving on the way.
They were not paid much but most were there for the free diving, and certainly not to run around after the passengers. The limited skills demonstrated in the galley were particularly revealing of this fact. The dive-guide was a young chap called Bob Johnson. Ras Bob is named after him.
I thought the diving was the best I had done, though I hadnt done much at that time. I remember the coral as immaculate, though there were signs of stress at the point where most visiting divers made their shore-entries. I never saw a shark, but I saw my first Napoleon wrasse. It was persistent in seeking attention. We fed it with eggs, raw potato and even our gloves!
There were two recently wrecked ships high and dry on the reefs of Tiran. I recall an agonising climb up a rope ladder on the side of one, the Lara, to be met by a wild-eyed and extremely hirsute Turkish sailor, armed with an old rifle and charged with guarding it. An enterprising passenger later sold a picture-story to the Daily Mail in which the heavily bearded man became a Bader-Meinhoff terrorist in hiding!
The remains of that wreck are well salvaged now and barely visible. The other has since been subject to a collision with another ship and broken up.
After a week aboard, we were exhausted, but our boat trip was considered luxurious. Other divers on the plane back had spent their nights on the rock-strewn beaches in makeshift encampments and desperately needed both a wash and a sleep.
I still needed a couple of days in bed back home to recover from my diving holiday. Despite this, I returned year in, year out, and in 1992 even took on the job of dive-guide on the same vessel as it journeyed south to Sudan, Eritrea and the Yemen.
That was a great experience but I was burnt out in five months. The following November I was back in Sharm. Simshon, an Israeli skipper who worked the area, had told me of a fabulous wreck located somewhere in Shaab Ali that no-one was diving. Instead of taking up his offer to visit it with him, I flooded my new Nikonos RS and returned home disenchanted with the whole business.
Shortly afterwards, browsing through Jacques Cousteaus book The Living Sea, I came across the chapter devoted to the ss Thistlegorm. Back in the Sinai, I took a trip on my Poolster, operated by another Israeli, Ronnan, who said he knew where the wreck was.
He didnt, and Israeli skippers were not inclined to help each other. In fact I was given the position covertly by my old skipper, Mike Archer, who had done one dive there and spent it watching the Lady Jennys engineer hammering the end off a steel box. To his evident surprise, it had contained four five-and- a-half inch shells!
That box with the brass shell-ends exposed lay for years atop the pile of other boxes, where he had hurriedly abandoned it.
Imagine the thrill of encountering that ship for the first time, and after having dived the area so extensively without knowing it was there.
We sat over the wreck, the only dive-boat present. The Poolster had 10 passengers, a crew of three, and only one head. Even less luxurious than the Lady Jenny V, the absence of a freshwater shower did not dilute my enthusiasm for diving this perfect WW2 time-capsule.
Everything in the Thistlegorms holds was very fragile but more or less intact. Only Cousteaus men had disturbed any of the cargo around 40 years earlier. After three days, to my eternal disappointment, the other passengers got bored and we moved on to dive elsewhere.
Times change. Things evolve. Eleven years later, I took a flight in a wide-bodied jet direct to Sharm el Sheikh, where I boarded an air-conditioned bus which took us to the modern, bustling resort of Naama Bay, where those wooden huts had originally stood.
Naama Bay now is stuffed with modern hotels and there is hectic holiday nightlife. What had been the end of nowhere is now blasted out by the sounds of Italian and Russian sun-worshippers enjoying animation. During daylight hours, not an inch of cliff or beach or reef-top is unoccupied.
At the new marina in Sharm el Sheikh we boarded a very modern vessel, the mv Excel. There were no delays, no formalities, and no baggage searches by gun-toting soldiers. The sky was so bright with electric light reflected from the burgeoning resort that it was hard to see the stars.
The mv Excel is a third-generation Egyptian liveaboard, a large vessel at 115ft long, steel-built and with spacious air-conditioned twin-cabins. There are modern en-suite facilities and endless supplies of hot and cold fresh water.
Meals are varied and there is always plenty. Nothing seems too much trouble for the numerous and helpful Egyptian crew. It is as much a hotel as a dive-boat. Besides two comfortable saloons, Excel has a spacious diving deck and two pick-up boats.
Membrane-supplied nitrox is available for those who want it. There is very little rock n roll and no sign of any list in the wind. She doesnt bob in the water like a locally built wooden vessel, either.
The generators are relatively quiet, with little vibration, nor is there any strong vibration from the main engines. She was originally built as part of the high-standard international Aggressor fleet but, after 9/11, Americans were disinclined to visit the Middle East.
Standards of comfort on board are what Americans have come to expect and up to 22 passengers, mainly British, now get to take advantage of this instead.
So what else has changed Was the diving really better in the old days I used to think it was. I used to be a Red Sea diving bore. Now Im not so sure.
All those years ago, the passengers were nearly all expert divers. They had to be. We dived in buddy pairs but were otherwise left to our own devices.
Today the passenger list is far more varied. Standards of safety rely less on the client divers abilities than they did, and two experienced dive-guides are always there to offer help to those who need it.
The coral has taken a beating, but not just from careless divers. That damage has almost become irrelevant after the havoc wrought by thoughtless anchoring and recent global warming. With every available beach now occupied by a hotel complex, the shore dives are all now closed to casual divers.
You need to dive from a boat to access the reefs, whether by daily trip or liveaboard. However, holidaymakers seemed free to swim out to our vessel from the shore, something that would have drawn gunfire from patrolling soldiers in past times. There are many permanent mooring-points near the reefs.
The wrecks are all still there and still dived, save for the Jolande, with the more recently discovered Rosalie Möller added to the list. The plundering of the cargo of the Thistlegorm, only dived by that select few in the old days, is almost as famous as her original sinking.
The fuel tanks of the bikes and the windows of the trucks are smashed. Handlebars and steering-wheels are missing. The valve-radios are long gone. Rubber boots lie scattered.
Some blame my article in Diver in 1993 for revealing her whereabouts, but it was only a matter of time. The munitions and other big stuff remains and marine life still finds the wreck a haven. Schools of barjacks still hover in the blue. Big trevallies still chase smaller prey down into the safety of the holds.
Bannerfish still cruise abundantly round the bomb-blasted parts of the wreck. Scorpionfish still lie in ambush. Upright and on an even keel, Thistlegorm is still one of the most exciting dives, and is probably the most visited dive site in the world.
What of the wrecks at the great circular reef of Shaab Abu Nuhas I remember watching divers pulling all the brass portholes off the Bottles Wreck and digging in the rubble for angel-lamps and other brass fittings - all mainly gone to garden sheds and mantelpieces in Britain now. Most of the precious mahogany that was cargo from the Giannis D, sunk in the mid 80s, is now liberated too. The Cresoula K has slipped back off the top of the reef. Despite all that, these wrecks still make great dives.
We now know more about the wrecks. The Bottles Wreck is actually the ss Carnatic. The Doubles Wreck on Shag Rock later became identified as the ss Kingston and then the Sarah H, only to be correctly re-identified as the ss Kingston again. The Bluff Point Wreck is now identified as the ss Ulysses.
The barge at Bluff Point, an old river lighter, used to make a spectacular night dive, covered in colourful soft corals as it was. It has been reduced to a few rusting steel plates but people still enjoy diving around it.
The upturned hull of the ss Dunraven at Beacon Rock still makes a good dive, but is fast being absorbed into the reef in the spectacular fashion only nature can achieve.
Diving with 22 or more other divers close by cannot be conducive to good encounters with the bigger, more skittish animals, but we still had a close encounter with a friendly pod of common dolphin at Bluff Point. The mixed school of barracuda are still hanging around at Ras Mohammed and the currents there are just as strong and unpredictable, too. Anemone City is the same as ever and probably even more densely populated with clownfish than it was.
We dont feed the fish any more, so Napoleon wrasse tend to keep their distance instead of being in your face. Turtles, green and hawksbill, still browse among the sponges and coral of the reefs. Moray eels seem bigger and more common than ever. Ubiquitous orange anthias still flutter in the currents.
We saw no sharks this time, but there werent that many sharks around in the good old days either.
Non-diving tourists, driven down from Israel, used to look out from the Shark Observatory at Ras Mohammed in the old days and marvel as masses of dorsal fins broke the surface.
Only divers knew that these were actually big shoals of milkfish that cruised off-shore. That said, last summer, tiger sharks were spotted in the channels between the reefs at Tiran.
In the old days, if we saw another diver in the water, it was usually someone we knew. Now an armada of boats disgorge countless bubblers into the sea and youre quite likely to join the wrong group under water. But, remarkably, the diving seems to be almost as good as it was. Its a lot more comfortable and appeals to a lot more people. And why not
Ive stopped saying it was better in the old days. A liveaboard trip there is still a great holiday. It can even be relaxing. Its no longer a hardship posting!