SO WE’RE GOING TO DIVE a wreck, its quite shallow,” says the guide in response to a question. “Penetration, er, no,” he says to another.
“What’s the boat’s history” somebody asks.
“Well, not sure really…” says the guide, looking a bit dejected by this point, despite the amber glow of the setting sun. The guests enjoyed the Thistlegorm the day before, and if there isn’t a hold to explore, mutiny might be on the cards.
He looks a little flustered: “There’s loads of fish,” he says. This boatful of eager divers is wondering what on Earth they’re getting for their £1000 trip.
Then a quiet voice at the back pipes up: “This is the best night dive in the Red Sea, you’re going to love it”, and the guide looks very relieved. The intervention seems to do the trick.
I’m talking about the Barge Wreck. If you’ve ever been on a northern Red Sea safari, the chances are that you will have dived this unprepossessing and, in the daytime at least, very boring-looking collection of steel plates, spars and rivets.
If you have a trip booked and are heading out this year, and you see the Barge on the itinerary and wonder what’s in store, read on. This is one truly remarkable dive.
I first dived the Barge around 10 years ago, back when neoprene seemed to stretch a little more and lead had more weight to it – I certainly needed a lot less of it.
The weather was typical for the Red Sea in winter and our captain had chosen a route slightly different from the standard safari-boat circuit.
We’d had a fairly choppy crossing from the reefs and wrecks of the Sha’ab Ali area. We had been sailing into a fairly strong wind from the south, and by the time we passed Shadwan Island to port, there were a number of green faces among my shipmates.
Hefty waves kept us rolling and pitching. The deck was wet with spray, and the loud cries in Arabic from the galley could have been curses.
And then, within minutes, the sea calmed and we were moving into the lee of a small island. As the crew busied themselves with mooring up, we marvelled at the clear shallow waters, feeling smug that our boat was larger than the other one moored into what was left of the wind to our port side.
As the engines were shut off, some of the less-fortunate guests emerged, looking pale and crumpled, to see what was occurring. Then the bell sounded, and it was time for the briefing.
On the north-eastern tip of little Gubal Island, a sharp promontory of rock juts out into the deeper water of the western edge of the Gulf of Suez. This is Bluff Point. A five-minute inflatable ride will take you from the mooring and, if the currents are right, you’ll be able to drift gently back towards your boat.
Bluff Point is a great reef, ideal for spotting Napoleon wrasse and the odd pelagic such as larger jack and trevallies.
My buddy and I decided we’d take the challenge of returning to the liveaboard after being dropped on the point.
When Alan had first seen my camera he had been a little concerned that he’d be drifting along while I paid him no attention, but when I had spotted a hammerhead at Tiran but had to show him what all the fuss was about on my camera’s screen, I could hear him swear through his reg. We have dived together many times since.
WE KEPT TO A SHALLOW PROFILE of around 10-15m to enjoy the rich growths of purple and orange soft corals thriving in the nutrient-rich current and to help with the next day’s diving, when we would be at 40m for the Rosalie Moller wreck.
As we clocked the mooring lines for our boat, we realised that we were doing well. At that moment we became aware of dolphins, and within seconds we were surrounded by the island’s resident pod, which checked us out, declared us far too boring and sped off.
I’ve met members of that pod several times since, and seen them behaving in some rather risqué ways.
Thrilled by this experience, we carried on finning under the looming shadow of our boat, which had collected small shoals of fusiliers and cornetfish under the props. We were keen to find this wreck we’d heard about, but when we did we were a little disappointed.
The 30m-or-so long, 6m-wide barge, which sits at around 14m with its bow pointing east, is not an exciting-looking dive-site. It always reminds me of a huge shoebox, plonked on a pretty dull-looking reef – plenty of rocks and small bommies but no lush coral growth.
The wreck consists of the remains of a hull in the process of slow collapse, its plates and spars lying on the seabed. This is a very open structure – you don’t so much penetrate as float into it.
If the Barge ever had a name, it is lost to history. One suggestion is that it was sunk in 1973 during the Arab-Israeli War, and lost when under tow.
I remember thinking as my buddy and I completed our safety-stop that I wouldn’t bother about the night dive here, despite the encouragement from some. I’d have a beer and brag about dolphins instead.
As the sun went down and the dolphins returned to pootle about the boat, I changed my mind. As my fellow-divers took to the water there was an amazing play of light from various torches flicking around just under the boat, different colours indicating different bulb types.
I slipped below the surface and finned towards the light show. I had fitted a macro lens and made sure I had two torches with me.
We all need redundancy, but if you find yourself on a similar dive-site, do as I do and use your powerful main torch to show you where you’re going and to explore the structure, and then use a smaller, less powerful light to observe marine life.
Animals such as featherstars, brittlestars, slipper lobsters and hermit crabs will scuttle away or in the case of the stars will furl up to avoid your unwanted attention. If you are going to take photos, make sure to use your focus light as little as possible.
That first night-dive on the barge was quite something. I couldn’t believe the thousands of snapper, in shoals that would break apart when we turned our torches onto them.
Under and among the deck-plates were countless critters, from large hermit crabs carrying several anemones, boxer shrimps, nudibranchs and the first Spanish dancer I’d ever seen.
It was the greatest concentration of life I’d ever seen on a dive. Even the reef came alive, with hunting lionfish, octopuses, reef squid and fusilier shoals resting amid the rubble.
SINCE THEN THE BARGE HAS BECOME my favourite night-dive. My camera
has been upgraded and I think of the Barge as my favourite site for macro photography. Every time I dive there my buddy and I will either try to be the first on the site or enter last to ensure that we get it to ourselves as best we can.
The truth is that this relatively small wreck takes a pounding every time a boatload of divers gleefully descends upon it. I’ve seen the fins of careless divers dislodge crocodilefish, knock lionfish out of the way and scrape against the hull, dislodging what life manages to colonise it.
A friend likened the site to a game of Hungry Hippos, where each player has a plastic hippo’s head that scoffs marbles until none are left.
Yet time after time I visit and find the life still there, hanging on and resistant to the attentions of us ungainly visitors. Some hull-plates have collapsed since my earliest visit, but the Barge is still a gem.
I now know what to expect, and where to look. One of the largest morays you are ever likely to see can be found under a jumble of deck-plates towards the bow. George is often joined by a smaller yet still humongous cousin.
Around the exterior of the hull you can find great macro subjects such as sea urchins, various wee polyps and encrusting corals and, if you’re lucky, a Spanish dancer or two.
My own favourite fish I always look out for here is the banded sole. This wonderful little fellow has, through the wonders of evolution, come to resemble a colourful yet toxic flatworm.
Often when I’m photographing them, as they move away with a sinuous worm-like movement, they look up with their big round eyes and I can almost believe they’re thinking: “I’m a worm, honest, yes I am, I taste nasty…”
Loads of snapper, goatfish and fusiliers shelter here for the night. Lionfish relish the disturbance divers make and all the smaller prey fish we disturb and force into the open.
Macro photographers should also look out for scorpionfish, because several rest on the remaining deck spars.
They are remarkably camouflaged and, seemingly convinced that they are invisible, allow divers to approach them for a photograph.
I HAVE DIVED THE BARGE about a dozen times, but you have to experience it for yourself. It is of course a novice’s ideal first night dive, easy to locate and navigate around and quite a hard place in which to get yourself into trouble.
Most guides will ask you to limit your dive to around 45 minutes but you can easily get an hour here if it doesn’t compromise the next day’s diving.
Just make sure you haven’t put your camera in its housing with the lens-cap on – Alan laughed his head off