The Sharm Challenge
Sharm El Sheikh is an obligatory stop-off for UK divers in search of warm water and coral reefs, but you’ve got to put in the effort to make the most of it. As an experiment, we set Geordie Torr a list of intriguing tasks designed to get the best out of this classic scuba destination. Can he accomplish them all?
I can’t see the bottom. I can’t see the reef. I can’t see any fish. In fact, pretty much all I can see are my companions, slowly drifting through the blue, periodically releasing bursts of bubbles. Oh, and I’m cold.
Suffice to say, this isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I signed up for my first-ever dive trip to the Red Sea. But while this dive at Manta Point hasn’t offered much more than a lone barracuda and a couple of giant trevally, it has allowed me to complete another challenge. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Sharm virgin
Keen to get a fresh take on familiar territory, DIVE’s editor, Simon Rogerson, wanted a look at Sharm through the eyes of a first-time visitor: me. He had raised an eyebrow when he discovered that I had dived in Australia, Fiji and Mozambique, but never in the Red Sea. Just before I left, he thrust a piece of paper in my hand. For reasons known only to himself (I blame it on over-consumption of Top Gear), he had decided to set me a series of challenges, from spotting critters to exploring wrecks.
I thought I would hit the ‘easiest’ first, so as I descended onto the reef at Ras Katy, my eyes were peeled for a nudibranch. In no time at all I was cursing Simon – so intent was I on finding a nudi that I was paying scant attention to my surroundings. But as I began to tire of my mollusc hunt, I finally started to take in the undersea scenery, registering the characteristic sprays of bright orange anthias that were so familiar from the Red Sea photos I had seen in DIVE. And so much more: triggerfish, butterflyfish, angelfish; a cornucopia of colourful piscine delights.
But I kept returning my attention to the reef itself, and despite coming across an array of invertebrates, from clams with fluorescent mantles to delicate featherworms, no nudibranchs were forthcoming. So, one dive one down and no challenges completed.
Now, Simon, knowing me to be a trustworthy type, was willing to work on an honour system, but he still wanted someone along to record my adventures for the magazine. So my hosts, Emperor Divers, buddied me with Dan Zanoni, who teaches the centre’s photography course. This introduced me to a new challenge that wasn’t on Simon’s list: diving with a photographer. And so, on dive after dive, I was to find myself hovering around, waiting while Dan snapped away at some colourful invertebrate or other.
This did have an upside. Like many underwater photographers, Dan has a thing for nudibranchs, and on our second dive – a drift dive from Fiddle Garden to Middle Garden – he pointed out three pyjama nudibranchs (Chromodoris quadricolor – finding out the scientific name was part of the challenge) on a piece of fire sponge.
Making friends with a Napoleon wrasse was another of my challenges, and during this dive we saw several small ones. Simon had specified the need for size, so I was a bit disappointed, but then, towards the end of the dive, I looked up and saw an impressive adult. Unfortunately, it proved a tad standoffish, apparently immune to my plentiful charms, but like an annoying hanger-on, I kept shadowing it and Dan duly captured the required image of me with my new ‘friend’. That’s two tasks down.
South to Ras
The following day, we headed for Ras Mohammed, where I was tasked with tackling ‘three sites in one dive’: Anemone Garden to Shark Reef to Yolanda Reef. Slipping under the water, it was immediately obvious how Anemone Garden got its name – the site hosts the most impressive collection of anemones I’ve ever seen, each one hosting its own posse of clownfish, shimmying away among the swaying fronds.
But I didn’t have time to stop and admire them – with air at a premium, we had to quickly leave the reef and swim into the blue and across to Shark Reef. Luckily, there was virtually no current and I was able to relax and drink in the magical constellation of fusiliers that surrounded us.
We swam past the undulating vertical walls of Shark Reef, admiring the soft coral and gorgonian fans, and eventually reached Yolanda Reef, named after the wreck that once sat atop it. The ship itself has long since slid into the depths, but its scattered cargo – sinks, bathtubs and toilets – still remain on the reef.
Back on board the boat, we headed back to Sharm, stopping along the way to dive Manta Point, which is where we came in. This was a site that ‘has never been publicised in a book or magazine’, thus qualifying me for another challenge fulfilled. Back in May last year, 95 per cent of dives on the site turned up at least one manta ray; at one point, a whale shark was spotted there. But you already know what I saw…
On day three, we dived the island of Tiran: first on Gordon Reef, where we spotted a large resident grouper hanging out under two moored boats, but nothing challenge-wise; then on Jackson Reef, where my target was the famed red anemone. Located at a depth of 28m, this unusual cnidarian is definitely worth tracking down: it isn’t merely ‘red’, but a spectacular, brilliant scarlet.
Towards the end of the dive, I also claimed the first of the three ‘camouflaged benthic fish’ I needed to tick off another task: a crocodilefish sitting on some sand under a slight overhang.
Into the Dunraven
The next day, we returned to Yolanda Reef, where I compromised my dignity on one of the aforementioned toilets, having first checked that there weren’t any resident morays – a bite on the posterior would have been a dignity compromise too far.
The second dive of the day also had a challenge attached to it. We were set to dive the wreck of the Dunraven, where I was to ‘swim through the entire length of an upside-down shipwreck’. Sadly, this was a challenge I was set to fail, as the ship’s bow has collapsed and is no longer safe to enter.
Dan and I were the first in the water. As we swam down, we had the wreck to ourselves – apart from six Napoleon wrasse. This was my first-ever wreck dive, and I savoured the sensation of descending onto the imposing hulk.
We stopped for some photos with the propeller, and then swam down and into the gloom of the stern. But the moment was rather spoiled as we came upon a group of five other divers inside, who had committed the cardinal sin of swimming the ‘wrong’ way through the wreck. The dive ended with the completion of part two of the ‘camouflaged benthic’ challenge, as Dan pointed out two stonefish sitting patiently in coral heads, their algal coatings swaying in the current.
Day five, my last, was the big one: the Thistlegorm. This armed freighter, sunk during the Second World War, is the most dived wreck in the world – Dan described a day a few summers ago when his was one of 29 boats at the wreck. But we were incredibly lucky: there were only three other boats moored there when we arrived.
As a regular commuter, I spend a lot of time on the train, so Simon thought it would be amusing to send me off in search of an underwater locomotive: one of two that the ship was carrying and which were blown off by the blast that sank the ship. That challenge out of the way, Dan took me on a tour of the ship’s exterior. Swimming over the deck, I completed the final part of the ‘camouflaged benthic’ challenge as I spotted a scorpionfish, conveniently exposed.
On our second dive, we penetrated the wreck. We were even luckier this time – none of the other boats had divers in the water, so Dan and I pretty much had the Thistlegorm to ourselves.
Passing the white soft coral that guards the entrance, we made our way inside. As my eyes adjusted to the eerie blue light seeping in through the portholes, I saw massed ranks of red squirrelfish, their big eyes regarding us impassively, and shimmering clouds of hatchetfish, all reflected in the undulating mirror on the ceiling. Making our way from room to room, we passed rows of motorbikes sitting on the backs of Bedford trucks, their windscreens still intact. At one point, I did a double take when I saw a crusty old bottle hanging upside down from the ceiling.
North to Nuweiba
Finally, it was off into the desert to get some photos of the Sinai scenery. In order to get out there, I needed a ride, and I was in luck: Larry Brown of Emperor Divers was driving across to the company’s outpost at the Hilton resort at Nuweiba and offered to take me along. This would give me a chance not only to get the required photos, but to fit in a crafty dive as well.
The site at Nuweiba is about as sedate as it gets – an easy walk in off the beach, a short swim over a large seagrass bed, and you’re on the little patch of house reef. But, somewhat perversely, it proved to be one of my most enjoyable dives of the trip.
The site is particularly popular with photographers, and it isn’t hard to see why. The relatively limited extent of the reef encourages you to stop and really look at it. I saw all manner of interesting invertebrates, including an absolutely minute octopus in a coral head, and an incredible 52 lionfish – yes, I counted them. Truth is, I could have completed most of the sea-life-related challenges right there.
The dive can be done as a day trip from Sharm – allowing you to take in the scenery on the drive there and back, dive the reef twice, and hang out at the resort for a few hours soaking up the surface time before you head back. As is so often the case, an unlikely setting provided me with an unforgettable diving experience.
We tailored our set of challenges to Geordie, but the general principle holds. If you want to get the best value from Sharm or any destination, it can’t hurt to make a list of the things you’d like to see – within reason – and run them by your host centre. Considering we sent Geordie in February, when pelagic fish activity is relatively subdued, he did pretty well to pass all but one of the challenges, and we think they gave him a good overview of the Sharm scene.
Need to know
Geordie Torr travelled as a guest of Scuba Travel, stayed at the Bay View Hotel, Sharm El Sheikh and dived with Emperor Divers/Oxygene. Packages are priced £595 throughout the peak season of June and July (when pelagic sightings are more frequent) and include flights from London Gatwick, seven nights’ bed-and-breakfast accommodation and five days’ boat diving. For details, contact Scuba Travel on 0800 072 8221 or go to www.scuba.co.uk
Geordie’s Sharm Challenge
1. Find a steam locomotive - underwater
2. Find one of the rare red anemones
3. Find a crocodilefish, a scorpionfish and a stonefish
4. Make friends with a Napoleon wrasse
5. Swim through a cave at Jackfish Alley
7. Take a photograph of a shipwreck out of water
8. Log a nudibranch sighting
9. Explore the Sinai desert
10. Cover Anemone City, Shark Reef and Yolanda Reef on a single dive
11. Swim through the length of an upside-down shipwreck
12. Sample the fine wines of Egypt
13. Log some pelagic fish (barely)
14. Are there still secrets in Sharm? Visit a new dive site