Avoiding Sharks and Being Sold for Camels in Sharm el Sheikh

Let loose in Egypt…. Again.

Nothing quite beats the sensation of being able to breath underwater, of delving into a world so contrasting to what we are used to on land. Scuba diving offers the ultimate form of escapism and adventure; a chance to really connect with the ocean and explore the vastness of its depths. Out of the extensive selection of dive sites across the world, many divers are enticed by the Red Sea in Egypt, and many return year after year to the tourist hub of Sharm El Sheikh.

I first visited Egypt at 12 years old, and it was my first taste of Africa. Cairo was a little overwhelming, with strange old men offering my parents bubble pipes, and shopkeepers offering to buy my older sister in exchange for an impressive amount of camels (though this reached 200 at some point, we doubted that Jersey had enough room for so many of these large animals, so we had to politely decline). Drones of tourists flocked to the museums and sites to experience a slice of Ancient Egyptian culture and mysteries, though this was perhaps a little cheapened by the laser show projected onto the otherwise awe inspiring pyramids, or even worse, as I have recently been informed, a KFC near the noseless Sphinx.

A long coach journey (and two showings of Titanic) later to Sharm and the landscape is transformed. Again, tourism is apparent wherever you go,  but instead of mobbed dirty streets there are palm trees lining beach side walkways with an amalgamation of shisha bars, perfume shops and nightclubs, with a sprinkling of camels and tacky souvenirs, as well as many a drunk tourist in Naama bay. Hotels range from the swanky to cheap and cheerful resorts (our choice for the next two visits to Sharm involved the latter).    The Old town offers a slightly more genuine Egyptian experience with many more locals choosing to socialise here, and though shopkeeps will often try and sell you the odd Tutankhamen t shirt at  ‘Asda price’, hassle is much less apparent than Naama bay. Hassle is detectable particularly for women, whether bikini clad or moderately dressed to Western standards. Getting several marriage proposals as you walk down the street might at first seem flattering, but it does get agitating, and is something me and my sister (as blonde, Caucasian young women) have learnt to ignore and take in our stride. It would almost be easy to forget this is a Muslim country were it not for the distinct lack of local women, particularly around resorts, as they have very few privileges – working being one of them. Not so tempted to be married off now for camels…

But enough about the cultural side of things, it’s the immaculate diving adventures that have brought so many divers to this underwater paradise! The following visits to Egypt we chose to stick to the Sharm El Sheikh area for this very reason. Having already completed my open water diver qualification elsewhere, I decided it was time for a new diving challenge – Advanced Open Water. This qualifies divers to go down to depths of 30 metres (a hundred feet) and take  part in a variety of diving options. Though my sister had already qualified as an Advanced diver, she came on all but one of the dives with me, and luckily a lovely British father and son duo were taking the course as well, making the learning and skills portion a lot less daunting then going solo.

In the underwater naturalist portion of the course you learn how to identify all sorts of critters and suchlike under the water using hand signals. Unfortunately we didn’t get to meet a shark, but this little guy (above, a blue spotted ray) was my question and thanks to him (or her) I passed! Cheers, Ray! The spectacular coloration on creatures such as this can be seen even without using a horrendously expensive camera, however many colours are absorbed by depth. Here’s a chart:

Visible light penetration in clear water (taken from The physics of diving guide http://www.idc-guide.com/physics.html

Starts to go at Gone by
RED 1m 5m
ORANGE 5m 16m
YELLOW 22m 30m
GREEN 50m 76m
VIOLET 4.5m 30m

Interestingly at certain depths your mind may also play tricks on you. Taking part in the Deep dive (30 metres), instructors write on a slate a few seemingly simple questions; however, remembering your own name and adding 2 and 3 together turns out to take a little longer then you’d think! Checking others for nitrogen narcosis, where breathing gas under certain pressure can potentially cause you to act as if they you on some sort of wacky narcotic, is important due to the risky nature of diving and the need to be completely in control of what you are doing. Following these tests, we went on to swim past a beautiful selection of toilets squatting on the sea bed, a result of a boat carrying cargo which sank a few years earlier. You wouldn’t want to use one though, lest your bottom be potentially bitten by an irate eel.

I’m just going to make a quick note here about sharks, one of the world’s most controversial creatures. Prices around Sharm at the time had been drastically cut in an attempt to attract more tourists to the beaches, tourists who may have been deterred by the recent fatal shark attack. An experience like that must have been absolutely horrific for anyone involved. Yet a passing ship had apparently been ridding of animal carcasses overboard, thus attracting the predatory fish closer inland. It was all in all a terrible tragedy, one that cannot be blamed on the shark or unfortunate victim, but out of incompetence. Personally, I would have loved to have the opportunity to dive with a shark, they are majestic and fascinating, and you are far more likely to be killed by almost anything else. Sharks don’t actively seek out people, attacks occur out of confusion.

Despite the lack of diving with large apex predators, even just snorkelling in the Red sea is amazing. The above Masked Butterfly fish, along with countless other beauties, are found right next to the resorts shore where the coral drops and a seemingly endless supply of inquisitive fish pass by. Unfortunately mass tourism does seem to have had it’s negative impact on the surrounding environment: taking a shore dive from one of the crowd-filled beaches, one can clearly see an abrupt difference in the health of the corals. Nearest to the shoreline, though there are copious amounts of fish (probably waiting for their next free meal of buffet-borrowed bread), the delicate coral is bleached and worn as it is continuously being stood on and brushed by fins. As one gets further away from the shallow water though, the ocean comes to life. Coral is bright and lively, clown fish wriggle up to their bright orange anemones and the sun from the surface reflects a beautiful spectrum of colour.  Let’s just hope we can keep these treasures of the ocean intact.

Venturing just outside the main resort, the snorkelling was fantastic, with uncrowded expanses on sea to explore. The above beagle came to say below as I bobbed above the surface by a pontoon. Often we would retire after a hard day of sun and sea to sit and have a shisha pipe, and though I’m not a smoker and do not condone smoking, this is a big part of Egyptian culture and there are so many shisha bars to choose from in Naama bay even if it is just to sit, have a drink and do a bit of people watching. Just outside one of our resorts, with snorkels next to us and a shisha pipe in hand, we looked out over the calm sea just thinking ‘this is the life…’

It’s easy to see how Sharm isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, turning into somewhat of a Magaluf of Africa. However, venture away from the English tourist playground, talk to locals, stay safe and explore, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

Just watch out for those Egyptian driving skills.


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