Dahab – Divers’ Mecca
The beginning of November 2004 was marked by cold gusts of wind, ushering in bleak winter days. Few remaining leaves, having finally whispered their sad good-bye, unhurriedly fell down from the trees. The winds would then carry them for miles, only to have them settle is come cranny, thus signaling the end of yet another season.
It was the wretched time after the end of summer, but before lovely, snow-white winter. Still, the first heralds of winter had already appeared, but only to threaten the road-menders, rather than signal the certain coming of the glorious and sparkling season with its frost-painted windows. It was the perfect moment to recapture the summer and work more on one's tan, getting some of the sorely missed sun. The grim and rainy days brought about a serious case of fall blues that can be cured by a trip to warmer climes. It was cold, grab November with temperatures around 7 centigrade and damp snow banks just waiting to thaw. Not to mention the fact that the night would fall before 5 p.m. and the box would bombard us with nose drop and flu medicine commercials, interrupted only for washing powder adverts. And I would rather forget about the unpleasant chilling wind.
At that point we came up with the idea and soon were presented with the chance to go diving in warm Egyptian waters. I mentally calculated the balance of advantages and disadvantages: in Poland it was cold, while in Egypt the warm weather still reigned; our skies were overcast, when theirs were full of sunshine; our perspective for staying included warm slippers, for going - deckchair and beer under the palms; pale faces or beautiful, fragrant tan; certain flu or colorful coral reef. The result was obviously in favor of going. Would you debate the issue? In short, that was the origin of our Egypt expedition in November 2004, when we set off for amazing adventure in the world-renowned divers' Mecca, i.e. Dahab. The town is one of the diving destinations, as important as California's Yosemite National Park with its El Captain mountain or Poland's Zerwa, a magnificent and terrifying Miêguszowiecka Ledge or Raptawice Crags are for alpinists.
Even with the experience of several diving expeditions to Egypt and of swimming in the Red Sea, one of the most beautiful water basins in the world , it was still difficult to decide on the best month for a trip to Egypt. And mind you, I'm talking here about an underwater adventure rather than taking in the sights of the Pyramids, Luxor or Cairo. December tends to be gusty, and the night falls fast, but it is still quite balmy, at least to European taste, even though the temperatures can drop drastically with weather change. Nights are cold and shorts are out of the question. In January, British Airways offers cheaper ticket fares, the prices are low and all the travel agencies try to seduce their clients with a perspective of a trip to exotic far-off lands. In Egypt it is rather warm with water temperature at 23 centigrade on average, but unpleasant winds ensure that the actual temperature does not exceed 12-16 centigrade during the day and only 6-10 at night. Putting on a damp wetsuit for a second dive of the day in such strong winds certainly isn't the most enjoyable activity. In February and March the sea blossoms. Still, the months are perfect for skying. April or May seem better for diving.
Pole, starved for the heat and the sun after a long winter, is longing for the warmer climes. According to some, June is the perfect month for diving in the Red Sea, as the water is at its clearest then, the weather is schorching but still bearable, and there is hardly any wind at all. Which is the best protection against the discomforts of sea-sickness. In July and August, the heat becomes oppresive and unbearable. The probability of a sunstroke or dehydration is high then, unless you plan a seawater safari that ensures a healthy breeze that makes the conditions more agreeable. After the summer tourists rarely consider sunny Egypt, as September in Poland is often quite warm. Then it's October and November: the start of the windy season in Egypt, but also the perfect time for extending your holidays and enjoying some warm African sun.
Dahab is a small town located on the Sinai Peninsula, some 90 km to the north-east from Sharm El Sheikh, one of the best known Egyptian resorts. The contrast between the two town is enormous. They are as different from one another as W³adys³awowo and Gdañsk. Dahab is a pictoresque spot with unique atmosphere which must be seen to be experienced. It is as undescribable as the ambiance of Kazimierz on the Vistula. The reasons for choosing Dahab are apparent. Dahab is an untypical tourist destination that welcomes and seduces anyone who dislikes the hustle and bustle of the holiday crowds on the promenade in Świnoujœcie or the Old Town in Cracow. It may seem overconfident, but personally, I don't know any diver who would speak badly of Dahab.
But what made this small town such a hit among divers from all over the world? The answer is dead simple. The Blue Hole and Canyon continue to attract hundreds of scuba lovers. Any diver should at least once visit the two wholes in the coral reef that provide some unforgettable experiences. Visiting Dahab without seeing the Blue Hole would be as pointless as an excursion to Rome that ended before seeing the Vatican or the Coliseum.
Almost as remarkable are restaurants located on the waterfront of Dahab, which serve some delicious food. There are several places worth mentioning, but my favorites 'Friends' and 'Ali Baba' of unique atmosphere and palms on the beach, and 'Adams' with the cheapest beer or even rounds on the house, provided your order was large enough. Although opened only from the afternoon, 'Sharks' restaurant is well worth the wait, as the chef is a true master of his craft, serving tiramisu to die for. As you cross the only bridge in the town, you get to a bazaar where you can buy all the souvenirs you might need as well as a seafood place offering an excellent menu. The shop resembles slightly a dingy railway station bar, but the seafood is phenomenal and much cheaper than on the town's promenade.
As I've already mentioned the bridge, I should Several years ago the Sinai mountains experienced massive downpours that resulted in great masses of water coming down in the direction of Dahab. It so happened that a river's channel led the waters to crash against the the small town, washing down to the sea a small jewelry shop with a big collection of items. Obviously, the spot was the haven for divers for many, many years. Some amateurs of underwater treasure still dive the spot. You never knowwhether you won'y fins a golden chain sparkling on the sea bottom or in the reef's nooks and crannies. To prevent a repeat of the tragedy, the town's authorities decided to protect the temporary channel by building a bridge over it. It's not difficult to find the jeweller's store underwater, as treasure hunters are a dead giveaway.
So we go diving in Dahab. Most divers heard about Planet Divers, a diving center that services great numbers of divers from Poland. Our expedition was also organized by the center. We stayed at a four-star hotel called Helnan. Despite its location on the edges of the city, cheap taxt transport was easily available. To get dive sites we took jeeps so sparcely equipped that their operation was a constant miracle. That question fascinated not only the automobile enthusiasts.
On 15 November we initiate our adventure with a test dive. Our Dive Master, Kasia, who started diving with Millennium Divers only in April of that year, was very strict with regard to our safety underwater. During the dive, she tried to show us as much as she could, in order to ensure that each dive was our emotional success. She certainly managed to achieve that goal. Detailed plans allowed the participants in the expedition to know the when, what, how and why of our dives. Losing oneself underwater was also out of the question, as even shoals of colorful fish couldn't distract our attention from our Dive Master's scary pointing finger.
Our first drop-off was at the Light House site. We had good visibility approaching almost 25 meters. The entrance was located across from a diving center. It promised to be the best Dahab spot for macro photographers. We were bound to see double-ended pipefish (Trachyramphus bicoarctatus) and if we were lucky, particularly during the night dive, we could spot Jayakar's seahorse (Hippocampus jayakari). We swam right toward coral reef which harbored moray fish and other typical seawater species of many colors and difficult names. The reef stretches far, but you can't forget strong current near the tip. Light house is the only site in the area with seagrass; moreover, despite the close proximity of restaurants and town bustle that suggest a spot with scarce flora and fauna, the opposite is true for that place.
For our second dive we took a jeep to leave the town. We loaded a truck with our equipment and off we went. Our dive site was called Sharks' Cave. The promise of a thrilling dive with experiences straight from "Jaws" was only a clever marketing ploy to attract divers. In addition, the coral reef was not only typical for the Red Sea, but also slightly damaged. However, there is no such thing as a bad dive. It was the first time I spotted sea lilies climbing the reef. The creatures just left their hideouts, allowing each diver who never had an opportunity to observe the species to realize just how fast it is. We were lucky that the dive lasted until the nightfall, when liliowce went out for supper.
Another day, some more attractions.
Caves was very diverse, with grottos, caves and reef dangerously descending to great depths. During the first minutes of our dive we spotted a small turtle that appeared to say hello. We also spied a giant puffer fish, some unicorn fish that escorted us everywhere, and a lot of lionfish that met us at the entrance to the area. The entrance was a ridge located over a picturesque grotto. Its main disadvantage was the high surf making getting out of water difficult. It also increased the probability of damaging your wetsuit on contact with the reef and practically ensured that getting out would end on all fours. To the right from the entrance a cave is located, and 12.8 meters below a rare red sea anemone with its clown fish inhabitant, Nemo, can be spotted.
On the same day we dived at Three pools. I could make up something positive about the spot, but the hard truth is that you should give the site a miss. The corals have been damaged extensively, testifying to divers' lack of experience. To reach the reef, you have to cross three sand-filled waterpools, which are so shallow that any slightest mistake in fastening the manometer or octopus to the jacket could result in coral damage at the hands of clumsy divers.
Rick's Reef' offers current diving a short way behind the famous and well-liked canyon. The drop-off was at an unmarked point on the reef; from there we let the current take us to the canyon. The entire dive, without taking a look at the canyon, took us around 40 minutes. On the way, typically for current diving, we could observe the changing images of colorful miracles of that well-salinated sea. I admired particularly the large shoals of basslet fish and small orange fish called Marcia's anthia fish. They were so numerous that any moderately lucky protographer could take amazing underwater pictures of them, presenting the beauty and appeal of the most beautiful coral reefs on the world. A giant moray fish passing by made me realize, however, that the reef was not idyllic but rather predatory, and the unending cycle of life and death ensures survival of the fittest.
The current was not strong enought to separate the group, but everything was possible. Any fascinated underwater photographer may disappear from the radar of the Dive Master. Fortunately, the current brought us to a spot so unique that getting lost was impossible. We arrived at the Canyon with crowds of divers and an exit to the shore. Soon, the day of diving the famous Canyon finally came. During the dive, I observed the most curious phenomenon: the sea bed released a great many bubbles. It looked magical and so charming that I had problems restraining myself from bursting into a dance. The entrance to the cave is rather large, allowing even a big group to enter together, of course maintaing the full distance between one another and following the rules of movement in caves, i.e. in one rather than many directions. The deeper exit from the cave is located at the level of 55 meters and as such it is inaccessible to beginners or unexperienced divers. However, there are always exceptions, as the rumours I heard speak of fools that try it, only to learn later that their stupidity had almost costed them their lives. One should remember that it is a cave and a deep one to boot; moreover it can become very crowded, making it easy to get lost among other groups of similarly-looking divers. That situation is similar to the conditions on the famous Thiselgorm wreck.
The other exit is located in much shallower waters, i.e. at 12 meters, and it's used by most divers. Due to the narrowness of the exit, the ascent is done one-by-one, which should be taken into account when planning the dive. The spot is very impressive and its unique character attracts swarms of divers hungry for the experience of the famous hole. The entrance to the cave is situated at a depth of 20 meters, while its bottom descends to 30 meters, which fact predisposes the site for experienced divers. During the dive, we spotted devil scorpionfish and a well-masked sole. While in general devil scorpionfish are rare in other parts of the world I dived at, the Dahab actually area abounds in that species. During almost each dive we spotted at least one scorpionfish; if we looked harder, I am sure we could have noticed several, each of different . size and color. We came here to see the cave rather than do a bit of fishspotting, but you just never know... At any point you may notice something interesting, in particular because right by the Canyon another dive-sopt is loated, called Coral Garden.
The apt name says it all when it comes to the numerous forms of corals growing here. The reef is one of the most beautiful spots in the Dahab area. At a depth of about 15 meters, the reef descends first dramatically then slightly, stretching to levels .visited by technical divers. I'd recommend this spot to anyone interested in observing the amazing coral forms. I even managed to spot a giant puffer and several gigantic moray fish. Coral Garden is simply a must. The number and diversity of forms growing from the sea bottom is staggering, remainding a diver of walks in botanical gardens. Bells site is highly recommended for each person diving the Blue Hole. It offers a great diving experience, which also requires some technical skill missing from beginners' repertoire.
We entered a bell-shaped cave. The entrance was located just by the shore, where you can see a hole in the rock, where 3 divers could safely stay above the surface of the water. One by one, we jumped into the water. We descended to the bottom of the cave at a level of 28 meters. The last several meters of this spot was open to the sea. It ended on a sandy ledge. After leaving the cave we found ourselves before a vetical wall ; with good visibility we could even see the sandy sae plateau, located at a level of 60 meters. We swam along the length of the wall, leaving it on our right side. After around 20 minutes we reached the so-called "saddle", a narrow passage at a depth of 7 meters, leading towards the Blue Hole. As after 30 minutes our air was running dangerously low, we finished off our dive by swimming around one of the Blue Hole's wall, staying at a shallow level. The horizontal walls and abyssal of 'big blue' make diving the spot an incredible experience. Deeper down, you could observe well-preserved coral growth. Wide-lens phrotographers had the opportunity to make unforgettable underwater pictures that show the true spirit of diving.
Blue Hole is Dahab's claim to fame. This well in the coral reef that descends to a depth of 100 meters and is a unique spot that managed to seduce several divers with its beautiful, soft voice coming from the abyss. It says: "Come to me." After 50 meters there is a passage that leads to the open sea. Many divers who tried the crossing paid the ultimate price: their deaths are commiserated by special plaques. Each of them had their own reasons. Everyone should not their capacity. Also, diving prowess should be based on experience and training, rather than the willingness to prove oneself to be better than friends, even by doing something high-risk that could potentially consmme his life.
The western side of the Blue Hole usually remains in the shade, which signifiantly lowers the number of corals. This part of the wall can be compared to the vertical walls of Croatia's Dugi Otok island. The similarity is so astonishing that I was stunned to discover that the place is located on a different, far-off sea. Every diver dreams to see that spot at least once during their life. It therefore should not come as a surprise that crowds of divers and snorkelers are exploring thoroghly this memorable spot, going up, down and around.
Fabulous conditions, easily accessible drop-off and proximity to some infrastructure makes the site a real paradise for technical divers, hailing from all over the world, coming to experience the plunge into the big blue abyss. During our session underwater we noticed the training of freedivers, who descended down a drop-off line to a depth of 30 meters.
The spot wasn't rife with big fish, but a decent macro photographer could easily spot slugs, shrimp and unsual sponge forms. This spot remains a fond memory for a long time, forcing the diver to put forward his/her plans of return to Dahab.
For our last day, we set off on a camel safari to a site called Little Blue Hole. First, we travelled by jeeps, then lumbered the camels with our equipment and hopped onto their backs. I must admit that the climate of this safari seemed to me so exotic that as I rode the strange animal without a saddle I couldn't help but think: "it is so fascinating and unreal, all at the same time". Such excursions were the stuff of adventure books and travelers' accounts. The camels were owned by the Beduin who awaited customers at a spot where the road ahead became inaccessible due to rocky terrain and lack of civilization.
We finally got there. Our first, deeply satisfying dive among the undemaged reef showed us that the spot was very infrequently visited by divers. Between dives, we were offered dinner and Bedouin tea, a beverage from a herb growing only on the desert of Sinai. After the exercise, the food was so delicious that each of us had at least two helpings. To sum up: the safari was an essential experience that no visitor in Dahab should overlook. It should constitute the first point on any expedition plans. The dive itsefl consisted of crossing a miniature Blue Hole of the original structure, located to the east of Dahab. As we put out to the open sea, we crossed magnificent and gigantic formations of table corals. On seeing such astonishing corals, I was mortified by their perspective damage and disrepair at the hands of inexperienced divers, exploring the area two or three years into the future. The sopt does not require much diving ability, but swimming over corals entails a high dexterity of a diver. At Three Pools we had an object lesson on just how much damage to corals is caused by inexperienced divers.
I hope I may be wrong. Fortunately, the spot is rather remote and not many tourists make it there. As we followed the passage to open sea, we could admire a well-preserved coral reef, which appeared untouched by humans. We spotted many species of fish; probably the nights down there were bustling with actvity. At this point I would like to discourage any nosey-pokers from exploring the area during the rest after the first dive. Camels were everywhere, feeding on sparce desert shrubs. My curiosity led me into the mountains where the climate was much different. I started sniffing the aromatic leaves of shrubs I found there. To my surprise, after some judicious sniffing my throat started to ache and my nose was stuffy as if I had nasty catarrh. I showed my total ignorance characteristic of a city dweller who would be unable of surviving on a dessert.
Taught by that experience I acquired myself some Bedouin tea leaves at one of Dahab's market stalls. I still drink it on wintery evenings, recollecting our expedition. As every experience, that trip was very memorable and won't be forgotten easily. We will be back, taking any volunteers with us.
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Tekst and photo: Rudi Stankiewicz
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