Recently, a friend had a holiday booked in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt, flying in and out of the airport there, which for obvious reasons didn’t suddenly seem like such a good idea.
The tour operator had offered her a trip to the Red Sea resort of Hurghada instead, and she wanted to know what I thought.
And what I thought was – I learned to scuba dive in Hurghada, and loved it, and if Hurghada is deemed safe by the tour operators and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office then she should go because, heaven knows, the Egyptian tourism industry could do with a bit of support these days. It’s not the fault of shopkeepers and restaurant-owners and hotel maids that psychopathic loons shoot up beaches, attack hotels and blow up planes, but they are the ones that lose their jobs and see their families suffer when we stop travelling.
So here’s something I wrote many years ago, and if it inspires a trip to the safe parts of Egypt, that most cultured and genteel of countries, then – hooray!
“And one more thing”, says Callum, the scuba-dive instructor. “I don’t want to hear anyone calling these flippers and goggles. They’re fins and masks. This isn’t splash time. It’s serious stuff”.
We all look suitably chastened.
It’s day one on the learn-to-dive course at Hurghada on the Red Sea and already we’re au fait with some very technical terms – such as BCD (buoyancy jacket), regulator (air mouthpiece), octopus (another kid of mouthpiece) and ADI (annoying diving instructor – just kidding Callum).
Superb coral reefs and dive sites
A mere fishing village a generation ago, Hurghada is now one of Egypt’s biggest resorts – almsot entirely due to the proximity of superb coral reefs and offshore island dive sites. The calm water is a comforting 31 degrees in summer, making it one of the world’s best spots to learn to dive. Others come for the snorkelling, swimming and windsurfing, or to check out the marine life one stage removed – from a glass-bottomed boat of the local tourist submarine.
Novice I may be, but in four days time I’ll be a qualified diver with a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certificate to prove it. But there’s a lot of hard work ahead, starting with two half-day classroom sessions spent learning about the Byzantine complexities of scuba-diving. If there’s a back-to-school element to this, it’s rescued by some fascinating stuff – who knew blood appears green under water? – but everyone is champing at the bit to get into the water.
For the first two days, you don’t dive anywhere more exotic than the hotel swimming pool.
You can breathe under water!
Regulators in, we drop into the water for the first time and share an amazing discover. Callum wasn’t lying! You can breathe under water! Although at first it’s not exactly what you’d call breathing – rather gasping in great lungfuls, convinced the air will run out any minute. Gradually you learn to trust the tech and calm down. The underwater lessons begin.
By the third day, it’s time for the open sea. On the boat the nerves go into overdrive despite the gloriously diverting surroundings – a breeze ruffles the aquamarine water and, in the distance, the curved reef walls form a sheltered pool in which we’ll make our first dive.
With some relish, Callum points out that if anyone feels sick, the regulators – which must stay in the mouth at all times – are designed so that you can vomit through them under water. Well, that’s reassuring.
Flashes of primary colour flit beneath our fins
In the water, most fears are banished the minute you don a mask and peer down for a fist sight of the world below – flashes of primary colour flit beneath our own fins.
Within minutes we’re grouped in pairs on the white sand bottom, 8 metres down, staring around wildly as improbably designed marine life – is that a fish or a worm, and does it bite? – nips in and out of the nearby tufts of coral. A moray eel stirs itself lazily as we flounder around, trying to maintain our balance.
There are drills and skills to repeat, and then we’re off on the first of four extraordinary swims along the reef wall. Someone sees a turtle; we all marvel at a lurking stingray; while thousands of clownfish, trumpet fish, snapper, butterfly fish and parrotfish makes their rounds, unconcerned by our presence.
It’s completely overwhelming and, like 3 year olds at the zoo, we can’t disntinguish between what is and what isn’t exotic. Look! A bit of old anchor! A rock!
And just like 3 year olds, no one wants to go home when it’s time to head for the surface.
Aquasports Scuba Center by Jose Kevo, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Masked Butterfly fish by Derek Keats, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Anemones by prilfish, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Picassofish (triggerfish) by Derek Keats, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Red Sea bannerfish by Derek Keats, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Diver and soft coral by Derek Keats, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Emperor Angelfish by Derek Keats, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0