So Why the Red Sea?
A Postcard from
Editor's Note: Ned Middleton has written most of our section on shipwrecks in our Virtual Diving Center. His articles may be counted upon to provide the latest, and most complete reference on the topic.
Last week I returned from yet another Scuba Diving assignment to the Egyptian Red Sea. As always, I sent my customary 25 postcards - although I do cheat a little here. I actually take 25 printed sticky address labels with me and I rarely write more than "Regards - Ned" as the narrative. Esther (my wife) tends to get a few more words with "I saw this and thought of you!" written on the back of a carefully selected image of a Napoleon Wrasse or Nurse Shark! Esther visits South Africa every year - and promptly gets her own back with a similar message on the back of a picture of a Hippopotamus! But I digress.
My oldest and dearest friend Bob Walker always gets a card and takes it into work to put on the board. When we were both about 11 years old, Bob once sold me a homing pigeon and refused to give me either a refund or a replacement when the pigeon duly "flew back home." (And he thinks Ive forgotten!) But I digress.
Suddenly, Bobs world was shattered when he got a repeat card from Egypt. "Of all the cards in all the world" (to be said in your best Bogart voice), I had sent him this one before. Now, I ask you - could you remember who got which card from that last trip or the one before that? Nowadays, Bobs got quite a collection of my "one-liner" cards from; Bahrain, Barbados, B.V.I., Canada, Grenada, Malta, Mustique and, of course, Egypt (and thats only the past 2-3 years). Thing is, I go to Egypt 4 or 5 times every year - and now, all because of a repeat performance in the postcard stakes, I found myself explaining why I keep returning year after year. After all, if I was not in Egypt, I might easily be in some exotic Caribbean country.
So why do I spend so much time in Egypt? Its a fair question and not the first time its been asked.
The best place to start is always at the beginning - so, I shall explain; I am a Professional Freelance Underwater Photo-Journalist & Author and it is my job to go to those places frequented by Scuba Divers and report back on what they are likely to find - the sea, the sand, the diving, the hotel, the people et al. Its a great job - especially after completing a first career in the British Army during which I spent over 7 years in Northern Ireland and was amongst the very first UN troops to enter the former Yugoslavia. That all started when I was 15 years old and my Mother said "Son why dont you stop hanging around on street corners looking for trouble and do something useful like join the Army!" So I did, and promptly spent most of my time hanging around on street corners looking for trouble! - But I digress.
The point being, I write mainly for 2 British Scuba Diving magazines. I would write for the American market - but over the years, successive Editors to a couple of well known US Scuba Diving magazines have never even had the courtesy to reply to my (several) letters. Speaking as someone who has even sold his photography to National Geographic and whos third book sold over 25,000 copies in 3 years - its their loss! (Like BIG time!). But I digress.
Whilst I have been published throughout Europe, Scandinavia and even as far away as New Zealand, my audience is primarily the UK diving market. I was first published in 1980 - although I did not turn professional until 1994. Right at this time, however, I have been published every single month since December 1998 and already have 6 articles published this year (and its only just March). Add to that 3 books published and, well, you get the picture.
For the British Scuba Diver, cost is easily the most important factor when considering a diving vacation and a one or two-week liveaboard "Safari Boat" in the Egyptian Red Sea really is excellent VFM - Value for Money! Yes, the Mediterranean is closer - but even that can work out more expensive because there are - as far as I am aware, virtually no serious liveaboard facilities!
Of course, there are those divers with non-diving members of the family or young children to consider, and they would certainly not wish to spend a week on board any boat. In these circumstances a relaxing holiday in a hotel, complete with pool, beach and all mod cons with "some" diving is much the preferred option and Egypt can certainly cater to these divers. In fact, Na'ama Bay is a prime example of a holiday village built especially for tourists - be they divers or not. The relevant point, however, is that the great majority of Divers visiting the Egyptian Red Sea prefer the one or two week Safaris and spend that time logging as many dives as they wish.
Of these, the vast majority fly direct from London-Gatwick to Hurghada where they are collected by their tour Reps and taken straight to their boat. The cost of each trip includes flights, accommodation, food and diving. Extras include; Visa costs (US$15 and purchased on arrival for most nationalities), drinks, Nitrox and additional fees levied by the Egyptian Government for diving inside certain Marine Reserves (Brothers Islands, Zabargad Island and Ras Mohammed). There are Recompression facilities at Hurghada and Sharm - and, of course, you do need suitable "Diving" Insurance.
For those Divers wishing to visit the northern wrecks (easily the most popular itinerary) - taking-in any (and sometimes all) the following shipwrecks; Carnatic, Chrisoula K, El Mina, Giannis D, Kimon M, Kingston, Rosalie Moller, Thistlegorm and Ulysses - all of which are available (weather permitting) and who do not require Nitrox (not always available in any event), there is only the Visa to pay for and no further charges whatsoever - except for your own drinks and a tip for the crew at the end of your stay.
The cost of this one-week northern wrecks excursion - which begins and ends at London Gatwick Airport is currently in the region of 750 (thats US$1,050 at us$1.4=1). It must be admitted that the flight is by Charter Flight and takes 4 - 5 hours in conditions as cramped as Charter Flights get. There is no First Class - so dont even ask!
By comparison, I was previously living in south-east England and on two occasions - in the October of 1998 and 1999, we embarked on a 7-day trip to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. There are no direct flights from London to Orkney, so the journey involved a Train to London, Taxi across London, overnight Train with Sleeper to Inverness in Scotland, Hire Car to Scrabster (on the north Scottish coast), Ferry to Stromness (Orkneys), Hotel and daily Diving fees on whatever Boat I could find. I took my wife and son on the first occasion - paying for two divers but only my wife on the second and she doesnt dive. Those two trips cost almost 2,000 each (and at 1.4 that works out US$2,800! for 7 days!). Incidentally, the problems of getting to the Orkneys, means that the infamous and beautiful Scapa Flow is generally overlooked by the greater majority of British Divers on grounds of cost. But, of course, I digress...
OK!, so we have established that the Red Sea is excellent VFM and, in any event, everyone likes to take a holiday abroad - and, as destinations go, the Red Sea Safari Boat compares very favourably in terms of price with any alternative. As one of my fellow Divers said to me on my most recent visit to Egypt; "Why go to the Caribbean for a one-week holiday when you can go to the Egyptian Red Sea 3 times for the same price." Its a valid point.
Dont get me wrong, I honestly enjoy visiting the Mediterranean - especially Malta, and I have had love affairs with Belize and Grenada for many years (truly!). The foregoing arguments are by way of explaining "Why Egypt?" rather than an attempt to make any comparison between different destinations - something I would never do. The point is, British and European Divers are visiting the Egyptian Red Sea more than any other destination and that is why there is so much interest from the UK Diving Press. After all, the question was "why do I spend so much time in Egypt?", and the answer is - because I am reporting on what the British Diver wants to know something about.
So, what about Red Sea Diving itself? I think its fair to say that most divers are aware of the reputation of the Red Sea in terms of Reefs, Corals and Fishes. There is no doubt that, at their best, they are amongst the most outstanding anywhere in the world and easily rival the Great Barrier Reef and the South Pacific. There are itineraries to suit those divers wishing to enjoy these Reefs and Corals and all you have to do is enquire with a suitable Tour Operator.
Speaking as someone who has spent the past 4 years researching and diving the shipwrecks of the Egyptian Red Sea, however, I have to say that there are few places on earth to match the scale and variety of shipwreck found in Egyptian waters. Those aforementioned shipwrecks (and others that are further south) include; Sail and Steam vessels from the 19th Century, two victims of WW2, Egyptian Troopship, Egyptian Minesweeper and various Bulk Carriers, Ferries and Freighters ranging from 1,000 to 26,000 gross registered tonnes - all lost sometime between 1869 and 1996.
In my forthcoming book, I have identified 18 major shipwrecks - of which, the Thistlegorm is easily the most outstanding example of a shipwreck found anywhere in the world. Still loaded with the WW2 vehicles, motor cycles weapons, trailers, aircraft wings and lots more besides, that were once destined for the British 8th Army in North Africa, this is the shipwreck to end all shipwrecks as far as Diving experiences go. And!, at only 30m to the seabed, she is accessible to almost all grades of Diver. One word of caution, however, if you dont visit her soon, you may NOT be able to do so at all. This single shipwreck is the worlds most visited underwater site and has hosted something between a third and a half million visitors since being rediscovered just over 10 years ago.
Each of the wrecks in question was lost through accident or war. None have been deliberately sunk for the Scuba Diver. As such, not only do each of these wrecks have a story to tell, but each of those stories in an individual account of an entirely separate incident that brought about the wrecking of that particular ship. The same cannot be said of many other leading shipwreck destinations.
If you want a Cruise Liner - go to Grenada (and if youve been there - done that, let me know I have others!), if its an Oil Tanker youre after - well we have the very first "BIG ONE" on this side of the pond, if its an Aircraft Carrier - go to Bikini Atoll, if its an intact WW2 Submarine - try Malta or, if you are entirely satisfied with a pretty good collection of Artificial Reefs, then look no further than the Florida Keys. BUT! - and this really is a very big "BUT," if you want to sample the most exciting and varied collection of historic shipwrecks in the entire world, then that collection is found in the Egyptian Red Sea. There really is nowhere else in the world with which to make a comparison.
As for the Diving Safari Boats, to be honest, they come in 3 styles - Good, Bad and Indifferent. In my experience, the best are used for the Safari Trade and the not-quite-so-good are used for Day Trips. In my case, it is fair to say that I am not usually placed on anything but the "Best" because sponsors always want me to write good things about them - the power of the pen and all that. Dont be put off, the good ones are really good and their Skippers are the best in the business. That said, they are not as luxurious as, say, Cuan Law (operating out of the B. V. I. and easily the finest dive boat I have ever had the privilege to visit!) or the Aggressor and Peter Hughes fleets - which I regard as "Five Star operations," and which are able to rely heavily on the US Diving market.
By comparison, the very best of Egypts boats are those that are recently built and designed as "Diving Boats" from the outset - i.e. not converted from another purpose. More and more of these are coming on stream all the time and I would describe these as "Four star operations."
Quaint, quiet Habiba Village an Nuweiba north of Sharm el-Sheikh
Then there is the food served up on board. Of all my trips to the Red Sea, I only ever experienced one boat for which I was unable to write anything at all - and even on that particular vessel, the food was quite excellent. The food is varied and plentiful and prepared with great skill and care. It is, however, rich and "an immodium a day" keeps those problems away. Just remember to use bottled water for brushing your teeth and enquire about the source of water used for the ice. Follow that advice and you really will enjoy the trip - even though, you are very unlikely to be amongst "Your Fellow Americans!"
Now I come to the difficult bit - and I shall not digress! Speaking as a retired British Army Major, I am quite conversant with security - and that includes my own personal security. I have studied this subject most carefully when considering whether or not to return (time and again) to Egypt and I am entirely happy to make so many trips - confident in the knowledge that I am as safe there as anywhere else. The problem I having here is in wanting to be honest and blunt - but without wishing to upset anyone, especially my many American friends - so here goes.
Rightly or wrongly, Europeans are under the general impression that American Scuba Divers will never visit Egypt because of two over-riding areas of concern. The lesser of these is the question of personal "Safety at Sea" on any of Egypts Safari Boats - and I have already dealt with that question in sufficient detail.
The remaining area of concern - for Divers and non-Divers alike, comes under the heading "Unrest in the Middle East." I could be trite and make some statement about how you could always get knocked down by a car, but that would be most unprofessional. The truth is, I do not and will not travel to any country caught up in on-going conflicts. There could be no positive outcome from such a visit for someone in my profession. Nothing good can come from creating additional problems for the already over-taxed local or British authorities, British/UN troops or whoever!
The opulence of the Sheraton at Soma Bay, south of Hurghada.
The problem is that term "Middle East." It is such an all encompassing one that any problems in one country appear as though they affect all countries within that geographically designated term. Egypt is a democracy and one that has enjoyed a stable government for a good many years. In Egypt, all is calm on the home front and the President is at the forefront of peace negotiations in those other countries where problems persist.
It is always wrong to make comparisons with any other country - so I can only suggest any would-be visitor from the USA to Egypt makes a study of the World Atlas with a ruler so that you can determine for yourself just how far away these conflict zones really are. After all, the distance between Cairo in Egypt and Kabul in Afghanistan is pretty much the same distance as exists between Miami and southern Peru! So make your own mind up. Youll be glad you did - and while Ive been writing this (1st March 2002), I have just been invited back on 12 April.
See you there?
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Last Updated: July 5th, 2011
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