I have just spent a week running a wreck video course on the liveaboard Blue Planet organised by OonasDivers. We were following the Northern Red Sea Wrecks route and combining filming scrap metal on the sea bed with good wildlife. I’m not an over keen wrecks diver just for the sake of the wreck itself; the main interest for me is the habitat they provide for a huge variety of marine life, and as luck would have it our Egyptian dive guide Ashraf Hassanin felt the same way. Ashraf turned out to be not only enthusiastic, but also very knowledgeable. During our 5 diving days we explored large wrecks such as the Thistlegorm to the smaller and less distinguished.
Being a Dive Guide is hard work. First out of bed in the mornings and last to bed at night, always being cheery and helpful. Ashraf’s enthusiasm for the diving and wildlife was inspirational, as was his desire to make sure we all fully enjoyed each new location. During one of his rare quiet moments I asked him about his job.
Jeff. How did you start diving?
Ashraf. I started diving long ago, I have always loved the sea. As a kid I started ducking and skin dipping, helping tie the mooring ropes and the lines for boats. I loved swimming and snorkelling, doing short dives. Eventually I was a crew member on liveaboards, driving the zodiacs, assisting the Captain. I got to know the dive sites and how the currents worked. It all helped me to know later how to dive the dive sites and how to manage the liveaboard trips, the itineraries, what is the best you can see, when to go, what is the best way to approach without disturbing the wildlife. It’s all very interesting and very important.
Jeff. What made you choose diving rather than crew or skipper on the boat?
Ashraf. Mainly I love the sea. I love marine life. It has a big fascination for me, life under the water, absolutely lovely. It’s a lot different underwater, it’s more interesting than above. The skipper is in the wheel house all the time. I worked hard and finally became a dive instructor then dive master. I am now a guide as well as being a technical diver.
Jeff. So what is it about being underwater that is so good?
Ashraf. When you see a shark or a pod of Dolphins and even the lovely nudibranchs, it really makes you very happy. Especially 2 weeks ago we had beautiful schools of hammerheads. We enjoyed it very much, our clients enjoyed it as well.
Jeff. What is your favourite spot?
Ashraf. Every itinerary has different meaning, has different lovely dives. It is impossible to say this is the best spot here or there, every site has different meaning, different life. I saw a whale shark and a tiger shark at the Elphinstone recently. While right here there are dolphins.
Jeff. You are very enthusiastic when you are talking to the people who come on the tours. Do they always like diving because of the wild life? What is the reason that most people dive do you think?
Ashraf. Most people like diving because of the feeling underwater, you feel yourself. Some are extremely interested in marine life, some are diving because their boyfriend or girlfriend are diving.
Jeff. Just joining in!
Ashraf. Yes. It’s really nice to see the variety of people who are interested.
Jeff. Do you ever have problems with your guests?
Ashraf. Not really. Guests might not be happy if they are sick. A few weeks ago guests arrived but no luggage, none of their own gear and clothes. I tried to make them happy by showing them the sharks and all this lovely stuff. We loaned them equipment and 3 days later their bags came.
Jeff. How long have you been diving?
Ashraf. About 10 years.
Jeff. Do you notice anything different in the state of the sea in that time?
Ashraf. Definitely, definitely. I am not happy with many things. We need mooring lines in the Red Sea. There are not many fixed. None of the guides are happy with this. For example, we need lots of mooring lines to protect Devils Island and Brothers Island, we need to protect all these areas. It’s not only the surface reefs. We need to take care of the deeper areas as well, 40 – 100mts down, the sharks are down deep, this is their home, their habitat, every time an anchor is thrown in it is not good.
Jeff. Is it only mooring lines that are the problem?
Ashraf. Not entirely. There are heavily dived sites and some of the divers are not the best. A lot of coral has been damaged by thoughtless diving.
Jeff. What is the main problem? Is it their fins or do they stand on it?
Ashraf. Standing on the reef is strictly not allowed but it does happen. But also they are finning across it and not really taking care. Also touching the coral is a problem.
Jeff. In your briefings do you talk about taking care of the coral?
Ashraf. At the first briefing, I talk about weights and buoyancy control, so that you are not touching any corals. I talk about how to use a stone area to push yourself away from the corals if you have to. But just use one finger to push yourself away. I am giving divers a chance if they are filming, and trying to take macro, but always great care must be taken, especially with their fins. We only take photos and we only leave bubbles. It’s a good saying, protecting the marine life is very important to us.
Jeff. Other than the coral, what about quantities of marine life, fish shoals?
Ashraf. Actually at Ras Mohamed this week it was really interesting to see big schools of snappers, really fantastic. We had lovely dives, out in the blue with not too much current. Also lots of Gorgonian and nice soft corals. Ras Mohamed is one of the most protected marine park areas by the authorities, no fishing there and no mooring at all.
Jeff. How is that enforced?
Ashraf. All the boats, the guides, the captains, they all know the area is protected. No one can get permissions to fish there.
Jeff. So if you see a boat fishing there or doing something wrong, do you stop them?
Ashraf. Definitely, we stop them as well as take pictures and report them.
Jeff. Who would you report them to?
Ashraf. We would take a picture and report them to HEPCA (Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association) and CDWS (Chamber of Dive and Water Sports) and they have a quick reaction. It’s happened before, they react very quickly and this is important.
Jeff. Is there ever control of the amount of divers on any of the dive sites?
Ashraf. This is very difficult. What we can try to do is fix the mooring lines to stop boats dropping anchors….we can teach and advise the divers to be careful of all the corals. The Red Sea is one of the best dive sites in the world, the variety of wildlife, warm water, good visibility, more than 200 species of marine life, corals, wrecks. We have everything. Even down at 100 metres there is good visibility for the tech divers.
Jeff. Do you work all year or do you manage to have time off?
Ashraf. The end of January to the beginning of March is the low season and during that period I get some time off when I can stay home.
Jeff. Do you dive when you are not working?
Ashraf. mmmmm – I would say yes, I don’t mind to dive but not in the Red Sea. I dive so many times in the Red Sea all the rest of the year so I like to dive somewhere else.
Jeff. What do you see the future being for diving and marine life in the Red Sea?
Ashraf. That’s important. I would say it is time now to protect wrecks and marine life. I was not happy at all to see lost mooring lines on some of our wrecks. The last wreck we were on I saw a mooring rope through a bolt hole in the bow section which is now nearly broken, smashed. I saw one of the boats tying their line on this and it was being slowly torn from the wreck. Sooner or later it will come off. I know before that this part of the ship was very strong. It is so bad for these wrecks; the dive boats are getting bigger and bigger every year.
We will kill everything, that’s not nice. We need the authorities to act now. We need good solid mooring lines to prevent all this.
Jeff. Would it be HEPCA responsible for this?
Ashraf. HEPCA, yes. We will report this to HEPCA, we will write them a letter and ask them to react quickly against this situation and to heavily fine each boat making temporary lines onto the wrecks. For example, the Thistlegorm is one of the best 10 wrecks in the world, a highlight of the Red Sea. One of the best that divers come to visit. We saw eight boats today, there can be fifteen or more. It’s too dangerous, lines fixed everywhere. I think HEPCA will react quickly and they will lay new lines. They did fix secure mooring lines last year but now we have the bigger and bigger boats and the lines are snapped off and broken. But I am optimistic that HEPCA will deal with this.
Jeff. Will this restrict the number of boats and divers?
Ashraf. No, the number of divers and boats is not a problem, it is the damage to the wreck. We need solid moorings away from the wreck and then perhaps just thin guide lines from the mooring to the actual wreck for the less experienced divers. This then is good for the safety margins, if there is a strong current. I cannot say to my clients you cannot dive today, there is a strong current, I want all my guests to be happy, so a very thin mooring line to connect the main mooring lines to the wrecks would be good. These can be placed by each guide for his group. This would work.
It is the big heavy boats that are the problem, holding onto the body of the wrecks. The big waves and stormy conditions in this area are pulling the boats against their mooring ropes. It is crazy to put these ropes on the wrecks. I have seen them on the bridge roofs or winches. I even saw one tied to the large deck gun of the Thistlegorm. Why? Why? That is a museum, an underwater museum.
Jeff. The fishing question. There are less and less fish in the sea every year. Do you see that here?
Ashraf. Getting less and less but here in the Red Sea we have fishes coming up from the Indian Ocean, from the deep South going all the way up to the Ras Mohamed area. It is highly seasonal and we have all these fish coming and all the sharks follow the fish. We have to study this, it’s important to study the itinerary and the map of these fish, where they go, where they come from, where they’re breeding, that’s important. Also sharks, where they come from, where they are heading for.
Jeff. As a guide, as you are seeing it all. Do you take notes, log things and send information to HEPCA?
Ashraf. Honestly, at the moment I don’t. I will start to do that, I would like to do that.
Jeff. Do you have the time?
Ashraf. It is very tight, but you have to do it. I have called HEPCA several times to report matters, to tell them this and that. I have to send a report, I have to ask what’s going on, what’s the future, what are you doing, how can we help you?
We have to be able to give the people information. Not to throw cigarettes in the water. Plastic is very bad. We have to teach people, give them sessions. The crew must also understand and avoid throwing things in the water. Recycling is crucial.
But actually now it is much better than it was long ago.
Jeff. Thank you Ashraf, it’s been good to hear your thoughts and thank you for a great weeks diving.
Diving with… Ana and Miguel, Siladen Resort & Spa, Indonesia
In this ongoing series, we speak to the people who run dive centres, resorts and liveaboards from around the world about their businesses and the diving they have to offer…
Ana and Miguel
What is the name of your business?
Siladen Resort & Spa
What is your role within the business?
Co owners and General Managers
How long has the business operated for?
Almost 20 years.
How long have you dived for, and what qualification are you?
Miguel has dived since 1993 and Ana has dived since 2002. We are both Open Water Scuba Instructors.
What is your favorite type of diving?
We love all dive types, especially wall diving for the wonderful corals and looking out into the blue wondering what other animals will come up next. But as an UW photographer and videographer we both love critter hunting in the sandy slopes. We are both very fond of night dives as we always find interesting animals and different behaviour.
If you could tell people one thing about your business (or maybe more!) to make them want to visit you what would it be?
We have a wonderful location in the heart of Bunaken National Park and we have an amazing team that provides the best service to each guest. We are a fun dive resort; we constantly strive to be as sustainable as possible and safety is our number one priority. If you like sea turtles and beautiful coral reefs you cannot miss this area for diving or snorkelling.
What is your favorite dive in your location and why?
If we have to choose one wall we would say Mandolin as it has beautiful and healthy corals with a wonderful and shallow reef top. We love to search for turtles in the overhangs, look for long nose hawkfish in the black coral bushes, admire the schooling snappers, and spend a long safety stop on the coral gardens on the top that are full of anthias. For critter hunting and night dives we both love Bolung. Here we can find frogfish, ghostpipefishes and nudibranchs, plus at night we often find decorator crabs, octopus and even stargazers on its white sandy slope.
What types of diving are available in your location?
There are very shallow coral reefs surrounding all five islands within Bunaken National Parkpark — beyond the shallow reef, the seabed drops away very quickly, forming the beautiful walls that Bunaken is famed for. Many of these walls are vertical with huge caverns and overhangs, however some are more gentle slopes that allow more reef building corals to form. On the North Sulawesi mainland there are black sand sites that allow amazing muck diving. Close by, we also have white sand sites, which offer some beautiful coral reefs and gentle slopes. There is even a fairly intact (entirely sponge encrusted) wreck within easy access of the resort.
What do you find most rewarding about your current role?
Working together in a dive resort that welcomes divers and snorkellers from around the world and sharing with them our passion for diving, snorkeling and uw photography and video is a great pleasure. Besides we have the privilege to dive and snorkel at world class sites every week.
What is your favorite underwater creature?
We both love cephalopods in general for their intelligence, capacity to camouflage, change colors and patterns…. We are fortunate enough to have many encounters with cephalopods in this area, from the tiny bobtail squid to the wonderful broadclub cuttlefish, the flamboyant cuttlefish, squids and Ana even filmed reef octopus mating. We could watch cephalopods for ever. And although we see them often, Ana has a soft spot for turtles.
As a center what is the biggest problem you face at the moment?
The biggest problem we all face as divers and nature lovers is climate change and pollution. We need to work on these issues locally but even more importantly we need to address these issues worldwide.
Is your center involved in any environmental work?
Yes, we clean our beach daily and we organise very frequent island clean-ups. Not only do we clean this area, but we also separate the garbage trying to send as much as we possibly can to be recycled. We often have activities together with local school children to help bring awareness of the dangers of plastic pollution. We reduce our single plastic use as much as possible and all our vegetables and fruit peel leftovers are composted. We also protect the nests of turtles that hatch on our beach.
Are there any exciting changes / developments coming up in the near future?
We are partnering with Coral Eye Resort in Bangka Island so that guests can have the best service in the best areas of North Sulawesi. We are getting one more boat; we want to make sure our boats are never crowded, besides we keep working to maintain and improve all our facilities.
How do you see the SCUBA / Freediving / snorkeling industry overall? What changes would you make?
The industry is doing well and I am happy to see that there are more and more avid snorkellers and not only scuba divers. We would like to see more ocean protection worldwide to ensure the future generations get to enjoy the beautiful reef corals and marine life around the world.
Finally, what would you say to our visitors to promote the diving you have to offer?
We give you a chance to explore some of the best snorkelling and diving sites in the world while providing you with comfortable accommodation, wonderful food and the best service. Staying in Siladen Resort & Spa you can do up to four dives or snorkelling sessions every day with very experienced guides, while staying in a safe and comfortable resort that aims to provide the best service to each guest.
Where can our visitors find out more about your business?
Visit our website www.siladen.com, find us on Instagram and Facebook (Siladen Resort & Spa) and contact us:
WA +62 811 44300641
Into the Blue – Part Two
By now, you will have hopefully read the first blog from my recent trip to the Red Sea with The Scuba Place on M/Y Big Blue. If you haven’t, you can find the link to the blog here.
I’ve been diving since 2011, although I didn’t get really serious about diving until 2013. In the November of that year I joined Scuba School on a trip to Sharm El Sheikh to complete my Advanced Open Water course. That was the first time I heard about the famous SS Thistlegorm and its cult status in the wreck diving world. Unfortunately, as I, along with a lot of the group were novice divers, and so we were unable to dive it on that 2013 trip, along with a lot of the other famous wrecks from the North. Little did I know, I wouldn’t return to the Northern Red Sea until this trip in September 2022 with The Scuba Place. The wrecks remained mysterious all those years but I was soon getting the full experience. After the first two and a half days exploring the amazing reefs, it was time to break my Thistlegorm virginity and get the true “lust for rust” experience of the Northern itinerary.
As we moored up at the SS Thistlegorm for the afternoon dive, I got a strange sense of anticipation run through my body. More so than at any other specific dive site. Strange really, as I don’t normally get excited about wreck diving, but here was a site that I’d heard so much about but was still so mysterious. I’d always thought it was a difficult dive and had a slight fear of it, as I wasn’t allowed to do it all those years back. Then, after watching a 20 minute film explaining the story of the wreck and listening to the stories of survivors,. I knew it was a site that demanded respect. As Mo went through the dive briefing, I quickly realised it seemed a lot more simple than I had in mind. I then became more excited than fearful as me and my dive buddy went through our plan.
There was an eerie feeling as we submerged below the gentle swell. The visibility was a lot more milky compared to the clear blue I was used to in the Red Sea. However, the wreck soon came into view as we dropped down the shot line. The first thing that struck me and in my opinion just made the wreck extra special, was the life on it.
Instantly, crocodile fish and scorpion fish were spotted resting on the wreck, as we made our way to the anti-aircraft gun on the stern. I made a quick visit to take some photos before we turned back and penetrated the wreck for the first time. A surreal experience but the numerous glassfish and lionfish at the entry point kept me entertained before seeing the remnants of yesteryear. The different vehicles that still keep their place in the decks are the main highlight, but it was the boots that struck a chord with me: signs of the human lives that were present on the fateful day the bomb hit. I got a real buzz from my first time on the Thistlegorm, with a school of batfish greeting us on our safety stop finishing off the adventure. John and I ascended from a great dive with a high five, knowing I’d fulfilled a special memory.
I enjoyed three more dives on the Thistlegorm, giving me chance to explore a little more and see a little more life. Some cool nudibranch and a cuttlefish making their home inside the wreck added to the array of life I’d already seen. It was the night dive that truly hit the marine life spot. It really came to life at night and I soon lost count of the amount of scorpionfish I saw. The contrast of the dark and wreck against the blue spotted stingrays made their colours really pop as around six or seven were spotted. Eels, lionfish and crocodilefish making up the rest of the weird and wonderful sights on the wreck at night. Amazing memories from my first time exploring the Thistlegorm that will last forever.
After the two morning dives on the Thistlegorm, we headed off to the Barge wreck site for an afternoon and night dive. It’s not much of a wreck when you compare it to the others on the trip. It lies like a flat platform on the seabed with some sides rising out from the reef providing extra space for coral growth and marine life to enjoy. While it doesn’t provide a real wreck fix with penetration, it is a haven for marine life, littered with all types of hard and soft corals. Look closely and the Barge is a great spot for the weird and wonderful. The numerous nudibranch and grey moray eels provided my macro fix on the night dives, while the occasional buzz from huge hunting giant trevally provided the entertainment. A nice contrast of wrecks before moving on to Abu Nuhas.
Abu Nuhas is a really unique place. Its submerged reef has been bad luck for five passing ships, with five cargo shipwrecks lining its northern slopes. While it was more than unfortunate for some, the wrecks have provided fortune for those looking for a wreck diving haven. Our day consisted of diving three of the wrecks – The Carnatic, Giannis D and Marcus/Chrisoula K in that order.
Going into the trip, it was the Giannis D that I was most keen to dive. I’d always admired the wide angle stern shots I’d seen over the years, with it staying pretty much intact and creating a dramatic image as it lies on its side. It was a fantastic dive with some interesting and easy penetration; I also took some shots of the stern in all its glory. A huge grouper sitting inside the wreck provided the wildlife fix, as it floated with ease looking out into the blue from an opening on the wreck. I think it was the Carnatic that stole the show personally though. Her open windows out to the blue that are covered in soft coral were unique, and glassfish dancing in formation inside mesmerised into a truly memorable dive. The Marcus provided the adventure as penetration was a little more difficult to work my way through the wreck.
The day at Abu Nuhas was the best of the trip for me and that wasn’t solely because of the wrecks….. YES!! Once again it was marine life that had me screaming with joy underwater and a buzz through my body like no other. FINALLY!!!!! After 9 years of taking photos underwater, I was able to share the water with dolphins (bottlenose in this instance) and shoot them in all their glory.
Our journey to and from the wrecks on each dive took us through the channel on the ribs, where dolphins were seen on every pass playing in the slight waves. After the second dive, the guides asked if we wanted to try to snorkel with them. It was a resounding yes and as the speedboat whipped up a wave storm, the dolphins headed to the surface to play. I dropped in with no elegance at all, as my excitement took over. I was wondering whether they would stay once we entered, but how they stayed and played was beyond anything I could imagine. Bringing seaweed to us and then, with a flick of their tails, speeding off after teasing with a slow approach. There were nine in total and they even came by to show off the baby of the group. It was definitely up there as one of my greatest moments in the water.
We finished the liveaboard trip with three more amazing reef dives, with the highlight being a small cave full of glassfish and MANY lionfish. I entered to take photos of the glassfish before the lionfish started to sneak out of every crevice and reveal themselves from their camouflaged rest spots.
It got a little hairy but made for a truly interesting moment to finish the week on Big Blue. The fun wasn’t done though, as John eluded to the fact that I was on the same late flight as them on the Saturday and asked if I’d like to join his group for a night at Roots Red Sea. Sounds like a good plan!! Also, if we got there in time, a night dive on the house reef that’s a haven for the weird and wonderful would be on offer. What an amazing surprise end to the trip at an amazing dive resort: secluded, with a beautiful desert backdrop, sitting just metres from the sea. Thankfully, we made it for a night dive and it was as incredible as John said it would be. Reef squid, numerous cuttlefish, a bouncing stonefish jumping over sea moths AND a dwarf lionfish made this one of the best night dives ever, and a perfect end dive to a perfect trip. A final day of relaxation at Roots pool and enjoying the beautiful food finished it in style.
For more information about diving on Big Blue:
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