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.
The first in a series of blogs about Scotland Underwater from Ross Mclaren…
Here in Scotland our driech and dreary weather is world famous. But actually, the copious amount of rain that we often moan about, is responsible for a cacophony of colours across our beautiful country.
The one place that might not always be as renowned for being vibrant and colourful is our seas and lochs.
As always there’s exceptions. Our beaches on the north west coast are covered in golden white sand and with turquoise water that might be mistaken for the Maldives… albeit a wee bit nippier… and we’ve even got a few wee lochs (called Lochans) with some pretty green shades to them, but for a good percentage of our coast and lochs, it’s a steely grey mass that greet us.
So, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Scotland’s underwater world mirrors the water it lies beneath. Now, I’m not going to pretend you’re going to be met with a rainbow of colours found somewhere like the Great Barrier Reef, but actually the vibrancy found under the waves definitely took me by surprise.
Disclaimer! I’m no expert in marine biology or underwater photography! I’m pretty much a guy with “all the gear and no idea!” I started out with a wee GoPro and built my camera “rig” up to something that’s now resembling an octopus. But, I’ll be completely honest, I have no real clue what I’m doing in terms of settings, etc. It gets put on “Auto”, I turn the lights on, try not to disturb the marine life and press the button hoping for the best. Quite simply, I’ve fallen in love with our underwater world and do my best to try do it some justice through my photos.
One of the most beautiful marine species I find photographing, and to be honest probably one of the easiest, is the anemones. We have such an abundance of these from deadmens fingers, to firework anemones, and the colours that can be found are just breathtaking. The patterns and shapes they make as they glint in the light of the torches and with the movement of the water is magical.
They might not be the most exciting sea creatures but the humble crab is also a fantastic specimen to capture, and again we have a wide variety. I’m not quite sure what it is but you can almost see/feel the attitude oozing out of them when you catch them in the beam of the lights.
I say this to almost anyone who’ll listen, but I always said I would absolutely love to get sweeping wide angle photo of a wreck. Those are by far my favourite photos to look at. Seeing these hulking feats of human engineering being reclaimed by nature and appreciating the scale of them in one scene is awe-inspiring. Sadly in Scotland with our visibility (well certainly in the areas I frequently dive) it’s not really possible and when it is, it really doesn’t do it justice. However on the flip side Macro photography here is definitely rewarding!
Last summer I had one “photographic goal”… get a nudi! I was desperate to capture a wee sea slug, but no matter how hard I looked I could only find one all year and when I did my GoPro just didn’t do it justice. This year though, well it seems to be a completely different story! Every dive we seem to come across at least one… it also helps when you’ve an eagle eyed dive buddy! With the new camera and macro lens the quality in photos has improved as well. It’s not just the number we’ve seen but the variety we’ve spotted as well! There are so many different kinds, different colours and shapes. It can be a wee bit frustrating trying to hold myself still in the water and getting the camera to focus in on this tiny wee creature, but it’s so worth it!
The dogfish/catshark isn’t particularly uncommon in the UK and it’s no different up here in Scotland, if you know where and when to look. They are absolutely stunning to photograph and, although not overly colourful, the texture of their “skin” and their eyes is absolutely incredible.
Now cucumbers are most definitely not my favourite vegetable… but sea cucumbers… those I do love! I genuinely can’t get over how cool they look. They remind me of wee trees and I’m totally mesmerised watching them bring the food to their mouths with their tentacles.
Jellyfish! The scourge of beach goers everywhere! The dread of someone shouting “JELLYFISH” and hoping beyond hope you aren’t caught in a tentacle brings back childhood memories. So until I started diving the “evil” jellyfish was much feared. However, since I started exploring the underwater world and seeing them in all their glory, I have come to appreciate jellyfish for they unbelievable beauty and grace. I love watching them float past (from a distance!) and seeing the shapes they take in the water. They are so full of grace!
Even the most dived sites can throw up a wee surprise every now and again. We’d headed to one our usual haunts with the main goal of logging a couple of deeper dives just to build up to Scapa later in the year. We descended down to around 38m where we planned to swim along for a wee bit before ascending again. There were a few rocks, but generally not much life but I took the camera anyway, you know, just in case.
Now these guys aren’t completely uncommon here on the west coast, but they’re mainly found at night and until now I’d never spied one, let alone photographed one! Bobtail Squid/Little Cuttlefish! I’m not going to lie, I was so excited! I actually thought I was slightly narked as it appeared out of the sand. This wee fella was so cool! The colours were absolutely breathtaking and getting the opportunity to photograph them was just amazing.
Scotland isn’t the diving capital of the world; we’re not going to suddenly become a top dive destination on many diver’s bucket lists. BUT we do have some incredible marine life, with such unbelievable colours! Although it’s not the easiest diving you’ll ever do, when you do get that moment it makes it feel all the more special.
A Red Sea Scuba Scene (Part 2 of 2)
The first two days of diving were amazing – I think you’ll agree after reading Part 1 of the blog HERE. We left the Brothers Islands setting sail for Daedalus – the southernmost point of our itinerary around 275km southeast of Hurghada. Conditions were perfect for our crossing and continued throughout our day at Daedalus for three dives. I was so excited for this site as it was the highlight on my previous trip and I’d also had word it was the hot spot for oceanic whitetips the last couple of months.
We moored up by the lighthouse at the southern point of the island and was thankful to see there weren’t as many boats as at the Brothers. Our first dive was a rib dive to the North Point to drift out in the blue at around 25 metres+ in the hope of seeing scalloped hammerheads. I wasn’t expecting the same action as my previous trip with schools of around 20 hammerheads due to difference in the time of year and sure enough the action didn’t hit as big. We spotted a couple of lone hammerheads between the group deeper than 40 metres. After spending half the dive in the blue we came back to the stunning East wall with its amazing soft coral and small fish life. Towards the end of the dive we had an incredible encounter with a feeding hawksbill turtle that was completely comfortable with our presence as it fed on the soft coral. It’s always a pleasure seeing turtles.
Although we were on the rib once the dive was finished, the action wasn’t over. As we neared Scuba Scene we saw some commotion with other ribs in front stopping and looking in the water. Initially the rib skipper said it was a whale shark but as we neared we saw the unmistakeable dorsal fin of an oceanic whitetip shark break the surface. In fact, there were two of them and they were really excited. I lent over the side with my camera and got my best photos of them as one came to investigate bumping into the camera. This is what I love; this is what gets me excited and sure enough for the next two dives I decided to stay under our boat at around 5 metres for most of the dives. There were three in total around Daedalus and I had some incredible close-up encounters with them. This is what I was here for and I was so happy after our day at Daedalus with the oceanics.
Although the conditions at Daedalus were like glass, the weather forecast wasn’t looking great for the next two days and the decision was made to journey back north to Elphinstone instead of staying for another day at Daedalus. I was a little disappointed as it would mean missing out on some more great shark action. However, I missed out on Elphinstone on my last trip due to bad weather and was happy to get the chance to dive there finally.
Sure enough the winds picked up during the night and it was a lot more choppy when moored up at Elphinstone. With Scuba Scene’s size, it was very capable of dealing with rougher seas and we planned for a full day there. We had two morning dives before deciding to head inland as conditions worsened. My dive buddy and I stuck with the South Plateau for the two dives and both were stunning. The life on the plateau was amazing as lionfish were in abundance and while photographing them I got surprised by my very first torpedo ray. It was only a juvenile and what a cutie it was as it swam over my dome and turned just before it hit me and swam away. Two friendly hawksbills were again a highlight as they didn’t care for the divers exploring the plateau. While ANOTHER oceanic whitetip really made our trip to Elphinstone in bad weather worthwhile. FIVE different oceanics on the trip; I was happy to just get one but buzzing with the action at three different sites.
It wasn’t all bad leaving Elphinstone early as we managed to get an extra dive in with a night dive at Abu Dabab 3 after an afternoon dive there also. The afternoon dive was a highlight of the trip for me as I got to experience something different with a “cave” dive of sorts. My dive buddy sat the dive out but guide Adma Rashed was eager to get in as he loved exploring the caves. I was soon following him exploring a shallow cave system through the reef. As it happens, this was his first time exploring the whole way through the system and he was so happy after the dive. I’m no cave diver and have no interest in deep cave exploration but this was really fun and different to everything else on the trip. I’d certainly like to do more of this relaxed type of cave diving.
The rest of the trip for the Thursday and half a day on the Friday was Red Sea reef heaven again. A night dive at Mangrove Bay provided a couple of cuttlefish (I love cuttlefish) and also my first time seeing a Spanish Dancer underwater. Although we tried the seagrass at Marsa Shona and saw a green sea turtle from the surface, we couldn’t find any underwater and soon left to explore the reef – an amazing reef full of blue spotted ribbontail rays to enjoy. We finished with two dives at the Police Station dive site around Small Giftun Island. The gorgonian fan corals were a beautiful sight but the highlight of diving here were the huge moray eels and, in particular, one huge free swimming moray that swam next to me for a brief period right at the end of my last dive.
WHAT A WEEK OF DIVING!!!! Thank you Scuba Scene Liveaboard and Oyster Diving.
Sean Chinn travelled as a guest of Scuba Scene Liveaboard and Oyster Diving. Scuba Scene is available to book exclusively through Oyster Diving. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0808 253 3370 to find out more or reserve your space!
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