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JOURNEY TO THE LIGHTHOUSE REEF

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My name is Carole, I have been diving for 18 years and I’ve been a PADI Instructor for 17 of them. Today I am the Technical Manager at Fantasea Divers, responsible for overseeing the dive operation and working with Chris Harding, who together with Ema Louis is a partner at Coral Hotel & Fantasea Dive Center, located 90km North of Sharm el Sheikh.

Like me, when asked what inspired them to start diving, many divers of my generation relate their thirst for the underwater realm to that of the legendary Jacques Cousteau, who in his time was a trailblazer and conservationist for the underwater world and its inhabitants.

When the time was right and an opportunity arose to realize one of my dreams, I learnt to dive. Little did I know, way back then, it was just the start of the journey I was to undertake after completing the PADI Open Water Course with James & Mac at Barracuda Dive Centre in Hurghada.

That said I was absolutely not prepared for the tedious & boring hours of theory we had to sit through in the classroom. I really wondered what the hell I was doing when out of the window all I could see were other tourists around the pool enjoying themselves knocking back the Stella……… but when the time came & we were jumping off a boat into the clear blue waters of the Red Sea I was instantly hooked – I loved it and could definitely see myself living this life.

In fact on my return home I joined a dive club called Dive Force Marine and started working my way through the PADI courses up to Instructor. I experienced the delights of the popular UK training sites such as Stoney Cove, Swanage & Gildenburgh to name but a few.  Every opportunity I got was spent under water. Within the year I was on my way to Malta with a bunch of other wannabe Instructors under the tutelage of PADI Course Director Gary Mawson and his entourage of IDC Staff.

Soon after I successfully passed the IDC IE, the company I was working for was relocating and I was given two options – I could continue with the rat race, or alternatively accept voluntary redundancy and a wad of cash; a no-brainer really! My dream was coming true and without hesitation I took the wad, tied up loose ends and flew back to Egypt, a place that has felt like home like no other.

 

I arrived in Dahab in March 1994 quite by chance. I originally went back to Hurghada to look for work, but it was their winter season and most places were fully staffed and wanted German speaking Instructors.  Having spent a couple of years in Germany with the army I only knew the most important phrases that mattered to me, ‘zwei bier bitte’,  ‘ein  kaffee bitte’ & my all time favorite used at Macdonalds in Paderborn, ‘keine zwiebel bitte’ – none of which was really going to get me far!

One evening, after consuming a large amount of the local brew in Peanuts bar in Hurghada, a plan was hatched to go to Sharm el Sheikh to look for work. Everything looks doable after a few bottles of the local brew!  However the boat trip from Hurghada to Sharm the next day was not something I had prepared myself for.

The stomach-churning  journey seemed to go on forever and the sea conditions only added to my discomfort.  I was secretly thinking we are all going to die and at some point had wanted to. It was hellish with no shade, no loo & no refreshments. I had not given any thought to bringing water with me to offset the dehydration effects caused by the previous evening’s happy hour and I certainly wasn’t happy at that moment in time.  Lesson’s 1 & 2 learned there and then! On arrival to Sharm I had had enough of it immediately and was talked into a taxi headed for some place called Dahab.

On arrival I honestly thought my new friends had stitched me up. I was shocked at the basic surroundings, unfamiliar food (turned out to be the best diet ever), funny smelling smoke that wafted out of the beach restaurants  (I use the term ‘restaurants’ loosely there) and the communal feel of Dahab. I spent the first week sleeping in my wooly bear as the camp rooms did not provide any bedding and I didn’t know that Egypt like anywhere else, as it turns out,  was really rather cold in the winter (I’m ex-army & a city girl at heart and had never travelled that far out of my comfort zone in those days – and yes, I roughed it whilst in the army on occasion, but at least they fed you & gave you a blanket and a pillow).

I got over my initial thought process of “What the bloody hell am I doing here” and knew I had to make the best of it. I had sold my home, most of my worldly possessions & against the advice of my family & friends said goodbye to everything that was familiar to me, so I got on with it and set about looking for work.

Dahab back then was a small fishing village populated mainly by the Bedouin and had only 8 Dive Centers, and it was a backpacker haven. The attraction for divers of course was not what was on the surface (stoneheads & hippies may beg to differ), but what awaited you underwater.

Even though I was a new Instructor, I had worked hard to become an experienced diver, so after a short interview I made my teaching debut at Adventure Dive Club, uniquely run by three Egyptian sisters who had a passion for diving & business. This Dive Center was situated next door to the well established Fantasea Divers, owned by my now good friend Chris Harding, it was there I met Ema who was working on the Dive Counter at the time and who was to become a lifelong friend. Both Dive Centers were located conveniently in front of the Lighthouse Reef, in a time when there was no restriction on how close the buildings could be to the sea.

When it came down to it camp life did not suit me at all and as luck would have it a couple of Instructors from Fantasea were leaving  and I ended up renting their house on the beach within a compound owned by a Dutch Instructor, who at the time was the Manager at Fantasea Divers. Life was looking good.

 

For the next nine months the Lighthouse became my home and I got to know it extremely well. I taught so many Open Water & Advanced Courses back to back, mainly to backpackers of all nationalities. South Africans, Aussies & Kiwis were a dream to teach; they were born to be in the water. Spending so much time at the Lighthouse working gave me the passion to want to dive and explore all the other dive sites in Dahab during my precious leisure time.

So let me tell you about my beloved Lighthouse Reef. Firstly it is called the Lighthouse because during the Israeli occupation there was an actual Lighthouse structure there; after they left it was re-located further up the beach, and if you know where to look you can just about see the top of it as it reaches above the date palms that now surround it.

The Lighthouse Reef is as diverse as it is beautiful, as it offers many shallow & deep dives both to the North & South. Even though Dahab is renowned for its wind, one can dive at the Lighthouse reef at almost any time of the year, day or night, because of its sheltered position.

The Lighthouse dive site is suitable for beginners, experienced & more recently Technical Divers alike. The easy entry & exit hosts a gentle sloping bottom that leads to a subtle drop off. The first shelf is perfect for confined water and other training dives. Around the inner reef heading North you will find large coral pinnacles that loom from the sandy bottom @ 10m – 18m absolutely teaming with marine life. As one travels along the reef, large bright green cabbage corals can be seen sprouting from the seabed. An overhang juts out, which houses a bright a red sponge and a delicate fan coral, which is an absolute favourite hangout for Crocodile Fish & Blue Spotted Rays. Passing this, there are a couple of dead pinnacles to the left & right, leading to a saddle,   which is best crossed at 16m. This area is rich in flora and fauna and looking carefully stone & scorpion fish can be identified blending in with their surroundings, ready to pounce on their prey. Napoleon fish and a Turtle can also sometimes be seen here. If there is a current present it feels like you’re flying over the saddle; coming back however requires some effort and good buoyancy control.

The deep dive to 30m is usually made on the outer East facing reef. By following the sloping bottom to the outer reef there is a sprawling mass of large coral pinnacles rich in marine life. One of the pinnacles has a little cave in it that you can easily sit in and watch the blue for passing Pelagic, including Mantas & Eagle Rays. Some people get a bit twitchy at the mention of sharks! Swim further on and you come to the bottom of the saddle where at 27m a large gorgonian fan coral can be found, however due to a very bad storm a few years ago it fell over. Efforts were made to re-position it. It is still there but no longer upright & majestic as it should be.

 

 

 

 

The Southern dives, deep or shallow, offer some of the most fascinating sightings of marine life you can imagine. These dives offer the same gentle sloping descent. There are a mass of manmade terracotta pots that have been sunk at 16m to deliberately add interest to the vast sandy bottom, which encourage coral to grow & marine life such as moray eels & octopus to inhabit. The sea grass that is prevalent in that area has recently seen a sea horse population boom, and it is not unusual to see turtles grazing there, or ghost pipe fish milling around. At 9m just past the confined area there used to be the remnants of an old jeep, encrusted with coral which was a haven for lion & stonefish,  although sadly over the years this little gem has all but disintegrated, and only the chassis remains.

At 12m there is training area complete with varying sizes of triangles to help perfect buoyancy control. Further along you come to Banner Fish Bay, so named because of the masses of the like-named fish that hang there above the small coral blocks. Swimming at a right angle from this spot to about 30m you can find a large sandy ridge running East; this ridge was caused by a huge storm when its waters rushed down from the mountains and swept a few shops and a dive center into the sea. One of the shop’s that was swept away was a jewelers and legend has it that it’s gold lies there somewhere. Many years ago I was blessed to see two guitar sharks resting on the bottom there.

After leaving Adventure Dive Club it was time to dive with the big boys at Nesima, then a 5 Star IDC Center,   where I would put my knowledge & experience of the Lighthouse and other dive sites around Dahab to good use and make new friends for life.

Today Dahab has changed enormously from when I first arrived here. There are now over 50 Dive Centers along the coastline of Dahab. The Bedouin & Egyptian now work side by side, and there are good restaurants offering everything from Italian to Sushi. The infrastructure built over the last ten years provides a more comfortable lifestyle. There are still a few camps left and back packers still come, but not in the numbers that they used to. These days most tourists prefer a package holiday as more and more families are venturing here & taking the plunge at the Lighthouse.

Don’t just dream it, Do it! Has always been my mantra. The risks one takes to achieve the dreams held dear can pay off if you can take the rough with the smooth, and don’t  get bent out of shape should the internet go down for more than an hour! There’s always the Lighthouse Reef.

The Lighthouse Reef holds many good memories for me and to this day I still love to dive there, given any opportunity.

Carole Tansley is a PADI Open Water SCUBA Instructor and the Technical Manager of Dive Operations at Fantasea Red Sea in Dahab, Egypt. To find out more about Fantasea Red Sea, visit http://www.fantasearedsea.com/

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Scotland Underwater

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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.


For more from Ross, follow him on Instagram @underwater.ross and on Twitter @outdoorsross.

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A Red Sea Scuba Scene (Part 2 of 2)

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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.

A feeding hawksbill turtle pays no attention to the divers on Daedalus.

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.

Oceanic whitetip shark swimming under the sun at Daedalus.

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.

Lionfish swimming amongst the stunning reef of South Plateau, Elphinstone.

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.

Colourful pyjama nudibranch on a night dive at Abu Dabab 3.

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.

One of the many moray eels at Small Giftun Island.

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.

Exploring a shallow cave system at Abu Dabab 3 was a real highlight.


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 info@oysterdiving.com or call 0808 253 3370 to find out more or reserve your space!

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