Scuba diving in the Red Sea

1992

by Arthur Cox

In 1992 my wife, Sylvia, had treatment for cancer, this being the second time for her. After the treatment had ended she felt that she needed to do something that would be a personal challenge. The decision was made to learn scuba diving. She took her initial lessons with Puffin-Air based at Cold Norton and for her final sea tests in open water we decided to go with this group to Egypt where she would take her final exams at a Red Sea based diving school. I joined the group merely for the holiday of one week. The system of diving training was the PADI system.

PADI

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I have abbreviated the names of most of the persons to their first names in case they object to being fully named on the Internet.

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Thursday 19 Nov. 1992

We were up at 3.45am and had a quick breakfast and loaded up the car. Then we had to wait the arrival of another member of the team – Nigel – whose father was bringing him from Colchester. We had under-estimated the time needed to reach Gatwick and hoped he would not be late. They arrived at 4.30am and we set off immediately. Nigel was a pleasant young chap – rather quiet in his manner. We reached the car-parking place at Copthorne by 6.30am and finally by means of the parking company’s shuttle bus got to the airport on time at 7.0am. Here we wandered around looking for the Air 2000 desk and there we found other group members. They were; Bob (the group leader), Sally (one of the two SCUBA instructors), Nick (Sally’s boyfriend), Carol and Mark Walton, Jane and Mark Gurden  and Tim. Some were already experienced divers who were going to acquire additional skills.

We received our flight tickets from Sally. We made a mistake when checking in and although Nigel was with us at the desk he was allocated a seat further forward in the plane – his first flight and he had wanted our company on the plane. Then there was much time to waste as usual at airports and so with Nigel we went for coffee. Eventually we took off about 9.15am in a 757 Air2000 plane. The man sitting next to us and by the window was rather odd – very fussy and I found it hard to read – he kept offering me his glasses to look out of the window. I found that he knew Maldon and had something to do with boats. He knew the Kemps (a Maldon barge-owning family known to us) and he was disturbed to find that John Kemp had died while out at sea on his barge. I gave him Monica Kemp’s new address as far as we knew it. We thought the service on the plane was better than any flight we had previously encountered. We read books and had a long flight directly to Luxor.

We arrived at Luxor late in the afternoon (and altered our watches to 3 hours advance as displayed in the plane). Here at Luxor airport was the usual chaos of getting our baggage and fighting off the over-eager porters. It was difficult to know who were porters and who were not. By 6.15pm the sun was setting in a glorious red sunset and we started (in two small coaches) on our journey to the Red Sea port of Safaga and then to Hurghada. We stopped on the outskirts of Luxor and our refreshment supplies of bread rolls (cheese and cucumber) were handed out – also small bottles of water which were very welcome. Then we travelled northwards following a wide canal and through the town of Qus to arrive at Qena. We were surprised here to see police checks at the entrance to the town and at the main crossroads. Then we continued on eastwards across the desert heading for the Red Sea. It was dark now and there was not much to see at all. We stopped for 15 minutes at a small place – a mosque and café (I found from my map that it was called Bir el Qreiya – a well) Then onwards through a rising landscape to Port Safaga on the Red Sea coast. The road went through gaps in huge dunes and rocky hills and wound about a lot. We were much intrigued by the weird signals used by all the coach drivers – much flashing of headlights as they approached oncoming vehicles and sometimes, when close behind the leading coach, the lights were switched off all together as the coaches passed one another in complete darkness. There were more police checks at Port Safaga and then we travelled northwards again to the southern area of Hurghada itself. This is really a holiday area south of the main town and there are signs of much new hotel and holiday village developments. It was late evening when we finally arrived at the Princess Club – a rather imposing hotel foyer with many accommodation blocks in the gardens behind. There was a great fuss about the booking in which we had to do twice, once for the Club (really an hotel) and again for the diving school. Forms were filled in for both places but at last we got the key to our room D54. I expected the bags to be grabbed by the staff but they were all suddenly conspicuous by their absence – no directions whatever to where room D54 might be. We were told that a meal would be served shortly. Sylvia and I followed some of the others out through a door into some gardens and saw rows of two-storey buildings. All was rather dark everywhere and at last we found on the ends of the buildings some wooden arrow-shaped boards bearing room numbers; we wandered about some while before finding that D54 was up some dark stairs and along a open gallery. The room was not too bad at all but the carpentry and building work was really bad. We left our luggage and went back for the meal but we didn’t fancy much of what was on offer and went to bed just after 1.0am. We couldn’t sleep despite the long tiring journey. We had been told that breakfast would be served at 7.0am.

 Friday 20 Nov. 1992

Breakfast started at 7.0am and we were there then with several others of the group. There was no sign of any breakfast being served. We went and sat down and waited – we asked a waiter about breakfast and was told it would be at 7 o’clock although apparently it was now approaching 7.30am. We were served some coffee and then found that we had all got our watches one hour ahead of the correct time. The time displayed in the aircraft had been wrong! We were joined by Bob (the other scuba instructor).

Arthur and Sylvia waiting for breakfast

After breakfast (buffet style with the food beautifully prepared and laid out) we were to report to the Diving School (which was within the hotel complex). Here there was much filling in of more forms by the divers – I found that although I was not diving, a place for me had been found on our group’s boat and then Bob asked me if I would mind taking on the job of Dive Marshal which I was told would mean recording the divers’ times, dive details, etc. I agreed to do this as it seemed a good chance to keep a place on a boat. We were all to meet soon down at the quay to start loading up the boat so we went back to our room to collect all our gear and then had a walk through the hotel buildings, past another swimming pool and various large rectangular lagoons to eventually reach a small quay. There was a small café-bar, a row of low sheds and about seven or eight small boats.

292

925292 -1992 – November – Hurghada – Sylvia using lip salve at the scuba school.

293

925293 – 1992 -November – Nigel – Sylvia and Jane inspecting the boat

The first job was to collect the lead weights from a small wooden locker built against one of the sheds and to assemble our belts, etc. Sylvia took approximately 24lb of weights. Then once our boat had been allocated – a smallish craft named Sharp – we started to collect 23 air bottles and transfer these into the boat. Next came all the diving kit and any personal bags. Once on board, shoes were removed and stowed in a small locker. The crew consisted of two persons – one a young boy. Eventually about 10 o’clock, we started off and headed north-west along the coast before turning towards the north and out to sea. The water was fairly calm and there were several other boats all heading in the same general direction. The “Sharp” was not very fast and it was late morning, and after about an hour’s journey, when we at last stopped and anchored beside a small circular reef. This was Gota Abu Ramada and our diving station for the morning. Bob gave me a clipboard, a pencil and a list of the divers’ names written on a form – my job as Dive Marshal was to record details about each diver. There were 10 divers including 4 who were still in their initial open-water training. They were listed on my board as follows:

Bob                     Instructor

Sally                    Instructor

Sylvia                  Training

Nick                     Training

Carol Walton       Training

Mark Walton       Training

Tim                     Advanced diver

Nigel                   Rescue diver

Jane Gurden        Rescue diver

Mark Gurden      Rescue diver

Because there were two both named Mark, it was soon usual to refer to these as Mark W. and Mark G. There was very little room on board and the gear took up much of the deck space. The first four divers to prepare were the experienced divers Tim, Nigel, Jane and Mark G. My initial job was to record the air pressure in their tanks – usually around 200 bar – and then to record the time when they went backwards into the sea. Once these four were in the water, the training party were able to finish their preparations. Bob then found two problems – one of the straps that held on his tank had snapped and his regulator valve was faulty. A spare strap was found and he had to wait for one of the divers to return in order to borrow a regulator. This wasted much time. Sylvia was not very happy about going backwards into the water – on her initial training she had used steps to get into the swimming pool.

333

925333 – Hurghada – Nick and Sylvia preparing their gear

Her weights were very heavy and it was necessary to work oneself backwards over the row of air bottles that were lying on the deck to reach a rather wide gunwale which had a wooden ridge along it. It was difficult to get to the right position without falling backwards too soon. The others offered much encouragement and at last Sylvia was in the water. Bob took charge of Nick and Mark W. and Sally was with Carol and Sylvia.

331

925331 – Hurghada – Sylvia preparing to go overboard

As soon as they were out of sight under the water, I decided to try snorkelling with my modified mask – some old spectacle lenses fixed to the glass of the mask with Araldite! It was fairly successful and I swam from the boat and around the top of the small reef – called an erg – which was a conical reef of coral ending about 18″ below the water surface.

925353 - Hurghada - corals

925353 – Hurghada – corals on the erg.

I found the water rather choppy and very, very salty. I saw Sally and Sylvia below me doing part of the training procedures. There were an astonishing number of fishes of many varieties. The time passed rapidly and I saw that the trainees were returning so I hastily climbed aboard to finish my marshal’s duties. These were, in fact, to record the air pressure again, the time they came back on board, then the dive depth and time.

925296 - Hurghada -Sylvia preparing to come aboard after a dive925296 – Hurghada – Sylvia preparing to come aboard after a dive.

While this was all going on the crew had been cooking – meatballs and a large salad dish. We were invited to eat but few felt like having any food and only three of us ate anything – more to please the crew than because we were hungry. The boat was now rocking about quite a bit and I saw that Carol was a bit sick. Although Sylvia felt all right once she was in the water and had overcome her initial fears, she was now feeling faint and sea-sick — something she had never experienced before even in rough waters. After the lunch period came the time to prepare for the afternoon dive. Sylvia got as far as getting prepared but then couldn’t face actually going over. Sally got annoyed and the crew were not too happy about being late. Eventually, Sylvia went and lay down after taking an anti-seasickness tablet. She was soon fast asleep. When all the other divers were safely in the water, I tried to have another go at snorkelling but found that there were now quite strong currents and it was difficult to get where I wanted to go. I looked up one point when I thought I was away from the boat and was very alarmed to see the stern of the was right above my shoulders and it was with some difficulty that I managed to get away from it before it crashed down on me. I decided to abandon the idea of swimming and climbed aboard. Except for Bob, none of the others had dived from a boat before and there was a lot of their equipment strewn about in untidy piles. Sylvia was still asleep and I sat near her with Carol until she woke. Then we discovered that the boat had engine trouble – perhaps an explanation of why the crew were worried about being late. It was necessary to get a tow from one of the other boats and we had an extremely slow journey back. We sat and talked and watched the sunset behind the hills along the coast as we returned. It was dark when we eventually reached the quay. Here, after unloading all the empty air tanks and our gear and storing the latter in one of the sheds, we made our way back to the hotel buildings. A shower – with the water now not too warm because we were so late – it was time to go for dinner.

The dinner was set out as a buffet with a splendid and bewildering choice of food all very artistically prepared – almost too good to actually cut into. There was some good soup and main course. We kept to hot foods and avoided things like salads in case of tummy troubles. We were early to bed for an early start in the morning.

Saturday 21 November.

We were both up at 5.0am. We prepared ourselves some coffee using our small electric kettle and the large jar of Nescafé which we had taken with us and went to get breakfast at 7.0 o’clock. Sylvia felt stomach troubles and took Imodium tablets. She had the horrors thinking about getting diarrhoea when dressed in a wetsuit. We had an early breakfast where we were joined by Bob who always appeared first. He was usually followed by the Waltons and Gurdens. The food was mainly various rolls, hard-boiled eggs and coffee. Then back to our room for the final preparations for another day of diving and a walk to the quay. The “Sharp” was still out of service and we had a better boat – larger and much cleaner – but there was no sign of a name anywhere. After the usual collecting of the gear and loading the boat, we set off earlier than yesterday. Our destination for the morning was noted on the dive chart as Magawish but on my map it is shown as Umm Agawish and was a small reef. Sylvia was full of confidence today and determined to finish her training. Because Sylvia had not done an afternoon dive yesterday, Sally had re-arranged the schedules and said there would be no dive at all for Sylvia today. We discovered that Sally could be very spiteful. Neither was Nick to dive because he had not done the requisite training dives in the pool back in the UK. I got the usual job of Dive Marshal. After a moan from Bob, the gear was kept much tidier on the deck.

925368 - Hurghada - diving gear assembled

925368 – Hurghada – diving gear assembled.

When at Magawish, the eight divers got ready and I recorded details as before. Once they were all in the water, Sylvia and I decided to go snorkelling. Nick offered me the use of his fins to see how much difference they made. We swam over the reef and saw a great many fishes and corals. Sylvia took her under-water camera and tried some photography. Although Sylvia didn’t dive she really felt full of confidence and we had a good day. No meals were cooked for us on the boat at our request. Carol and Mark Walton passed their final tests in the afternoon and were now qualified as “openwater divers”. We set off back to the shore early and were back on the quay by 3 o’clock. It was a much better boat and crew today and we all hoped that we would have the same boat tomorrow. Back at our room we found that the water was still hot and so had a good shower before relaxing for a snooze and a read.

We went to dinner at 6 o’clock as soon as it started and ate well with more beautifully prepared food. We looked at some of the small shops that were incorporated into the hotel foyer area and bought some postcards and a chart showing all the Red Sea fishes. Then we were early to bed again.

Sunday. 22 November.

We were up by 6.15am and went to early breakfast where we were joined by Bob who always appeared first. He was usually followed by the Waltons and Gurdens. When at the quay, we were all pleased to find that we had the same boat as yesterday – still no sign of the “Sharp”. The destination this morning was Small Gifton and this was reached in about 45 minutes. I carried out my marshalling work and realised that I had learnt a lot just from watching and comparing the records of the different divers. Sylvia did two dives today – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – and carried out her training procedures satisfactorily. In the afternoon we moved to El Aruk Gifton where I borrowed some fins and boots and managed to do some photography over one of the ergs. It was a good day although the weather turned quite cold on the return journey. At the quay, we all stopped at the little café for drinks and chips before walking back to the Princess Club. Today was Tim’s birthday and we planned to meet later at the Gurden’s room for drinks, etc. Sylvia and I relaxed in our room until 7.0 o’clock and then visited a small minimarket across the main road (the first time we had ventured out of the hotel complex) to buy some crisps and drink for the evening. We all met up in the large room that the Gurdens enjoyed where we talked and chatted. We were joined by a young man – an Australian. Then, at 9.0pm, we all went to the dining room together. A cake had been prepared for Tim and this was made of slices of small cakes from the usual dessert table with a candle set on top. Sylvia and I left them at 10.0pm and they were talking of going to a disco which was arranged within the Club area.

23 Nov 92. Monday

Sylvia was up five times during the night with tummy troubles and diarrhoea. She took plenty of Imodium tablets and again had the horrors that she would be in trouble while wearing her diving wetsuit. After breakfast (but Sylvia didn’t eat much!) we made our way to the quay. To our great disappointment, today we were allocated to a different boat which was not very clean and decidedly cramped for our group. Off for about one hour’s journey to reach Erg Abu Ramada. This was a low reef stretching between two low rocky islands. The reef had a deep cliff-like drop on the side where we anchored. In the afternoon we moved round to Abu Ramada South.

334

925334 – Hurghada – Sylvia going over into the water.

Sylvia had her first dive in the afternoon and successfully passed her final open-water tests – she was a qualified open water diver at last! When Sylvia and Sally were coming back swimming on the surface, a group of Germans on anther boat yelled out “How old is she?” meaning Sylvia and there was much cheering when we shouted back “She’s fifty-eight!”.

925298 - Hurghada - Sylvia and Sally swimming925298 – Hurghada – Sylvia and Sally swimming back to the boat

Some photos were taken by the Gurdens using Sylvia’s camera.

925340 - Hurghada - Sally & Sylvia among the fish

925340 – Hurghada – Sally & Sylvia among the fish

925343 - Hurghada - Jane & Sally & Sylvia underwater925343 – Hurghada – Jane & Sally & Sylvia underwater

Then back to the quay where we all stopped again for chips and drinks at the little café. Dinner for Sylvia and me was at six o’clock and then later we went to meet the others in the hotel bar area. Here Sylvia and Nick, who had also passed his tests, received their debriefing sessions with Sally and Bob and completed their diving log-books. Then the others went to dinner while we went back to our room.

24 Nov 92. Tuesday:

We were up at 6.15am after a good night’s sleep for both of us. To breakfast at seven but we had to wait a while due to a French party finishing an early breakfast before their departure. Bob arrived as usual and was closely followed by the Gurdens and Waltons. Sylvia had our own coffee (Nescafé) with us this morning and this was shared around. I was asked by one of the waiters to pay for our dinner drinks of last night, something that I had completely forgotten to pay for at the time. We discussed the matter of the boat between ourselves. The small boat of yesterday was infested with maggots and we decided to club together to pay extra for a better boat. Back down at the quay, Bob and Sally negotiated with the boatmen for another and better boat and it was finally obtained much to our delight. After the usual loading up of the gear, we set off in good time and headed out for Small Giften. With the exception of Sylvia, all the other divers set off for a group “drift dive” and because of the very choppy water they had to assemble in the water with a rope in order to keep together before starting off. Sylvia didn’t go because she hadn’t had the requisite numbers of dives. Then they set off to drift with an underwater current to where the boat next anchored. Soon we saw some divers pass completely under our boat (all the boats look much the same from underneath!) and they finally surfaced much further on and had to turn back. For the afternoon, the boat moved to a lagoon area where I was able to go for swim with the snorkel. I had forgotten to bring my swimming trunks and had to wear my ordinary shorts. Later, I tried again with the underwater camera but found it very difficult to take pictures because the camera floated (despite it being quite heavy) and there was a poor view through the viewfinder and the mask. I was then called back because the boat was ready to move on. Now, I found a strong current and had great difficulty in reaching the boat – happily, the boatmen threw out a line for me to catch hold of. Then we set off for El Aruk Giften. Here Sylvia went diving with Mark and Jane Gurden (both qualified rescue divers) and some more photos were taken underwater. This was Sylvia’s first dive without being under tuition. The others went in small groups to practise various skills. By 1.40 all were back on board again and we set off back to the shore to tie up at the quay by 2.35. Arrangements were made for a night dive from the same boat that evening. We all went to the café for chips and drinks while waiting for the sun to set. At 3.40pm, we were told by Chris (the Scuba School organiser) who had just arrived back from diving, that conditions were considered to be too rough for a night dive from a boat. The gear was therefore taken from the deck and put safely away in the boat’s cabin instead of the usual shed. Plans were changed and a proposed trip into Hurghada Town on Wednesday evening was brought forward to tonight. So all of us went back to the Princess Club for showers, etc. and arranged to meet in the foyer later. Here we negotiated for the eleven of us to have two taxis at £E10 per taxi and set off to the Town (about 20 minutes journey). There, we were taken to a well-known Chinese restaurant – we hadn’t booked and the other customers were moved around in order to accommodate us together at one long table. There was much confusion over the orders. The dishes were Chinese and the Egyptian waiter didn’t know who had ordered which dish and we didn’t know what the dishes were. We had much amusement over the waiter’s announcement of “Chicken and bum shoots” instead of chicken and bamboo shoots. Our meal finished at 10.40pm and six of us (Sylvia and I, the Gurdens and the Waltons) decided to take a short stroll and then find a taxi. The streets were still very busy with the shops open. There were all the usual requests from the shop keepers to visit their shops, etc. and we found ourselves being followed about. We got a taxi at last and agreed the fare of £E10 back to the Princess Club. It was my turn to pay and I found that the driver tried to get £E10 per person – a usual trick which we had faced when in Egypt in 1980. We refused to pay more. Went to bed by 11.25pm.

24 Nov 92. Wednesday:

Our last day for diving and the sea was fairly rough with a cold wind blowing as well. We went in the same boat for the morning diving but Sylvia didn’t dive – the water seemed too choppy and she thought she wouldn’t be able to get back on board with all the diving gear on. It meant taking off the fins, the buoyancy jacket with its attached heavy air bottle and handing these in before climbing up the steep ladder at the stern. Sylvia and I therefore enjoyed the boat trip but I carried out the usual dive marshal work. At lunch-time the boat moved closer to the shore and there was time for a very short dive before setting off back to the quay. The water still very rough and the boat rocked about a lot. It was then decided that a night dive must be made from the shore in one of the large lagoon areas. We had another session at the café whilst waiting for the darkness and then the preparation was done in the dark on the water’s edge. The divers were warned about the stone fish which sit on the bottom, look like large stones and are very, very dangerous. The team waded out into the water and gradually disappeared under the surface. Nigel, much to his annoyance, had to come back because of equipment trouble and Sally wouldn’t wait while it was fixed. The lights from the divers’ torches showed up very well from under the water but they seemed to go away from the planned objective. They were all heading off in the wrong direction! Finally they returned and I waited, did the recording work and helped with putting away the gear (the weights and air cylinders) while Sylvia went back to our room.

25 Nov 92. Thursday:

We travelled next day in the coach back through the desert – there were all the stops at military checkpoints – and then we found out the reason for all the activity was that some tourists been shot at by a revolutionary group, etc. We had a military escort through Qena town with armoured vehicles and mounted machine guns, and we travelled through at top speed with a military vehicle both before and behind the coach. We saw some very interesting views of the desert and old railways – things we had missed on the outward trip because that had been at night.

img5502 - refreshment stop on the road from Qina to Hurghada.jpgA refreshment stop at Bir el Qreiya on the road back to Luxor – Arthur and Sylvia

There was the usual wait and bustle at Luxor airport. The flight was OK with no delays. Nigel came home with us but wouldn’t stop the night so we stopped on the drive home for him to phone his own home. He was collected by his father after we got back to Latchingdon.

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Some added notes about the scuba lessons.

Sylvia went to learn scuba diving with “Puffin-Air” at Cold Norton near Latchingdon. This was a combined shop for diving equipment and a diving school. Not a very good idea because they tended to push pupils into buying stuff. Also the instructors got a bonus when their pupils passed the final tests – this attitude left Sylvia doubtful about the tests – had she really done all that was required or had her instructor passed her in order to gain the bonus?

On the tests in the Red Sea, Sally had not performed the emergency “buddy share” procedure according to the handbooks and there had been something odd about the procedure of removing the weight-belts and replacing them again while submerged and on the bottom.

I noticed that Sylvia used very little air when diving. Some of the others came back with an almost empty bottle but Sylvia always had plenty. The first time we noticed that she has shallow breathing. 

badge for padiThe well earned PADI qualified diver’s badge

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