Thursday, April 29, 2010

Into the Blue

Blue Hole, Dahab, Egypt

Entering through a narrow crevasse in the reef, one by one, we descend through a space just wide enough for one diver. Hemmed in, and viewed through the dive mask, you get the feeling you are riding down a magical glass elevator, with jagged rocky outcrops coming out at you from all directions. Looking closer, you realize that each rocky ledge is filled with all kinds of life. Juvenile fish darting out of the way, a trigger fish picking at algae and coral off an edge, and a lone lionfish lying still in wait for its next meal! Reaching a depth of about 28 meters, we come to a natural arch in the rock. Swimming under the arch which acts like a doorway, we enter into the big blue abyss. In front of you, an unimaginable expanse of deep sapphire blue, and in a distance, faint shadows of schools of large fish. Turning around, you are faced with a sheer vertical underwater cliff – the geographical boundary of the African continent! Rising all the way up to the water's edge, and plunging to a depth of over 800 meters, while spanning to the left and right as far as the eye can see, a wall of living breathing coral and an explosion of colorful fish greets you! This is the Red Sea, and I am at the outer cliff face of the Blue Hole dive site in Dahab, Egypt.

The Red Sea is famous for supporting a huge amount of marine life, and Dahab, Egypt, a backpacker's haven along the eastern shore of the Sinai peninsular, is particularly known for its excellent diving. With no rivers running into it, and closed in with deserts all along its perimeter, the Red Sea boasts a very high salinity content, second only to the Dead Sea!

Together with Dec and Tuni, both in the British Military on break after a tour in Afghanistan, we follow our dive guide Paddy, a certified Dive Instructor with the Red Sea Relax Dive Center as we swim south along the cliff face. This was our fifth dive together, and in my opinion, the most spectacular one so far! Every square inch of the cliff face is covered in an burst of colorful life. From Blue and pink tipped staghorn coral stretching out, yellow and white soft coral waving with the current, bright orange sea anemones with a family of resident clown fish nesting in its tentacles, to huge yellow lettuce coral spanning some five meters across. Competing for our attention with the wall of coral are schools of brightly colored fish in every imaginable color! A Green Trigger Fish biting off chunks of coral, bright blue and green Parrot Fish grazing on a rock, yellow and electric blue Royal Angelfish moving slowly through branches of coral, and countless Butterfly Fish, Lionfish and lone Moray Eels poking out of their little holes. Moving effortlessly with the current, schools of bright orange fish with blue eyes swim right up to our dive masks and dart away, seemingly as curious of us as we are of them!

Swimming over a little ridge along the reef known as 'The Saddle', we enter into the infamous Blue Hole, a spot known to have claimed over 70 diving deaths. A roughly oblong hole hugging the shoreline, the Blue Hole is a natural sinkhole on the sea floor about 100 meters across at its widest point and drops to a depth of 120 meters. Almost all diving accidents in the Blue Hole occur because the divers go deeper than the recreational diving limit. We remained at a shallow 15 meters as we swam along the northern rim of the hole. Coincidentally, the Aida BBH Freedive Competition was going on in the Blue Hole at that time, and we witnessed freedivers swimming down along a guideline, disappearing into the big black chasm below with only the air in their lungs and without any tanks!

All too soon, it was time to surface, and I had to leave this magical watery world behind! For any traveler to Dahab, I would highly recommend the Red Sea Relax Dive Center, and in particular, our guide and instructor, Paddy, for his enthusiasm, sense of humor, knowledge of the local topography and marine life, and focus on safety! Taking one last look out into the blue expanse before getting out of the water, I quietly vow to myself that I shall return...and hopefully, it would be sooner rather than later when I do.


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