Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Diving in Sudan

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Sudan is reputed to be a difficult country to get into and sometimes equally as difficult to get out of. It may not be the top of many peoples ‘beach holiday list’, but as a place to dive?

On the 9th June I flew out of Sudan after two weeks diving in the Red Sea. We had arrived on a hot humid night by Air Sudan, the weekly Saturday flight from Cairo. This last leg of our journey had been surprisingly uneventful, other members of the party had heard tales of the airlines reputation. The plane was old and yes, small and we had been delayed four hours, but it had carried us safely for the two hour flight, the in flight food and service both excellent. Possible truth in the tales only came to light on the return flight as a man with two screwdrivers in his back pocket, got out of his seat after the plane had boarded and proceeded to work on one of the engines, delaying us by one hour.

If you have spent anytime traveling in places like Egypt then you first impressions of Sudan will be familiar. All our luggage was hand searched for the usual as well as any alcohol (Sudan is a dry state) and magazine pictures that may show people under dressed. Possession of such items could result in imprisonment or deportation, usually both.

Our first morning in Sudan, brought sunshine and 30 degrees C by 7:30 am with 14 days of diving ahead of us. Our first impressions of the Sudanese Red Sea were the view of a huge reef as we left the harbour. Unknown to us then we also passed over a highlight of our trip, The Umbria, languishing just below the surface. I would have liked to have taken some photographs of the land and port, however we were told not to take any pictures until we had left the coast.

The diving

Unfortunately the short dive briefs often gave the wrong impression of a dive, what was described as a ‘wall’ was a slope down to a ‘shelf’ that was a sand and coral area before the drop off. It was at these shelves or plateau, mostly at about 25 to 30 metres that we had some of the best shark encounters. On many of the dive sites sharks were everywhere, especially Sanganeb and Shaab Rumi where Grey and White Tips would come right up to you, often approaching from behind. These proved fascinating dives as the sharks seemed more curious then menacing. Some of the divers spent almost all of these dives sat on the sand with sharks going past, first one side then the other, often more than one at a time. You would always have somebody pointing out to you that the big one is behind you. At 35 meters plus we were to see more impressive sights. It was on a ‘wall and shelf’ at Angarosh that we were to get a glimpse of some truly magnificent creatures, Hammerheads. Whilst some of the group had stayed on the ‘shelf’ because of an earlier deep dive, a group of us went down to 40 metres. The temperature suddenly dropped and a group of Hammerheads loomed out of the grey/green water to allow us a brief view of their magnificence. Back on board the boat everyone seemed excited and it emerged that the group who had stayed on the ‘shelf’ had also been entertained by Hammerheads, as two of the group had swum directly over them in the clear blue water. Some people have all the luck!

In the main the reefs were storm cropped. In sheltered places soft coral flourished in a fantastic mix of colours, whilst hard coral stood no more than a foot high unless supported by rock. Some of the overhangs were decorated with one- inch sponges or soft corals giving the impression of paint splatters.

Despite diving many sites with excellent visibility we were seeing less shoals of fish than you would expect for the Red Sea and on the whole the variety of fish was small. This may well have been due to the sites we dived or the high water temperature. This is not to say that we did not see some great fish life. I had commented that I had not seen more than one or two Masked Puffer fish at a time and was very fortunate to see a group of a dozen or more the next day. Another highlight were the pairs of Titan Trigger Fish in the sand and dead coral nests that would attack the Grey Sharks as well as us, we became quite wary of them by the end of the trip with teeth marks in our fins as evidence. These fish while nesting, were full of aggressive hormones, which made any area within 10 meters around the nests a no go area After seeing a nest being raided by other fish and the eggs eaten, you could not help admirer their hard work.

Heading north up the Sudanese Red Sea, we reached Abington Reef. Here I was very excited to find a group of Nudibranch. After watching these two inch long bright white and blue spotted beauties with their yellow skirts waving around them, I was out of film. Disappointed not to have been able to take some pictures of such a wonderful sight I found someone else with film to take up the opportunity. Leaving the nudibranch posing for the camera, I went off with two other divers to find a turtle that really seemed to enjoy our company. With only three feet between us we would back off so as not to scare the beautiful creature, but as we moved away, it just came in even closer. This is one of those occasions when it is very hard to leave the water and with 100 bar of air remaining we could have lingered a lot longer, with or without film. Luckily for us we were to meet up with what could have been the same turtle on the next dive or another one equally as curious. This time more divers were to be entertained by this inquisitive animal, which studied us intently as we passed by and who then joined me as I headed towards the surface. At 12 meters he must have decided it was time to eat and as it was time to continue my deco I left this turtle to go on his way.

We were unable to do many night dives but our first was extremely memorable, a dive into the amazing under water world of Jacques Couteau’s underwater ‘village’ at Shaab Rumi. What remains is the anemone shaped submarine house (used to enter a round sub to venture to deeper waters), a small garage and two shark cages. The ribs dropped us right onto the submarine house that started at five meters down to about fourteen, where this strange creatures ‘legs’ dropped down to the seabed below. With a full moon you did not need to use a torch all the time, (I feel that night dives are much better without torches all the time, full moon or not) and whilst looking up towards the anemone shaped structure, with divers hovering around, it seemed a very eerie image. During that first dive I had come across a metal plate that I was able to go back and read on a subsequent dive, it was in the memory of two men that had died at the site in the 1960s. The yellow paint on the submarine house is still visible in places between the coral. All the portholes have their glass missing but as the hole is still stopped in the top of the dome there is remains a pocket of air inside, although it’s not that fresh. Whilst inside it is worth taking time to look out if the portholes as this would have been the impressive view of those who had chosen to stay down there during this experiment.

We may have seen Hammerheads, dived the underwater village and climbed the lighthouse in Port Sudan but the memories I will treasure most will be diving on The Umbria and seeing so many dolphins.

The Italian ship The Umbria sank on the night that Italy joined the First World War. Full of ammunition and supplies the crew was ordered onto the deck at night, just as before the officers scuttled the ship. The Umbria has to be one of the best wrecks I have ever seen and with the prop at 24 meters it is not a difficult dive. Parts of the wreck protrude above the water and as this site is only an hour from the port in many other countries this would have been stripped or blown up for safety to other vessels. Fortunately for the divers this has not happened and The Umbria remains incredibly intact. The Umbria sunk on 9th June 1942 and we were to dive it on the 8th.

Dolphins appeared to be in abundance in Sudan. They would play in the bow wash of the boat and in countless numbers in front of the ribs. We saw Small and Bottle Nosed Dolphins and one occasion we saw dolphins at the front of the boat that had rounded noses rather than the usual dolphin snout. They were large with white marks and scarring along their body. I believe they may have been Risso dolphins or a type of porpoise and it was delightful to watch a different species joining our boat, the only one for miles. We were able to get in the water to watch them play around us and on the last dive on The Umbria the dolphins showed off their incredible zest for fun right above me and in front of another diver. Sudan has to be one of the best places to see dolphins.

I had made previous unsuccessful attempts to get into Sudan, not being able to find a boat had meant that agents wound up canceling trips at the last minute, very disappointing. Unfortunately by the end of our first day the optimism that had prevailed through the difficult preparation for the trip and our subsequent arrival had begun to wane. It became apparent that the trip we had been sold was not necessarily the one we were getting. This meant only two dives a day and paying for drinking water.

Now don’t cross Sudan off your list yet, we were on a great boat, some of the diving was excellent, the water was a warm 29 degrees and the air temperature was 40 degrees by 10 am. We were diving from ribs and with up to three in use this worked well most of the time. The dive sites were from 5 to 45 minutes from the anchored boat and after the shortest of dive briefs we would kit up and depart in the rib. Regrettably dives were limited to an hour maximum, frustrating when you consider we were diving with 15litre tanks and most of us were emerging with about a 100 bar of air to return to an anchored boat.

Whilst I would not rush to go back to Sudan I would eventually like to return, only next time booking with a different company. My advice would be to book with a company you know, apply for visas well in advance and spend as much time in the water as possible.

If you would like to see further pictures from Sudan, you will find these as well as work from other areas on www.fromtheblue.co.uk. You can also find me at the Dive 2001 Dive Show on the 13th &14th October 2001, Birmingham – UK.

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