Oyster Diving Club’s Sudan Diving Holiday February 2017
Like all the best ideas this trip started off as a conversation over a pint (or two) in the pub. Almost exactly a year ago I was enjoying a few après dive show beers with Mark Evans who’s been editor of Sport Diver magazine (and since launched scuba Diving magazine) for the past 25 years. I quizzed him where the best scuba diving holiday locations are as he’s been to every diving destination on the planet at least twice. Without hesitation he replied “Sudan, defiantly Sudan”. The stories of pristine reefs, lots of shark encounters meant I was totally sold.
Slightly fuzzy the next morning I returned to the dive show and immediately charted a boat through Blueotwo to Sudan for the Oyster Diving club. However instead of doing the usual itinerary of most Sudanese liveaboards, after bit of arm twisting Blueotwo agreed to my request of running the first ever ProjectShark trip to Sudan.
So having said good bye to our loved ones, the club members of Oyster Diving boarded the A380 to escape the impending cold front coming in which the Met Office named ‘the beast from the east’. There were a few pre trip nerves as most of our friends and family accused us being a bit bonkers for wanting to travel to one of the highest risk countries on Earth Donald Trump is definitely not a fan. The jitters were soon forgotten as we settled into our seats on the flight to Dubai with a selection of latest films and a scone with jam and clotted cream. Maddy had been pestering me all week with ‘I’m sure I’ve forgotten to pack something’, and as it turns out he’d forgotten his dive boots which meant he went on an unplanned tour of Dubai’s dive centres in between flights.
We spent the night in a hotel near Dubai airport but at £10 a pint everyone was reasonably well behaved, even Ben. Back at the airport the following morning we made our way past the locals who were checking in their Falcons (yep as in birds of prey) and headed to the plane.
As we were about to board the flight to Port Sudan we bumped in to Elke, aka The Shark Lady. Elke is the founder of the Red Sea Shark Trust which does invaluable research in to the various shark species in the Egyptian Red Sea and their numbers. We’ve previously been on about 4 Red Sea ProjectShark trips with Elke and everyone one of them was fascinating and out of this world, I can highly recommend it if you haven’t done yet – I’m sure the Oyster Travel team would be happy to assist. Not only does she instinctively know where and when the Sharks will appear but also does some really interesting talks in the evenings, makes guests feel welcome and at ease with being in the same water as these apex predators. What was really great is that she has never dived in Sudan so she was as just as excited as us, she had the same expression on her face as when my 3 year old daughter gets given a Kinder Egg by her grandad.
The airport in Port Sudan was like a movie set from Blood Diamond but the locals greeted us with friendly smiles and we soon were boarding the bus for the short journey to the dive boat, ‘Dolce Vita’.
The Dolca Vita is a 36m long typical Red Sea liveaboard with spacious rooms, plenty of lounge space, sun decks and a crew that can’t do enough to help you. After some food and a few beers we headed for bed before being woken up at 6.30am for the first dive.
The first dive site was about 4 miles out of Port Sudan, and was the wreck of the Umbria. This wreck was made famous by the BBC series ‘Oceans’. Many divers compare it to the Thistlegorm, the most famous wreck dive in the world. It is easy to see why, they are both in the Red Sea, lie at a depth of 30m, were victims of World War II and were supply ships containing cars and armaments.
The Umbria sank in 1939, the British confiscated the vessel from the Italians. In the process of doing so the Italian Captain discovered over the radio that Italy was about to join the war. As he didn’t wish for the munitions to fall in to the hands of the British he gave the order to scuttle the ship having told the British they were “just performing so rescue scenarios”.
The ship is 156m long, it lies on its port side and sits in 5 to 34m of water. The first dive was around the exterior of the wreck which is still in pretty good shape. One of the giant propellers and rudder can be still be clearly identified. The 5 main holds could be seen on the long current free swim to the bow. There were lots of little swim throughs and the coral life has taken hold surprisingly there was less marine life compared to the Thistlegorm. There were a few clown fish, a pipe worm and several nudibranchs. On the second dive we went in to 4 of the 5 holds. These contain masses of machine gun bullets, walls of bombs, several cars, grenades and stacks of wine bottles (unfortunately all empty). This should definitely go on the bucket list of all heavy metal fans and lovers of the Thistlegorm.
In between dives we caught some rays, eat pancakes and watched Ben assemble his hammock. The boat cruised North towards our next destination and third dive of the day…
Sanganeb Lighthouse Reef. Sanganeb was one of the worlds first marine parks which means that fishing is illegal. Similar to Daedalus the reef is a large plateau lying about 20 miles from the mainland surround by a steep reef wall. Currents can rip along here so there is always a good chance of shark sightings. Elke managed to spot 3 grey reef sharks and the majority of the group just spotted one or two including a heavily pregnant female.
The coral and clarity of water was more similar to that found in the Maldives rather than its Egyptian neighbour.
After a quick shower Elke gave her first of 3 shark presentations which are always really interesting. This once covered shark identification, general shark behaviour and how to interact with them.
The following morning we did another deep dive on Sanganeb. We drifted along the wall but alas only Elke managed to spot any sharks. Once the current started to pick up we moved back towards the reef where we spotted lots of antheas, a huge Napolean wrasse, some very pretty blue fish (no idea what they’re called) and some hunting jacks and a few small tuna.
After a quick vote (on a very democratic boat), we opted to miss a repeat dive on Sanganeb and instead make our way 1 1/2 hours North to sha’ab Rumi. This was made famous by Jacques Cousteau, the god father of scuba. In the 1960’s he built an underwater city to prove mankind could live underwater. His crew lived here for a month a time and undertook some valuable research studying the marine life as well as human physiology. However the first dive here wasn’t too see his old home. Instead in front of the atoll is a long reef wall. Seconds after jumping in here we were greeted by lots of large grey reef sharks patrolling along the wall. Reef hooks locked and we set back and watched them crushing in and out. They were even joined by a couple of scalloped hammerheads but they were pretty shy, possibly because of John’s luminous orange shorts that made him resemble a giant marker pen.
After breakfast we headed to the lagoon where Cousteau’s ‘conch shelf’ partially remains. Maddy decided to leave his weight pockets behind on Dolce Vita but thankfully there were a few spares on the zodiac. A very inelegant roll back entry off the zodiac meant the boat nearly capsized and even the boat driver fell in, much to everyone’s amusement. The best way to describe the remains of the capsule where Cousteau’s men lived for weeks at a time was a smaller version of the space ship from War of the Worlds. The main living pod sits in about 12m of water on top of a tripod. Two at a time we swam into the pod where a large school of glass fish now occupy the space. There is an air pocket large enough to surface and say “wow” to your buddy.
The lagoon where the conch shelf is surrounded by the most stunning reef. Hard and soft corals disappear in every direction. This was the ultimate bimble with fish from all colours of the rainbow and made an excellent underwater studio for the photographers in the group.
Elka gave her second shark presentation which covered the physiology of the various shark species and their reproductive methods. Ben compared the eating method of a Goblin Shark similar to some of the people he’s kissed. It’s worth googling a short video clip to see why we nearly wet ourselves laughing.
Only 6 people signed up to the night dive while the rest of us cleaned up and tucked in to fresh donuts and cold beer.
Next morning we returned to the same reef wall as yesterday. A bit a swim in to the current helped us wake up from the 6am wake up call. First to greet us were a small pod of dolphins whose silhouettes we could just make out, but their song could easily be identified. There were plenty of grey reef sharks putting on a display like natures version of a firework display. I think I counted 7 in total but with viz at around 15-20m it was difficult to tell if some of these were the same one twice. Maddy went in to strop mode on the way back as our guide had gone in to 7m of deco so thought he had too so forced him to do an 8m deco stop.
After a breakfast of omelette and pancakes we hoisted the anchor and headed further North to sha’ab Suedi while catching a few Zzz’s on the way.
Sha’ab Suedi is the resting place of the wreck “Blue Bell” more commonly known as the Toyota wreck – no guesses as to what’s its cargo was?
These days the wreck has slipped down the reef to about 100m+. The reef is extremely pretty with lots of soft and hard corals. There are still the remains of a dozen or so trucks, cars and jeeps. These are the homes of shrimps, nudibranchs and thousands of fish. This was a great dive for those trying to get arty with their cameras and GoPros.
Resting on the bottom was a hawksbill turtle which was dived bombed like World War II Stukas from camera wielding divers (me included). Needless to say she didn’t hang around and took refuge behind a different pinnacle.
John managed to drop his weight pocket while boarding the zodiac and it was duly collected from the sandy bottom by Mahmoud our guide – free beers all round.
In the afternoon we made a 3 hour journey up North. This allowed everyone to catch up on sleep, listen to some tunes and catch some rays. Once rested we jumped in to Qita el Banna, a coral tower poking out of the water approximately 20 miles out from the mainland. Due to the position of the sun we swam round the east side drop off. Here were tonnes of tuna, snapper, lion fish and about a zillion antheas dancing round the coral bomys. The other group managed to spot one scalloped hammerhead shark which meant a repeat dive the following morning on the east side was much anticipated, this is where they more commonly occur.
In the evening our friendly boat crew laid out some Bedouin style mats and turned our sun deck in to a mini souk. They had a little charcoal fire in a metal bin and brewed us some Middle Eastern coffee that had a similar consistency to tar. Served in tiny coffee cups the team were soon buzzing from the caffeine hit. Unfortunately it is deemed safe to have a full open fire on a wooden dive boat but for health and safety regulations you can’t smoke a shisha.
It wasn’t long until we were back in the ribs and heading back towards Qita el Banna. As we descended in to the big blue we were greeted by a welcome party of 7 or so hammerheads. They came in quite close, checked us out and slowly returned to the blue. As we carried on swimming parallel to the reef wall thinking it was all over 7 more hammerheads appeared, they spiralling beneath them came more, and more and more. In the end we all managed to count a school of between 14-20, all within a few meters away. Darting in and out of the hammerheads were lots of dog tooth tuna and even a white tip reef shark. I suspect with the time we spent at 30m+, a few of the dive computers may have had a quiet word to their owners hence why there was an extended safety stop. Despite being a divemaster for nearly 15 years Lee managed to pop his hammerhead cherry.
Sadly when we returned to the main boat the other group didn’t catch them, unfortunately that is the way it sometimes goes.
Merlo Reef was an hour or so further north and is another round reef plate with a small plateau and drop offs all round. The first group managed to catch about 10 hammerheads and a silky shark. Despite hanging out in the blue for as long as our dive computers would allow, we only caught sight of one hammerhead. The mood was buzzing back on the boat as both groups and now had a close encounter with hammerheads.
3rd dive of the day was a choice of either off the back of the boat on the sandy plateau for a nice easy reef dive, or to return to the end of the atoll for a chance of encountering the sharks. Myself, Jules, Lee, John, Maddy and Elke decided to try for the sharks. A negative descent and a fast fin down to 30m to avoid the strong current. Right below us was a white tip shark and 2 large eagle rays, Maddy claims to have seen a dolphin to which Lee replied he saw a mermaid.
Once on the reef wall, the current was ripping and I mean absolutely hammering it. Most of the group had borrowed reef hooks and were attached to the reef. We clawed our way slowly up the wall keeping an eye in the blue. Big schools of barracuda, snapper and tuna kept us company while we searched for an area with no current in which to commence our safety stop. On returning to the surface we bobbed about in 6 foot waves waiting for the zodiac to pick us up. What we didn’t know is that the zodiac had capsized just after the boat driver had dropped us off. So after a good 20 minutes of being thrown around deploying all of the SMB’s, waving flags and my shiny CD.
We eventually clambered back in to the boat and started the recovery of the white knuckle ride. Words like hairy, holy £uXk etc could be heard from the group. Definitely a dive to be remember for the adrenalin it generated.
In the evening we turned the lights down, cracked open the rum and listened to some tunes. A brief visit by a silky shark which cruised around the back of the boat while the boat crew were fixing the zodiacs engine.
Next morning the boat moved 15 minutes away to Angarosh which in Arabic means ‘mother of sharks’. Despite being virtually no current we still managed to spot 4 hammerheads, a white tip reef shark, and a grey reef shark. On the swim back was a pretty reef wall with lots of nooks and crannies for the marine life to hide in.
A repeat pre-lunch dive and this dive we hit the other side of the wall. A few sightings of grey reef sharks and one hammerhead by our group, the other group swam in to the blue a little further and clocked 15-20 hammerheads. Apparently this site has common sightings of silkies but sadly we didn’t stumble on any of these.
Third dive of the day was Abington Reef, as the boat crew tied us to the moorings a couple dolphins came over to us to welcome us.
We headed to the west side of the reef to maximise the light from the sun. A very pretty wall dive with loads of critters and a gentle bimble meant we finished the day on a chilled dive.
In the morning we headed to the other side of the reef on the east side for our penultimate Sudanese dive. A quick negative descent and we headed down in to the blue. Nothing on earth compare to hanging out in the blue, weightless, with your mates, no mobile phones or pc’s and the anticipation of seeing shark or two appear. Happily we managed to catch sight of about four hammerheads including one juvenile which only hung around for a few minutes.
Once we reached our deco limits we headed back to the reef wall for a really relaxed dive along the reef wall. It gave plenty of time to take the mickey out of each other, pose for some photos and generally behave have like naughty teenagers. Quality!
For our final dive of the week we headed back to Merlo. Down the wall we went, hang out at 40m and a fleeting glance of a couple of hammerheads. Then a long underwater paddle taking in the last of the pretty marine life and corals. A white tip reef shark came over to bid us farewell, a rather fitting send off.
Back on the boat we took our group shots, polished off the last of the haribo and rinsed our kit. The next morning we said goodbye to our dive guides and the crew who couldn’t have been more friendly and helpful. The 2 hour bus journey back to Port Sudan meant we could take in some of the moon like landscape. The odd goat, camel and donkey that passed by the bus made for some great photo opportunities. We had a drive through down town Port Sudan to drop Elke off at her hotel as she was flying back to Hurghada. Sudan really is a third world country and looking at the shacks, litter and market stalls really does make you appreciate the first world lifestyle. However all the locals we met were friendly and happy to pose for selfies.
If you are considering a Diving Holiday to Sudan
If you are considering on a diving holiday to Sudan here are my top tips. Make sure you are experienced with at least 50 dives, comfortable deploying an SMB, happy doing fast drift dives, know how to use a reef hook, can manage your depth and air consumption (computers with transmitters can dramatically aid this), be familiar with your dive equipment so you know how to reach clips, hooks and can take your kit off in the water in order to climb back in to the zodiac.
From speaking to the guides the best shark sightings can be seen on the Southern itinerary, but this is only accessible 2 months a year between April and May. Manta season is in October and avoid Sudan during July and August as it can reach over 50 degrees Celsius. We travelled in February and the water was around 26 degrees. Vis was a little poor at around 20-25m. He evenings are dry and cool and the strong winds require you to wrap up warm.
Sudan versus Egypt?
If you’ve dived the Egyptian Red Sea and want a change then this is definitely a great destination. It’s perfect for wall lovers, divers who like pelagics and even wish to do a wreck that is almost on par with the Thistlegorm. If you are looking for a diving holiday that has gentle shallow pretty coral reef dives then head to Marsa Alam or do the local dives around Sharm. Egypt is considerable cheaper but tends to be much busier.
It’s not for the faint hearted as the dives are deep and long, it is a total adventure. Would I return? Absolutely although I would return in April/May or September or October when it was a little warmer and the viz hopefully slightly better.