I lurched groggily from the bed at the ear splitting sound of the klaxon, the bright blue neon numbers on the alarm reading 04:29am.
My pulse quickened in anticipation of the day ahead, driving the fog of sleep from my head as the waning stars fought gallantly against the first pale streaks of dawn in the Egyptian sky.
The conversation with a “tribesman” yesterday afternoon played back in my head
“you only qualified today and you’re diving the Thistlegorm tomorrow? Wow man – that’s an intense dive even for an experienced diver!”
My pulse quickened for the second time that morning as the events of the week washed over me.
I had arrived in Sharm-El-Sheik only 5 days beforehand and had quickly been welcomed and inducted into the “Camel Tribe” – a fantastically friendly group of scuba divers who were immediately more welcoming and accepting than any sport I have ever encountered. A marvellous camaraderie existed and it was practically impossible to tell who was staff and who were customers – not that it made much difference as everyone took a genuine interest in every aspect of each day’s dives. Although I have always had a passion for the sea and have been an avid snorkeler since I was a child, I arrived a scuba virgin. My wife had offered, as my birthday present, to pay for me to realise a life-long dream to achieve my PADI (scuba) certification and I had leapt at the opportunity. The days leading up to today had been intense and there had been an occasion on the very first day when an irrational panic attack at only 12m below had almost seen me shelve the whole plan and spend the week working on my suntan. If it hadn’t been for the calm and professional way that my instructor had quickly released a chest strap that was making me feel like I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs and then holding onto me until the wave of panic passed, I would never have experienced the euphoric rush of the previous day’s canyon entry at Marsa Bareika which was brought on by the sensation of slow-motion free-fall, surrounded by shoals of glass fish hovering in suspension amongst the colourful clusters of vivid coral canyon walls, until re-grouping on the plateau around 25m overlooking the deep blue of the 300m+ abyss with its siren call tempting divers to sink into its inky depths.
Today would bring with it another new experience in the shape of the wreck of the Thistlegorm, an RAF supply ship that was sunk in October 1941 during the second world war. It’s one of the most dived wrecks in the world and it offers a treasure trove of exploration opportunity with a pretty much intact cargo of vehicles. The bottom of the ship lies at the 30m maximum recreational diving depth of the Red Sea and the currents that whip around the ship are known to challenge even the most accomplished divers on occasion. I hoped that today would not be one of those occasions as having just completed my PADI Advanced qualification the day before and with only 10 open water dives in my log book, I was by far the least experienced diver of the group. It was for this reason that I had opted to hire a private guide for the day – none other than Melly, my instructor for the previous 5 days. I didn’t want to ruin the dive for the rest of the group by holding them back through my inexperience and I figured that since she had been able to keep me alive so far (in spite of my own shortcomings), with her as my dive buddy there was at least a fighting chance that I would survive this, the most challenging dive so far.
By the time I got down to the rendezvous point in the Camel Club, there were a few more bleary-eyed people yawning copiously, all of us wondering why we had elected to put ourselves through this when we were supposed to be on holiday? We made our way down to the docks in the crisp morning air. The streets wonderfully devoid of life at this time of the morning, even the docks lacked the bustle of activity that had characterised the days before. We had a long trip ahead of us and as the boat slid gently through the glistening waters, one by one we each fell still and allowed the solitude of the open sea to engulf us as we contemplated days past and future.
A few hours later, the boat burst into life as everyone prepped their equipment for the dive. A detailed briefing with the guides provided a long list of sights and artefacts to look out for and then it was into the water to begin our descent on the line that was attached to the wreck itself.
With a good 30m visibility, the wreck resolved instantly out of the depths below and it felt as if we were gliding through the air, preparing to land on the deck. Melly immediately proceeded to lead me away from the group as they eagerly swarmed over everything the guides pointed out while I could take my time to digest the scene before me :- the barrel of the anti-aircraft gun pointing impotently back towards the surface, the coils of rope stacked neatly on the deck, welded in place by years of coral growth, the train locomotive, still standing upright on deck right next to the twisted and torn metal sheets and girders raggedly lining the gaping hole where the bomb that sunk her struck. The entire scene surreally serene as colourful clouds of fish went lazily about their day, totally nonplussed by the intruders into their environment. We made our way to the front of the ship where we hovered just off the tip of the bow to take in the enormity of the vessel that lay in front of us and from there we allowed the current to carry us swiftly to the stern of the ship where Melly signalled for me to kiss the ship’s propeller for luck and judging from the bright strip of the polished blade, many others before me had done exactly the same.
This first dive of the day was an external orientation and it was only on the second dive that we would penetrate the hull, starting deep in the cavernous lower hold where rows upon rows of trucks stand neatly parked next to each other with their cargo of motorcycles still loaded up, before ascending carefully through the filigreed remains of the floor into the upper hold where an abundance of sea life has made its home away from the harsh currents outside, eventually ending up in the Captain’s cabin where his bath still stands full of water in the bathroom ……….
The hour of air in our tanks was depleted all too quickly and it was time to make our ascent.
Swapping stories back on deck amidst choruses of “ooooohhhhhh’s” and “aaaahhhhhch’s” while sipping a hot cup of tea as we patiently counted down the minutes of surface time required before our next foray into the blue, I realised that no matter how time and distance separated us from this point on, I would always be accepted as “one of the tribe” whenever I found my way back to this land, something I hope to do sometime soon.