The diving highlight of the trip might have seemed a long time coming, but the waiting brought its own pleasures – and for LISA COLLINS, delayed gratification brought its own solo reward
AQABA – THE NAME EVOKES exoticism. Tales of Arabian Nights and Lawrence of Arabia spring to mind as the name rolls off my tongue.
History of thousands of years, intrigue, archaeology, hidden ruins, desert camps, bartering, soukhs, colour, noise and spice fuel my imagination as I begin my journey to the only coastal city in Jordan.
Jordan is a mainly landlocked country that borders Israel and Egypt, though a very small area takes in the northernmost point of the Red Sea. It’s famous for the mountainous, Mars-like area of Wadi Rum and the iconic ruins at Petra, featured in many movies including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
I had been invited by the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) to attend the creation of a new artificial reef in the Bay of Aqaba, followed by visits to both Wadi Rum and Petra before returning to dive the new site and others in the area.
This artificial reef was going to be formed by scuttling a decommissioned Royal Jordanian Air Force Lockheed Hercules C-130 transport aircraft. It would join the Lebanese freighter Cedar Pride, which had been scuttled to provide a new dive-site in 1985, with much success, and the US M42 Duster tank formerly used by the Jordanian army that had followed suit in 1999.
The four-engined Hercules was originally designed as a cargo plane for the military, though its airframe enabled it to be used in various ways. In 1987, the air force took delivery of six C-130s to assist in its peacekeeping efforts during the Iraq War. The example destined for scuttling had transported troops and equipment on a variety of military and humanitarian missions.
With a squat stance, bulbous nose, four big turboprop engines and massive fuselage, the C-130 cruised at around 300 knots. Lockheed dubbed it “Hercules” after the mythological hero known for his strength and courage.
ASEZA was organising the sinking with the Royal Jordanian Navy and Aqaba Port Corporation. It had been towed from Amman to Aqaba in October, its wings and tail dismantled, and must have been quite a sight as it was driven past Bedouin encampments with their herds of camels.
I awoke to a hazy, cloudy day. I hoped the cloud would lift as our coach carried us from the Intercontinental Aqaba Hotel to the Berenice Beach Club on Aqaba’s South Beach, where the plane was to be sunk 150m offshore.
As we arrived, the Jordanian Armed Forces Orchestra, complete with bag-pipers, started playing and a crowd of hundreds flocked to the shoreline to see the Hercules on its barge start to move into position.
Jostling for position, I managed to get my feet in the water at the very edge of the zone cordoned off for the VIP guests.
We watched the barge move at snail’s pace. Suddenly another Hercules, with its tail depicting iconic Petra, screamed overhead, accompanied by two fighters.
The planes flew over both the crowd and the C-130 as it was finally positioned below a waiting crane.
Several operators, looking like ants on the massive fuselage, clambered about securing ropes and a hook lowered by the crane. Very slowly, the crane took the strain, lifting the plane slightly off the deck to allow the barge to move away.
For a moment the C-130 hung in the air. Then it was being lowered gently to the calm surface of the Red Sea.
ALL THE DOORS HAD BEEN removed, and the rear cargo door opened to allow for quick ingress of water. Within a minute, still attached to the crane for guidance, the bulk of the Hercules had slipped quietly below the surface, right wingtip first, as the airborne Hercules provided a last hoorah for its decommissioned colleague.
I had a private pilot’s licence for more than 10 years, always looked forward to visiting air shows around the UK and had been lucky enough to see a Hercules at the Biggin Hill Air Show in 2007.
As a member of a flying club there, I had enjoyed being shown round the huge aircraft once it had landed, but had never expected to have the opportunity of being inside one under water.
I could hardly wait for the few days it would take for the plane to settle on the bottom to pass.
As we left the site, we could see some scuba-divers kitting up in the car-park. Funny, we had been told that no divers were allowed to dive the wreck until safety teams had declared it safe.
We found out the next day that the group of divers kitting up were Russians, who had told the authorities they were going to dive the Tank, which lies in very close proximity to the Hercules. Photos of the new dive-site somehow appeared on social media later that evening.
Over the next two days, our impatience to dive was curbed by visits to Wadi Rum, the famous desert encampment in the mountains where Lawrence of Arabia was said to have fought.
It’s an hour’s drive from Aqaba, and we went there on a 4×4 safari to visit sand dunes, see unusual rock formations and ancient carvings in the stone, and take a camel ride to a Bedouin village to watch the sunset and partake in a tea ceremony.
THE FOLLOWING DAY, we were taken to Petra, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. This incredible ancient town left us in awe.
Dodging horse-drawn carts, donkeys and ponies carrying those visitors who don’t fancy the 3.5-mile walk through the long rift between two steep cliffs, I was amazed by the carvings in the sandstone, and the natural shapes caused by wind and water, from when the gorge was flooded thousands of years ago.
The mineral-rich formations in hues of red, gold and granite end in a narrow fissure and the famous Treasury. One formation in particular resembled a parrotfish!
Petra lies only two hours’ drive from Aqaba, and all visiting divers should include the trip in their itinerary. Though be warned, the mountain range reaches 1500m, so take your decompression requirements into consideration.
Finally, it was time to go diving. Our group of 40 was split between four dive-boats. We would be moving in rotation between the C-130 wreck and three of Aqaba’s other main dive-sites.
With four other women in the group and five Russian men I was assigned to the Barakah, run by the Sea Guard dive-centre, with its founder Yazan Alsaeed as our dive-guide.
The three-deck boat was beautiful, very spacious and comfortable, spotlessly clean, with large areas for lounging and a proper cabin similar to that of a liveaboard. The crew were very attentive and helpful and had enough languages between them to cater for guests speaking English, Belgian, Polish, Dutch and Russian.
We cruised slowly towards our first dive-site, the Power Station, only slightly disappointed to learn that our group wouldn’t get to dive the plane wreck until the following day.
Unfortunately, my wide-angle lens had been damaged accidentally when a heavy object was dropped onto my camera.
I would have to make do with my macro lens, though knowing that so many good underwater photographers were on the trip, I wasn’t too concerned on that score.
Diving is a very relaxed process in Jordan. Two dives and lunch on board were the order of the day, and there seemed to be no need to rush to get ready.
The Russians were to go first, and we couldn’t believe how long it took them to kit up and get into the water. Weren’t they as keen as us to dive? After almost an hour, it was our turn to kit up – done very efficiently and safely, but quickly.
After all that basking in the sun while waiting, the 23° water made me gasp slightly, but it was clear and calm.
Yazan had told me that it was always like this, and that there were never any strong currents either. Water temperatures range from 20° in winter to around 29° in summer.
DESCENDING TO THE TOP of the reef at 10m, I soon forgot the cold water as I immersed myself in the beauty of the reef and its marine life. So close to shore,
I was both surprised and enchanted to find colourful hard and soft corals of so many different kinds, extending almost to the sea-wall edging the road.
We swam slightly further away from the shore, where the reef gently sloped down until it met the edge of a wall that dropped to 40m. The visibility was around 20m as we swam along the edge of the wall, and the view was so spectacular and colourful that there was no need to go any deeper than around 22m.
Black coral, seafans and sponges vied with large, bright-green plate corals and leather coral. Anemones of different shapes and sizes housed Red Sea and two-band anemonefish by the dozens.
Huge numbers of anthias danced prettily above the reef, their bright orange and pink colours a lovely contrast with the deep blue of the sea.
A single lionfish prowled the edge of the reef, fins splayed, eyeing me warily. Towards the end of the dive, Yazan spotted a reef octopus hiding next to a sea urchin. Watching us warily, the octopus alternated between changing colour and texture until we moved away.
Our 50-minute dive passed like magic. It’s rare to find reefs that are so healthy and with such a variety of corals and marine life.
Our second dive was on Aqaba’s original artificial-reef project, the Cedar Pride. Lying at 26m on the sandy bottom, it had settled at a 45° angle.
Over the years, the ship has been heavily colonised by soft and hard corals. Fish-life is abundant on the wreck and the surrounding reef.
I had heard that the wreck was full of small critters, and perfect for macro photography, so I spent the hour-long dive peering into nooks and crannies, finding several different species of blenny, shells, clouds of anthias, the ubiquitous anemones with families of clownfish and many fish species I had never seen before.
It is a very photogenic and beautiful wreck that can be explored at leisure in the calm conditions.
At long last, it was our turn to dive the Hercules. By now I had seen photos taken by other divers, although they told me that on the first day on which the safety-divers had given the go-ahead to dive they had had to contend with around 20 divers from different clubs and centres all diving at the same time.
As we moored on the fixed buoy above the plane, we could see its clear pale silhouette against the azure blue sea.
Any hopes of being the only divers on the wreck were dashed as we saw some 15 army divers kitting up on shore, from where the wreck was easily accessible. We decided to wait for them to complete their dive before going in.
Once the first diver came up, I asked Yazan whether the ladies could kit up before the Russians, as we would be that much quicker.
He agreed, and as I was ready before everyone else, he gave me the go-ahead to descend to the wreck, which was clearly visible at only 17m, and easy to navigate.
I descended beside the right wing. It was quite eerie and surreal to dive the plane I had watched sink three days earlier, sitting on its belly on the sand and seagrass as if waiting to take off.
For a few minutes at least, I was lucky enough to be the only diver on the wreck.
JUST BELOW THE WIING the side cargo-doors had been fixed open. Taking the opportunity while alone, I swam inside to photograph some of the smaller details of the hold, to have as a record before coral growth made them unrecognisable.
Towards the front the bulkhead had been partially removed, so divers can see through the cockpit to the pilot’s seat and the windows and ocean beyond.
When the plane was being prepared, with all its mechanical parts, oil, fuel and anything dangerous to marine-life and divers removed, a plastic skeleton with a pilot’s helmet on, in full uniform including boots, had been placed in the pilot’s seat. Members of the Royal Jordanian Airforce had put it there for fun, though pictures would inevitably provoke some expressions of distaste later on social media.
For my part I was impressed by the skill with which the Hercules and also the Cedar Pride and the Tank, which we dived after the aircraft, had been placed in seagrass-covered sand but surrounded very closely by a beautiful reef.
The reef had been left completely undamaged, indicating the care taken to maintain the health of Jordanian reefs.
Yazan had told me that he was the diver who had carried out surveys to find a suitable area, where the reef could be left intact and add to the beauty of the site.
As I swam around the cargo-hold, I could see several messages written by the plane’s last crew, written in Arabic to commemorate the sinking.
Unfortunately, I also saw graffiti, the contribution of some of the first divers on the wreck. I was appalled by this wanton lack of respect for something of which the Jordanian Tourism Authority and local dive-operators were so proud.
I took some photos and showed them to Nancy and Salaam from ASEZA, who had organised the trip so well. Appalled, they immediately initiated a search for the “artist”, and asked Yazan and other dive-centres to remove the marks and monitor the wreck for any more abuse.
This positive reaction, again, showed me how important the Jordanian dive-industry and tourism authority consider it to preserve their attractions, whether natural or man-made.
SWIMMING OUT OF the other cargo door, I moved up to the large, bulbous nose of the plane, looking into the cockpit. The pilot’s control-wheel had been stripped down before the sinking, removing the layer of oxidisation on the aluminium, as seen on the rough-looking surface of aluminium dive-tanks. If this isn’t done, the aluminium degrades quickly and “fizzes”.
On the outside, just under the cockpit window, was a vent. A flash of orange caught my eye and I saw what must have been the first fish to colonise the wreck – an anthias.
Moving back down, I saw that the wheels had been partially retracted, giving the plane the appearance of flying on the bottom, the wheel clear of the sand.
As I explored the reef immediately surrounding the Hercules, teeming with life, I knew that it wouldn’t be too long before the little anthias would be joined by a host of marine-life.
Our last dive was on the Tank and Seven Sisters reef site next to the plane. Staying on the same mooring buoy, we swam off slightly to the east.
A few fin-kicks off the stern of our dive-boat, two pinnacles reared next to each other at 14m. Swimming around each one, I couldn’t believe how many anthias were vying for space.
Normally I find them very difficult to photograph, as they are so skittish and in constant motion, but with so many I found it quite easy to capture them.
Yazan signalled me over to show me a huge stonefish, camouflaged perfectly. After exploring for a while, I followed Yazan and the rest of the girls (the five of us had been dubbed the Spice Girls by the crew) up the reef across the seagrass to where the tank sat upright.
Hanging behind slightly to let the others have a good look before I went in to take photographs, I inadvertently disturbed a large octopus hiding in the seagrass. As it swam off, I quickly took a few photos.
The tank was really nice, although at only 6m depth it had less coral growth than the Cedar Pride. It’s very accessible to snorkellers, who have been known to stand on and hold on to it.
Along the wheels there seemed to be a lot of life, however, and I found an anemone and clownfish attached to the rubber of one wheel.
Swimming back towards the mooring line, I saw a beautiful snowflake moray eel peeping out of a hole in the reef. And between the two pinnacles a massive scorpionfish lay on the sand.
I WATCHED THE SUNSET as we cruised slowly back to the marina, I knew that I would be back again as soon as I could, to revisit the Hercules and the other sites I had seen but also to explore more of the 24 sites along the coast.
I felt inspired and in awe of a country it had never occurred to me to think about in this way. The people, the diving, the food, the scenery, the history, and the infrastructure had surprised and delighted me – Jordan had proved to be a beautiful country in every way.
Appeared in DIVER March 2018