STEVE BARNARD is an experienced technical diver with hundreds of sub-100m dives under his belt, and he waxes lyrical about the subsea attractions accessible from Hurghada in the Egyptian Red Sea
Hurghada is the lifelong friend that always makes you smile, regardless of how long it’s been since you were last together. You cannot forget the sunset view of the mountains, or the islands as you head out to sea. The Egyptian Red Sea destination is only a 5.5 hour flight from the UK and has something for everybody. It’s been a real shame to see tourism decline and to experience the impact that decline has had on the residents.
Despite the global issues that have affected Egypt over the past few years, I’ve found that Hurghadians remain full of optimism and passion for the Red Sea and its marine life. Regardless of what happens in the world in our lifetime, generations after ours will continue to explore beneath the surface of the ocean and, until my last breath, so will I. Hurghada is the perfect place to do this.
In an historical context, scuba diving has been around only for a short time and continues to captivate millions of people. Developments in equipment and the greater accessibility available as a result have enabled almost anybody to shape their own experiences.
The choice of training methods and agencies is ever-changing and evolving – as it should be, meaning that choice is in the hands of the diver and not the agency. Whether you wish to dive with a professional once a year in the blue, or week in, week out in the UK green, you can do so with an equal sense of enjoyment and achievement.
Diving is for all. There is a lot of choice out there, and whether you prefer day-boats or liveaboards all the needs of the traveller can be satisfied. The key is being clear about what you expect and what you need.
My first taste of the underwater world left me hooked. I have the photograph to remind me of the day, and each time I look at it, it brings me down to Earth and reminds me to appreciate the magic I felt that first time. Technical diving for me is a regular repeat of that first wonder.
I am able to go where many others cannot, to see things that others perhaps never will, or for one moment to be the only person able to feel that connection to the ocean. Technical diving is simply a tool to explore further, whether that means going deeper, staying longer or a combination of the two.
Technical diving is as complicated as you choose to make it. By using a different skill-set and applying some additional knowledge and procedures, a world of exploration becomes available, and it’s less difficult or cumbersome than you might think.
Yes, there are times when I’ll have 12 cylinders attached and look like a VW Beetle, but there are also times where I’ll have four and still have an awesome time.
My latest technical trip to Hurghada was a nicely varied combination of mixed-gas, open-circuit, closed-circuit and sidemount diving in caverns, wrecks and around deep reefs.
Delivering a number of courses, mainly advanced mixed-gas, in the nice warm blue sea, taking some stills and making some videos – you can’t beat that feeling of splashing in and making your descent through midwater, and the tranquility and peace that comes when you’re in control and making your way towards your target.
Meticulous planning and preparation make the diving fun and free-flowing. An example of this was a dive off Giftun Island. I was following two competent and confident trainees along a ridge in 100m of water with every bit of faith that they had calculated their dive correctly.
I was enjoying watching them communicate calmly and with clarity the whole time. They had a nice position in the water while carrying five cylinders each, and were clearly relaxed. I think this is the true measure of readiness at this level.
When the training has been thorough, the trainees’ attitudes have been positive and the focus has been on mastery, it makes the execution so much smoother. It means that divers are safe and can pass that sense of security on to others.
I’ve had the pleasure of training some brilliant people who have gone on to become excellent divers over the years, and this pair have now joined those ranks. On this trip I was mainly diving with female techies, Danielle, Becca and Sarah – all excellent in the water, able to give any of the boys a run for their money and, importantly, knowing how to be photographed, which makes my life way easier.
Exploring the wrecks
While a lot of the fun dives out from Hurghada are in deeper water, such as on the Gulf Fleet 31 in 100m, it’s not all about depth but often more to do with duration. A prime example of a really pleasant wreck-dive is El Minya and its neighbour the Hasaballa. They provide an ideal opportunity to explore the inner recesses of two ships at 30m while not racking up too great an decompression obligation.
With plenty of light thanks to the depth, you can easily get in first and out last if you make the most of the site. Descending onto El Minya, you can see the blast damage and a number of unexploded bombs littering the wreck and surrounding seabed. You can explore the companionways and passages within the wreck, and get deep into the hull without much effort.
If the site is busy you can swim off the wreck away from the deck and within a few minutes find a sunken fishing-boat, complete with many of its original features and swarms of lionfish. This is another fine wreck on which to build confidence because it has excellent swim-throughs, including the engine-rooms and crew quarters.
It’s important to be aware of the nets on the deck and floating inside the engine-room and wheelhouse. Just be mindful that if you dive this with me, the inner marine biologist emerges and I will happily spend hours with the upside-down jellyfish that are common on the seabed. I love these fascinating little critters.
When land-based in Hurghada, I use Divers’ Lodge, long known as one of the main dive-centres for technical diving in the Red Sea. Frequented over the years by pioneers such as Rob Palmer, Pascal Bernabe, Ahmed Gabr and, er, me, this has been the place to go for technical dive exploration since 1993 (I was 11 then, so I wasn’t involved, nor can take any credit).
I had my introduction in the early 2000s, thanks to my original role model Stewart Tattersall, to whom I can be grateful for many diving experiences. I had a fantastic week and got my taste for deeper diving and the exploration possibilities that opened up.
I would never have thought then that within 12 years I would have clocked up nearly 4,000 dives, with hundreds of them deeper than 100m – the deepest being to just over 151m in Hurghada – and to have had the pleasure of teaching many others to be able to do the same.
Control the plan
To achieve a plan, it’s vital that you have control over that plan. Whether it’s a team technical dive with an extended bottom time on a mid-depth wreck or cave, or a solo exploration of a cavern in more than 150m, it’s crucial that what you need is what you get.
This includes a knowledgeable boat-crew, a diligent skipper and an accurate gas-blender right through to good supplies of food and drink, and many things in between.
You can get all this at Divers’ Lodge. You also have a back-up in that you can discuss your ideas and plans openly with the owner. I’ve used many other centres, but this is my main Egyptian base, from which I have run a large quantity of technical diver training and ambitious diving projects, and have never been disappointed. Whether it’s just me or one of our large group trips, the standards do not slip.