Saturday, March 07, 2009

A Red Sea diving adventure

By guest writer Lena Holmstrøm

An anonymous brown envelope arrived in the mail. Padded brown envelope with no clues as to who sent it or the contents inside. Just my name and address in printed letters and a few stamps. As I ripped it open a CD fell out and I found a letter beginning with "Dear diving buddy,"... Suddenly a fresh breeze caught my hair, the smell of salt water filled my nostrils and a large smile appeared on my face.

One week of warm Egyptian sunshine, in clear blue waters, surrounded by beautiful fish, enjoying good food, entertaining companions and maybe an encounter with a rude turtle. Yes, in retrospect, I definitely found the turtle rude, being male of course. It made its way across my swimming path, sizing me up, then continued on his planned course, whether I was in the way or not (the picture has no relation to the rude turtle in question).

On board around the clock

So, what’s a live aboard? You - live - on board - a boat, where you are diving, relaxing and are served meals four times a day. Well, only three meals actually (if you're careful about details or hungry...).

The fourth is a snack or afternoon tea. Nothing like the British colonial style tea that leaves you full for the better part of a day, rather a few tiny bags of crisps and brightly colored Egyptian cookies, the latter packed with additives, artificial coloring and synthetic taste.

Apart from the snack, living on board gives you the ultimate diving experience. Equal to a five course meal with good wines served at an excellent restaurant. And yes, as the restaurant, it will cost you an arm and a leg, but by God it's worth it!

Dive briefing

On board, a bell will sound four times a day for a "dive briefing". Don't be late, if you want to avoid one whole week of friendly harassment. Be on time- hardly easy when the guide reschedules the briefing 30 minutes ahead of time with no prior notice.

Briefing is one of the essential parts of diving. Where to go, what to see and how to do it - basically getting to know the waters. You may miss out on a possible frog fish because you didn't pay attention, and that is simply stupid. In worst case the lack of attention may be lethal if you didn't grasp important facts as currents, planned course, depth and possible dangers.

Time to hit the water

Time to hit the water? No, you'll need some equipment. When diving from a boat your equipment is firmly placed in one spot, usually in a plastic crate (being tidy with your equipment and not leaving it lying around is a must). On this particular boat you never had to change air tanks, as the air was filled in the tanks in between diving sessions.

This is essential; because it means you put your BCD (the "life vest") on the tank only once, never taking it off for a full week. Very efficient! Any project manager would be proud of the logistics.

Some diving gear experiences

Before we move on, let us talk about renting diving equipment. There's only one thing to say about this - bring your own gear.

I have been to Egypt on diving trips four times, but do I follow my own advice? No. Gradually I have built up my own diving gear, though, after some quite funny experiences. In retrospect those are:

Fins and boots: Once I was given fins meant for kids and calm waters. That would not have been a problem normally, but I had an interesting experience while diving with these fins: The current was so strong one dive that some of the divers had to crawl along the bottom to getback to the boat. (you do not dive against the current normally, it simply appeared from the wrong direction that day...). The barracuda was nice though, as it studied us as we flew by before we could turn back.

Dive computer: Get a good and modern dive computer. This is just a sharp remark to my partner Christian who ended up in a pressure chamber in Bergen a few years before we met, and that is nothing to be funny about.

Regulator and BCD: My new investments may include a regulator (the thing you breath in) and perhaps a BCD. This as the high pressure hose on the regulator broke just before a dive, due to faulty or no maintenance. This usually doesn't happen under water but just after you put the air on before you hit the water. If it should happen under water you will suddenly hear a large pop behind your head and the water will start to boil with air bubbles. A part from the fact that the air disappears quite quickly, you need the calculating calm nerves of a airplane pilot during a Hudson river crash to calmly look around for your buddy, swim over, taking his octopussy (here; not James Bond, but the reserve regulator), cutting the air in the now almost empty free flowing tank (to avoid rust, like I care!), and calmly make your way to the surface, hopefully not too far from the boat. Diving may be a risky business!

Another argument for having your own regulator is the fact that most diving centers will do almost anything to make you pay extra for alleged damages to the equipment. My most expensive experience being a broken mouthpiece (the thing you put in your mouth). This is a piece of silicone that is easily broken by divers if you bite too hard. In reality half of the times the mouthpiece is already broken when you get it.

If you think it's no big deal because it was broken from the start and the mouthpiece is not very expensive you could not be more mistaken. When the equipment is turned in, it is suddenly scrutinized down to the molecular level and the diving centre will charge you an appalling sum of money for something that might cost only a few euro. And if that wasn't enough, they will often be quite rude if you claim it was broken from the start.

Jumping in

Finally it is time to hit the water! Your equipment is on, the buddy check is in order and you jump in - straight over the dive site. Great!! No transportation, no long distances to swim against the waves on the surface, just straight over the point.

On and off you are transported a short distance in a dingy to the dive site, but these trips are often quite short. The most ridiculous drop being just a few feet away from the boat. From where we were, we could actually see the wreck on the bottom but the guide seriously put his head in the water to locate the exact position.

This could have been a real Kodak moment.

Heaven is under water

Are you one of those that look up to the skies to see heaven? Let me tell you a little secret; heaven is under water. What will you find when submerged? Large schools of brightly colored fish all around you, fantastic visibility, beautiful corals and if you're really lucky a rude turtle. If you're even luckier you might see dolphins.

My personal favorite though are underwater slugs with tinted patters as if decorated by Miró. Parrot fish are the hooligans of the reefs, brutally (and loudly!) crushing corals with their strong jaws while the rest of us do our best to even avoid touching the vegetation... Crocodile fish lying on the bottom trying to avoid being seen, three meter long moray eels swimming by, looking annoyed at the commotion, triggerfish banging their heads into anything that might hide something edible and loads of sharks. Haha, just kidding! I have never seen a shark and frankly I never want to. To see sharks I recommend Animal Planet.

Good grub for divers

You are served good food on board. Rice or pasta, two types of hot vegetables, one salad, and either fish or meat, bread and often tsatsiki (cacik). It's usually the same food for lunch and dinner, but at dinnertime they add soup and a dessert.

Don't be concerned by the chicken, it is deep fried and safe to eat. The fresh vegetables look tantalizingly good but are probably rinsed in the same water you avoid brushing your teeth in, and may cause infections.

At breakfast you are served bread, yogurt, pancakes, eggs, cheese and a meat product you're supposed to put on bread. I have to admit that I'm not adventurous enough to try this meat product.

And remember to drink lots of water, even though the still bottled water is lame and plastic. Dehydration may cause problems anywhere, especially while diving, add a hot summer holiday and you're in serious trouble.

Some added bonuses

Spending one whole week with people just as crazy about diving as you are is absolutely fantastic. When I came back from my first diving adventure I described it as meditation.

You live, eat, breathe diving for a full week and clear your head completely of your everyday life leaving you almost newborn when you return. On this picture everybody is trying to take the best shot of the Egyptian sunset. Isn't it strange that people all over the world are crazy about sunsets and that we always look just as silly trying to catch the moment.

Then a little tummy talk, here; whether you haven't been to the loo for a week or whether you run to it every ten minutes. Being on holiday my friends and I have a common understanding about the need of digestive health - we talk about it. This means describing everything from consistency to color using figurative "work-arounds".

By now you're either disgusted to the point of nausea or laughing out loud - depending on whether you're with us or against us. But frankly you cannot address the subject too often, because catching a serious stomach flu may ruin your holiday. So what can you do about to prevent digestive problems?

There are pills available packed with billions of lacto bacteria, recommended for those of you leaving for exotic destinations. I have, however, yet to find any medication who will help apart from giving you a funny stomach before you even leave for the airport. So be prepared, for any circumstance! I do not go anywhere without a large bag of prunes and diarrhea tablets.

And while at the chemists - do remember to buy pills for sea sickness that also tackle nausea. But first and foremost do clean your hands regularly or clean them with wet wipes, use disinfectant and never put your fingers in your mouth. This sounds almost like teaching a child good manners, but not putting your fingers in your mouth is actually difficult to remember - how do you eat bread with a knife and fork?

Post scriptum

This picture shows my partner Christian when he was going to brush his teeth. In doing so he announced "I´m keeping it open while I´m in here!" It, being the bathroom window and open to relieve us from the humidity in the cabin. A moment later a large wave rolled in through the window, leaving him soaked from head to toe. Now why do I enjoy this moment of my boyfriends discomfort? Well, I had recently closed the window because of the waves.... Anyone thinking they can stop the force of the Red Sea by just looking will prove to be wrong.

Lena Holmström is Swedish and has lived in Oslo for over 11 years. She is currently working at the Norwegian cancer registry as a project manager. She moved to Norway with her two friends after finishing nursing school and none of them has seen the need of moving back over the border yet. She is a bit sadistic with her boyfriend's discomfort...but what a Kodak moment that was!!

1 comment:

John said...

Sounds like it was quite the trip. Thanks for sharing. You're absolutely right that "heaven" can be found under the water. I experienced this in Panama about two years ago where I got my PADI diving certificate. John