as Mohamed Snorkeling
Sharm El Sheikh, January 18, 2002
We left our hotel early in the morning with 8 other tourists, a guide and driver. Our first stop was the equipment rental store, where at our guide’s suggestion we rented not only fins to go with our newly bought snorkels and masks but also wet suits. Ahmed assured us that without them we would not last five minutes in the water and I have to say I think he was absolutely right.
After an hour-plus drive we stopped near the shore to climb a low hill and admire a view that encompassed both the Gulf of Aqaba, running northeast away from us toward Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf of Suez, running roughly north.
Then, rather than entering the water just below these cliffs, at what the guide thought was the better spot, we moved over to the beach to enter the water so that some could sun themselves after or instead of snorkeling. There I donned my wet suit, the first in my life.
The beach formed the bottom of a U-shaped bay and at the open end of the U we could see some breakers. Facing the breakers, we could see along the left side of the U a series of posts connected by a rope of some kind about two meters from the rocky wall that formed the edge of the bay. To get out to the reef, we were told we should walk between the rocky wall and the posts, so off we set in a line to do just that. At first, close to the beach, the bottom was mostly sand and less than a foot deep and so very easy to negotiate. About half way to the breakers, the sand was dotted with stones of some kind and the depth increased to about three feet so we decided to put on our fins to protect our bare feet. At this point it became very difficult to walk and as it was clearly getting deeper, we opted to swim the rest of the way.
It turned out to be a very good and a very bad idea. It was a very good idea because it gave me at least a chance to get comfortable again with my snorkel before having to brave the breakers. It was a very bad idea, because it seemed no sooner did we start to swim than Gerry and I lost sight of one another.
When I had swum what I estimated to be half of the distance again to the breakers, I stood up to look back and find Gerry and was astonished to find there was no-one behind me. I looked ahead only to find that no-one that I could see looked anything like Gerry. I knew he was wearing a blue snorkel, but I couldn’t see one anywhere. I stood there a couple of minutes more getting more and more aggravated as I realized that my ‘buddy’ had gone. I already felt much less secure without him, but could only assume that he had gone on ahead and fulminating and fuming would not bring him back.
I continued on until I started to feel the effects of the breakers and once again stood up to see if I could find Gerry. By this time, I was very close to the last post and could see only one person beyond me. He turned out to be one of our group, an English guy and so I asked if he had seen Gerry and he said he thought he had already gone on beyond the reef. We exchanged commiserations about the wave action which was quite strong — it was all I could do hanging on to the post to stand up straight — when I decided that I had no choice but to waste the entire trip or go on.
So with my heart in my mouth, I let go of the post and kicked my legs as the first wave broke over me, swamping my snorkel. Forcing myself not to panic, I blew the water out, breathed and the next wave hit. I repeated the maneuver wondering how much more I could handle, when, mirabile dictu, I propelled myself beyond the last breaker.
As I propelled myself through the last breaker and on past the edge of the reef, almost like a cork popping out of a bottle, I went from a world of chaos and ferment into one of calm, silent, deep, blue. If I hadn’t had my mouth and teeth clamped tightly onto the mouthpiece of my snorkel, I swear I would have gasped. For there below me was a multitude of iridescent blue fish, the like of which I had never imagined. And below them, hovering like fireflies against the reef some two or three meters further down, was a clutch of tiny orange fish. No sooner had I taken that in, than a turquoise fin flashed in front of my mask as a parrot fish rushed past. I’m sure I could see ten meters down, maybe more, but everywhere I looked there were fish. Big fish, small fish, some in groups of ten, some in schools of literally hundreds. Some recognizable as aquarium fish, some I had never set eyes on before.
It was almost too much to take in. I had to mentally calm myself down and force myself to relax as the wave action gently moved me up and down. I could hardly believe I was snorkeling off the tip of the Sinai peninsula in Ras Mohamed National Park. I had once heard that it was the best dive site in the world, but our tour guide modestly described it as the second best, after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. How glad I was that I had overcome the problem of getting beyond that last wave.
I didn’t find Gerry for about 15 more minutes and almost missed him then. I was hovering around the spot where we had entered the reef and lifted up my head to see Gerry hanging on to the last post with his back to me, obviously looking for me. I shouted his name. He turned, I waved, and so we were reunited. Later, on shore, he told me that he was equally amazed to find that I had disappeared. First he looked behind him, and not finding me, he looked forward. As far as he could tell without his glasses, everybody looked the same in their wet suits. So he swam forward, trying each one to see if it was me. When he got the maximum distance he wanted to go — where the guide had originally thought to put us in the water — he back tracked and tried again. When he got back through the breakers and to the pole he hoisted himself up, but could not find me. It was my better eyesight that rejoined us.
For the next hour or so, we followed the edge of the reef this way and that in search of more and better coral, new and different fish, getting almost to the point where we would have come into the water if the sunbathers had not requested their change. More expert reef watchers told us that the coral was not very good near the surface, but for me it was all so beautiful and breathtaking and I felt so privileged to be able to see it. Certainly scuba divers could go places I couldn’t but I doubt that any scuba diver could find a greater variety of fish than we saw today or enjoy them more than we did.
After the calm comes the storm, however, and getting back to the beach proved even more difficult than leaving it. That might have been because we were tired and chilled and had swallowed too much salt water or most probably because the tide was going out. In any case, I found battling the breakers even harder in this direction and even once I made it to the lifeline, the current was so strong that I found myself having difficulty keeping my snorkel clear but unable to manage without it. Eventually the wave action calmed, the depth lessened, the sand took over from the stones, and we could remove snorkel, mask, and fins and walk back to the beach. Alas for Gerry, once over the worst, the excess of salt water proved too much for his stomach causing him to throw up part of his breakfast.
After our first excursion, we got back to the beach surprised to find that we had stayed out longer than anyone else. After a short time to dry off and get out of our wetsuits, the whole group piled on the bus to head for another beach perhaps 500 m away where some Bedouins were waiting to give us lunch. Lunch was buffet style and was set up on rag carpets under an awning. Most of the group took their food out to the beach to eat in the sun, but Gerry and I and a couple of others stayed in the shade of the awning. Gerry spent the whole of the lunch period talking to the tour guide, Ahmed about Israeli-Palestinian relations and such things.
After lunch I needed to go to the bathroom and was a bit shocked to find that there was none. I don’t know what anyone else did, but the only solution I could find on a beach with absolutely no shade and no privacy was to head out into the water and hide behind a cliff. Not the best way to keep the waters of the national park unpolluted!
Before our return, Gerry and one or two others went snorkeling again. Having thrown up the first time and then happily downing a generous meal didn’t stop him from going in the water again only two hours later! I demurred as the water seemed so very shallow. As it was, coming back Gerry scratched his knee, shin, and hands on the coral.
The final stops of the day were unexciting. One was near a tide-fed lake and the other alongside some mangroves. Halfway back we stopped to look out over the sea. Turning around we saw the desert country shown in the photo, just across the road. Then we finished the unwind of the morning's trip. As we approached Sharm town we came to the former Israeli defensive posts, clearly constructed so that tanks could not pass. We entered town by the harbor, stopped to return our wetsuits and were finally back to the hotel for a very welcome shower.