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  • Writer's pictureAlly Landes

SAILING SUDAN INTO A VIRGIN RED SEA



PORT SUDAN

The Egyptian and Jordanian Red Sea is a favourite dive destination for many, especially for divers from this region, not only due to the quality of the diving available, but with the travel proximities being so close by. The Red Sea can get very, very busy during certain seasons though and it does not always make a relaxing getaway. It does of course depend on what you’re going for. But, imagine diving the Red Sea completely and utterly alone! Just you and your 3 or 5 dive companions! Have you ever thought of diving the Red Sea within Sudan? There are now direct flights from Dubai to Port Sudan on Mondays, making this destination so much easier to get to. When having received an invitation to go and discover remote diving locations from Port Sudan for a week aboard ‘No Stress’, the sailing livaboard owned by French/Brazilian Captain, Jérôme Émilio; Simone and I immediately sent our paperwork off to get our visas, packed up our cameras and dive equipment and took that flight over to discover it for ourselves and give you the lowdown.


THE YACHT & CREW

We were met in Port Sudan’s airport by Chico, Jérôme’s agent who arranged for our Sudanese visas and who also scheduled our bus ride to take us directly to No Stress, our new home for the week to follow. We were joined by two other fellow divers, Alexandra Sapicas and François-Xavier Patijaud who were great companions.



Jérôme has sailed the Red Sea for the past three years, building on extensive experience, resonating the joy of life on a yacht to form the cornerstones of good and positive seamanship. You will often find Jérôme catching up on some Zs while you go out on your dives due to the fact he has been up most of the night sailing you to your next destination for your following day’s venue, weather permitting.


Jérôme’s crew is made up of two other seamen. Steven Surina who is a CMAS and PADI Instructor and No Stress’s dive guide for the duration of the trip. As well as knowing his dive sites inside out, he is a shark guide specialist and we couldn’t have done it without him. He has worked on several publications on the subject of sharks, and held conferences regarding this threatened species.


He is the Founder of www.sharkeducation.com.


Abdallah Yagaop, is the third crew member and the Chef and Fisherman aboard No Stress. Abdallah is from Port Sudan and is accustomed to European cuisine. The man knows how to prepare a good meal from scratch! Every morning Abdallah prepared a stack of freshly made crêpes and there was always a large jar of Nutella to accompany them! We have missed those crêpes mornings!


The other great part of Abdallah’s cuisine, was the fresh fish he would catch for our lunch and dinner. His fresh barracuda dishes were sumptious. He is also known to prepare a mean sushi platter and his sashimi rocks!



THE EXPEDITION

Maybe it is best to begin with the fact that we came to do our trip within the month of June. June is of course the last month of the season and with it, the larger fish move on to deeper depths of more substantial temperatures. Take note that the diving season in Sudan, starts in October. The best visibility is from February to May where you can get viz as good as 60m. Our viz during the month of June averaged about 30m. Water temperatures start from 24˚C in February to 32˚C in October. Ours varied between 27-30˚C. Within this realm of Red Sea in Sudan, the list of large species that one can expect to see begins a little something like this: gray reef sharks, silky sharks, whitetip sharks, silvertip sharks, hammerheads, tiger sharks, dolphins, dugongs, manta rays... 4 of which on this list, we were not to expect during the month of June at all.



1. SHAAB RUMI (Southern Plateau)

★★★★★

Date: 11.06.13 | Depths: 31.9m

Highlight: Whitetips & Gray reef sharks


What an exciting introduction to Sudan’s Red Sea. First dive in and we’ve already been introduced to 2 species of sharks. The whitetip (Triaenodon obesus) and the gray reef (Carcharhinus amblyrhyncos). The coral reef health is immaculate and booming with life and colour.


Shaab Rumi is 23 miles north/northeast of Port Sudan. Some say, that this is one of the most beautiful dives in the world due to the great variety of species and colour found here.


2. SHAAB RUMI (Southern Plateau)

★★★★★

Date: 11.06.13 | Depths: 23m

Highlight: Gray reef sharks, napoleons, small manta ray, groupers, schools of bigeye trevally, titan triggerfish, moray eels, anthias everywhere. Spinner dolphins at the surface.


This particular part of Shaab Rumi must have been my favourite dive of the entire trip. I have never seen as much ambience and colour all rolled in to one dive. The site itself was very beautiful and the parade of fish on display was mind blowing. It was so surreal that you imagined actually being in a man made aquarium to actually get the mix and size of species that were found in this vicinity. The groupers, napoleons (Cheilinus undulatus) and the titan triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens) of enormous size and not far off from the proportions of the 7 gray reefs (Carcharhinus amblyrhyncos) that circled us. It was very difficult to keep up with all that was going on. Every other inch of reef was covered in splatters of orange coloured anthias – fairy basslets (Pseudanthias squamipinnis) which looked like little fire crackers bursting out as far as the eye could see.


Steven had given us a breakdown of how this particular dive was going to work out, how to position ourselves and how the sharks would react during their entry to us at the site. He studies these animals, their habits, their interaction with us and he spends time drawing them to perfection in his sketch books. In order to summon the sharks to us, Steven uses an empty plastic Coca-Cola bottle in which he forces it to crinkle in his hand, making that particular sound which reaches out to the sharks and has them close in on our whereabouts.


That moment in time had been exceptional and sharing that very real space with all that life at that dive site was remarkable.


I did also see a small lone manta ray (Manta birostris) glide past us which also felt very special. It had been the only one seen that week.


The treat after getting back into the zodiac was to jump straight back into the water with mask and snorkel to enjoy the company of a pod of spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) at the surface. Shy, but still curious enough to come in close enough to have their photo taken. This was the first dolphin encounter, but this may have been due to having finally found calm seas. The way over had been forecast for some rough weather and the term “rock the boat” had taken on a whole new meaning. I only learnt later on, that I could have been strapped into my bunk!


3. SHAAB RUMI

★★★★★

Date: 11.06.13 | Depths: 16.3m

Highlight: Cousteau’s base from the 1960’s is still there.


This dive came in as my second favourite! To prepare us for what we were about to descend upon, Steven suggested we watch World Without Sun (French: Le Monde Sans Soleil) a 1964 French documentary film directed by Jacques-Yves Cousteau. The film was Cousteau’s second to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and it ventures on to explain the life and research that went in to the 30 day project that tied in to this dive site. So as an after lunch ‘digestif’ and dive prep, we painfully watched a segment of this documentary until we could no longer bear to continue. I’ll let those of you curious enough to find a copy, make up your own mind. How far man has come since!


The submarine hangar, referred to as the “diving saucer” and the Continental Shelf Station Two, or “Conshelf Two”, the first ambitious attempt to create an environment in which men could live and work on the sea floor, are the two structures that remain, but now clearly just shells. The submarine hangar does still have a pocket of air in it, which we were able to test out during a photo session. The exterior of the diving saucer is now beautifully covered in new life and splashes of colour, and really is very grand. This dive site is every bit worth the visit.


4. QITA EL BANNA

★★★★★

Date: 12.06.13 | Depths: 37m

Highlight: 2 tiger sharks and a hammerhead. Silky shark as we ascended to the surface.


Qita el Banna is a coral tower, 29 miles north and rises to the surface from a depth of 300m. This location is exposed to the open sea and does have strong currents which are great for hammerhead encounters in season as well as other sharks and manta rays. Very few dive Qita el Banna though as it is not on the standard diving route, but Jérôme had speculated rumours going around that tiger sharks had been spotted via a fish finder and it was Steven’s incentive for us to go and check it out.


Hammerheads we had not expected to see at this time of year at all, as they stay close to the thermoclines and are found at 25m in March, and at 50m in June; a depth we were obviously not going to search for them at. But with Steven’s clickety bottle, he managed to summon up two tiger sharks from the dark depths and a scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewin) which I completely missed in all the commotion of our first ever tiger shark sighting! Who would have believed it! To sum up the luck on our side, we were the only dive trip out in June to have seen both species! All the other dive operators were talking about it after Jérôme sent word out and the news made it back to Christophe at Nomad Ocean Adventures in Dibba – Oman!


Tiger sharks are very rarely seen and have never been photographed underwater on Sudanese reefs before… until now! It is very exciting to be able to show Simone’s photos!

During our surface interval, we were stalked by a beautiful but mischievous looking silky (Carcharhinus falciformis). Another species to add to the shark check list.


5. MERLO

★★★★★

Date: 12.06.13 | Depths: 34.6m

Highlight: Shoals of trevally, massive barracuda, gray reef sharks and a very friendly turtle.


Merlo is a square shaped reef. On the northeast corner, there is a pinnacle that reaches down to a 25m plateau with a wall that drops down into the deep blue. This area attracts a lot of marine variety especially when there are strong currents.


Simone found a lovely male hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) to photograph, enclosed in an alcove on one of the walls, perched on top of some whip coral. At first we thought he was stuck when attempting to get out, but once free from his nest of coral, he tagged along with us, swimming by our sides for a long part of the dive until we reached the rest of the group. After a little play with Steven, he gradually got bored and went off in another direction.


We saw some more gray reefs (Carcharhinus amblyrhyncos), which is always a very welcome sight, and we only saw this one very big blackfin barracuda (Sphyrnaena qenie) during all our dives. We did not see any others throughout as we had so expected. The shoals of bigeye trevally found closer to the surface are always great to film and photograph, especially when they play infront of the light dispersed through the water.


6. ANGAROSH

★★★★

Date: 12.06.13 | Depths: 40.8m

Highlight: 2 silvertip sharks and several gray reef sharks.


Angarosh translated means, “the mother of sharks”. You first arrive at a 30m plateau and then you reach a plateau at 45-55m deep. This is the part where you are most likely to see hammerheads and silvertips. We saw two silvertip sharks (Carcharinus albimarginatus) and several gray reefs.


The safety stop on this dive is lovely as there is a small inlet of crystal clear water, covered in beds of soft coral and anemones full of Red Sea anemonefish.


7. ANGAROSH (Southern Plateau)

★★★★

Date: 13.06.13 | Depths: 40.4m

Highlight: 2 hammerhead sharks, gray reefs, silvertips, whitetips and a small turtle. Risso dolphins at the surface.


This was an epic dive with regards to the number of different species we got to see in one dive! Angarosh leaves no room for disappointment!


It’s also nice to find another species of dolphins once up at the surface. The rissos are very timid compared to the spinner dolphins and they did not let us get close enough for photos.


8. ANGAROSH (Southern Plateau)

★★★

Date: 13.06.13 | Depths: 36.4m

Highlight: None, we had headed in opposite directions from Steven who had gone in before us and we missed out on his shark encounters. It does happen every now and then.


MESHARIFA

After our second dive of the day, we went on to Mesharifa where manta rays are known to gather to mate from August to November as there are no currents. We had no such luck in seeing any, but we did get to go on to dry land for a bit and run our toes through the sand bar and see the different bird species nesting there. The reef of Mesharifa is 800m long and mainly orientated in the northern direction, but we did not dive here. Snorkeling the area off the sand bar is really nice as it’s very shallow and makes a nice change to see all the little life within all the hard coral.


Simone also got a fun shot in from the yacht’s mast to give a little perspective on our surroundings. One must not fear heights in order to attempt getting up there as you really do get up very high, pulleyed up by what looks to be like an oversized baby’s swing seat.



9. QITA EL BANNA

★★★

Date: 14.06.13 | Depths: 38.6m

Highlight: Tiger shark


Back to Qita el Banna and on the first dive, we were met with a tiger shark! Beautiful speciman, but I have to say, this was my dive to hate. The current was very strong on this one and for reasons still unknown to us, we dove against it.


10. QITA EL BANNA

★★★★

Date: 14.06.13 | Depths: 41.8m

Highlight: 4 tiger sharks, 2 hammerheads and a silky.


How is this not another epic dive? Not one, two or three, but four tiger sharks and two hammerheads on top of a silky! Our reputation for shark spotting is growing within the diving community here. I dare say we have surpassed our luck of spotting tigers and hammers!


11. SANGANEB SOUTH

★★★★★

Date: 15.06.13 | Depths: 45.3m

Highlight: 4 hammerheads, bumphead parrotfish, shoals of bigeye trevally and black snappers to finish.


The Sanganeb reef lies 14 miles northeast of Port Sudan. This is a very popular site for divers and the most sought out part is the southwestern point. There is a plateau down at 30 meters full of life and colour. Further below the plateau, where the current flows, there are chances of seeing scalloped hammerheads here, and we got to see and spend time with 4 of them! We then stayed up closer to the surface for a good time on this dive, photographing with bumphead parrotfish and shoals of bigeye trevally and snappers. Golden trevally hang out solo, closer to 5m. It’s a beautiful site.


SANGANEB LIGHT HOUSE

After our first dive of the day and a hearty breakfast, we made another land stop, this time to the Sanganeb Light House which is 15 miles away from Port Sudan. The lighthouse was built in 1906 by the British to signal to passing ships of the dangerous reef, as at that time, Sudan was protectorate of the British Empire. It had initially been a metal pyramid 55m high, then the metal tower was replaced by the present concrete one.


There was a school visit on during our arrival, but I don’t think you are often going to see many visitors here as it is only accessible by boat. This is worth the visit for the 360˚ view you get from the top. Be mentally prepared to climb the 260 steps of the spiral staircase up to the top, it’s a sweaty climb.



12. UMBRIA – Port Sudan

★★★★★

Date: 15.06.13 | Depths: 26.1m

Highlight: The entire wreck is awesome and has a reputation for being one of the best in the world!


The Umbria is an absolutely awesome wreck to dive! She measures 153m long which is a lot bigger in comparison to her competitor, the Thistlegorm (128m). The cargo ship was built in 1911 and could carry 2,000 passengers and 9,000 tons of cargo. The ship sank as a result to the Umbria’s Italian skipper, Captain Lorenzo Muiesan, scuttling the ship to avoid it falling into the hands of the British who were stationed in Port Sudan. Italy had just declared war and on the 10th of June 1940, the crew sunk the Umbria just outside Port Sudan by the Windgate Reef, to avoid the enemy seizing their explosive cargo and using it against their country. She lies on her portside with the deepest depths being at 27m at the bow and stern and rises to 5m around the bridge area.


The cargo holds are easily accessible and in addition to all the munitions onboard, divers can see storage jars, wine bottles, cement bags, Fiat cars, pizza ovens and rolls of electrical cables. This wreck is in great condition and we only hope for it to stay that way. There is so much to explore in and around this wreck and the exterior is covered in soft coral, making it a must for photographers.


13. UMBRIA – Port Sudan

★★★★★

Date: 15.06.13 | Depths: 12m

Highlight: Night dive.


First night dive of the trip. Lots of sleeping parrotfish about. This was also the first time we came into contact with other divers.


14. UMBRIA – Port Sudan

★★★★★

Date: 16.06.13 | Depths: 27m

Highlight: Penetration dive


As with all wreck dives, make sure you have done a speciality course to give you the basics and understanding of how to go about diving a wreck, as technique can be slightly different, and make sure to dive this one with someone who knows it, as it is huge. The Umbria has had one fatality a year due to solo divers going in and not finding their way out. Never enter a wreck alone and/or without a torch, it only takes a second for something to go wrong. And always carry a second torch as a spare, you never know when you may need one.


DIVING CONCLUSION

Sudan’s Red Sea was every bit, if not more than what we had anticipated, certainly in regards to what we could see during the month we had gone in to dive it. The reefs are so colourful, beautiful and serene and clearly untouched by man’s selfish destruction. We encountered healthy sharks on all our dives and the number of different species that can be seen is wonderful. Dugongs are further still, so probably a trip with an extra week in will need to be made in order to attempt seeing them.


The Umbria is every bit worthwhile diving. Remember to take only pictures and leave only bubbles behind. Continue to allow others to be able to see all the cargo still left inside, it really does make it that more special to have all the history in place. I’m talking about the bullets, glass bottles and jars, etc, certainly don’t pick up any of the explosives!



A GUIDED TOUR OF PORT SUDAN

You cannot come all the way to Port Sudan and not get a little guided tour of the town.



When Abdallah is not manning his hours on No Stress, he is living his life in his home town which is Port Sudan itself. There he runs a Tuc Tuc driving service and we got the chauffeur run tour with the man himself.



Our first stop was to the fish market and boat yard. The fish market is very different from that of the UAE’s ones and there is a lot of hussle and bussle going on. The animation here is very vivid and fish are gutted and cleaned out on the spot with bits flying everywhere. If you don’t like fishy smells, scales and guts flying at you, then probably not the place for you. The boat yard, really is just that.



Our next stop was over to see the vegetable market. There are two. One is the traditional outdoor market where they serve Sudanese Coffee if you fancy trying it (we politely declined) and the other is inside a giant refrigerator. Steven explained that people actually paid to spend a certain amount of time in there to cool off from the hot summer heat. The men working in there had obviously hit the jackpot in obtaining that job, receiving free airconditioning all year round. A luxury we take for granted.



Depending on how you like to plan your diving holidays, whether it be a very small group of 5-6 divers amidst a sailing boat or that in the company of 12 divers aboard a larger vessel, then we have another operator you can choose from. Le Baron Noir has been chartering dive trips in Sudan for the past 20 years.



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