25Mar2012

Diving Dahab: The Blue Hole and The Canyon

Diving

Besides the kittens, the rooftop bars, the seafood and the fireside lounging, Dahab is about two things: the Red Sea and the Sinai desert.

And in the Red Sea, the single most famous spot is, of course, the Blue Hole Dahab, a submarine sinkhole surrounded by a 900m wall of coral that drops away deep into the ocean. Just…

…Well, just try not to open your mouth in awe, yeah?

Ahem.

Although Z qualified as an open water diver in Thailand, the absence of what I call blubber and the larger pro diver calls “bioprene” meant the Red Sea in March, at 21C, was simply too cold for him to cope with.

So a scheduled cruise over the top of the Canyon in the morning at the boy’s regulation 12 metre maximum turned into rather a more adult dive.

Now, the Blue Hole is the site that Dahab is most famous for, with the Thistlegorm wreck, far away though it is, probably second, but the Canyon is a truly impressive dive.

Me making a rather inelegant entry into the Canyon, Dahab.

A sinuous fissure with dramatic overhangs, carved by an earthquake into the prehistoric coral reef that forms the Red Sea bed around here, it drops away from 18m to around 50m – where there is, for technical divers, an exit through a low arch onto a vertiginous wall.

Me? Well, I’m not a technical diver. I’ve dived amazing wrecks in the Philippines and an undersea volcano in Indonesia, but, even if I were better at diving than I am, I’d still have absolutely no interest in going to depth with multiple tanks when breathing from the wrong one by mistake can kill you.

Which means I dropped into the Canyon, descending those dark, dark walls, and, basically, ambled around at 30m or so, gawping gently at the brilliant shards of light piercing the marine cliffs from up above, with schooling fish sparkling and silhouetted against the surface.

It’s a dramatic landscape of light and shadow, a world of blues and blacks. And the gentle swim up and around the Fish Pool, a pretty coral garden with the odd Napoleon fish among the fluttering smaller reef species makes a lovely contrast.

I’ve met people who have dived The Canyon three or four times, and to be honest, I can see exactly why. The combination of architectural drama and a descent into such a narrow fissure is incredible; the coral garden’s a charming end point; and, yes, there’s the arch, if that’s your thing.

And, at all points, importantly, I refrained from opening my mouth in awe.

Sign for "easy entry" to the Blue Hole, with jeep, in Dahab, Sinai.

Second dive of the day, after lunch at one of the beachfront cafes? The Blue Hole, naturally.

Now, the first few minutes of this dive are the single most dramatic dive I’ve done. Even if, for those of a sensitive disposition, the walk past the memorials to the many divers who have died here is on the nerve-inducing side.

There is an easy entry, but the best way is via a jump into The Bells, a short, tight fissure so named because it’s narrow enough to echo with the clank of tanks rattling hitting the sides. A fast descent and a few strokes brings you to a narrow chimney, where you upend and dive, headfirst, through the tunnel, dropping to 26m, and then…

… And then you emerge from the confines of the Bells out into the blue, the void of the deep blue sea, the wall that forms the outside of the Blue Hole dropping away for 900m below you, a sheer, savage cliff, with reef fish flirting among pretty corals behind you, but nothing ahead but the blue – and your whole body just goes, ‘Wow! I’m flying!’

And, gentle reader, it was shortly after my body started going ‘Wow! I’m flying!’ that I, slightly light-headed with nitrogen narcosis, rolled onto my back to look up at the view and actually opened my mouth to go, ‘Wow!’

This is not a particularly good idea underwater.

So, all of a sudden, I’m light-headed, out in the blue with no way of orientating myself and no bottom for almost a kilometre, with water in my mouth and mask, and a sensation fairly close to underwater vertigo.

In fact, neither of these base problems are particularly challenging. You can breathe around a mouthful of water and spit it out underwater. Cleaning a mask under water is one of the basic skills you learn in diver training. I do both of these things on reflex.

All the same, I find myself in a state of diver panic, pulse racing, close to hyper-ventilating, slightly trippy, panicking about the prospect of sinking into the blue, and wanting nothing more than to push the blue button on my BCD, inflate fully and head to the surface at speed.

On the plus side, I can report that basic diver training does stick well. Heading for the surface fast from depth is a recipe for the bends, and, if you’re stupid enough to hold your breath into the bargain, can kill you with lung over-expansion injuries. (There are two decompression chambers in Dahab, but I had no intention of visiting either of them.)

Hyper-ventilating is not a good idea on all sorts of levels, either.

Streams of diver bubbles in blue water.

So an unsightly period of internal dialogue commences. Which goes roughly as follows:

“Wah! I’m sinking! Going to die! Going to die! Going to die!”

“No, you’re not sinking! Calm the F*CK down, woman. Just breathe.”

“Must go up! Going to die! Going to die! Must go to surface and breathe REAL AIR!”

“No! Do NOT touch that button! That way you really WILL die!”

“Aaarrggh! I’m going to die! Going to die! Going to touch the button and I’m going to die!”

“Am I buoyant? Must adjust buoyancy! I’m sinking! No, I’m not sinking! Must NOT touch button!”

Etc.

In conclusion, given there is only me and the lovely Tamer, the instructor I’m diving with, around, I figure I’ll go and panic on him as he’s probably used to it. Plus, if I do somehow have a complete spaz fit, inflate and ascend, he’ll be able to stop me. (I know from conversation that there is absolutely nothing more a diving instructor loves than a panicking diver fully inflating. It’s the sort of thing they punch you for.)

So… I fin over. Grab poor Tamer by the arm, and, though the panicking diver face is pretty universal, alternate “up” signs and “loco” signs until he takes me up to 15 metres, signing helfpul things like “keep on breathing”.

And, amazingly, calms me down.

Clownfish in an anemone, Red Sea, Dahab.

The rest of the dive? Well, it’s an amazing wall: there’s nothing quite like seeing a tiny clownfish with an even tinier baby defending his nest on a giant underwater cliff. The blue is spectacular, and the swim through the saddle into the Blue Hole itself is interesting.

Frankly, there’s not much by way of coral or marine life inside the Blue Hole, but there are free divers practising stunts in the centre, and technical divers hanging around at depths where the Arch provides another spectacular exit onto the wall.

And, honestly, next time I come to Dahab, I would do both dives again. The Canyon for the dive itself, and the Blue Hole for those first amazing few minutes.

Just, hopefully, I’ll keep my mouth shut next time…

Thanks to Adventure Spot Dahab for the excellent diving. They offer diving courses and dive trips around south Sinai.

12 Comments

  1. WOW. i felt like i was there with you – i even stopped breathing for a moment. gorgeous photos!!

  2. jan says:

    I was panic stricken with you. Where is that button? Thank you Tamer!

    • Theodora says:

      Ah, the pesky button. The problem is you need to use it a little when you’re diving to adjust your buoyancy normally: you are not supposed to use it as an emergency ejector seat. It’s the blue one, normally….

  3. Anthonee says:

    Beautiful pictures. Especially the bubbles. I love bubbles. I had the opportunity to dive in the red sea along time ago but never did. Now I have been diving all over Thailand i am kicking myself i never went.

    One day, i shall return. One day.

    Great post! Enjoyed!! :)

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks, Anthonee! The Red Sea is seriously amazing diving — highly recommended. And I think you would love Dahab, too.

      And, if you head to Indo after Thailand, don’t miss Komodo.

  4. I was there a few years ago now, did my diving with Penguin divers. I remember well doing bells, trying not to smash my tank into the wall while descending rapidly face first. Then stepping out of the ledge into the deep blue and immediately beginning to sink. Thankfully the guide had gone first and immediately grabbed me before I sank into oblivion, although by the sounds of it, I’ve have more dives under my belt and would have immediately gone for the inflate button without hessitation and given it a couple quick bursts to stop the sinking and regain my buoyancy which I did anyway while Hamdy was holding me up. But that initial sense of vertigo when stepping out into the blue is exhilarating!
    Also, Clownfish are Awesome.

    • Theodora says:

      Blimey! I waited to decide I was sinking until I’d done the whole adjustment after coming out of the Bells and was a bit around the wall. I wasn’t, in fact. I was just freaking the hell out. But, yes, Tamer was definitely on the qui vive for me coming out of the Bells — presumably, folk start sinking all the time out there, because of the rapid descent in the Bells, then coming out onto the Wall.

      Exhilarating — yes! You know what, I’d go with you on that? Even though, as I get vertigo on land, to get a full version underwater was, well, pretty pathetic…

  5. Jill says:

    I’m just amazed you maintained your inner calm enough to photograph the experience. I would have pressed the button….

    • Theodora says:

      Ah, that was the lovely Tamer who took the photos. Oh god, trust me, I was in no condition to be photographing bubbles, or doing anything, really. I might have engaged in a little random flailing, of course, but that would have been as far as it went…

  6. I’ve been a diver for six years now, and while I never had any panic attacks in the beginning, now that I’ve been battling general anxiety disorder for the past couple years, I have quite frequent experiences like you did when I dive these days. Usually, it goes away within a few minutes, but I have to have decent visibility and be able to see the top. The only time I’ve actually shot to the surface was in Honolulu last spring when I wasn’t properly weighted and got sucked to the top–it was frightening, but luckily I had no lung expansion injuries!

    • Theodora says:

      I think being able to see the top is a big part of it. At the point I panicked, I couldn’t actually see the top, while the bottom was, obviously, 900m below me. Interestingly, it also seems to have fed back into my land vertigo, which I thought I’d got under control. Got very, very wobbly on top of a minaret yesterday in a way that I haven’t done for many years.

      Do you manage to get it to pass without grabbing onto someone?

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