Silently, the four of us gathered around the buoy and slipped into the tepid waters of the Red Sea for our first open-water dive. My hand clenched the seaweed-covered chain that would guide us to the sea bed – a destination that seemed miles deeper than just 10 metres. Not only was I clutching on, but biting the mouthpiece of my regulator with my teeth. Yep, I certainly wasn’t relaxed. In fact, I was quietly petrified.
Echoes of my mum’s voice uttering the word claustrophobia drifted through my mind – it was something my gung-ho attitude hadn’t contemplated. Now, as I battled to keep a cool head, I understood her worry when I said I’d do a PADI course while in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.
So there I was, after two days of confined water dives and classroom sessions – I made an excited yet nervous leap off the boat into the open water.
Breathe, Alison, I had to remind myself. Ihadn’t been breathing. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget to do something that is so natural above the surface. Sounds silly, but wait until you’re there, you will do the same!
The pain increased in my ears as we descended. Equalising the pressure, by holding your nose and blowing, appeared to be a problem that only I was experiencing, as I watched my friends reach the bottom. Through hand signals I told Ayman, our instructor, that I was struggling. He didn’t seem fazed, but then again, after seven years of teaching, I’m sure he’s used to first-timers like me.
The pain eased as I inflated my jacket alittle, and rose up in the water. Slowly, my ears grew accustomed to the new environment.
As I gradually became less focused on my breathing and my equipment, I began to notice everything around me. A blue-spotted ray hid beneath a rock, which is where I would have been if I’d seen the sharp teeth of a moray eel a little sooner.
I felt light years from my world back home. Nemo’s flitted past (which I had recognised as a clown fish from the Disney movie) and other exotic fish, which I would be able to name if Disney had also made them into cartoon characters. Apparently, we might have glimpsed whale sharks, turtles and mantra rays, too, if we had been diving after March.
Ayman spotted an octopus and gestured us forward. However, the tentacled creature knew better than to stick around for four first-time divers, prone to creating sandstorms as we wobbled and waved about, inept on our fins.
In less than thirty minutes, we began to ascend. I was astonished that it took only seconds, and almost embarrassed at my claustrophobia at the beginning, as we had been so close to the surface the entire time. As my head emerged from the water, I pulled off my mask, relieved to breathe normally again, and eager to tell my friends an excited, babbled version of my experience.
The first day of diving was tiring and overwhelming, and after a stroll along Na’ama Bay’s streets, compact with restaurants, shops, cafés and Arabian bazaars, the evening ended with a peppermint tea in a Bedouin-style bar along the seafront promenade.
That night we resisted our favourite drink of G&Ts in Camel’s roof bar as we had an early dive the next morning. On this second sea-life safari, we would have to complete the drills we had learned in the pool, such as emergency ascents, mask clearance and surface snorkelling.
With each dive our confidence grew, and when our fourth and final experience took us 18m, I truly loved every second. This reef was more vibrant in colour than the first one, and as I sailed over the reef it suddenly dropped away into darkness.
When the air in my tank ran low, I was reluctant to tell Ayman. I wasn’t ready to return, I wanted to capture as much sealife as possible with my underwater camera. Time had passed too quickly.
Later, on the boat, we took our exam and passed. Yet our elation at qualifying was dampened by the realisation that our adventure was over: tomorrow Ayman would be taking another group out to sea.
On our last morning in Sharm, it felt wrong not to be diving. Instead, we hired quad bikes and rode off into the Sinai, creating sandstorms once more, but of a different kind. As enjoyable as this was, the heart rate barely picked up – it simply was never going to come close to the thrill of diving.
IN THE KNOW
BA, Excel, Monarch, Britannia and Thomas Cook operate direct flights to Sharm. Flying time is approx. five hours.
Camel is a five-minute stroll to either of its two beaches, and is in the heart of Na’ama Bay.
Alison stayed at Camel Dive Club. www.cameldive.com
Take a short trip to Cairo and Luxor by plane, or try quad-biking and horse-riding in the desert. There are also day trips available to Mount Sinai and one of the world’s oldest monasteries, St. Catherine’s. If you’re feeling more active, then visit the water park or try bungee jumping or paintballing. See www.gotoeygpt.org, www.sharmguide.com