Closer to Africa than Europe, the island of Madeira offers some surprisingly good diving as well as great food and wine.
By Fiona McIntosh
The sea was pumping as we scrambled down to the platform at the foot of the Pestana Palms Hotel. The skipper brought the rubber duck up and we hastily passed over weight belts, tanks and gear as the boat yawed in the swell. “It’s not normally like this,” insisted Susan, a regular diver. “On most days the wind blows from the north and this is a millpond,” she said. Not today. This was more like a South African launch and we were pumped with adrenalin by the time the skipper told us to hold on tight as we skimmed over the waters of Funchal Bay.
Diving spots in Sudan
Top dive sites of Northern Sudan
The Blue Bell was a cargo ship wrecked in the 1970s. She lies upside down with her nose buried at about 70m, but thereâ€™s a gap between the wreck and the seabed so between 30m and 37m you can swim through this passage which is encrusted with great whip and black corals. No-one is quite sure where the Blue Bell was coming from, or where she was heading, but one theory is that she might have been trying to smuggle in cars from Saudi. After youâ€™ve explored the main wreckage its fun to check out the Toyota trucks which are scattered around the wreck (which obviously hit the reef quite hard!) Their upholstery has disintegrated but theyâ€™re covered with corals and sponges and there are a huge number of fish on the reef, including a big Grouper in the shallower area.
The most famous site in Sudan is Shaâ€™ab Rumi some 23 miles north/north east of Port Sudan. It consists of a big lagoon where the boat anchors, and a long thin reef extending out to the south, which you access by RIB. There are three sites â€“ the southern plateau, the less accessible northern plateau and the Precontinent site. The southern plateau is just amazing. You start off hunting for sharks in the big blue then make your way to the reef for a slow ascent accompanied by huge shoals of reef fish, and occasionally big shoals of pelagics â€“ Barracuda, Trevallies and Grey sharks. Shaâ€™ab Rumi is rated as one of the most beautiful dive sites in the world and you soon see why given the colour and huge variety of species. Itâ€™s easy to get distracted by the sharks and big pelagics, but once you focus on the reef youâ€™ll see all the little critters â€“ Long nose hawkfish around the sea fans, Red Sea anemone fish and a multitude of tiny cleaning wrasses on the seabed. And, as you make your safety stop thereâ€™s an ever-present massive Barracuda and shoal of Sweet lip grunts to amuse.
This small sandy island (which translates as â€˜mother of sharksâ€™) was one of the most fascinating dives. We saw Hammerheads, Silvertips, Srey reef sharks and Bluefin and Yellowfin trevally around 50m, a wonderful selection of soft corals, marbled grouper, Napoleon fish, Barracuda, trevally on the plateau around 30m and finished the dive with a safety stop in little inlet of crystal clear water teeming with reef fish.
One of the most scenic and best preserved wrecks in the world, the Umbria was an Italian transport ship which left Messina at the end of May 1940 with a shipment of bombs and explosives bound for Massaua, the Italian military base on the Red Sea. On June 7 she encountered British warships and was forcibly diverted to the bay of Port Sudan. At midnight on June 10, Italy declared war and came out on the German side so the crew of the Umbria decided to scuttle the ship rather than give up the ship and itâ€™s cargo to the British. She now lies leaning at 45 degrees to port side in 18-33m of water. The wreck is 150m long and 18m wide so merits several dives â€“ we did three and still didnâ€™t manage to fully explore her holds. When Hans Hass discovered the wreck in 1949 the masts were still visible, but today only the small lifeboat cranes are still visible above the surface. He describes the Umbria, which had been submerged for nine years by then, as looking â€œlike a garden inhabited by schools of coral fish swimming between festoons, railings and stairs.
Quita el Banna
This coral tower, 29 miles north of Port Sudan, was my favourite dive. The pinnacle rises to the surface from a depth of 300m so you dive along a vertical wall covered with large, colourful soft corals that is full of caves and crevices sheltering numerous species of fish. The strong currents of the exposed site mean that itâ€™s a top spot to see Silvertip and Scalloped hammerhead sharks so we were full of expectation.
The five-star Cassiopeia boat is very spacious and well-equipped, with all rooms en suite. Dive packages include buffet-style meals three times a day, snacks (lots of!), mineral water, tea, coffee, unlimited soft drinks, diving three or four times a day, dive guides, weights and a 12 litre cylinder. Equipment hire can be arranged in advance and nitrox is available on board at an additional cost.
The best dive months are the end of February to May (though Sudan can have storms late April/May) and September to November. June, July and August are just too hot to visit the area. The water temperature varies from 23Â°C to 32Â°C. We went in March when the water temperature was 25Â°C so most people wore 5mm wetsuits.
There is no deco chamber in Sudan. The nearest ones are in Marsa Alam in Egypt (a 65 hour sail) or in Saudi Arabia (40 hours sail and a whole load of hassle away) so safe diving is a must.
Egypt, Sharmel Sheikh
By Fiona McIntosh and Shaen Adey
Photos by Shaen Adey
We boarded the King Snefro 5 in Sharm el Sheik at the main harbour, on the Travco Jetty. The water was crystal-clear and the air was filled with the buzz of anticipation. The jetties were alive with trolleys filled with tanks, dive gear and food supplies. Hundreds of divers and snorkellers were ooo-ing and aaah-ing at the sight of the water, all caught up in the excitement of the dives ahead. The water around Sharm el Sheikh is the diving Mecca of the Red Sea, a must for divers to visit at least once in your life. The Sinai Mountains form a distant and stunning backdrop to the harbour. The locals are eager to assure you that this is where Moses spoke to God - they will also try convincing you that God blessed the waters in the area too.
By Fiona McIntosh
As we hit the water we could see distinctive dark shapes cruising just metres below. We dived straight down and settled on the sand as a massive school of Hammerhead sharks circled around us. It was amazing, the sort of thing that you only see in on the Discovery Channel or in National Geographic – scores of weird shaped fish darkening the sky. Some came in close – so close that we could see their beady eyes. All around us were fish, mainly Jacks, Creole fish and Big eyes. There were so many fish that they were obscuring our view of the big guys, ruining our photographs by swimming across every shot! As I cursed I had to laugh at the irony. How spoilt we had become if, as divers, we were wishing for fewer fish! The climax was brief and dramatic, but when the Hammerheads had passed and we were able to look around, we began to appreciate the diversity of the marine life in this small speck in the Pacific Ocean. All around us were fields of Garden eels on the sandy bottom, a Manta ray passed by overhead and then again we were engulfed in shoals of fish. Man, it was a cool dive.
Photos by Richard Vera
Great Barrier Reef
It’s great, it’s a barrier and it’s the biggest reef in the world.The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef system, composed of roughly 3 000 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching for 2 600 kilometres over an area of approximately 344 400 square kilometres.
The reef is located in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland in northeast Australia.
To get to this amazing reef you have to depart from the city of Cairns which is the closest harbour to the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns is one of the most diverse places in the world and a great plave from which to explore ‘Down Under’. If you ever visit Cairns, you can dive the Great Barrier Reef, explore lush tropical rainforests and visit the beautiful rugged outback regions – all of which are located within a short distance of the airport.
Lake Malawi, Danforth Lodge
By Fiona McIntosh
Danforth Lodge, Cape Maclear, Lake Malawi
Crystal-clear water, excellent vis, and a luxurious lodge with its own dive centre and instructor on site. Now that’s what we call the good life…If you want to learn diving skills, I can think of no better place than Lake Malawi. The water’s warm, clear and most importantly, fresh, so all those wretched mask clearings don’t result in salt water stinging your eyes. The topography of the lake is magnificent – huge granite boulders with swim throughs and interesting shapes that give rise to sites like ‘Brain’. The colourful little fish of the lake, the cichlids, are much prized in fish tanks and if you need a bit of an adrenalin rush, there are some larger scary-looking monsters lurking in the deep (relax, they’re harmless, honest). In fact, swimming in the lake is not unlike wallowing in a giant tank, with its excellent vis, calm sheltered waters and beautiful scenery, it’s definitely worth a visit. And best of all, Malawi is inexpensive, easy to travel in and safe. It’s not for nothing that it’s referred to as the ‘Friendly Heart of Africa’.
One of the newest attractions of the lake is Danforth Lodge – a luxurious base from which to enjoy a diving holiday. The lodge, owned by Howard and Michelle Massey-Hicks, boasts four spacious, en-suite family rooms, all tastefully decorated in cool, nautical colours, and with spectacular views. Each room opens onto a large patio beyond which stretches garden, with its shady lawns, clean beach and crystal-clear water.
By Fiona McIntosh
The Last Paradise: Lord Howe
Born from a volcanic eruption some seven million years ago, Lord Howe Island is the southern-most coral reef in the world. A lush paradise of pristine waters enclosed by coral reef, it’s home to 500 species of fish and 90 species of coral… a diver’s wet dream!Some places capture your imagination and you just have to go to them. I’d never heard of Lord Howe, almost 600km northeast of Sydney, until Neville Ayliffe of Reefteach mentioned on one of his environmental courses that the tiny island boasts the most southerly coral reef in the world. I looked it up in my atlas as soon as I got home, a tiny mountainous outcrop almost equidistant from Sydney and Brisbane. A Google search revealed two dive companies on the island. And the seed was sown.
And so it was that last Chrismas I shirked family duty at my Sydney-based sister-in-law’s and escaped to Lord Howe for four days.
Madagascar, Sakatia Lodge
By Fiona McIntosh
Photo's by Marc le Chat
Enjoy exotic Madagascar AT SAKATIA LODGEOne of the most beautiful and accessible parts of the big Red Island is the small island of Nosy Sakatia, a boat ride away from lively Nosy Be and a place with no roads, only footpaths.
It’s a short walk through exotic palms, baobabs and lush, sweet-smelling bush to Sakatia Lodge, set at the foot of the Sacred Mountain. This simple and stunningly beautiful place can accommodate a maximum of 16 guests, so it feels intimate and relaxed, and you’ll be welcomed as friends by hosts José and Isabella Viera.
The lodge has four large bungalows with verandas and sea views, plus four smaller bungalows with cold water and loos. The bar/lounge area is stunning – a clever combination of contemporary and Malagasy styles – and it’s the perfect place to sit and watch the lemurs play in the trees, or enjoy the last rays as the golden sun sets into the ocean. Chef Isabella conjures up amazing delicacies that reflect both her Italian roots and Malagasy influences. Your meal is enjoyed in the restaurant while gazing out to sea and over the sacred forest.
By Johan Boshoff
Photos by Lesley Rochat, Ketrick Chin
Diving the Northern tip of Borneo, MALAYSIAJacques Costeau said, “I have seen other places like Sipadan 45 years ago, but no more.
Now we found again an untouched piece of art… a jewel.”
The island of Borneo is rated as one of the best dive sites in the world, and after this diving trip it is to me THE best in the world! Borneo Island has 1440 km of coast and is surrounded by three seas, the South China Sea, Sulu and Celebes Sea. There is a variety of dives on these islands, including wall dives with drop-offs to 600m, coral garden dives and muck dives (muck dive is a term that all the locals use to describe diving over coral rubble to look for small marine life). Don’t think that muck dives are no good - some of these dives can beat some of the dive sites in South Africa and they are great for macro photography.