Report by Polly Buckingham:
For those of us who did not head for beirut or Kathmandu, the road trip over the mountains to Dibba Fujaireh was relatively hassle free. Finding the way over from Ajman, it has to be mentioned that we offer no thanks to a TomTom which didn’t work correctly, a satellite tracker on an IPAD of which, all satellites in the area must have gone on vacation, and a co-pilot confused between her left and right directions. However, we were saved and resorted to the trusty hand written map given to us by Mike.
Arriving in Dibba we found the Sandy Beach Hotel. The beach and area around Snoopy Island is a Marine Reserve and fishing is prohibited, so a pleasure to see a holiday resort making a contribution to preserving our marine environment. The beach rooms rooms have a veranda overlooking the beach with sounds of the ocean. You can get suited and booted on your veranda, walk down five steps and you are on the beach and into the water. Entry and exit is very easy. The first dive around Snoopy Island offered great marine life in a max of 5.8 mtrs. We spotted a Turtle, Nemo and a fork. The coral is very colourful and thriving and is also good for a snorkel venture. An SMB is rather a must here as the Ski-Doo’s come in quite close to the swimming and diving area. On the way out of the shore dive, the showers on the beach offer a welcome fresh water wash down and you don’t even have to de-kit, just exit water, walk through the shower and you are home. We were feeling quite spoilt. One caveat, walking the beach when it is dark be prepared to be attacked by crabs with attitude and moving a million miles an hour. Hence, certainly not good for those with a nervous disposition nor for those whom have a dislike of fast moving creatures with no sense of direction, ocean going or otherwise.
The Sandy Beach Hotel Dive Centre is fully kitted for all your diving needs if you can’t bring your own gear. However, coming here armed with tanks and full kit will save quite a hike to the in house dive centre. The dive staff are a friendly bunch, and very helpful to the ladies with carrying gear up the beach. Trolleys are available from Housekeeping to move gear from rooms to the dive centre, so diving is made very easy in terms.
The second day of diving we joined the dive boat. Chris arrived promptly from ‘the other side’ in the morning bright and breezy. The boat has two 150 Yamaha outboards, full shade and tank holders for easy kitting up. The boat has a two litre bottle of vinegar - always a good sign. We dived on Inchcape 1 with a maximum depth of 32 metres at high tide. This has to be, in my humble opinion, one of the weirdest, twilight style dives I have ever had the pleasure to dive. The wreck which was sunk to form an artificial reef sits upright, surrounded by a flat sandy bottom. Exit from the boat is a back roll or jump and descend on a buoy line. As we started the descent, we were quickly swarmed in a jelly fish soup. It made it difficult to see your buddy as there were so many of them. As for the stings, they were relatively good to us on all accounts and only a few divers had some minor stings. It really was quite overwhelming as it was the anticipation of waiting for the stings to take your breath away than the minor stings themselves. After making it through the jelly fish, we were greeted with a very cold thermoclime. On the wreck we were greeted with an abundance of marine life. Some divers saw a Ray, large shoals of fish that you could get lost in, Lion Fish, Eels, Turtle and a small in-house swarm of flower cardinals. Soft corals were in abundance and very colourful indeed. On the ascent the jelly fish were waiting for us in abundance. Diving in a three for this dive proved quite useful as taking pictures during the safety stop enabled us to concentrate on posing rather than the incoming jelly fish..
Our surface break was spent on the veranda with homemade sandwiches with fillings from Lulu Supermarket, tea and banter as we watched the ocean. Bring a dive knife for your butter!
Our second dive was again from the dive boat to Sharm Rock (Pinnacles). These rocks are visible from the shore of the resort. The dive started with an easy entry with no currents and a buoy line descent. Again, we were greeted by a whole host of marine life. Visibility was rather murky, but maybe that was due to the fact it is visited by divers many times a day. Our first greeting was from a turtle that was sleeping and soon moved on when his peace was disturbed. We are not sure he got any peace until we left the site, as he moved from one side of the rock site to the other. He did however look very healthy. Further into the dive we observed eels, stone fish, cone fish, fighting clownfish, miniature shrimp, and a passing shark. It was easy and a pleasure to fin away for an hour on this site, not knowing what you were going to view next. It was a superb dive and the terrain seemed to be relatively unharmed and undamaged considering the number of divers on the site. Soft and hard corals looked healthy with no serious bleaching evident.
Our last day of diving was to Dibba rock. The boat journey out took around 15 minutes with a half full boat. The depth here was to around 20m with a buoy line entry. The shallows of the rock offer some lovely colourful coral formations with an abundance of marine life. We saw a turtle on this dive too. Soft corals were thriving and looked vey healthy, not that I’m an expert.
Last weekend was the latest installment in what is becoming an annual tradition – the Eid Al Adha 406 expedition. This year the destination was Beirut – the aim being to dive the “Souffleur”, a Vichy France submarine that was torpedoed by the British in June 1941. We also had a standing invitation to visit Sami Kyriakos, once a fixture on the dive boat but now semi-retired to his home in the Lebanon.
It nearly didn’t happen. Five days before take-off a car-bomb took out Wissam Al Hassan, a leading spook in the Lebanese security services, and injured a lot of other people. This led to demonstrations in Beirut and further north in Tripoli. Added to this were forecasts of thunderstorms in the area on precisely the days we were to be there and we naturally started to wonder what we were letting ourselves in for. Mercifully the situation calmed down and both Sami and Richard (who was already there on business) assured us that there was no trouble waiting for us. The weather we’d have to take a gamble on.
The trip out was very smooth compared to the hassle and aggravation we’d experienced at Sharm El Sheikh airport a couple of years ago. Sami was good enough to provide a driver to get us to the hotel, the Mozart in Hamra district, and we were soon dumping cases in our rooms and convening at the bar.
There was thunder and lightning overnight and in the morning it was still raining. Although the sea appeared calm, the advice from the local dive shop was that it could easily cut up rough later. This being the case we decided to give the sub a miss for the day and instead go to the “Alice B”, a wreck a few km to the north. This was closer to shore and more sheltered. Before we even left the harbour, the day nearly descended to farce when one or two us realized we were missing passports that the coastguards might want to see. A swift return to the hotel would sort out the problem but five minutes down the road, Geoff realized his suitcase key was in his dive bag still at the harbour. Sami executed a swift U-turn and the key was retrieved, as were the passports 15 minutes later.
The “Alice B” is a cargo vessel lying upright in 35m of water. In shape it’s not dissimilar to the Ajman Glory although it’s rather bigger. We had a quick look at the prop before ascending to the deck to maximize the bottom time. From the hold area you can ascend through the engine room which has had some holes blasted through it for easy entrance and exit. The viz was reasonable and there was a very welcome absence of both silt and sea urchins. Less welcome was the near absence of fish life generally – presumably because of over-fishing in the Mediterranean.
After lunch we did a dive on a reef opposite the American University of Beirut (AUB) beach. A reef it might have been but it was almost totally devoid of both coral and fish. Not one to remember to be honest. In the evening we had a few beers in the Jumaizah district of Beirut before heading for bed.
On Saturday the weather was much more settled and the party split in two. Option one was to dive the “Souffleur” which after all had been the main target in the first place. Option two was a cruise on Sami’s yacht followed with lunch at a fish restaurant up the coast. Being one who chose the soft option, I’ll leave former submariner Richard to describe the diving:
Dive on Submarine Souffleur, 29 Oct 2012
BSAC 406 Divers were Geoff Patch, Derek Roberts, Derek Brown and Richard James.
As the morning before, it took a while to get going and there were two decisions to be made in order for the trip to go ahead. The first was determining whether the sea state would allow for the 50min boat ride out to the dive site. The assessment for this involved our host Nasser heading up to the roof of the dive centre, peering out to sea, shrugging his shoulders then declaring ‘why not?’ This meant that now we only needed a sufficient number of divers to cover the $400 fuel costs which, being a Saturday, was easily achieved.
So leaving St George’s Marina we headed south towards the position where the World War II submarine was sunk. The Souffler is a Requin (or Shark) Class submarine whose name is the French term for the Bottlenose Dolphin, translating literally as ’Blower’ - which in context refers to the long funnel used by a glassblower which represents the animal’s long nose. The Souffleur was a Vichy French vessel sunk on Winston Churchill’s orders by the Royal Navy and now lies in 36m of water in two parts after being struck midships by a torpedo fired by HMS Parthian.
Having heard her story from Geoff and Mike Dalton, and having served on submarines myself, I was particularly keen to pay my respects to the 52 souls who lost their lives on 25th June 1941. Submariners consider ourselves a rare breed of odd individuals who choose to lock ourselves in a metal can underwater and live in close proximity to one another in this strange and peculiar environment. This inevitably forges strong bonds amongst crew members, a bond which we extend to our fellow brethren regardless of rank, background or nationality. However, it wasn’t until the journey out that the poignancy of what we were about to do actually hit me.
We tied up to the buoy, kitted up and got in the water which was still a bit choppy. Anyone who has dived with me will be aware of my particular issues and limitations in rough water and it didn’t help that I nearly lost my fins in true amateur style on entry. This resulted in a fair amount of pratting about on my part, before my fellow divers and the boat crew settled me down and finally I was on my way.
The water was a glorious rich blue with visibility around 10-15m and the perfect temperature for a 3mm wetsuit. The descent down the line was a very serene experience, but on passing 25m the eerie shadowy outline of the Souffleur started to come into view. Only a couple more metres down and there she could be seen in all her former glory.
Submarines become more than just the nuts and bolts that are used to fabricate them. In a strange way they take on a personality of their own and are of great sentimentality to those who involved with them. So seeing one lying stricken and forlorn on the seabed resembling a dead carcass hit me more than I had ever anticipated. I had to stop for a moment to take it in and I knew I wasn’t going to be capable of continuing further. Raising a tipped hand to my temple in salute to Lieutenant Benoit Lejay and his perished crew I had to say goodbye and return to the surface. As one of our hosts, Marwan, said when I got back “emotions are magnified tenfold underwater” and being so overcome as I was (as well as not having done the Underwater Sobbing speciality course) it was necessary to call things a day at 27m.
Given her Vichy status, there has been no formal recognition of the Souffleur and it is perhaps unlikely that there ever will be. However, what we were all able to do is pay our individual respects. For me, my personal tribute was to leave my submarine brooch on the wreck. This is a badge (of two inward pointing dolphins with a crown above an anchor in between) which is awarded to submariners who have completed their training and demonstrated a knowledge of how to operate every part of the vessel, akin to the way aviators are awarded their wings. I am especially grateful to those divers who were able to make it down on to the wreck and carry out this gesture on my behalf and, as a former deck officer, it means a tremendous amount that this was done on the submarine’s bridge.
Despite having been there for over 70 years the Souffleur is still in a reasonable condition especially considering the attack she’s been under from fishing activity and ‘salvage’ attempts. As Geoff and the two Dereks saw there are still the remnants of the gun turret, a very distinctive bow and the various mast housings which are still pretty much intact. The hull has been penetrated in a few places and limited entry to the pressure hull is possible although extremely cramped and hazardous.
In the aft part of the vessel it is possible to see into the machinery rooms and the prominent snort induction/diesel exhaust manifolds. This is in addition to a number of the accumulator bottles that would have stored compressed air for blowing into the ballast tanks in order to surface.The site is also home to some stunning marine life such as trumpet fish and starfish, but the most spectacular witnessed on this dive was a large Marble Ray.
For the return journey, we broke out some much welcomed decompression fluids courtesy of our very own Derek Roberts who declared the dive as his ‘best ever’ and certainly has some great accompanying photographs to support this. These were previewed along with a snack of Arabic bread and Philadelphia cheese which was greatly appreciated at the time but we now understand pales in comparison to what the other half of the trip were tucking into further up the coast………
Meanwhile the rest of us were relaxing, drink in hand on Sami’s yacht, “Vivianne”. It was tough I can tell you but someone’s got to do it. The yacht was magnificent and we cruised up the coast for an hour or so and moored at Amchit where there was a fish restaurant well reputed locally. The locals clearly know what they’re talking about as the meal was outstanding. There seemed to be about 17 courses, all delicious and we all tucked in happily at the table by the window looking out over the harbour. The diet starts tomorrow!
The final evening was spent in a jazz bar about 10 minutes walk from the hotel. The live music was excellent and the food looked pretty good although I couldn’t take much more after the enormous lunch.
Overall the trip was excellent and although I was disappointed not to dive the “Souffleur”, this does at least give me an excuse for a return visit. Next time perhaps a longer stay to see a bit more of Beirut and the Lebanon. It’s a fascinating place and although the recent press reports of riots and the country “teetering on the brink” proved to be exaggerated, there’s still evidence on the ground of the turbulent recent past. Opposite the harbour that we launched from is the shell of the hotel that was wrecked in the car bomb explosion that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and round the corner the former Holiday Inn remains unrepaired since the civil war. Me, I’d like to see a bit more and I think the rest of us felt the same.
The party was Mike, Wendy, Ian, Cathy, Richard, Sharon, Geoff, Derek Roberts and Derek Brown. Grateful thanks to “our man in Beirut”, Sami, for his advance organization and his generous hospitality.
While we doing all this Peter was in Katmandu seeking spiritual enlightenment, good architecture and teaching some devotees the “OK” signal. See photo attached!
We almost had an embarrassment of divers last Friday. We were in the happy position of seeing the boat full up by 8.05 Tuesday evening but seriously over-full about 20 minutes later. Next time this won’t be a problem as Mike will have sorted out SP 125 but this time we were looking at 13 divers in SP 312 which clearly wasn’t going to happen. Rather than disappointing anyone we decided to do a shore based dive on the Dara, the only wreck close enough to land for this to be feasible.
Except that by Friday, a couple of drop-outs had reduced the number to 10, which the boat can carry provided you can get past the coastguard. Fortunately on this occasion they didn’t question the numbers so we made it out of the harbour. The first target was the Tek, a wreck we found at the same time as the Ajman Glory. Unlike the AG, nothing is known about the Tek which is a small tugboat that sank in circumstances unknown. Mike Dalton was first down the line and secured the anchor and we all followed and did a few circuits as well as some window cleaning. The fish life is abundant if perhaps not as spectacular as other places but there are plenty of snappers and jacks.
Having busted one fin strap last week, Cathy repeated the trick with the other one this time. For the second week running she emerged from the water looking very lopsided.
Approaching the Dara for the second dive, Chris being the nearest person was asked to get the anchor ready. Perhaps a tad over-enthusiastically he immediately flung it over the side even though we were still 100m away. Being new to us we can forgive him this lapse and I don’t suppose he’ll do it twice! The Dara is always a good dive although it can be confusing to those unfamiliar with it as it’s so broken up. This time everyone found the anchor line on the way back and the only DSMB had another anchor on it that Derek had sent up. Those on the first wave saw a large leopard ray but it had vanished by the time the rest of us went down.
This is a bit later than normal but better late than never. Last Friday was a bit normal compared to some recent dives but none the worse for that. We intended to dive the Ajman Glory and the Dara in anticipation of a couple of guests from the UK. The guests couldn’t make it in the end but we decided to stick to the original plan – except that we didn’t quite.
As with last week, it took a while to get past the coastguards. It seems there’s a general crackdown going on for some reason. Again they wanted to see an ID from someone working for the Sharjah Wanderers who are nominal owners of the boats. To get around this you need a letter of authorization either English and Arabic or Arabic only that specifically names at least one person on the boat. One should be ready for next week.
The Ajman Glory was our first target and with a calm sea we got out there quickly. The current was running a bit but not too bad and the viz was reasonable. A shoal of barracuda tracked our progress down the line and once on the wreck there was the usual abundance of jacks and snappers as well as a lot of nudibranches for those looking carefully at the small stuff. No sign of the turtle this week though.
We would have moved to the Dara at this point but Peter discovered that his new dive watch had done a backward roll off his wrist at some point early into his dive. We changed plans and stayed where we were to try and find it. The effort was unfortunately unsuccessful but it was a good dive helped by the fact that we must have hit slack as the current died away to nothing.
The journey back took a while as the sea state had picked up but we got there in the end. It was nice to have a full boat and some new members diving with us. Welcome Chris, Polly and Ronan.
Thanks are due to the Wanderers for our nice new blockwork, waterproofed and tiled equipment cleaning tank. The blue plastic drum can now be consigned to history (and not before time).
As well as new members we also saw an old one this week. Last night former club member (1985 – 1991) and one-time treasurer, John Finlay, turned up at the club with his daughter, Maria, who is looking for a job in the UAE. If she finds one, we might be seeing a bit more of them.
Images below courtesy Peter, Polly and Derek:
The sea state being predicted to be flat and on a neap tide, we had another go for the Zainab on Friday and wonder of wonders – we made it. It helped that Mike had got the GPS back into action and I also brought my own so no need this week to go frantically chasing after other dive boats, hoping they’ll guide us to a wreck. Except that we nearly didn’t get out at all. The coastguard at Umm Suqeim 1 was a serious pain checking life-jackets, transponders and demanding proof of ownership, by which he meant a labour card showing that someone on the boat worked for the Wanderers – which of course we didn’t have. Some time ago I wrote a letter on SWSC headed paper explaining that we were authorized to take the boat out. This was hastily retrieved from the blue folder and after a telephone conversation between the coastguard and his boss, was deemed acceptable. I was left with the impression that if he could have stopped us from going out, he would have done. Those using US1 be warned!
Not so much follow that boat this week as follow that moon. As chance would have it, our celestial neighbour was exactly on the bearing we needed to follow. So all commander Mike Dalton had to do was to keep an eye on the sky to guide Apollo 406 to a soft landing on the Sea of Tranquility. Appropriate as the sea really was flat calm. Also possibly fortuitous – Mike’s recent navigational record – albeit under water not on top of it – is a little less than exemplary.
The Zainab was a favourite when it first went down, over ten years ago now. The number of port holes and brass that came up was exceeded only by the amount of Iraqi crude that attached itself to the diver. A small price to pay. Nowadays there’s still some oil dribbling out of the wreck and causing a sheen on the surface. Under water there were plenty of snappers, jacks, a few batfish and angel fish and some barracuda circling around with their usual beady eye.
The wreck has some areas accessible inside. The bridge section is easy and the engine room is also good if you don’t kick up the silt. Since this is easier said than done, string lines are advised and vital if you’re going any distance past the entry point.
Back at Umm Suqeim we found ourselves in the middle of the rush-hour with boats being lauched, being recovered, entering port, leaving port all at once with some officials attempting to control the shambles. Derek got a caution from a policeman after an altercation with a gentleman who was demanding to launch instantly. We escaped with some relief and headed back to the club.
After last week’s roller-coaster, we might have expected an uneventful dive but it didn’t quite work out like that. Towing the boat down to Umm Suqeim 1 for a trip to the Zainab, the boat must have been a bit too far back on the trailer and hence a bit unstable. Heading towards the Galadari underpass, at no great speed, the trailer started swinging from side to side at an alarming rate. Coasting through the underpass, the thing eventually came back under control and the incident probably only lasted a few seconds but it got the pulse racing believe me.
Having launched the boat we quickly found that the GPS wasn’t working and no amount of fiddling with switches or wires would persuade it to come to life. Normally this would be a minor problem since I almost always have my own GPS with me. Almost always. This time……you guessed. However, we noticed in the harbour a boat loading up with dive tanks that clearly wasn’t going fishing. Once it set off the name of the game was “follow that dive boat”. Unfortunately it had some serious engines and it became clear that we couldn’t keep up without flogging our engines to pieces so we let it escape. By then we had the bearing they were headed on and we thought we’d catch them eventually.
As the boat disappeared over the horizon, we spotted a cardinal buoy – but which one? No boat was near it so clearly our hare had gone elsewhere but we decided to stop where we were. Getting close we discovered we were about to dive the Mariam Express. It would have been quicker to launch from Al Khan but never mind – at least we were getting a dive in.
The Mariam used to be a superb dive until a storm in 2008 picked it up and punched it through the seabed. A lot of what was accessible is now buried and much of the rest is covered in silt but there still a couple of places to get inside. The hold is still open although the most of the china coffee sets have now been liberated. When Ken and I surfaced (second wave), we found the boat we’d been following tied up to the back of us. They’d been to the Neptune apparently and returned to the Mariam for their second dive.
The return journey was mercifully without incident but back at the club an innocent question nearly had unexpected results. When I asked Janette to “close-off” the compressors, she didn’t quite get the word “compressors” and took it as an invitation to get undressed.
While this was happening, Derek and Geoff were diving Dibba Rock. Geoff reports:
While SP312 set out west, Derek and I headed across to the east coast for a morning dive with ‘Freestyle’ at Dibba Rock. Max, David and Karyn of Freestyle arrived at ~09.15 having burnt the midnight oil in the hot spots of Dibba the previous night. I noticed four other dive boats already in the area and with no other divers showing, Max took us across and dropped us in to the south of the island. After a short swim across the shallow western reef we arrived in ‘the aquarium’ part of the site and were welcomed by the usual large shoals of reef fish in good visibility. Moving around the northern tip of the island we were treated to a variety of marine life including several lion fish (one unusual black one), box fish, a solitary pipe fish (~30cm long) on the sand, some very territorial clown fish and harlequin shrimps hidden in the rocks. After the dive we relaxed while our gear dried before setting off to explore the tracks and hills behind Khabb Hot Springs on the way to RAK, which could provide a good dive / camp combo in future!
Ian Hussey and guest writers.