Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Destination Life: Snorkeling in the Red Sea

PHS Editor Michelle Styles discovers the joys of snorkeling.

One of the best places to see tropical fish, coral and marine life is the Red Sea. The currents are relatively stable and the salt content high. This means the colours are exceptionally bright. The water itself is an aquamarine blue. All the guidebooks rave about it, but I will admit to being a sceptic. I enjoy going to aquariums like the Monterrey Bay Aquarium or the Aquarium in Baltimore and how much different could it be? Also as a girl growing up in California, I had snorkeled in the neighbor's pool. Fun, but there were a lot more things of interest on land.

We booked the holiday to Sharm El Sheikh, and I thought -- yeah, right, I will be the one giving it a miss. I was far more interested in seeing the Monastery of St Catherine's.

Because it was the thing to do and my husband and son wanted to see sea birds, we booked an excursion on a wooden yacht -- snorkeling gear was included in the cost. The boat was travelling to the Egyptian National park -- Ras Mohammed. I planned my day of lazing about but I had not counted on the hotel having its own coral reef. My youngest purchased a snorkel and mask and we all gave it a go. Now above the water, walking out on the pontoon, I had seen some fish -- a pair of Picasso, several Parrot fish and others. I had even spotted the iridescent mouths of several giant clams. I jumped in and duly adjusted the mask. The world took on a new hue. The corals were a combination of pale green, dark chocolate brown and purple. Fish crowded the reef. Moving a little ways from the pontoon, I saw banner fish, butterfly fish -- raccoon and masked. But it was only a taster as my daughter was uncomfortable about the water's depth.

When it came time to go on the boat Sinem One, I was ready to snorkel. Just. As the boat went towards the national park, Ras Mohammed, and we had to sign all sorts of papers and had a lecture on various poisonous fish and what to do if we saw a school of barracuda or came too close to a Moray eel, I realised that this was a large undertaking and had second thoughts. But if my children and husband were going, so was I. After all I used to have my Advanced Life Saving certificate.

Luckily for my daughter, they had life jackets. My son asked if he needed one. The comment came back -- if you can swim, you won't need it. It boosted his confidence no end. I mentally reviewed my life saving techniques.

We were told to remember the name of our group Habibi which means my beloved in Arabic in case we became separated.

The guides jumped in the water from the side of the boat. I climbed down the ladder about halfway and then figured to go for it. I held on to my mask and managed to retain control of my flippers. I envied my daughter's life jacket because she did not have to work at staying afloat. My son had a great time and kept up with the guide as did my daughter and husband. I tagged along behind, entranced by the world underneath the waves. The fish were even brighter and of all sorts of different shades. A great shout went up and a barracuda slid by underneath us and then joy of joys a green sea turtle and then a Napoleon wrasse. The final fish of that snorkel was a pair of giant banner fish.

The boat then sailed to a sandbank where we boarded a zodiac and were able to wander about on the white sands. Some of the party did not understand that there is no gathering of shells or coral and people who try to export do face a hefty fine. One result of the policy is that the sandbank was littered with interesting shells as well as large pieces of coral. Photos and memories, not objects! You did have to be careful where you stepped as coral is very sharp.

Back on board, we had a well cooked meal as we sailed to the final snorkeling destination. That snorkel was far harder. I kept swallowing sea water as the waves were rougher and my cold was definitely coming on. We saw Moray eels and jelly fish as well as fantastic formations of coral, and brightly coloured fish. But I was very ready to go back to the boat, particularly as the jelly fish appeared to be getting more numerous.

Would I go snorkeling again? Yes definitely, particularly if it was in a place like Ras Mohammed. Although I have decided that scuba diving is not for me -- far too technical.

Trying things like opens up your horizons. So if you ever get the chance, grab it and you might surprise yourself.

Oh, and on the way back to the hotel, the bus's radio blared out a song whose main words were Habibi. I felt quite proud knowing finally what the word meant.

Michelle Styles writes historical romance. Her latest US release is A Noble Captive. Her UK release Compromising Miss Milton, and her Australian release a three in one which includes The Vikings Captive Princess, Compromising Miss Milton and A Question of Impropriety. You can read more about Michelle's adventures in the Sinai on her blog.

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