Never before I have seen so many fish when diving the Red Sea like during our tour in deep southern Sudan, in the Southern Suakin Archipelago. It was a bit like time travelling, going back to days long time gone in scubadiving.
The new frontier of sudanese diving is set in the deep south, close to eritrean waters. An area that has been long time protected by wars in its southern neighbourhood, and also because it´s too far away for sudanese fishermen coming from the north. In the deep south, you find divesites which seem to be unreal, like seldomly dived dreams.
Our group onboard the italian liveaboard DonQuesto consisted of eleven people. None of us had ever been to these places down south, and everyone was excited to visit terra incognita. Captain Lorenzo told me that these places haven´t been dived since six years, at least concerning all liveaboards that leave from Port Sudan. Lorenzo´s plan was to jump south within one big step, as soon as the weather forecasts would promise a period of good weather for six or seven days in a row. Calm sea is something that you also need in this area where you don´t find so many safe places for anchoring. Until this happened we would stay in central Sudan, waiting to take the giant leap south.
First we were going to see the classic divesites of Sudandiving - Shab Rumi and Sanganeb. Shab Rumi presented the first Hammerhead sharks, “stars” of the region. At each plateau we could see groups of Grey reef sharks, schools of Barracudas and loads of silver jackfish. Forrests of soft corals were filtraing the currents, cleaning shrimp were doing their job when taking care of moray eels, while a huge armada of cods prepared itself for mating.
But already on the third day´s evening Lorenzo told us what we were hoping to hear from him: 'For the next days the weather is looking good, we can head south.' As a matter of fact it´s still too far do this in one night – but that would be a pity also, because along our way south we would be able to see other terrific places as well – located in the northern suakin group.
Like in 2003, I had the opportunity to dive the magnificent Pinnacle! Tthis place looked even more vivid than before; Hammerhead sharks, Grays, Silvertips, Silkies, Whitetips – all were circling around this huge coral block, even during one single dive. On the reeftop jackfish were hunting fussiliers who were escaping every time the jacks were approaching.
Quite similar, but more in slowmotion, behaved a big school of sweetlips at Shab Anbar when I divided their group with the videohousing. They just moved aside slowly, while a bunch of Humphead parrot fish was hunting over the sandy patches between the corals. At the island of Seil Ada Kebir we encountered a huge turtle that frantically swam out of her cave, passing our group in high speed. Many of these small sandy islets - that had beed used for smugglers for killing wealthy mekka pilgrims by letting them starve to death - are breeding areas for turtles.
Divers can behave very lazy and tired, but this fourth morning of our tour was a very special one. Everyone was hurrying up just to get a quick first view from the dive deck. Lorenzo and Francesco had been sailling through the whole night, as predicted, to manage our giant leap south. Six hours of constant travelling were lying behind them and now our first divesite in the southern Suakin group was stretching along the horizon. Dahrat Abid. A sandy little island in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by deep waters of 1500 feet. Boring as hell for normal people, but divers aren´t average people, right?
Every report about this reef was tremendous, dive liteature calls it one of the best sites in the whole Red Sea that could bear any comparison to any other divelocation in the world. Well, now it was our turn to compare literature to reality. Dahrat Abid. We were falling down into the deep. A strict thermocline divided blue water from intense green. A school of big eyed jacks was passing, followed up by some barracudas, coming much closer than barracudas normally do. Totally unlike many other reefs in the Red Sea, the walls of Dahrat Abid are really dropping off into eternity. Other places show a socket at some 150 feet, but not Dahrat Abid. These walls are totally vertical.
Along this majestic wall of corals we were heading north. A single hammerhead crossed our way but soon disappeared. Whip corals formed huge forrests on small plateaus. Everything seemed to be untouched and unspoilt. Nature in its most pure form. Truely a world class place. In the afternoon, while diving for a second time, we were surrounded by a group of seven juvenile silky sharks. In fact, we would be able to see juvenile silkies on every dive in the deep south in the next days.
It was our first impression of diving in this deep southern Sudan area and what kind of place that was! But unfortunately we didn´t have so much time because of the weather, and so we had to move on quickly to our overnight stay for the forthcoming days. Shab Loka is a huge reef shaped like a horseshoe and for a boat as big as Donquesto it´s indeed the only safe place for anchoring that you can find around. It took quite a while until Lorenzo had finally navigated our boat into the lagoon, because many coral blocks were growing in the entrance area. Time enough though, to do a relaxed late afternoon dive. By using the zodiacs we went to the area close to that mighty and rusty ship wreck that was lying onto the eastern reeftop since the 70ies, pretty similar to those famous relicts at Sinai´s Strait of Tiran. Soon after descending we also could find the impressive anchor chains. The reef itself was totally untouched and most probably we were the first people who ever dived this site. Stone corals were totally intact, huge table corals were covering the place. Some macropodiae seemed to be more successful than others, these were dominating large fields of the reef´s upper part. For me Shab Loka indeed didn´t looked like a big fish country, but that didn´t mean much here in this part of the Red Sea. A manta showed up. He was coming closer, turned right into the abyssal direction and finally melted with the deep blue. Our first day in deep southern Sudan.
Dahrat Ghab, Dahrat Ghab...a tiny island, surrounded by deep waters, not too far away from its neighbour Dahrat Abid. A plateau stretches into the sea at 75feet, attached to its southwestern end and crowned by a ring of healthy soft corals along the drop off edge, where fauna was concentrated in such uncountable quantities, that it even more impressed than Dahrat Abid. While diving on this plateau I really felt a bit seasick sometimes - there were so many fish bodies swimming around that I needed to focus the eyesight on the reef for once in a while. Fussiliers, surgeonfish – thousands of them, everywhere. Also in blue water, where silkies and whitetips were cruising by, too. One of these reefsharks had lost one of his main fins – no idea how he could survive in this jungle. Many single Great barracudas also showed up, some of the biggest I have ever seen, waiting in blue-grey camouflage for cautiousless prey under the surface. A big turtle was dozing between the corals and a school of silvery batfish was ascending onto the reeftop, where we saw some Giant Sweetlips, a species that is not common in northern parts of the Red Sea. What an incredible divesite that was, I never saw so many divers smiling already during the dive. Unfortunately we could only stay at Dahrat Ghab for one dive, still having the weather forecasts on our backs. Kind of conditions that would normally cause displeasure, but here, in this area, the situation was different – what would Karam Masamarit offer?
The southern plateau of Karam Masamarit knocked out. I am sure that I have never seen that many fish in the Red Sea during one dive before, the density of underwater life even exceeded the two Dahrats. Yes, even more surgeon fish were living here, even more fussiliers and anthias, more of everything. It remembered me of some of the best maldivian places like the Okobe Thila or the Helengili Thila, but here the tremendous fishlife could also melt with the beauty of an healthy Red Sea coral reef. Also the second dive at the northern plateau offered some brilliant moments of diving, when we met a giant school of barracudas. We also found a gang of four young whitetips under a wide table coral, just circling slowly in their habitat – maybe the perfect symbol for the untouched and prolific nature in deep southern Sudan.
It was just a short time before sunset and the waters at Masamarit island were literally boiling. It was our first visit to this lighthouse island and we had arrived just in time to do a late afternoon dive. There was a broad plateau along the eastern side that we intended to see, a very famous place for reliable shark excitement. But first something quite different happened to us. Masses of black surgeonfish darkened the water, making it even difficult to see the surface. Clouds of these fish were standing over the abyssal drop off, apparently awaiting the nightly rising zooplancton – and we, we were descending into these living clouds. Everyone of us was excited, the situation was in fact overwhelming, my buddies were screaming and yelling and pointing at so many different things at the same time. A true overkill of impressions - above our heads, a big armada of mighty tuna. Two rainbowrunners showed up. Suddenly the black curtain of fish was torn aside and two scalloped hammerhead sharks appeared, giving us just a very short moment of their time. Then, at the end of the dive, Fabrizio found another reef inhabitant that you don´t see very often in the northern Red Sea. A big marble stingray was searching the sandy ground for food.
We were visiting the same plateau on the next morning and the show continued. The surgeonfish were not to find in those incredible numbers like the evening before, instead a first hammerhead was looking at us very soon. Very slowly he was passing under our group, just some feet beyond our feet, crossing the way of another huge group of Humphead parrotfish. But somehow we were all feeling that more hammerheads must be down there in the dark blue at 120 feet and so we just waited. Very soon four or five specimen of these unique sharks were swimming around and everyone of these females had at least one closer look at us. A very typical behaviour for this species, any time you meet smaller groups. Contrary to the behaviour of bigger schools, smaller groups tend to be more relaxed and calmer when they meet divers. Sometimes you may find these groups even rather curious. Masamarit indeed fulfilled all our expectations – it´s really justified to call this place a true hammerhead city.
We managed to do eleven dives in this southernmost part of the sudanese Red Sea and every single one was a class of its own. Did we really dive the Red Sea? Everybody onboard had quite feelings – The fish were coming to us – to strange things in neoprene that they had not seen before in their lifetime. Well, I admit this opinion may be called a doubtful one from the pure biological point of view, but anyway, it´s definetely the best way to sum up all our impressions when we met this unique part of nature. After four days and eleven dives we had to sail north again, and our way we also did dives at the Keary reef, at Farquah (Sand Cay), at Protector, Jumna and again at the gorgeous Pinnacle. And last but not least we visited the northern tip of Sanganeb once again, where I finally could observe the famous resident school of hammerhead sharks for a very short moment. So much about that. Then, the cruise came to a fantastic finale when suddenly a big manta was starting like a rocket from the deepest plateau and was passing me quite close. Couldn´t get much better. A marvellous tour.