6. May, 2019

Sudan: then and now

Although it is now 36 years ago, in 1983,  when I started visiting the Sudanese Red Sea,  I still keep vivid memories of its splendid reefs and fish populations. Already 15 years prior to our visit a  British group called the Cambridge Coral  Starfish Research group had a field laboratory located on a platform of scaffolding built on a patch reef a few miles offshore from Port Sudan. Later the platform was also used by diver visitors from other countries.  Compared to their primitive accommodation camping on Sanganeb island offered a  more comfortable way to explore the Sudanese underwater environment, albeit from a more touristic angle of interest. After 1987, camping on the island was not permitted  anymore due to stricter military regulations

Traveling in that period was not easy: it often required a hectic chain of flights, like flying from London to Sofia, Cairo to Khartoum, and a 40 minutes local flight to Port Sudan. The tour operator was a small tourist agency in London, with a black-bearded Londoner named Jack Jackson serving as our dive master. The tourist agent in Port Sudan taking care of logistics, customs, etc.  was a friendly  Armenian Hamido, whose small office carried signed portraits of Hans Hass and Jacques Cousteau. It is said that poor Hamido once got lashed for selling beer to visitors.  A disused small marine transport vessel called Stormbringer carried us from Port Sudan to the northern Sanganeb lighthouse island (see insert: that was not our vessel!). Drinking disinfected water (no cold beer of course) and watching the lighthouse bundle circling against a starlit sky were some of the memorable moments of camping on the island. Two small compressors delivered our daily supply or air.  Our daily trips went to the South-West and  North points of Sanganeb,  or occasionally -with calm weather- to the more northern legendary Shab Rumi atol,  the location of the Cousteau's Conshelf II experiment in 1963. 

At  Sanganeb we must have been of the first groups that started baiting the grey reef sharks at the SW point, the most lively diving site. Here, a  sunny sandy plateau with coral heads at 20 meters descended rapidly to much deeper, cooler water.  Baiting was done by hiding a piece of smelly fish under a coral head or tying it to a rock. This occasionally caused much turmoil, with the sharks darting around, trying to get a share of the bait.  Occasionally groups of hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini) would be passing by in deeper water or sometimes moved in over the shallow plateau. Even more spectacular were the Shab Rumi (=Roman reef)  dives, where we met silvertip sharks at the superb south point.  Shab Rumi is also the place where one finds the gloomy remnants of Cousteau’sunderwater village with the mushroom-shaped garage of the underwater scooters at only 10 meters depth.   The Umbria (closer to Port Sudan) is one of the most famous sunken ships in the world. It is one of the jewels in the crown of Sudanese diving. At a maximum depth of 36m, the Umbria is shallow by most wreck divers' standards.  More to the North one finds the Toyota reef  (at Shab Su-adi) loaded with trucks, stranded in 1963.

Since its independence, Sudan has been ruled by a series of unstable parliamentary governments and military regimes. Under Gaafar Nimeiri, Sudan instituted Islamic law in 1983. This exacerbated the ever-living conflicts between the Islamic north, the seat of the government and the Animists and Christians in the south. The South became an independent state in 2011 but is since then torn apart by bloody conflicts between the two major tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer. In the Islamic North on April 2019, following stormy protests that faced fierce resistance from the Omar al-Bashir regime, the Sudanese military, under the command of Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, took control of the nation and established the  Transitional Military Council that deposed al Bashir and dissolved the constitution. With the women's protest against their suppression by the regime as an important element of the resurgence in the streets of Khartoum. It will be an enormous challenge to establish a stable coalition to control this immense country, split up by various religious and ethnic groups. Participation of the more liberal Islamic groups seems a vital condition to accomplish this.

Currently, the best way to visit Sudan dive-wise is by live-a-boards departing from Marsa-Alam (Port Ghalib) in South Egypt or even directly from Port Sudan (e.g. Bluewater dive-travel). It might take some time, however,  before the travel and tourist conditions in  Sudan will approach the level of comfort and safety one finds along the Egyptian Red Sea coast. There are some signs in that direction, like the  Red Sea resort,  an alcohol-free, simple but clean accommodation 20 kilometers from Port Sudan. It takes divers to the nearby reefs such as Sanganeb and Shab Rumi. Expanding Red Sea diving to the Sudan reefs, to unburden the often crowded dive locations of the North and South Egyptian Red Sea would be a great opportunity for UW photographers in the future.