Desert Diving

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Red Sea Life (photo by Rachel Abel)

Moving to the desert is a great way to get dive certified. It worked for me!

When I lived in Maryland, I think I knew one or two people who were into diving. Here in Saudi Arabia, half of my friends are open water certified, and have made dive trips to the Red Sea, Thailand, the Philippines, and Mexico. My husband and I got our dive certifications this spring, and in early July we traveled to Yanbu--not far from Jeddah--with our compound's dive club. 

Saudi Arabia's west coast borders on the Red Sea, which, according to DIVE: The Red Sea ("The definitive Red Sea guide"--Sunday Times) is "the epitome of all that is enticing and fascinating about tropical reefs, with fabulous coral walls and gardens stocked with mythically beautiful sea life. For divers it remains the stuff of legend." And for most divers, a legend it will remain, because it is very difficult to get the proper entry visas to visit Saudi Arabia.

You can dive the Red Sea from Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and a few other places, but Saudi Arabia has the most coastline. Plus, because of the country's strict visiting policies, its underwater treasures are safe from the ravages of over-tourism. At every dive location on our trip, we were the only group there.

We live in the desert in Saudi's Eastern Province, which is a couple hours by plane away from the Red Sea. This doesn't sound like such a promising location for learning how to dive. However, we have a swimming pool for confined water exercises, and we're about two hours away (by car) from a beach on the Arabian Gulf. That beach doesn't have much of interest for the diver, but hey, it's open water. Plus its brown, silty depths are ideal for testing underwater navigation skills!

During the recent trip to Yanbu, my husband and I both completed our advanced open water certification. The tough part for me was doing the required "deep dive." We dropped down to about 80 feet below the surface, along with our dive instructor Ricky, and his daughter, Rica.

The others settled down at the bottom fairly quickly, but my ears had trouble equalizing. I've had difficulties with this on every dive. So I had to stop and hover about every ten feet, moving my jaw around, shaking my head, swallowing, doing this whole complicated routine until my ears gave a satisfying pop. Then I'd drop down a little further, feel a bit more pressure, and do it again. 

It wasn't much of a hardship to have to drop down slowly, anyway, because we were diving around an old shipwreck. It was eerie and thrilling to look down on the barnacle-encrusted hull of the Iona. Somehow, hovering in space (water-filled space, but still...) above a man-made object is much trippier than just hovering above the sandy bottom. If you've ever had a dream where you were flying, then you can imagine how this felt.

Finally I reached the bottom, and Ricky handed me a simple puzzle: pieces that fit together to make a small square of metal rods and joints. We had done the puzzle already, up on the dock before we boarded the dive boat, and Ricky had timed us. He timed us again underwater, and the point was to show us that everything happens more slowly at depth.

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Puzzle success! (photo by Ricky Rabang)

After we surfaced from the deep dive, we got back on the boat to rest and wait for the next dive. Divers have to spend a certain amount of time on the surface between dives in order to avoid decompression sickness. We use a table to determine how long we must stay on the surface, based on how deep we just went and how long we stayed under. 

Until that day, I had never in my life been seasick. When I re-boarded the boat, though, the combination of a pitching deck and a set of inner ears that had just been thoroughly messed with made me feel just awful. Another diver (who is also an emergency room doctor) suggested that the best cure was to get back in the water. So I put my fins, mask, and snorkel back on, jumped in again, and did, in fact, feel much better. I floated around and checked out the beds of coral and schools of fish stretched out below me as far as I could see.

Finally, though, I had to pay for all the churning that my stomach had been doing earlier, and I fed the fishes.

That taken care of, I was once again right as rain, though I will say I picked through the strange hotel box lunch a bit more carefully than I otherwise would have. I had a lower tolerance level for mystery luncheon meat than normal.

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Coral Wall (photo by Rachel Abel)

In the afternoon, we dove again and checked out several walls of coral. It's fun to explore a vertical surface, partly because the visual reference makes it easier to keep track of your depth (if you're a new diver like me, it's hard to tell exactly how deep you are unless you glue your nose to your gauges the whole time.) We swam around some "foothills" of coral, where we saw several sting rays settled down on the sandy bottom. Two of them were parked side by side in their own coral carport. They were completely still except for their rubbery gray edges, fluttering ever so slightly in the bottom current.

We also checked out a wall that dropped down, down, down to who knows how deep. It was a little disconcerting to look down and not be able to see the bottom at all. It was also thrilling.

When our run of dives was over, we secured all our gear and the captain (who chain-smoked and cursed with zeal) turned the boat around for shore. He crossed the open water ridiculously, absurdly fast, like any self-respecting Saudi driver would. The boat hit wave after wave with resounding, jaw-cracking crashes. Those of us who didn't squeeze back into the hot, crowded helm of the boat got soaked by the waves that repeatedly washed over the rails. 

As it happened, I was the only woman on this dive trip. When we got back to the harbor, I had to throw my abaya on like a beach cover-up over my (still soaking wet) bathing suit. I took a certain satisfaction in putting my abaya to such a non-traditional use.

As we disembarked, all of us were carrying our gear. Here I had another uniquely Saudi moment. In the blazing afternoon sun, there I was wearing this completely impractical, black, flowing robe that comes down to my ankles and has long, flowing sleeves. I was about to make an unsteady step from the floating dock onto the firm wooden dock, and I had an armload of diving gear. A man from the hotel was standing on the wooden dock watching me, but unlike any other man on any other dock in any other country I can think of, he did not offer me his steady hand.

I looked at him. He looked at me. He could see that I was having difficulty. However, it is not appropriate for a Saudi man to take a strange woman's hand. Finally, we did the best thing we could. I handed him my armload of gear. Then I stepped  onto the dock, and he handed my stuff back. We nodded to one another, and I continued on down the dock.

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Hotel Pool Rules (Check out the third one from the bottom.)

Back at the hotel, the Saudi madness continued. The hotel has just one swimming pool, but it is not appropriate for men and women to be in a swimming pool together. So the hotel simply forbids women to use the pool. Lovely. All of our dive gear had to be rinsed off and laid out to dry on the hotel's pool deck, so that job fell to Michael. Here's another example of what a hassle all this sexism is for everyone! 

All bellyaching aside, though, seriously, I am absolutely thrilled to have this rare opportunity to see things that most westerners simply will never see, above the surface of the water and below. And I am grateful for experiences that show me how different my culture is from others'. These annoyances are eye-rollers, for sure, but I never forget how lucky I am to be here, and what a grand adventure it is!