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Ali Ethem Keskin
What would you say to visiting a place with everything from simplicity to diversity, from pastels to vibrant color, a place where stasis ends and activity begins? Let us cross from dry, arid shores to the world’s richest underwater treasures.
Port Sudan is the capital of Sudan’s Red Sea province. Founded by the British in 1909 as a major station linking the Red Sea and the Nile, it is a modern port built to replace Suakin in the south. Touristically, Port Sudan serves two important purposes: first, as a passage point for Hajj pilgrims traveling from Africa to Mecca and, second, as one of the world’s leading sites for diving tourism.
CAPTAIN COUSTEAU’S VILLAGE
It was a very well-known person who introduced diving tourism in Sudan. The father of modern diving himself, the famous diver-researcher Jacques Cousteau, who in 1963 set up the underwater village he called Conshelf II on a coral reef known as Sha’ab Rumi off the shores of Port Sudan. Eight divers lived there under the water for an entire month during Cousteau’s experiment. The men who dived at Sha’ab Rumi visit Conshelf II even today and still remember the famous Frenchman. Sha’ab Rumi is one of the three foremost dive sites in the world. Experienced divers can swim there amidst schools of hammerhead sharks rarely seen at such depths. They can also witness the graceful dance of schools of barracuda on the balcony of the reef 20 meters below the surface of the water. And the show put on by the schools of ‘Yellow-bar Angelfish’ are an added treat. The fields of red coral characteristic of the Red Sea are endless on the reef. Shark species recognized as being dangerous are rarely encountered in Sudan. The upper parts of the coral reef near the surface are covered with the most marvelous examples of hard coral species such as finger and table corals. Among these matchless corals live angel fish, parrot fish, Red Sea bream, squirrel fish, sea turtles, large tuna and thousands of other species of fish and other creatures too numerous to mention. Sha’ab Rumi is such a spectacular dive site that myself and all the divers on our boat dived morning and night in the same spot for the four days we were there and never once got bored.
THE SLEEPING UMBRIA
Another important dive site off the coast of Port Sudan is the wreck of the Umbria. Originally built as a freighter in 1912, the Umbria was used by the Italians during World War II. Sunk to a depth of 25 meters with all its bombs and munitions intact, the ship is lying on its side. Sunlight seeps in through the portholes, creating magnificent plays of light. Another major dive spot is Sanganeb, an important reef off the coast of Port Sudan. Recently a lighthouse was erected here to prevent ships passing the reef from colliding with it. Tourists who come to Sudan to dive stay on diving boats. Most of the boats used for this purpose have 10-12 cabins. There are advantages to this kind of accommodation. For example, since all the time is spent on the sea on diving tours, which usually last a week, no matter how hot it may be on land tour guests on the boat never feel the searing heat. A typical tour consists of three days of matchless dives at Sha’ab Rumi followed by three more on the Sanganeb reef and ending with a day on the Umbria. Attracting the interest of Turkish divers in recent years, the area is most popular with Italian divers. Besides these sites, Fasima Suedi is another exciting dive location. On night dives especially, the corals open up and the myriad species of shrimp that live in them make for unique sights.
TRACES OF THE OTTOMANS
Diving is possible all year long in Sudan. The water temperature varies between 25° and 30° for the duration. If it’s the ‘manta’ fish you’re after, then the best time is in August and September. If it’s the hammerhead sharks you want to see, then any time between January and April is suitable. But Port Sudan boasts other touristic treats besides diving tours, and the town of Suakin heads the list. Situated on the Red Sea’s western shore, Suakin is a port city in northeastern Sudan and was a major stop for Venetian merchants in the 14th century. Conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Selim I in 1517, it was once the region’s main port. It remained under Ottoman protection until 1865. Today, Suakin is a virtual Ottoman open-air museum and an absolute must-see for visitors to Port Sudan. In short, if you are a diving buff eager to see the world’s best dive spots, then Port Sudan and the Sha’ab Rumi Reef should be tops on your list. Indeed I was overcome with a longing to drop everything and go to Port Sudan to dive even as I was writing this article. Who knows, maybe I’ll run into you there...