Saturday, March 19, 2016

Diving in Yanbu

Yanbu is a Saudi Arabian city on the Red Sea. The Red Sea is one of the top diving destinations in the world, but Saudi Arabia is one of the more restrictive countries to get into. So when the opportunity arose to go on a night dive and two day dives, we barely hesitated. In fact, we brought the kids and their grandparents, which made this trip even more memorable...but not for the reasons you might think. Let's just say it involved the Saudi Coast Guard and a hospital.
From our first dive of the day
Because this trip was arranged through the American Consulate, we found ourselves included in the Consulate General's convoy. What that means is that we ended up spending the whole 3-hour drive between Jeddah and Yanbu in a high-speed convoy with Saudi police escorts joining and departing at regular intervals like fighters on a WWII bomber formation. It was a bit intense, especially with all the flashing lights and coordinated driving between the official vehicles... because you never know when this could happen, pretty much like this scene from The Kingdom. Of course, we're just tagging along behind them like ambulance chasers while also dodging the local Saudi drivers. I don't have any pictures of this because I was driving, and photos of diplomatic vehicles shouldn't be posted online anyways.

We checked in to the hotel where we met our American contact Tom, then dropped our bags in our rooms. Since not everyone was going out on the night dive, we switched car seats and shuffled folks around so that the night diving group was in one car and the group headed to the Yanbu flower show was in another. Kacey's father, David, ended up riding with Tom in a well-weathered town car that would put a 70's cop-show chase scene to shame. It really sticks out from the more common SUVs in the Kingdom and made going to our night dive site feel even more exhilarating.


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Night Dive
Still part of the police-escorted convoy, we pulled up to the dive shop with only minutes to claim our gear before prayer time would force the store to close. I had to assume that my regulator, BCD, and weight belts are functional. I guess we'll find out soon. I didn't bring the dive camera on this dive so that it would be ready for tomorrow's dives. If you want pictures, click here to jump ahead.

We then drove some more with the convoy to the launch site. The sun had set and the wind strengthened between when we got our gear and arrived at the beach. We were required to provide our iqamas or passports to board the boat, but we debated on whether to go out because of the weather. The increased wind and chop meant we should expect decreased visibility. The group decided to go, but Kacey still had to wear her abaya until she was aboard and the boat had left the dock.

Even though we checked our gear while we were still moored,  I couldn't help feeling what I call "Saudi safe" on the way out to the dive site:  For my first time diving in 8 years, I was going on my first-ever night dive from a boat using borrowed gear that I wasn't familiar with and hadn't inspected. I was visualizing all the steps to get my gear on and get myself down to the bottom of the reef, and trying my best to recall some muscle memory in case something goes wrong.

The spray from the Red Sea was cool, but not cold. We got all the way to the dive site when my co-worker Aaron discovered that his fins were missing a strap. Remember, we were rushed grabbing our gear and didn't get to check it all. Fortunately, one of the local guys on the trip decided not to dive and loaned Aaron his gear. Our group of six entered the water and dropped down to depth, but Aaron needed to resurface for some reason. I figured he was out of this dive for good.

Night dives are gloomy. On our approach to the dive site, we could actually see the reef poking out of the water, so the plan was to follow the reef in a circle around to the right. Since it was low visibility, our group stayed tight. We saw sea stars moving across the sea floor. There were also black and blue urchins, too. Kacey even saw an octopus, and while she tried to signal it too me, I was somewhat preoccupied with the fundamentals of safely diving at night to register what I saw as an octopus. Though, I did see a cuttlefish buried in the sand.

Remember that "keep the reef on the right" plan? Well, the reef kind of faded away and we ended up missing our turn. So when it was time to surface, we were quite far from the boat. It was a long surface swim in the choppy water at night so that I could keep my eyes on the boat's location. I couldn't see anything below me, and I had to keep my flashlight pointed at the boat's general direction so that I could maintain my bearings as the waves washed over us.

We fought the current to get back in the boat, where they had Subway sandwiches waiting for us for dinner. Get it? Submarine sandwiches on a dive trip? Over dinner, we learned that Aaron's borrowed fin was too tight and he fixed that topside. After he got his gear figured out, he could see our group's dive lights from where he stood on the boat. But once he got back in water, he couldn't see the lights any more and found himself yelling at boat captain to direct him to our group. After swallowing some sea water, he did rejoin us, seemingly from out of nowhere. And then, when he was trying to get out, the Saudi Border Guard/Coast guard boat (that was accompanying us like the maritime version of the earlier police motorcade) nearly backed into him with its propellers still churning the water. Like I said..."Saudi safe."

Our total dive time was about 35 minutes, to a depth of somewhere between 40 and 60 feet...but I'm not sure because I didn't reset my depth gauge before the dive. We loaded up our gear and drove back to the hotel, still under escort. It turned out that Aaron and his dive buddy--who were splitting a room--hadn't noticed earlier in the mad rush to get out on the boat that their room only had one king bed. But now that it was time to turn in for the night, it was quite obvious to both of them that they'd overlooked this key detail.


Yanbu Flower Show
Remember how the non-divers went to the flower show? Here are some pictures of it. I mean, it's not the Tulips at Keukenhof, but far more than I expected in the deserts of Saudi Arabia.




Saturday:
I woke up early and had breakfast at 6 am. I filled a plate with food to take back to the room, but the rest of the family came down just before I was able to leave the hotel restaurant. After breakfast, but before we departed the hotel, I switched the car seats back into the car we drove up here in.

Since he was only planning to snorkel, David borrowed my long sleeve rash guard shirt for sun protection. Once again, we convoyed out to the harbor with a police escort, but it was a different boat than the one we were on last night. Since it was daylight, we were given life preservers...but they didn't zip closed or clip or really seem all that useful unless you wore it backwards like an airplane cushion. Glad we brought our own U.S. Coast Guard rated ones for the girls.
Abayas paired with life preservers give off a Halloween vibe.
The ride out was fairly uneventful, but David didn't seem to be doing too well. He'd taken some Dramamine before the boat ride because he has had problems with sea-sickness before. The rocking of the boat got worse the farther from shore we went, which only aggravated his condition...it got so bad that rather than waiting with the other snorkelers on deck while the divers got in, he hopped into the water to get off the rocking boat. I think he puked while floating on a life preserver tied to the back of the boat.
I liked it so I put a ring on it.
First Dive:
Kacey and I geared up and dove in with the first group, and then the snorkelers followed us in.
That's a long sleeve shirt and swim trunks, not a wetsuit.
The reef had a lot of canyons rising up almost to the surface. 
I saw a moray eel. It was very angry, even opened its mouth open and started chomping at us. 
I also saw what was either a porcupine fish or box fish that was probably bigger than a loaf of bread.
There was lots of colorful sea life. The dive was a simple 20 minutes out, 20 minutes back with a max depth of about 60 ft.
The fish looked liked leaves blowing off a hill every time a wave passed.
Celebrity sighting: Gill from Finding Nemo
Cliffs so tall you can't get them all in frame!
After we surfaced from the dive, our girls wanted to swim with us...but they really didn't like the salty water. Granted, getting some of the Red Sea in your mouth is not nearly as bad as getting some of the Dead Sea in your mouth (like we did last month), but the Red Sea is nevertheless one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world at with an average salinity of 4.0%. Of course, with kids being kids, we couldn't get them to look under the water.
Coaxing the kids to join us.
What the kids didn't want to see.
After we got back on board the boat, we learned that David had been pulled back on board and transferred to the Saudi Border Patrol/Coast Guard boat that had escorted us to the dive site. That boat then took him ashore where he was transferred to the hospital to get checked-out. Phrased differently, my father-in-law had been fished out of the water wearing borrowed clothing (my shirt), and had no ID, no money, no phone, no glasses, and no shoes. I imagine that is what a Canadian refugee might look like. Hopefully, we'll see him again.

Second Dive:
Our second dive site was some distance away from the first site, but our driver didn't know exactly where it was...so he drove our boat in a sweeping arc while the other boat made a bee-line to the next site, overtaking us in the process.
Our second dive of the day was shallower. We could see bright blue fish and other sea life from the surface of the water. There was much more floating over the reef and looking down into crevices than the first dive.



This picture does not do justice to the intense color.


Heart-shaped coral

That's rather shallow
Getting out is easy, just avoid the propellers and the reef.
After the second dive, we had more Subway sandwiches for lunch as the boat returned to port. We knew we had to go to the hospital to reclaim David, so we told the Consulate General that we wouldn't be part of his convoy on the way back to Jeddah. And since we weren't sure what the rest of the day was going to hold in store for us, we told the other car that tagged along like us that we'd try to meet them at the hotel, but gave no promises as to whether we could convoy back with them either. We gave the trip coordinator our cash to pay for our rental equipment before the other car left for the hotel and then Tom led us over to the hospital.


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While we were diving, here's what was going on with David:

David's Story: Every time he threw up, the border patrol boat went faster. He was taken to emergency room, where they gave him a bracelet that said "John Do". Remember, he doesn't have any ID on him because he was pulled out of the water wearing only his swimsuit and a rash guard shirt. And the hospital staff cut off the shirt he'd borrowed from Greg.
Mr. John Do is 116 years old, apparently
When the dive group arrived at the hospital, Kacey and Suzanne went in with Tom. David said "I'm so glad to see you. I had no idea how I was going to get out of here." Apparently, he had also asked the doctor in all seriousness "Am I going to die?" They ran all sorts of tests on him, fearing that he had aspirated sea water. Fortunately, it turned out the only thing wrong with him was a low body temperature. But I think it's safe to say that we're never taking him on a boat with us again...starting right after our Nile River Cruise at the end of the month.

Greg stayed with the car and the girls, who were fine just sitting there until nature called. Greg walked the girls into the hospital wearing their swimsuits, right when the group was learning that the hospital bill had to be paid in cash, 1800 SAR (roughly $480 USD), and that was with a discount. So Suzanne went to find the ATM while Kacey took the girls to the restroom. While Greg and Tom waited by the hospital cashier, the other car called Greg to let them know that they were about to leave the hotel to head back to Jeddah and to let Tom know that they were going to leave the rental money for him at the hotel desk. Since it was kind of in the opposite direction from where Tom was planning to go after this unplanned detour to the hospital, Greg figured it made more sense to pay Tom from our rental fees and simply collect the envelope at the hotel for ourselves (since it was mostly the money we'd given the other car for the rental fees anyways). Nothing is ever simple, is it?

Shortly after that, Suzanne came back and we learned that the ATM wouldn't take her card. When Kacey came back with the girls, we were able to cobble together just enough money to spring David from the hospital. He left wearing Kacey's black pants (she was still covered in her abaya) and Tom's donated brown sweatshirt.
He looks like he felt
After we got everyone back into the car, Tom escorted us back towards the road we needed to take to the hotel. After finally getting to shower off from our dive, we went to check out. As you can imagine, we totally blew the late check-out time, but the hotel was cool about it. We packed up the car, grabbed some McDonald's at the nearby mall, and hit the road. Thankfully, the drive home was uneventful.

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