It’s 5 O’clock in the morning in the middle of June 1980 and I’m sitting on the lower deck of a two floor wooden platform a few miles out to sea
watching the sun rise over the mirror-like surface of the Red Sea.
I love moments like this – It’s completely silent apart from the occasional over energetic fish disturbing the reflection, and the silence, with a gentle slap of its tail. On the deck above the other members of the expedition are all still asleep. I’m careful not to wake them whilst selfishly breathing in these moments of perfection for myself. Later today we have to do a run back to shore for provisions, it’s been over a week since our last run and we’re running low on fruit, veg, bread and two stroke fuel. I’ll go in with Andy and leave the others to their own pursuits.
After my previous visits out here both as a tourist and as a part time tour operator I had fallen in love with the environment both above and below the surface. It was one of those rare occasions in life when the real thing actually turns out to be better than your imagination.
Only yesterday I had spent about 40 minutes sitting alone on a sandy patch at about ten metres deep watching a Disney fairyland all around me and blowing occasional quicksilver bubble rings into the sun – Paradise.
That’s me back in the late 70’s diving on Towartit reef south of Port Sudan. Home-made video cam housing and home-made timer with note pad. No Wetsuit, no buoyancy jacket, no dive computer.
That disc on my wrist is a ‘depth gauge’ consisting of a circular plastic tube closed at one end and with a small aperture at the other end. Water would get into the tube and compress the air column inside the tube to a greater and greater degree the deeper you went. This made for a very reliable and accurate system for depths down to about ten metres – any deeper and the amount of visible movement to the air water interface became too small to be accurate – but hey, it was cheap!
Since my initial visit out here as a tourist with Explore Beyond Ltd, and my follow-on visits working for them during my University vacations, the tourist operation had now ended and the Cambridge Coral Starfish Research Group had been completely disbanded. I needed a new device to allow me to continue my love affair with these amazing reefs.
This is the first page of a New Scientist article in 1973 about the Crown Of Thorns plague in which the Platform is mentioned
So in the final year of my Marine Zoology degree at Bangor University I enthused a group of friends and fellow divers to join me in putting together some sort of funded research expedition to the area. We were all coming to the end of science degrees of one form or another so figured we should be able to come up with a decent research proposal and get some backing from both the academic and corporate spheres.
We started holding meetings where we could brainstorm. After some time we came up with a basic plan both for the logistics and for the academic research proposal. I would use my contacts and experience in the Sudan to sort out accommodation in the town and planned to make use of a scaffolding platform that the Cambridge Group had built out on a patch reef a few miles offshore. We would need a vehicle, a boat with outboard motors, generator, air compressor, tanks, equipment spares, cooking utensils, medical supplies, food rations etc etc. Think of it like equipping yourself for a long ocean passage on a yacht with a diving emphasis – but swap the yacht for some sort of four wheel drive vehicle.
Once we were pretty confident with our plan we approached a few college Professors to see if we could garner some support for the academic side of the project which would be based around a hunt for new species of nudibranch. Commonly called sea slugs these amazingly beautiful creatures come in a myriad of shapes, sizes and colours. They respire via naked gills on their backs – hence the name nudibranch.
We managed to get endorsement from Dr. Eifion Jones – a marine algae specialist and lecturer at the Marine Biology Station in Bangor – who would also accompany us on part of the expedition itself.
Together with Dr.Jones, and at his suggestion, we made our way to London to discuss our project with the revered ‘Royal Society’
It was a somewhat surreal experience walking into those hallowed chambers – we had all put suits on – to sell our ‘academic’ project and hopefully get some funding.
And to our surprise it worked !
The finance we got was in no way sufficient to cover the costs but it was a help. Now the project had an official seal of approval it gave us extra credibility when approaching the corporate sphere for additional help.
We called it the ‘British Suakin Expedition’ after the deserted coral city of the same name just south of Port Sudan. (Suakin is a story unto itself and I will cover that later as I was to return after some years to shoot a magazine story just about Suakin.)
The plan was to use the House in Port Sudan that had formerly been used by the Cambridge Group.
Dr. Christopher Roads still owned the house and kindly let us use it for free.
The Cambridge Research Group house in Port Sudan
We would rebuild the reef platform the group had built a few miles offshore and use it as our main base of operations. The platform had to be rebuilt as all the wood had been stolen by fisherman for their own projects and all that was left was the concrete feet and the support scaffolding. We managed to source sufficient planks to rebuild it and ferried them out in several trips in our Zodiac inflatable.
Dave, Andy and John on the platform.
If you look on the left horizon you can see one of the many ships anchoring off Port Sudan to the North.
Many of these ships were only there to change their point of origin paperwork in Port Sudan in order to get around the trade embargo with South Africa
We had an upstairs deck for sleeping – too hot to spend much time up there in the day – and the downstairs was divided into the kitchen and main living area in the middle with a dividing wall on the left behind which was the maintenance and compressor station. On the other side was the staircase and the latrine. The latrine consisted of a wooden seat suspended over the side of the platform – a source of much fun as a colony of fish decided to lie in wait for each new delivery which was ripped to shreds piranha style within seconds of hitting the water. Biological recycling in action.
Graham Andrews on compressor duty.
The core team consisted of Andy Finlaison (now an I.T. Consultant in Alberta and the only member I am still in frequent contact with); Steve Hall (now Director General at WorldFish, an international research organization headquartered in Malaysia); Graham Andrews, the only non-scientist of the group and the provider of much needed technical and engineering expertise and equipment. (Graham had been one of my tourists in earlier times and had fallen in love with the reefs like we all did); Charles Hobbins – an orthodontist who had decided to take a pause from work and study & myself.
In addition we had visits from many friends during our time out there – most notably Graham Smith (Chemistry) and John Malley (Forestry)
Dave Smith doing the dishes after breakfast on our landing platform.
John Malley caught raiding the peanut butter supplies.
After writing countless letters to every commercial concern we could think of asking for help either financially or with donations of equipment and supplies, I had managed to secure dive bottles from Luxfer, pre-made meals in foil bags from Howards Haute Cuisine (these were so good they were to become a once a week treats – ‘Chicken chasseur’ and ‘Duck a l’orange’ were the favourites) batteries, chargers, o-rings etc either at cost or for free.
Graham Andrews provided our Landrover and custom built the cage and roof rack. The plan was to drive down through Europe then take a ferry to Alexandria then drive all the way down through Egypt to Port Sudan. After much logistical calculation we decided against the idea. The amount of kit we needed to take was too much to safely drive the vehicle very far and the Carnet regulations and possibility of major customs problems convinced us that shipping everything to Port Sudan – although not as much fun – was the better option.
Now where did we put that shovel?
We discussed the shipment with the Sudanese authorities and managed to get all the equipment into Sudan on a research permit. This meant we paid no import duty but had to promise to return everything to UK once the expedition was over. This was to lead to another adventure towards the end of our trip but that will come later. We had to provide a list of all the equipment to the Customs authorities and have it all checked off when the consignment arrived in Port Sudan.
Graham and I flew out a few days before the ship was due to dock to make sure we were ready to oversee our stuff passing through customs. It was quite comical really as instead of taking a copy of the list we provided, the customs official decided to write his own confirmation list. He didn’t really understand English that well and also didn’t really know what most of the items were so he abbreviated his own list by copying the first parts of each description from ours. This meant where our list might have said ’10 blue Luxfor aluminium diving tanks’ – his would say ’10 blue’ and that was it. We would be able to return through customs on our exit with anything, so long as it was the correct colour.
Living on a platform out to sea with limited fresh water and no shower facilities made for an interesting set of skin complaints. The slightest scratch – and you get a lot of those working on a reef – would lead to a sore that would take ages to heal and leave a permanent scar. Worst of all was ‘ScrotRot’ a fungal skin infection of the testicles which burned like fire every time you entered the water. Hell for those who got it – but a source of much fun for those who didn’t.
We would typically spend a week or so living and diving from the platform with daily trips out to different dive spots in the Zodiac. When we were running low on supplies two of us would go to shore and either hitch a lift into Port Sudan or use the Landrover if it wasn’t already being used for something else
To be continued…