Learn to Dive on the Cheap in Dahab, Egypt

"Diving is so much fun, you'll love it", my friends said. As I vomited in the water and fought back tears on the first day of my four-day Open Water Diver course in Dahab I began plotting my revenge against these so-called friends.  At first, the course seemed like torture. This was my holiday, after all, and I had paid a substantial sum of money to spend part of it studying a textbook called the PADI Open Water Diver Manual, and the other part subjecting myself to complicated skills work in the ocean, such as learning to pivot on my fins.

The particular skill which had driven me to the edge of breaking point was learning to clear my mask in the event is filled with water. Ignoring the instructions about tilting the mask I inhaled the salt water through my nose and vomited the water up once I surfaced. Some people enjoy the Open Water Diver course. I didn't However I did learn to love diving.

Location, location

My problem wasn't the location - Dahab is a great place to learn to dive. It's a laid-back, slightly scruffy town on the edge of the Red sea. Open air cafes offering fruit juices and shisha pipes jostle for position on the stony beach and camels occasionally wander past with their owners touting for business.

When I peered across the Red sea I could even spot Saudi Arabia, while behind Dahab, the Sinai mountain rise abruptly out of the flat desert landscape. The town is a haven for backpackers with a legion of youth hostels and internet cafes in stark contrast to the mega-resorts and package tourism of neighbouring Sharm el-Sheikh.

Dahab's popularity among backpackers is due to it being one of the cheapest places in the world to learn to dive. The sweetener is that food and accommodation are also a bargain.

At one with the ocean

The problem wasn't my instructor either - a practical French women called Sophie from Penguin Divers, one of a large number of dive centres in Dahab. She was patient yet firm. No, the problem was me and my fear of being under the sea instead of merrily bobbing along the top of it. But I stubbornly refused to abandon the course despite my apparent ineptitude.

I grimly trudged into the water weighed down by my oxygen tank and equipment for my twice daily lessons, spurred onward by the fact I had already paid for the course upfront. Then, gradually, a strange thing happened: I Started to get the hang of diving.

Day by day, I get used to being "at one " with the underwater world. I learned not to panic as I descended under the surface. I learned breathe slowly, steadily and calmly through my mouthpiece instead of sucking on the oxygen in greedy, panicked gulps. I even learned how to clear my mask properly, and once I learned this, I was finally able to see underwater.

Underwater world

Once I could see, a whole new world of underwater wonders opened up to me. Just a short drive from Dahab, the Moray Garden was where I first discovered that there was more than just sand under the sea. Here, the underwater gardens were filled with delicate, vibrantly coloured coral which shimmered in the reflected light.

There were also amazing creatures down there I'd never seen before, like ghostly manta rays and schools of barracuda arranged in perfect formation. Named after the prehistoric moray eels that dwell there, the Moray Garden was teeming with sea creatures.

Rather than swimming or snorkelling above these creatures, diving allowed me to feel like I was swimming with them. A school of banner fish enveloped me and a clown fish peeked out from its hiding place as I drifted past. A tiny trumpet fish seemed to want to play as it surfed on my air bubbles.

Hook, line and sinker

It had taken me the entire course, but it was official, I was hooked. I passed the Open Water Diver course and went straight on to do the Advanced Open Water Diver course so I could tackle some of the more difficult dives in the area. The toughest was the Blue Hole, where many experienced divers have died.

I was careful to follow Sophie's instructions to the letter. After diving down we entered a crack in the reef and descended through a chimney out into what seemed to be a never-ending blue abyss. Even though I knew it would scare me half to death I couldn't help but look down to marvel at the breathtaking depths below.

For advanced divers it's also worth investing in a trip to the SS Thistlegorm, the most famous wreck in the red sea. The Thistlegorm is located off the coast between Sharm el-Sheikh and Suez.

Dahab dive schools organise regular types to Sharm el-sheikh to do the dive.

The Thistlegorm was a World War II supply ship which sailed from Glasgow around South Africa to the Red Sea in 1941. It carried supplies for the British troops in Egypt, including trucks, aeroplane parts, Wellington boots and motorbikes, but was bombed and sank before reaching its destination.

The ship is enormous at nearly 130m long, and it took an entire dive of 40 minutes to explore the length of the wreck and back. After surfacing for lunch and a compulsory break we dived the wreck again, this time with a torch to look inside. The main part of the wreck stands upright, which makes it easy to enter the hull. Once inside it's fascinating to see the supplies which remain undisturbed, including rows of wellies and motorbikes ready for action.

I was elated when I surfaced. In the course of my holiday in Dahab I went from being a diving novice to tackling night dives, deep dives and now wreck dives. My friends were right, in the end I did love diving.

Ultimate Dive sites 

  • The blue hole, Belize: Discovered by Jacques Cousteau, this spectacular dive is incredibly deep and a brilliant blue colour.
  • Sipadan island, Malaysian Borneo: Get up close to hawksbill and green turtles.
  • Little Corn Island, Nicaragua: An undiscovered paradise where there are only even a few divers at a time.
  • Cod Hole Dive, Great Barrier Reef, Australia: Divers can hand feed giant potato cod. 
  • Kailula Kona, Hawaii: Dive with manta rays with 4m fin spans.