2006 - A Little Project
Archaeological Diving around the Farasan Islands, Saudi Arabia
Travelling plans have been a bit battered by political events this year. When I got home last December I was planning for my next trip to start in Turkey, then a wander through Iran and Pakistan into India and eventually onward into SE Asia. I'll probably now start in India, but later in the year to avoid the worst of the rainy season.
In the meantime an interesting opportunity has cropped up. A mate of mine was joining an Underwater Archaeological Expedition and they needed another diver so I'm joining the project. They also needed additional medical support as we'll be out at sea in a remote place away from the usual support facilities so I've spent a week in Plymouth being trained as an Emergency Medical Technician.
It's a 5 week project through May 2006 on a big expedition vessel around The Farasan Islands off the coast of Saudi Arabia way down in the southern Red Sea. We're looking for signs of civilisation around one of the likely "out of africa" routes of early man across the Bab el Mandeb strait. It's a serious project involving several UK and Saudi Professors of Archaeology and a hefty amount of sponsorship.
Hard work for no pay (expenses covered) but it should be very interesting and there's a good chance of getting in some pretty serious deep diving using mixed gases (trimix).
Friday 28th April 2006
Heath And Reach, UK:
Took a 1630 taxi to LB station as I was carrying a lot of gear - big rucksack, big divebag and small rucksack. Painless train to Watford and coach to Heathrow T3 where I soon met Garry that I was travelling with.
I was a little concerned that my luggage included 6 lifejackets with banned CO2 inflator capsules but just checked them in and got away with it.
We got our 2200 flight to Bahrain - a 6 hour flight arriving at 0600 local time. I was surprised that we flew right down over Iraq - right over Mosul, between Kirkuk and Baghdad, and right over Basra. Quite a comfortable flight but no real sleep. 6 hours to kill in Bahrain airport before our 1300 flight to Jeddah.
Eventually boarded our Jeddah flight. We were among the first to board but were split up - the vast majority of the other passengers were 2 big parties, one Indonesian, the other Malaysian - all moslems on their haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca just a few miles north of Jeddah. It was absolute mayhem as they were mostly just sitting where they felt like sitting and all in the wrong seats.
I've never seen a boarding like it, the hostesses were getting a bit frustrated with all the confusion. I was asked if I'd move so a family could sit together, and did.
2 hours to Jeddah and then the chaos resumed as, after all the movements, everyone is now 4 rows away from where they stowed their bags and they all want to resolve this little problem at the same time. Temp = 37C but it doesn't feel that hot.
Met at the airport by Nic and Trevor, 30 min taxi to the very plush Red Sea Palace hotel. Caught up with the news - the compression chamber was useless and has been abandoned, there are delays getting the engines fitted to the smaller diveboat we'll be carrying on the main ship. As a result we're now looking at leaving Jeddah a day or 2 late, maybe the 5th May. Also our dives will be more conservative as we won't have the safety back-up of the chamber.
Showered and cleaned up in my very nice room, met the whole diving group and went out to eat. Basic little streetside café for mixed shish kebab and chips/salad/bread - very nice too - cost 15R (rials ) = £2.50.
Back to the hotel for a last drink - Trevor got a late call, they can't fit the 2x 40HP outboards to the dive boat - boat's too narrow. Can possibly fit a big single engine with a small back-up.
Crashed at 11pm - knackered after no real sleep last night.
High: the journey was ok
Low: too many serious problems cropping up at the last-minute
Sunday 30th April 2006
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia:
Breakfast at 0830 and went out with Simon and Lawrence to sort the boat problems. At the boat shop we agreed on an 85HP main engine with a 30HP back up. We then visited the actual boat workshop to cover some details on fixings. The boat is very long and thin - a bit strange for a diveboat, hope it's stable enough. Back to the shop where we learnt that it can only be registered to carry 4 people - not really enough.
Spent the rest of the day shopping for dive bits, archaeological hammers, chisels, sample buckets etc.
At dinner in the evening Khaled mentioned that maybe only a Saudi registered skipper can pilot the boat in Jizan harbour - and we don't have one.
There's a lot of compromises being made. We're now spending less time in the diving area, only doing one dive every other day when we are there, and they'll be very conservative dives.
High: wangling some free t-shirts from one of the dive shops
Low: too many compromises
Monday 1st May 2006
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia:
Not much for me to do today as a few were off to visit our main ship - special permission had been arranged - and they never made it - red tape.
I spent the morning just helping Nic, ran a few errands and sorted out some PC and mobile problems. Nic's the project leader for the underwater side of the project and was in contact with very senior ministers, attachés, ambassadors trying to break down some of the beaurocratic barriers that we keep hitting. There was talk again of having to cancel/postpone the underwater project due to the problems.
Had a full team briefing meeting in the afternoon to clarify some ground rules for the project, especially the diving.
After the meeting there was nothing for me to do so I went for a walk around the souqs of Jeddah. It's a strange place, plenty of money about and plenty of poverty too. It's generally pretty scruffy, moreso than I expected, maybe on a par with say, Jordan. It all felt kind of familiar. Also had walk around "chop chop square" where public beheadings are roughly a 3-weekly occurrence.
Went out for a nice chinese in the evening. Huge portions and we all staggered home stuffed.
High: nice walk around Jeddah and the souq
Low: slow progress
Tuesday 2nd May 2006
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia:
We got 2 people onto the Midyan today. Mostly looks ok, just need some filters for the compressor.
Ended up helping Nic again in the morning and things seem to be moving a little better.
Got a visit from a Midyan foreman in the afternoon - it's looking hopeful that we can board tomorrow late morning - and maybe set sail in the afternoon. He seemed like a good bloke and was keen to cooperate with us.
More diveboat problems in the afternoon, delays with the registration are likely to set us back again.
At a bit of a loose end for an hour in the afternoon so went for a bit of a walk again. Back in for a few last jobs and a late dinner with the just-arrived land team, including Geoff, the overall project leader.
High: some progress, may get onto the Midyan tomorrow
Low: more diveboat problems
Wednesday 3rd May 2006
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia:
Still looking promising today to get on board the Midyan. Just hung around in reception all morning ready to go when we got the ok.
1200 - looks likely for 1330 so we went for lunch.
1300 - a phonecall, they've checked our hand baggage lists we gave them yesterday and they can't allow cameras into Aramco, Jeddah. We separated all our photographic gear into separate boxes to be shipped to Jizan - we'll collect it there. Several of us had to put our (camera) phones in there too.
1400 - we were collected from the hotel and headed off in a pickup and a minibus to the Aramco depot.
Through the initial checkpoint without any problem. At the next we had to get out of the vehicles and walk through. We hung around while the guards looked at our passports etc. Then they wanted the serial numbers of all our laptops, took ages. Hang around . . . hang around . . . hang around.
Then one guard started rummaging through a few bags in the pickup. The 2nd bag inspected was mine and they found my Pocket PC. I went over and insisted it wasn't a camera - he wasn't convinced. Then he found some film in another bag. He and I marched back to the office with my Pocket PC and the film.They were mainly interested in the film - it wasn't my film but as I was already involved they wanted to talk to me about it. Yes, it's film for a camera - but we have no cameras! Over and over - "but it's for film" . . .
More senior guards turned up, someone asked me for my Pocket PC again, then immediately turned back to the film again so I shoved it deeper into my pocket. They were rummaging through more bags, more guards turned up, they were arguing amongst themselves, Ahmed from the Midyan turned up. Eventually we got into a pickup and a car and drove to the Midyan. We got there just before 1800 - 3 hours at that checkpoint.
The Midyan is a very impressive ship, it was built in Norway in 2000 and was designed for pollution control - primarily for ringing and scooping-in oil spillages. It's 70m long and weighs 2000 tons, and it's virtually spotless. We've got a tennis court sized deck to work on and our cabins are very comfortable. We quickly unpacked all our gear to make sure it had all arrived safely (most of it was air-freighted weeks ago) - it was all ok apart from a few bits left at the hotel in the chaos.
One problem we've found is that we only have about half the expected gas on board. The cylinders of O2 and helium are only 40 litres, not the anticipated 50, and they're only pumped to 130bar, not the anticipated 200. Our reduced diving schedule means it probably won't matter.
Dinner at 2000, pretty good food and huge portions of everything. Crashed about 11pm - I'm sharing a 4-berth cabin with Simon and Lawrence.
High: we're on board!
Low: a tricky hour with my Pocket PC at the gate
Thursday 4th May 2006
Saudi Aramco Port, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia:
Slept right through the 0530 breakfast and woke/got up at 0730. We need to pack all our gear away again for the journey south - 2 hours lugging kit around and it's pretty warm.
The Captain confirmed that we were still hoping to sail about 1100 today. Aramco photographer came on board for some mugshots and group photos on and beside the ship.
We got moving about 1pm. Spent the afternoon splicing and tying ropes to make buoys, shot lines, deco lines etc. Hot work and I've been knackered all day.
High: fun afternoon with the ropes
Low: bleedin' tired all day
Friday 5th May 2006
Red Sea, Saudi Arabia:
Slept right through the 0530 breakfast again, got up at 0730 - but I definitely feel more awake today. I don't need breakfast anyway, we're getting far too well fed.
Not much for me to do in the morning so I spent most of it in our cabin reviewing some of my medical stuff.
Spent some more time in the afternoon on rope splicing for boat fenders. Then a few of us washed down most of the huge deck. It gets very messy as the engines on this under-used ship must be a bit coked up - so bits of soot collect everywhere and get trampled around. It took a while but it was good to get the muscles working and get some exercise - very hot in the sun but the hose kept us cool. Definitely a bit hotter today and the sky was quite clear - it's been a bit hazey up to now.
Watched quite a few flying fish scarpering away from our big noisey ship. They're only quite small but a few individuals were probably clearing 100m.
Simon and Lawrence have got the O2 pump cleaned up and working and a compressor connection problem has been temporarily fixed so we're ok for gassing-up now.
Quiet evening with my nose in a medical book. We should get to Jizan in the early hours where we need to sort out more "permissions" to dive etc. We've also got our diveboat+fuel and our cameras to collect from Jizan but it won't all be ready yet.
High: swabbing the deck in the blazing sun was a bit of a laugh
Low: still some concerns about the boat and some formalities that need sorting
Saturday 6th May 2006
Jizan, Saudi Arabia:
Woke up for the 0530 breakfast but I definitely don't need breakfast - stayed in bed until 0730.
We're likely to be in Jizan port all day so we got all the dive gear out to set it all up properly. There was quite a lot to do and we made it last most of the day.
A few of us had a quick snorkel off the quay on the out-of-harbour side. Quite a lot of small things to see. Nobody really saw us - not too sure what they would have made of it.
In the evening a few wanted to night-snorkel but were dissuaded - and the Captain couldn't be found to ask. I can't believe they'd be too happy about it.
Some discouraging updates during the day. At the end of the day the situation is that our late-announced Saudi MoD guest has our dive permission letter - we think he's in Jizan but nobody can contact him. The Captain can't let us dive until he has that letter so we're stuck here. We can't even leave the port to explore Jizan so we're prisoners on and around the ship.
High: got my divekit all up together
Low: where's our dive permission?
Sunday 7th May 2006
Jizan, Saudi Arabia:
More general sorting out in the morning and then we ran through some first aid drills.
Came down from lunch to find the British Ambassador and his entourage just coming aboard. He shook a few hands and wished us luck but didn't hang around long.
A bit of a breakthrough today, most of our diveboat registration problems have been resolved by registering it to Saudi Aramco. The boat turned up on a flatbed truck about 1800. Half the agreed fittings still aren't on it. It took an hour to winch it aboard as it hasn't got proper lifting points - they had to use strops to cradle it.
The fuel was in plastic drums so only about a quarter of it was allowed on board the Midyan. Our cameras were with the boat and all ok.
Once on board we all pounced on it and in pretty short time had the engines on and tested, fenders fitted and generally kitted it out.
At the end of the day most of the team were pretty positive as we'd made a big step forward with the boat. We should be leaving Jizan at 0530 tomorrow, and should reach the Farasans by noon.
High: we got the boat
Low: still no dive permission
Monday 8th May 2006
Jizan, Saudi Arabia:
Happy Birthday Laura - 10 today I think.
Got up at 0830 and we're well on our way. Some finishing off with the boat and then Trevor found a problem with the electronics of his videocamera housing. We took it apart and I found a jammed switch. Desoldered it and dropped it in Lawrence's ultrasonic cleaner. To our amazement it came out totally revitalised and working. I soldered it back in and it all works - Trevor was totally chuffed, he'd thought the housing was dead.
While I was doing the camera stuff we anchored off of Slick Point on Qummah Island and the diveboat was dropped in the water for testing.
I spent some time chatting with a few - trying to encourage some meetings and better communication as those who don't make an effort to find out really don't know what's going on.
Leaning over the ship handrail, looking at big jellyfish and chatting with Khaled, one of the diveboat ties suddenly came undone and the diveboat swung around bashing it's prop against the side of the Midyan. Khaled jumped in the water and and got in the diveboat, I ran and got the others to help. We eventually got it sorted.
Everyone's a bit frustrated so to try and cheer things up a bit it was decided we should all go for a reconnaissance snorkel on Slick Point, one of our primary dive targets. 2 runs in the diveboat to get everyone there and it was really good. Everyone seemed happier for having got in at last. The viz was only about 10-15m due to sediment and plankton but there was good fish life about. The water's incredibly warm - you really could stay in all day in shorts (& t-shirt to protect from sun). We could easily see the sort of undercuts in the reef that the archaeologists are most interested in. Nice swim around for an hour and rushed back to be in time for dinner.
At dinner it was announced there would be a team meeting at 2030 - good news.
The meeting went ok with some sensible admissions of errors made and I think it's cleared the air a bit. And we're having a briefing in the morning to assign us all tasks for the next day or 2 - more good news.
The plan right now is to start diving on Thursday 10th.
High: the meetings will surely help move things along
Low: still seems like progress is slow