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Posted Monday, 21 March 2016   |   4984 views   |   Sport Do you know about the Golden Hour? No, it’s not half-price drinks in the bar, it’s what you get when you’re in the right place at the right time at a flexible dive resort, says NIGEL WADE

READ ANY PHOTOGRAPHY BOOK and you’re likely to see references to the “Magic or Golden Hours”. This is the time shortly after sunrise and just before sunset when the light is yellower and softer than when the sun is high in the sky at other times of day. It’s deemed to be the very best time to capture your photos. 

Under water, this sunlight produces an amazing effect. The yellow light penetrating the blue water makes it appear to be green, with the light rays dappling through the surface ripples. I call this the Twilight Zone, and it’s my favourite time to be under water buddied with my camera. I’m not big on early starts, preferring to squeeze in as much sleep in as I can (I’m told it’s an age thing). So if it’s possible to be in the water half an hour before the sun drops to the horizon, that’s where you’re likely to find me.

IT'S NOT ALWAYS FEASIBLE to dive during the Twilight Zone. Many dive centres will already have docked their boats and packed away the dive kit for the day, with the staff and guests enjoying a few beers or cocktails at a poolside bar and marvelling at the spectacle in the sky as it turns yellow, then orange and red before the sun disappears.

There are however destinations and dive operations that are made to measure for the Twilight Zone nutters among us. Ideally the location needs to have a photogenic house reef, with easy access to a shoreline and a reef slope that faces west. It also needs to be shallow enough to get the best results from the dappled light penetrating the water’s surface.

Twenty-eight miles south from the hustle and bustle of the town of Hurghada is the resort of Soma Bay, nestled on a desert peninsula formerly owned by the Egyptian military. 
Soma Bay has been developed in association with several leading hotel chains as a premier holiday and sporting destination. Activities include an 18-hole, par-72 championship golf course, wind- and kite-surfing taking advantage of a steady offshore breeze, and of course a premier dive centre located within the grounds of “lifestyle” hotel the Breakers Diving & Surfing Lodge. 

My home for a week, the Breakers is set on the tip of the peninsula with Orca Diveclub, having direct access to Soma Bay’s house reef via a 420m wooden jetty that stretches out over the shallow lagoon to the reef’s drop-off. 
What’s more, the reef has all the attributes needed for successful Twilight Zone diving. Orca Diveclub also owns a fleet of dedicated hard-boats. Docked at the small private marina of Soma Bay, these run daily trips to offshore reefs and wreck-sites for dives during the day, returning mid-afternoon with plenty of time to prepare for more dives at dusk.

My guide and buddy Ahmed Ismael proudly informed me that he was the current Egyptian skiing champion. Every time I thought about his achievement it reminded me of the film Cool Runnings, setting off visions of him roller-blading with a pair of ski-poles down Egyptian sand-dunes, boiling in the hot sun as he practised for the next world championships held on a freezing piste. 

“We need to be ready to dive at 4.30,” I informed him as the sun started its descent to the horizon. Kitted up and camera in hand, we jumped on the back of one of Orca’s fleet of electric buggies to avoid the pain of a quarter-mile hike along the jetty to the reef’s entry-point.

The scene presented to me under water put an instant smile on my face. A large shoal of baitfish hung just below the surface, using the shelter of the jetty for protection from the constant threat of predation. 
Shoals of raccoon and blue-cheeked butterflyfish intermingling with hordes of banne
Essam and the big pink stonefish at Panorama Reef.
THERE'S A LOT MORE TO encounter during the daylight hours at the Soma Bay house reef. Eighty metres north of the entry-point, a small coral bommie sits at around 25m. It's a renowned cleaning station, frequented by shrimps and cleaner wrasse that attract an assortment of reef-dwelling fish who take advantage of a free wash-and-brush-up service.

A dense shoal of resident glassfish constantly expands and contracts around the coral head, occasionally darting for cover as predators pass by. 

My buddy for this dive was Hurghada-based instructor Birga Weisert, who was visiting her former employers at Orca for a day of R&R. 

As Birga approached the glassfish they formed a hollow circle for her to swim through and for me to photograph. We used our no-deco time and gas enjoying the spectacle of thousands of these small transparent-bodied fish moving in tune with the rhythm of the reef.

Soma Bay isn’t all about diving just off the shore, however, and I joined a hardboat excursion for a two-tank dive at Safaga’s famous Panorama Reef. 

The last time I had visited this area was in the autumn of 2001 while off-gassing from an intensive trip to the Brothers Islands. I remembered an anemone field filling one of the slopes with beautiful crimson-skirted specimens hosting countless orange and black-striped Red Sea clownfish. It’s a picture that’s been burnt in my memory and possibly embellished as the years have rolled on. 

I WASN'T DISAPPOINTED, however, as my guide Essam led me to Panorama’s fabled Anemone Gardens. The reef slope was littered with soft-tentacled magnificent anemones, gently swaying in the light current. 

Pairs of clownfish flitted around their stinging hosts, enjoying the protection on offer, and the ever-present anthias, yellow butterflyfish and cute-faced pufferfish joined the melee, adding even more movement and colour to the kaleidoscope created by bright orange gorgonians, pink sponges and purple soft corals. 

At the start of our dive Essam proudly pointed out a very large stonefish. It looked a dark, dirty purple colour as it sat motionless on the top of a small coral block. I shone my torch at it and saw that it was in fact bright pink. 
It looked totally out of place in the artificial light, and clearly hadn’t thought the camouflage thing out thoroughly enough to be inconspicuous, although its venomous armory was enough to curtail a closer inspection. 

Panorama Reef hadn’t seemed to change a bit in the 14 years since I last dived there.
You don’t see this every day, two big moray eels untwine to go their separate ways.
THE FOLLOWING DAY the ski-champ and I were buddied up for another offshore excursion, this time to Abu Kafan. This is a long, narrow reef barrier featuring plateaus at both its northern and southern tips, and rises from more than 600m to just below the surface. 

Currents can be strong here, resulting in abundant soft corals. It’s also the most southerly dive-site the Orca boats visit, and it takes 90 minutes to get there.

In the water we were faced with a moderate current. Opting not to fight against it we drifted across the north plateau, marvelling at the display of vibrant marine growth covering every inch of the reef. Pink, dark purple, orange and red soft corals grew in small gatherings in a never-ending field of beige-coloured broccoli coral. 
On the reef drop-off we took some respite from the current, entering small overhangs and caverns. 

Whip corals grew from the roofs, hanging down in tangled masses with small gorgonian fans creating a maze on the sandy carpet and rising to fill the void. 

In the second cave we entered, a pair of big moray eels lay intertwined on the sand, fully exposed. They glanced in our direction before unwinding themselves and swam slowly in opposite directions, disappearing into separate holes formed in the limestone and obviously not impressed by our presence. 
“You don’t see that every day,” I thought as I left the calm confines of the cavern to be whisked away by the current, and continue the drift over the reef. 

Back at Soma Bay I’d managed to convince the manager at Orca Diveclub Bram Bredero to join me in the Twilight Zone and model for some photos. 

Our dive was a relaxed affair until we encountered an extremely friendly and compliant raccoon butterflyfish. This little fella seemed to want to pose even more than the Dutchman, and put himself confidently between Bram and the camera, spreading his pectoral fins as he stared into my lens as if to say: “I’m a superstar and much better at this underwater modelling malarkey than that bubbling monster behind me.”
Again the sun’s rays turned green as they penetrated the surface, casting an eerie, shimmering glow over the pink and yellow hard corals. 

Above us snorkellers making the most of the last light of the day took in the scene as we slowly made our way along the shallows, finding big lionfish awakening from their daytime slumber to actively hunt as the night drew in, and brightly coloured parrotfish wrapping themselves in slime blankets as they tried to become inconspicuous while sleeping the night away in the cover of the rocks.

Soma Bay has everything the Twilight Zone diver could wish for – easy access, a healthy and picturesque west-facing reef and a plethora of compliant marine life. 

All this is made available to visiting divers by the flexible itinerary and the staff at Orca Diveclub. 
Should you travel with non-diving family or friends Soma Bay has plenty to offer too, from a stunning beach and shallow lagoon for the book-readers and sun-worshippers to award-winning spa treatments, surface watersports or golf. 

The bay is totally independent from the bustle of the nearby town of Safaga, with fine-dining options available at all the hotel’s excellent restaurants. If you want lively nightlife, packed bars and bazaars this isn’t the place – instead it’s quiet, luxurious and easy-going.

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