Wheelchair Accessible Egyptian Diving Trip
by Gyl Stacey © 2002

Gyl Stacey and her husband, Mark, of Scotland, recently returned from a diving trip to Egypt where they stayed at a Red Sea resort. Gyl, an active T3 paraplegic, enjoyed the opportunity to view underwater life up close and experience a newfound sense of physical freedom in the process.

While in Australia early in March-April 2002, I tried some scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I was with my husband Mark, who was completing his PADI Open Water course. I really enjoyed the experience, so once back home in Scotland I decided to find out how I could pursue this and get a qualification. For information, I am a fairly active T3 paraplegic. 

I spent some time researching for information on organisations that could teach me to dive, then I came across an article in Sport Diver magazine. This was written by Bristol-based PADI and IAHD instructor Rob Read, describing his experience of teaching someone with physical and learning difficulties to dive. I was struck by the commitment and ingenuity that Rob showed in adapting the course to meet very specific needs and of the huge amount of satisfaction he had taken from passing on his skills in that way. I decided at that stage to get in touch with Rob to see what advice he could offer me on how to get started.

After a brief exchange of phone calls and email messages, Rob agreed to rise to the challenge of teaching me to dive. Mark and I also wanted to be able to dive together eventually, so Rob agreed to teach Mark the skills he would need to be a handicapped dive partner. During a trip north, Rob visited our house so we could meet and discuss practical details of the training. An evening of his humour also assured us that we’d all get along during our trip away!

We arranged to go to Egypt during October, to the Red Sea resort of El Gouna. In the meantime, we made preparations for what turned into a very enjoyable and fulfilling week. 

For practicality I bought a two-piece wet suit, and to make it even easier to get on and off had extra zips put in, running from ankle to knee. A finishing touch was the plastic carrier bag over each arm, to make it easier to pull the wet suit sleeves up – one of Rob’s ‘special tips’! I had extra padding put into the seat area of the suit, to protect my skin and bony areas from the hard surfaces in the boat. Rob selected and supplied all the other necessary gear for me.

We met up at Gatwick and flew to El Gouna courtesy of Excel Airways to start training. All the necessary boarding and seating arrangements were made and carried out without any problem, the tour company even arranging private transfers between the airport at Hurghada and the hotel. El Gouna is a specially built resort on the Red Sea coast. just north of Hurghada, looking towards the southern end of the Sinai Peninsula. Not much more than a decade old, it has some excellent hotels and other facilities. We stayed in the very luxurious Movenpick Hotel, which was situated right on the shore. It has good accessible facilities for wheelchair users – admittedly these are mostly by accident rather than design – but it has large rooms, level paths and spacious surroundings.

The next day. Rob introduced us to the people at Dive Tribe, a dive centre located conveniently within the hotel complex. They arranged our dive package and provided us with tanks and weights. Wonderful people – special mention must go to Zeo whose enthusiasm and general joie de vivre was infectious – their willingness and enthusiasm to help was to prove invaluable throughout week. We spent the day in the pool, so that I could get used to being in the water again and so that Rob could assess my abilities and needs. We tried various ways to get into and out of the water, and looked particularly at buoyancy and attitude. Having this control in the water is fundamental and I found these skills the most difficult of all to master. 

The next day, we ventured out to sea for the first time. Dive Tribe put us on a boat called King, primarily because it had a relatively clear deck and a diving platform nice and close to the water. The boat was not really accessible, but getting me and the wheelchair on board was no problem because of the help and attention given to me by the Egyptian captain and his crew. Throughout the week it was their friendliness and good humour that, as much as anything else, made the holiday.
Now, I should say that this holiday might not suit everybody as a certain amount of inconvenience must be expected. Toilets are below deck, accessible only by fairly steep steps and there is no easy way to get any privacy on deck. The crew will however help you in any way they can to accommodate your needs, improvising as appropriate.

The conditions were great – the sea was calm and the water temperature was 28 degrees - lovely. Of the techniques practised in the pool, the easiest entry into the water was to be lowered into the water in just my wetsuit. Once in, I could float quite happily without additional support. With minimal assistance from my buddy, I could quite easily put on and secure my buoyancy jacket (BC) while lying on my back.

Because of past experience, I know we would have to descend slowly, carefully equalising (popping my ears) all the way down. Usually we would use a line since that gave me the best control before establishing neutral buoyancy and coming off the line at about 8 metres.

Obviously I can’t use normal fins for propulsion, though other disabled divers find them useful for stability, so I used a pair of webbed gloves to help with swimming. Without them progress would have been very slow and tiring. This was particularly the case at the times when the current was flowing – hard work going out but exhilarating on the way back! My first dive was 50 minutes of sheer enjoyment at seeing the wonderful diversity of life and experiencing a sense of freedom so different to being in my wheelchair. I thought I was making terrific progress even in these first few minutes, until I realised that Rob was holding me steady with my tank strap!

Rob had the option to teach me the IAHD open water course, but aimed if possible for the PADI open water certificate. While specially designed for disabled divers, the IAHD certificate is limited in what diving it would permit me to do. For example, I would have to dive with at least two buddies and would be limited to 12 meters depth. The PADI course, though more challenging for me, is also the more versatile qualification.

After that first dive, I found that getting back out of the water was similar to getting in, but in reverse. Off comes the BC, tank and regulator, then I faced Rob, put my arms around his neck and he carried me up the ladder and onto the boat. With the ever willing assistance of the crew, I was back in my chair and ready for lunch.

One thing I didn’t do on the first day, but learned through experience during the week, was that I should take off my wetsuit between dives. It is essential not to sit in a sodden wet suit for the two hours between dives - and though at first it seemed like a lot of work it really did get easier with practice.

During the afternoon dive, we completed some of the skills required for the course but mostly concentrated on getting the weighting and balance right. Initially we felt that ankle weights would be needed – lack of muscle mass means that my legs are buoyant – but we found them too heavy once we had descended. A single weight around my knees was the best compromise and enabled me to swim in more or less the right position.

The next day, we tried changing tanks. The large aluminum tank I first used was both too heavy and too long, making balance extremely difficult. I tended to roll onto my back and, like a tortoise, could not then get back upright. We then tried a steel tank, which was way too heavy, before settling on a smaller aluminum tank. This was ideal, even though I used my air up more quickly. I still managed 30 minutes per dive, and it was less strenuous work and, therefore, more enjoyable.
During the next few days, I continued practising the necessary skills, most of which I completed quite capably though some required a bit more thought and effort, given my lack of leg movement. 

Although it was hard work, things started to come together quickly. All the while Mark was picking up the skills he needed so by the end of the week had taken over from Rob as my buddy. Since I had already had some of this training in Australia, I did not need to repeat too much theory – I just needed to pass Rob my referral notes from Australia and my recently completed knowledge reviews. I could therefore concentrate on completing the practical skills so that by the end of the week, I had my PADI Open Water diver qualification. 

Mark completed his dive partner course and the final dive was pure pleasure!. Of course, the reason I wanted to dive in the first place was to experience and enjoy the underwater life – and that I did. There was an amazing variety of corals, whether as coral gardens or massive reefs, supporting a huge variety of life. We saw all sorts of fishes, all brightly coloured and all shapes and sizes. I saw a big moray eel, swimming between outcrops. Parrot fish eating coral, angel fish hiding in it, octopus imitating it. A big turtle, some brilliant blue spotted rays, a lion fish making its stately progress…and lots, lots more. We saw pods of dolphins, always a welcome sight, but as much as anything it is the little things, like the tiny little near-transparent shrimps, that really bring home how wondrous the undersea world really is. Each dive is a unique experience, always unpredictable, always new things to see.

What did I think of the week? It was hard work, and I felt quite anxious at times, mostly when I felt unable to control my movement. In the end, the sense of achievement gained from the experience far outweighs any doubts I might have had. I cannot but admire and respect the people, at the hotel, at Dive Tribe and on the boat for their cheerfulness and enthusiasm and for the way they treated and respected me, as just another diver wanting to have some fun. Most of all my achievement is down to Rob’s skills, attitude, dedication, and the simple fact that he is a great bloke to have around! We’re definitely going back to El Gouna for some more practice so if anyone is interested in sharing similar experiences or diving tips, I would love to hear from them.Write Gyl at  gylm@aol.com


Rob Read: .rob.read@easynet.co.uk
International Association of Handicapped Divers (IAHD): http://www.iahd.org/
Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI):  http://www.padi.com/
Crusader Travel: http://www.crusadertravel.com/ 
Movenpick: http://www.movenpick-hotels.com/hotels/default.asp?id=88
Dive Tribe: http://www.divetribe.com/

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