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Red Sea Tour - Part 1


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#1 Timmoranuk

Timmoranuk

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  • Location:Near NDAC, South Wales
  • Interests:Technical diving; open circuit and rebreather, U/W photography, topside photography, travel, aviation and sailing.

Posted 22 August 2009 - 09:44 AM

Sharm-El-Sheikh is one of my least favourite diving destinations. I find the town poorly developed, without charm, tacky and frequented by hoards of less than gracious, sun-seeking tourists being relentlessly pursued by pushy vendors who attempt to prise every Euro from their pockets. The diving can be unpleasant too.

Travco Marina is a zoo. Hundreds of day boats of dubious quality crowd the quays jostling for space. Each morning they load their cargos of recreational holiday divers and lifejacketted snorkellers. Twenty or more boats create floating ‘villages’ at each, once beautiful, dive site and continue with the above and below surface cacophony created by racing outboards, heavy diesel engines and two tone horns while they spew divers from their dive decks who continue the underwater carnage with their clumsy fins…

Fortunately, there is another way.

Insulated from the town and its unpleasantness by a direct transfer from the airport to the liveaboard, the M.Y. Juliet, we were underway before Travco descended into its daily bedlam. The itinerary was to take us far from the day boats and would include the wrecks of Abu Nuhas, the Thistlegorm, Ras Mohammed and Tiran. All were well worn paths for me.

The Juliet is a smaller liveaboard taking a maximum of 14 guests. British pairs and singletons and a Spanish couple made up the 12 guests for the week. I prefer this type of vessel to the newer and larger generation of Red Sea safari boats which can put 24 or more divers onto a site. It’s a very adequate vessel with en-suite cabins each accommodating two guests, an affable and attentive Egyptian crew, a couple of large RIB’s (ridged hull inflatables) as dive tenders, EAN32 and a competent cook. I booked with Oonas Divers, the Juliet’s UK agents, who over the years have provided me with many first class safaris on the Blue Planet fleet and land based tours at the Red Sea Diving Safari (RSDS) dive camps.

Our Egyptian dive guide for the week, Wael (waa-ell) knows his stuff and quickly got the measure of his guests. Missing the usual trashed check-dive sites like Ras Katy, Wael took us west of Ras Mohammed to dive ‘The Alternatives’. Visibility here is influenced by the generally poorer clarity common to the Gulf of Suez but it served its purpose for a check-dive. Once satisfied with his guest’s competence the Juliet set course for the wreck of the Dunraven. Wael took me to one side. “Tim, I think you are better diving by yourself so that you can take your time with your camera.” Now this was a dive guide I could relate too! So for the remainder for the safari, Wael handed me a ‘carte blanche’ to do my thing.

The ‘Dunraven’ is an upturned wreck and the weight of the hull has collapsed the superstructure. Swim throughs still exist and offer some photographic opportunities. In common with most of the wrecks and reefs we dived, the Juliet was often only boat on site. All credit for this goes to Wael for his careful planning and intimate knowledge of when and where other long range safari boats would be. With the Dunraven completed we then turned our attention to Abu Nuhas and the wrecks of the Carnatic, the Marcus and the Ghiannis D.

The Carnatic or ‘wine wreck’ struck the reef and sank with great loss of life. The lattice work of ribs and stays allows plenty of natural light to intrude into the wreck and provides excellent photo opportunities. I loitered in the bow section for most of the dive and only briefly took a look at the stern and the oversize propeller before making my ascent close to the reef. Wael had already sheparded his group back to the Juliet and kindly returned to the Carnatic to remind me of the elapsed time. He became a little concerned when he found no evidence of my bubbles streaming from the wreck. The poor chap was quite relieved when I crept up and tapped him on the shoulder…

Next on the agenda was the Marcus. In good condition this wreck offers an excellent opportunity for extensive penetration, which I was happy to capitalise on. I feel internal wreck shots really do need a model to create context and scale and my snaps are the poorer for my solo wanderings. In its depths I found the tunnel taking the propeller shaft from the engine room to the stern. Far too narrow to penetrate I had to content myself with lengthy exposures illuminated with twin Fisheye LED focus lights.

Our final dive at Abu Nuhas was on the Ghannis D with its much photographed and heavily listing stern. I took a tripod along in order to shoot HDRs which at the time of writing (on the flight home) have not been tone mapped. Not able to resist further delving into the guts of a wreck I wormed my way along companionways and down stairwells always at risk of losing spatial orientation in the heavily canting interior. A turtle greeted my eventual re-emergence.

The prevailing northerly winds diminished to a slight breeze and our passage north to the iconic Thistlegorm was made over glassy seas. This made good conditions for guests prone to ‘mal de mer’ but it was difficult for the crew to spot the reefs and habilis which can so easily claim a vessel.

Arriving just before dusk, our first dive on the Thistlegorm was to be a night dive, again evidencing Wael’s excellent planning as we were one of only three boats moored to the wreck. Unfortunately Wael cut his hand badly while securing the Juliet’s stern line but we were able to scrounge amongst the Juliet and the two adjacent boats, antibiotics, a tetanus inoculation, sutures and a doctor to do the sowing! Unfazed, Wael continued diving and infecting us with his extraordinary enthusiasm.

It was a rare privilege to be the only diver on the Thistlegorm at night. The Juliet’s stern line was attached to the bridge structure from where I swam to the bow and then into the two forward holds to view the familiar WWII military cargo. I checked both hold decks snapping as I finned in clear water undisturbed by processions of the guided dive groups which populate this wreck in daylight hours. I remembered Alex Mustard’s advice about shooting inside wrecks and had set my Z-240’s on long, high arms to cast their illumination further. The current was as gentle as I had ever known on this wreck and I was able to explore the exposed decks at will.

Conditions on the following morning’s dive were in contrast to those of the previous evening and I saw divers from another boat fluttering like flags in a gale on their boat’s mooring lines. My negative entry and fast hand over hand descent beat the current’s best efforts to pluck me from the security of the Juliet’s mooring. Once on the deck I finned hard against the flow to the bow where I dropped to the floor of the Red Sea some fifteen metres further below.

I wanted to recreate a set of photographs which I had taken some years ago looking up the anchor chain at the looming bow. The scarlet coral growths which had studded the chain were now sadly absent. Drifting with the powerful current along the port side I made my way towards the bomb damaged midships immediately aft of the bridge. The upturned bren gun carriers and ‘bomb’ are mixed with a tangle of wreckage in this section. Continuing aft I rounded the stern and dallied at the large propeller, continuing my snapping. Leaving the aft section I finned forward along the starboard side and ducked into the lee created by the massive explosion which sank this ship. With a decompression obligation imminent I took advantage of the sheltered conditions to make an easy ascent to the upper deck level and to while away the remaining duration of my seventy minute dive. Picking up the Juliet’s mooring, I met with the other guests who were pegged out like washing on a line. I took a quick turn around the mooring with my camera lanyard and in mid-water I hung at its extremity waiting my turn to make a safety stop.

I decided to make a proper penetration on the last of our three dives and I entered from the damaged midships. This was a good ploy as most dive guides do not lead their charges into these confined spaces so once again I was able to enjoy the space and solitude I love.

Arriving at Ras Mohammed our two dives here started at Anenome City with a drift across the blue to Shark Reef and Yolanda and finishing at Satellite Reef. Perhaps due to the unusually slack current, the summer agglomerations of batfish, snapper and barracuda had broken up so here there was little to fill the memory card with save the anemome fish and a couple of turtles. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph the clichés of the toilet porcelain which litter the remains of the wreck of the Yolanda. On the second dive we just missed a whale shark which showed briefly as the Juliet was maneuvering near Anenome City. By the time we had jumped from the dive deck and finned in its estimated direction, the animal had departed.

For the final two days of the safari we headed east into the Gulf of Aqaba and to the four reefs of Gordon, Woodhouse, Thomas and Jackson which are strung along the straights of Tiran. Tiran separates the Sinai from Saudi Arabia and its deep waters are home to powerful currents which can bring large pelagics. We settled on Jackson Reef where the depths around the wreck of the ‘Lara’ offer the best opportunity to experience schooling scalloped hammerheads at sunrise. They didn’t fail us on the two mornings we dived at 6 am but unfortunately the encounters were a little too distant to capture.

Later in each day we crossed the saddle, known as the ‘washing machine’, which connects the reefs of Jackson and Woodhouse. Whippy currents please me and these drifts didn’t disappoint. Flying along the ridge at speed, ducking around gorgonians is a thrilling experience and is one which I chose to do inverted. A hammerhead and grey reef shark gave me a fly-by adding to the exhilaration.

Unfortunately the proximity of Tiran to Travco Marina allows the hubbub and chaos of the day boat operations to be inflicted on these magnificent reefs. Wael selected dives too demanding for their clients and we continued to enjoy undisturbed diving of unparalleled quality.

We finished our week at Thomas Reef where ‘The Canyon’ beckons the brave or foolhardly. Wael and I appeared to fit either or both of these descriptions and we descended into its dark and cold depths. Twinned with 21% and 32% I took liberties with my PPO2 and narcosis and was first through the archway so that I could shoot Wael’s passage with the scant natural light behind him. The inevitable decompression obligations were far from onerous when one can fin along the reef, re-warming in water approaching 30 degrees celcius and gazing at hammerheads swimming below.

We enjoyed up to four dives each day over the six day safari which always included a night dive. On one of the dives after dark I fitted a pair of Fisheye FX LED focus lamps in place of my Z-240’s to a macro rig to try out constant illumination rather than strobe lit subjects. Frankly, I found the experience unrewarding as I had to push the ISO on my G9 into the ‘digital noise zone’ to use a workable shutter speed. Also the aperture needed to be much larger than my preferred f8, the G9’s smallest. Another downside I found to constant illumination is its attraction to plankton which quickly created a blizzard of backscatter. As a belt and braces I had fitted a YS-25 strobe onto a long (2 x 12” ULCS) forward reaching arm to tryout backlit shots of lion fish. Having given up on the dive’s first project I found the lions very co-operative and willing subjects and felt the technique has enough merit to develop further.

I always leave Egypt having enjoyed the company of old friends and with fresh memories of new good friends and wonderful shared experiences. On this occasion, my departure from Sharm airport late on Saturday evening was gilded with anticipation as I was due to return to Marsa Alam the following week with my son, CJ, to join the MY ‘Blue Pearl’ on a deep south safari to St. John’s Reef. But that, as they say, is another story…
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