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Red Sea Tour - Part 2


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#1 Timmoranuk

Timmoranuk

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Posted 22 August 2009 - 09:47 AM

The alarm on my D9 chimed at 4:00am. A quick shower and coffee sufficed before making the short drive to the bus terminal at London Heathrow. Flights to Marsa Alam depart from London Gatwick but I find it convenient to use the shuttle bus service which operates between the two London airports. My son was keen to arrive at Gatwick as his favourite restaurant, ‘Yo Sushi’, has a branch at the north terminal. Good grief! Sushi at 7:00 am..?

The tedium of charter flights was accentuated for me by the recency of my travel to and from Sharm El Sheikh. The routine of unpacking, dumping the photos, repacking and flinging myself and my son into another cattle truck, AKA a Boeing 757, was tiresome. Our two week itinerary was to include an overnight stop at the Marina Lodge hotel at Port Ghalib followed by a day with Emperor Divers diving the local reefs around Marsa Alam. The plan was to phone Pia, our dive guide, when our day boat berthed that evening and to transfer by RIB from the hotel to the M.Y. ‘Blue Pearl’.

Pia and I know each other well. I’ve safaried with her many times and consider her to be one of the finest dives guides in Egypt.. The ‘Pearl is a little larger than the Juliet and accommodates a few more guests but not as many as the new generation of ‘super safari boats’ resplendent with their hot tubs. Our destination was to be St. Johns, south of Ras Banas and not far from Sudan. St. Johns is a group of reefs and habilis separated by expanses of current rich, deep water.This was to be my eleven year old son’s first liveaboard experience although CJ is a Red Sea veteran having already experienced diving at the Red Sea Diving Safari camps at Marsa Shagra and Wadi Lahami in previous years. News of tiger shark sightings at Elphinstone tickled our anticipation…

It was to be a full-on week for CJ. His first liveaboard, wetting his new camera system in clear, tropical waters, using his newly acquired nitrox ticket and working towards his Master Scuba Diver certification. Also the Shark Trust’s ‘Sharks in Focus’ and Visions in the Sea were two important UK photo competitions which were due to close in September and CJ was keen to fill his memory cards with potential entries.

We had a day to fill before joining the ‘Pearl and had booked a couple of dives with Emperor Divers at the Marina Lodge hotel at Port Ghalib. Maybe its me but I found their over rehearsed spiel, corporate style and ‘sausage factory’ diving morer than a little tiresome and reminiscent of a franchise operation. I do accept that many may be reassured by this but in future I’ll steer clear of diving’s version of McDonalds. It’s a pity that the dive site we were taken to didn’t serve to compensate.

Having thankfully made our transfer to the ‘Pearl, we woke early to enable harbour officials to complete their bureaucratic process and issue the boat with a permit to leave Port Ghalib. An hour and a half steam south with a gentle following sea put the ‘Pearl on Abu Dabab for a check dive. We were a compliment of twenty European and British divers of mixed experience and some were enjoying their first liveaboard experience. Both CJ and I know Abu Dabab well from our sorties with Red Sea Diving Safari so we hung back and allowed the check dive melee to disperse before making our entry and a gentle tour around the wreck of the liveaboard ‘Heaven’ followed by the impressive hard coral formations which extend along the northern escarpment. There are some caves hidden in the coral blocks but we chose to linger outside and review CJ’s surface marker buoy skills which he was going to need later. Our next dive was to be at Sha’ab Sharm, some 2 hours further south.

We descended into a nice current which swept us, reef left, along a vertical wall past soft corals and gorgonians. At sunset, CJ and I made another dive on Sha’ab Sharm and with dive lights fixed to our camera trays we loitered between 10 and 12 metres on the reef adjacent to boat. Others went on a grand tour, covering lots of ground but seeing little. We snapped away at anemome fish, feather stars, sleeping parrot fish and a gorgeous green anemone. We were last out of the water…

Overnight the ‘Pearl made the ten hour passage to Habili Ali at St. John’s. A ‘habili’ is a reef which does not quite break the surface. This reef rises from the depths and is a reliable venue for grey reef shark encounters. CJ was not disappointed! Others in the group found more men in grey suits and a thresher shark at the limit of the 30 – 40 metre visibility. Unfortunately we were unable to stay for a repeat dive as the prevailing northerly wind was freshening and we sought a lee at Big Gota, thirty minutes steam away.

Big Gota is where the tragic Longimanus attack occurred in June and, wisely, snorkeling is now not permitted at sites where Oceanics may occur. CJ and I planned to conduct our dive at Big Gota away from the group and armed with a sound knowledge of how to conduct ourselves in the presence of Longimanus, we jumped from the dive deck.

The group had been infected with ‘Manta Fever’ as one had been spotted on the surface 50 metres from the boat. I gave up chasing shadows a long time ago and have always figured that best way to not see something is to be part of a large group. As CJ and I pulled our way to the reef using a surface rope a large Napoleon Wrasse closely inspected our progress before we descended twenty metres to where Soldier Fish and Snapper schools patrolled the table corals. We herded the fish towards each other’s cameras and caught some pleasing images. CJ’s gas consumption was improving with the repetitive diving and once again, we were the last to leave the water.

Aladin (allah-deen), our second dive guide, planned a peak performance buoyancy course for CJ. For a day job he instructs TDI technical courses and occasionally partners Pia on a safari. During a surface interval I was intrigued to see a contraption of string, weights and empty water bottles taking shape and I surmised that all would probably become clear. At Aruk Tutu CJ hovered in every conceivable attitude with his nose an inch or two from a tethered bottle. He glided though hoops, squares and triangles and then passed a golf ball from fin to fin and to and from Aladin. Great stuff and the golf ball idea made buoyancy control instinctive, intuitive and fun.

We dived again at Aruk Tutu after dark. Keeping away from the lights of the group who were exploring the pinnacles, we settled on the small coral blocks and found moray (one particularly feisty specimen had a predilection for my fingers) and banded cleaner shrimp.

The engines fired up at 5:30 am and we motored to Habili Gafar to find a couple of safari boats already in residence. Pia rethought the dive and we jumped off the dive deck into a powerful surface current at Small Gota. As is our ‘style’ CJ and I were last in by more than five minutes. We were alone over the drop-off and I took the outside slot keeping a watch on the blue for pelagics without success. Half way out our solitude was disturbed as we met the returning group. Later we arrived at St. John’s cave reef where CJ partnered with Aladin to complete his buoyancy course and I was left to wander alone and indulge myself in some lengthy exposures of the wonderful light streaming into the caverns. I bumped into CJ who couldn’t resist showing off his honed skills with that golf ball!

A five hour voyage north put us on the Fury Shoal. The Fury is an extensive and intricate reef system north of Ras Banas and only available to liveaboard divers and those journeying on fast zodiacs from the dive camp at Wadi Lahami. We settled on Sataya or ‘Dolphin Reef’ for an afternoon and night dive and elected to stay in the lagoon while the others headed for the drop-off. We made the wrong choice and the group returned with tales of a Tiger shark… But all was not lost for us in the lagoon and we played with a trio of Napoleon Wrasse for most of our dive. Later, CJ and I made a dusk dive and found a pack of hunting lion fish eager to capitalize on the illumination cast by our focus lights and they gorged themselves on transfixed Cardinalfish.

Sha’ab Maksour provided the site for our next morning dive. The southern plateau is studded with macro opportunities and around the pinnacle a photogenic moray and cleaner wrasse kept CJ and I occupied for much of the dive. We then headed for Abu Galawa and the wreck of the tug boat ‘Tien Tsien’. I’d taken CJ to the Tien Tsien last year when he penetrated to the engine room and he was keen to delve into it again. We rigged for wide-angle and included focus lights to show us the way in its dimly lit interior. We two took a RIB ride and made our entry directly over the tug. Disapprovingly, we found the guests of at least one other liveaboard already in residence but knowing that none were likely to venture into the confined and claustrophobic interior, I lead the way. My 6’2” frame is not suited to this wreck and I had to contort myself and disentangle my hoses to negotiate the narrow companionways and stairwells - tricky with a camera rig. CJ followed and joined me in the engine room having made easier progress than his Old Man. We made a complete tour of this familiar wreck and under the hull in the swim through we found a large moray before checking the small cave in the reef next to the bow. And then on to Sha’ab Sheleniat.

Freshening northerlies made for a lumpy passage to Sheleniat and we arrived around 5:00 pm. Today we had to content ourselves with only three dives as we needed to make a lengthy voyage to an anchorage at Abu Dabab which was to put us within striking range of Elphinstone the following morning. Sheleniat has a lovely hard coral garden in pristine condition. A swift current through the main channel had CJ and I ducking into one of the side channels and finding an alternative route back to the ‘Pearl on the compass bearing I’d taken earlier.

We arrived at Elphinstone at daybreak and planned to dive after the 6:00 am speedboat shuttle from Marsa Shagra when there would be fewer divers in the water. Pia and Aladin took two groups to the north plateau to spot the hammerheads at depth. CJ and followed in our own private RIB and entered at the far end of the east wall for a long drift dive with the morning light on the reef. We kept a sharp look out for the Tigers or an out of season Oceanic without any luck. The dive camp at Marsa Shagra informed us that they have identified more than five resident tigers at Elphinstone and ‘Pearl’s group returned having spotted a single Hammerhead and a Tiger at distance. We were moored on the south plateau and soon a pack of Longimanus were circling the ‘Pearl, maybe six or eight sizable sharks and their halo of accompanying pilot fish. We quickly abandoned our plan to drift the west wall and stepped from the dive deck into shark soup.

Half a dozen liveaboards were moored close to the ‘Pearl and most had divers in the water. It was busy under the boats. There was a moderate current from the north and I correctly figured that the Oceanics would be circling to approach from down current. CJ and I drifted 100 metres into the blue and very soon the first pair gave us a fly-by. With each pass the sharks became bolder until it was possible touch a pectoral or flank. One Longimanus took a fancy to CJ’s black fins and nibbled on one as he calmly photographed the shark before giving it a discouraging tap. After an hour we struck out northwards and brought the boats and their divers back into sight. Clackerty, clackerty clack went their shakers each time a Longimanus appeared at the extremity of their vision. Is it any wonder that our encounters were more frequent, closer and more engaging? CJ’s gas in his single 10 litre was running low so I saw him safely back to the steps and passed his camera up. Then I made use of my remaining gas to hang under the ‘Pearl and win another couple of close passes.

In the afternoon we took a RIB ride to the north end of Elphinstone’s west wall and made a negative entry into a typical conveyor belt current. With hardly a fin stroke and some twenty five minutes later we were spat out into the relative calm of the south plateau and the welcoming Longimanus. During our short evening passage to Sha’ab Shouna all the guests of the ‘Pearl agreed that Elphinstone delivered on its reputation as being the premier dive site of the Marsa Alam area. I had hoped to have encountered the reef’s Tigers but hey, that’ll have to wait for another day. So we pressed on to the penultimate dive site on this southern Red Sea safari.

Sunset greeted us at the calm, shallow moorings at Sha’ab Shounaand for the first time since leaving Port Ghalib the lights of ‘civilization’ appeared on the horizon. In complete contrast to the high energy dives at Elphinstone earlier that day, Sha’ab Shouna offered a multitude of little critters to discover. For the first time in hundreds of dives I left my camera behind and we mounted our Fisheye focus lamps onto trigger grips and found tiny peppered morays, minute scorpionfish, little coral crabs, finger length pipe fish and CJ thrilled to see a tiny damselfish no bigger than his little fingernail. The following morning we woke to dive the sea grass and to hunt turtles and, maybe, a dugong.

We struck out away from the group, steering west up the gentle incline of sea grass until we had reduced our depth to twelve metres. Picking up a northerly heading we scanned the sea grass and saw only a solitary Titan Triggerfish until we happened on small coral block measuring no more than a square which was absolutely brimming with life. A crevice crammed with peppered moray, banded cleaner shrimps, more scorpion fish and the tiniest pair of almost transparent juvenile long fin lion fish, and we had taken our wide angle glass!

Our final dive was at Umm Ruis, another sea grass ‘plain’. We searched for three quarters of and hour for dugong, turtle and rays but had to content ourselves with more coral blocks and their inhabitant macro life.

Our safari came to a close and unlike the other guests who were packing for the return flight, CJ and I stuffed our wet kit into a couple of trash bags and waited for our 4:00 pm transfer to Wadi Lahami and week on the Fury Shoal.
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