Red Sea Diving (Egypt)

8/31/01 – 9/7/01
First time experience of the Red Sea on board the Lady M

Travel: Nightmare with Happy End
The basic plan to go to dive the Red Sea was born on the last trip when I learnt about the great tours that Tony Backhurst offers. From London including flight and boat and diving for 1500$, at a time when flights from New York to London could be had for mere 300$ sounded like a really good deal.

Well .. once I booked the trip it turned out that flights to London at that time were suddenly 800+ $$$ !! ooops. Plus the need to get from Heathrow to Gatwick and probably staying a night in London would all add up to total cost.
Dang, did I find myself smart when I found a flight going from La Guardia (instead of JFK, which is further away from Manhattan) to Gatwick (instead of Heathrow), which was 200$ cheaper and was overnight, so no additional hotel cost. The only catch, layover in Raleigh / Durham, NC. So, and this is then how my travel nightmare unfolded:

The good traveler that I am, I had a shuttle come to my house at noon, to be at the airport 2 hours before take off which was scheduled at 3:30 pm. Check in was the usual hassle with long lines, people coming late, but being allowed to jump in front of you, because their flight is next … That was over at around 2 PM .. I proceeded to the gate, found a plug for my laptop and watched some movies … then the first announcement: flight is delayed 20 minutes, crew is coming in late .. I talked to a crew person, ok, we can take 20 minutes …. but then: bad weather in Durham, departure now maybe at 4:30 !!! Tough chance to catch my connecting flight … I saw myself either a) never arriving in London, b) arriving in London missing my charter flight c) arriving in London, but my dive gear is still in Durham d) missing my boat in Hurghada e) being stuck on a liveaboard without my divegear …

Anyhoo … as at 4:30 nothing has happened yet, I went back to the counter people and I must have looked very very desperate. While that nice man said before that he can do nothing else but American Eagle flights, he suddenly had a seat for me on a British Airways flight out of JFK … at 6:15 PM .. ok .. it was 4:40 .. it took him and a nice female colleague (I cannot thank both of them enough) 15 minutes to make the computer understand what they wanted .. then they had to get my luggage out of the plane … and then I had to line up again to get a friggin cab … and of course I got a cab driver who was about 200 years old and just every car and wheelchair passed us .. and after 5PM the traffic from La Guardia to JFK is just plain fun ..

We finally arrived at 5:50 and I just ran to the BA counter where some very confused people looked at my AA ticket … but after 5 minutes we go that sorted out .. and off I was to my gate .. nearly strangulating myself on my headphones while getting my backpack off for inspection .. .. FINALLY I was in a direct plane to London Gatwick and to heal my wounds, my seat turned out to be a leftover in Business Class.

The flight felt surprisingly short, arrival in London was a snap and getting from Gatwick north to south was easy, too … but then again the pain of the never ending check-in line … can someone please invent something more efficient? I don’t mind waiting, but standing in a line, moving every 3 minutes is wasted time, you can’t read, relax or do anything meaningful.

And then one funny thing I have not encountered yet, the check in lady needed to weigh my backpack and was not happy about the 7.6 kilos it showed … she asked what I could take out, i said just a couple of books, she then wanted me to take my laptop out and put it in a plastic bag she gave me !!! WTF ??? Now I was wondering if she either wanted to now check my backpack and leave me the laptop in a bag or check the unprotected computer … well .. turns out I can keep everything on me, but no item may weigh more than 5 kilo .. DUH !!! .. well .. guess how quickly I put the iBook back into padded protective space :)

The charter with Monarch (never heard of them before) was a true cattle transport. Gladly it was only 90% full and I had a free seat next to me, and I could doze off a bit. They came around with their drink cart quite often, simply because you had to pay for drinks … including softdrinks and water !!! So you better have some British money on you or you are thirsty for the 5 hours of the flight!

Landing in Hurghada was smooth. Long line at the passport check, since for 15 minutes no one was there to check the passports. Once out in the open, people tried to get me a trolley (for 2 GBP), one guy wanted to keep my pen, and at least 3 other tried to touch my divebag briefly and then ask for “bakshish” (money).
A bus brought us to the Marina and from there a small inflatable dingie got us to the Lady M.

Accommodations: It’s a small world after all
The boat is a bit smaller than the Peter Hughes boats I have been on, but a similar setup. I shared one of two cabins which were located on the same level with the divedeck. Nice about this cabin: fresh air circulation since door opens to the outside (but I hear it can be very hot in those cabins, AC is not switched on over the day).

The Salon is nicely done and all meals are self serve, so everybody is tripping over each other in a happy chaos to get food (or to get tea / toast, which was located in one small niche together). The first dinner was quite nice: Yummy pieces of beef, rice, spinach and a salad. And so continued the week. Rice and noodles abound, but in very different, tasty variations. Chicken, Beef and very very tasty local fish. Salad with every meal. The food may not have had fancy names like “filet mignon” or “lobster”, but tastewise it was fantastic and plenty. For me the highlight of the trip.

But back to the boat itself: No real camera table or air nozzle to dry your equipment. The one table that was there had to be shared with coffee cups, banana peels and full ashtrays. Two way too small rinsetanks for equipment AND cameras. The divedeck was pretty crammed when all divers tried to get ready. Getting off and on the diveplatform was nice’n easy.

The upper levels offered ample space in the sun and in the shade to enjoy the 3 hour surface intervalls. The 2 coolers on the sundeck were always filled with free 1.5 liter water bottles (while sodas cost 1$ and beer was 3$)

The Diving:
I was promised from fellow divers, who called Caribbean diving “boring”, that Red Sea diving was leagues better. And so I was a bit disappointed that it was pretty much the same nice diving I am used to from places like Grand Turk: Great sheer walls with lots of soft and hard corals, viz ranging from 50 to often exceeding 100ft. Lots of fishlife around, dominated by cute orange anthias doing their underwater ballet.

As to the “promised” sharks, hammerheads and mantas everywhere and in abundance, well .. I spotted 2 hammerheads in the distance, and 2 other sharks, one may have been a thresher, but too far away. I got to see quite some free swimming morays, blue spotted rays, napoleon wrasses and on one of the last dives we encountered an old green turtle feeding on soft corals (so THAT is what is destroying the reef !!!). I hear that sightings of the big stuff are limited to April – June!!! Someone should have told me.

The majority of the dives started with a negative entry from the dingie (which they call RIPs or Zodiaks) and you had to feel comfortable to do this while holding your camera if you wanted to take it with you, since our very skilled dingie skipper had to keep the boat in position (in sometimes pretty rough waves) and could not focus on handing out cameras. Some pick ups were dingie rides too. Oh, the water temperature was soothing 82F most of the time and I could wear my shorty on all dives. As to the divesites:

Day 1: Gota Abu Ramada and Panorama Reef / Start Day
Pleasant shallow dives to start the week with, ideal for divers who have been out of the water for a while. I saw 2 crocodile fish which I have never seen before, schools of banded butterfly fish, a free swimming moray and lionfish.

Day 2: Little Brother / Shark Day
The brothers are 2 tiny islands smack in the middle of nowhere and seem to be the only hang out points for the local fish population. The current brings lots of nutrients which then again nurtures the corals thus attracts a lot of little fish which then are eaten by the sharks. A ‘circle of life’ thing. Here we had the most shark sightings, in my case one hammerhead and 2 others. Some saw more (maybe the same?) Using the dingies and taking advantage of the changing current, we could explore all 3 sides of little brother.

Day 3: Big Brother / Wreck Day
Big brother has 2 wrecks to explore, the first, Aida II, is home to a bunch of glass fish. The second, the Numidia starts shallower but goes deeper and on the way back we could see the Aida again. On the 3rd dive here we explored the south plateau, and a trick here, to get around the corner, is to dive under the current at around 120 ft and look for sharks in the thermocline. Then you get up and float with the current towards your fellow divers who still wonder how you get so far into the current.

Day 4: Daedalus / Deep day
Another round rock/reef with a lighthouse on top of it. To get to the thermocline where we hoped to find big stuff, we had to go quite deep .. but nothing was there, although I spotted some wreck leftovers. On the second dive I spotted a massive colony of anemones and clown fish whisking around in them. The last dive of the day was then dominated by large triggerfish.

Day 5: Elphinstone and Mangrove Bay
Two dives at Elphinstone (which unlike the mini islands before does not even have a topside): one exploring the north plateau and the other the south plateau, which has a very sweet swim through arch at 180ft (oops) with a rectangular rock which some people believe to be an old sarcophagus (and I have to admit, it looks very much like there is a lid on top of something). But due to the depth we had not enough time to explore and our dive master made sure that we all behaved. Mangrove Bay felt a bit like “where can we drop them on the way for a 3rd dive”. I spotted 7 lionfish getting ready for their nightly feeding frenzy and a nicely colored pajama slug.

Day 6: Small Giftun Island / Last Day
After having 2 nights of cruising north / against the waves, we were finally be back close to Hurghada and the divesite was filled with things to put on video: Free swimming morays, the above mentioned eating turtle and plenty more. 2 very happy dives to end the week with.
Tips for this trip:
– come in April, May or June
– bring your own beach towel
– bring duty free booze if you want drinks
– bring lots of reading materials, there will be a lot of time since it is only 3 dives a day
– have some British and Egyptian money on you
– be comfortable with drift diving, negative entries and strong currents. This trip is not for newbies.
– be aware that the boat is travelling about 400 nautical miles, half of that from south to north, which can be very very choppy for a long time. If you get seasick easily, take medication in advance or you will not be very happy.

well.. now to the rants…
Ok .. you want a list? where to start?
The divedeck felt too small for 16 people, there was not enough place for camera equipment, not enough outlets at the charging station. Rinsetanks way too small and water was only exchanged after we complained that it turned murky. No divedeck towels / camera towels (in fact, I had one towel for the whole week. In the end it was tricky to get that dry. The captain kindly gave me a fresh one on the last day, after he heard me complaining. But who wants to shower anyway when there is no hot water?).

What really annoyed me was the constant smoking everywhere on the boat as long as it was outside, which included the dive deck and the dive platform, an example set by the crew.
The initial briefing felt disorganized and a lot of safety details where left out (e.g. what is the firealarm and what to do? What is the diver recall signal?). The room assignment was on a “run for it” basis.

I got bitched at right after the first dive for venturing too far away from my buddy (hey, he does photo, I do video), that set the mood pretty much for the whole trip. The final rinsing, cleaning, drying of equipment was a total chaos, and we could not even use the sundeck to lay out our stuff to dry, since this was already cleaned for the next group.

Oh, and charging 2% fee for using your credit card when paying for the trip is just a typical European nuisance. And on a personal note: no diet coke! That is the only thing I really need in the morning! But that’s just wacky ol’ me.

To sum it up:
While not a complete waste of money, I could come up easily with five trips I’d rather repeat than this one. It should be made very clear that the interesting Season seems to be April to June. Also the non-night dive policy (several reasons where given: a) not allowed at those divesites, b) we need to travel at night) was a big bummer and should have been more clearly stated when advertizing this trip. So we got only 17 dive options for the whole week (on Peter Hughes boats it is usually 27).

The crew, though very nice, could not reach the service standard I got used to from crews I encountered in the Caribbean. In fact I have never seen any crew with more idle time on any boat I have been on. Only the captain Ahmed seemed to be working 24/7. The divemaster was a peculiar character: on the one hand saying that she is not the big mama who has to monitor your diving, under water she did exactly that, lecturing about depth and spot checking if you still know where your buddy is. Her knowledge of the english language prompted some funny misunderstandings (one guest asked about taking the first stage of after each dive, and in response she explained the showers on the divedecks with a lot of gestures to illustrate that) and her arrangement of buddy teams / group dives was confusing at times (e.g. the group that went down to the arch fell apart shortly after when she stayed behind to keep monitoring people, and I got again bitched at for diving to 180ft without a buddy?!?!?).

Would I do this trip again? Maybe in a couple of years, after I have explored all the other places that are still on my list, at the right season, when the service standard may have caught up a bit.

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