November 18th - 25th 2015.
Sand, sea ... and sharks !
Wednesday 18th November.
As sure as the swallow flies South for the winter, myself and my mate, Jonathan, also head South each November as regular as clock work. We fly down to the Red Sea for a winter break, spending our week out on the ocean, miles from land, SCUBA diving.
We have been coming to Egypt for many years, each time travelling to a different location within the Red Sea. This year we are heading ‘Deep South’ which we last dove four years ago, both agreeing this was our favourite location to come too.
With the recent terrorist attack of a Russian airline, and the subsequent cancellation of any flights going into the popular resort of Sharm El Sheik from the UK and the rest of Europe, we were thankfully scheduled to fly into Marsa Alam, which is in the ‘Deep South’ of Egypt.
It was an early start, storm ‘Barney’ had been rattling the roof rafters of my poor old cottage all night so by the time I had managed to get too sleep, it was 4.00AM and my alarm was going off. I picked Jonathan up at 5.00 and we made the laborious drive around the M25, down to Gatwick. It was early enough to miss the unpredictable chaos of the motorway and luckily, we were checked in, sitting in Jamie Oliver's restaurant in the departure lounge having breakfast by 8.00am. Wonderful !
Not so wonderful, we were then crammed onto our flight like battery hens, the seats were minuscule size, taking off at 10.20, just 10 minutes over schedule. Five hours later we arrive into Marsa Alam, local time of 17.20, the sun was just setting and it was a pleasant 25 degrees. A slow trip through customs for our visas to be stamped (one lone customs official to check our entire flights documents one by one) and we then had a short drive by bus to Port Ghalib, where our dedicated dive boat was moored … Hurricane !.
Hurricane ! Our home for the next week.
We are thankfully here. We quickly set up our dive kit on the dive deck, fill in a few legalities of diving documents and then a bite to eat and a beer before heading to our cabins for 22.30. We have our only lay in tomorrow, we dive at 10.00.
Thursday November 19th 2015
Unsurprisingly for Egypt, Port Ghalib was already bathed in warm bright sunshine when I woke up. A quick shower and I headed up to the mid deck to start preparing my camera gear for the day.
We departed Port Ghalib at around 9.00 AM, we had an extended diving brief at 9.30 which lasted 20 minutes, by which time we had arrived at our first dive site, El Shona. The first dive of any dive boat is a ‘check dive’. It's the first opportunity to get into the water and make sure everything works before we are too far out at sea.
Jon and I get kitted up and jump off the back of boat into the warm ocean, lovely! We dropped down to 20 metres onto a white sandy sea floor and start investigating the reef. We didn't really have high expectations for this dive as it was in reality, an equipment checking exercise, but it was nice to be back in the water and starting a weeks diving adventure.
There seemed to be lots of Blue Spotted Stingrays on this dive, which although are quite common in the Red Sea, it's always good to see plentiful numbers. They are a little shy and can be easily spooked which usually involves them quickly darting off a short distance to find another coral block to hide under.
I usually approach these rays head on and very low to the sand so I am at the same level and breathing really slowly. This way, more often than not they will allow you to get quite close, sometimes within inches.
Face to face with a Blue-spotted Stingray.
One of my favourite things to spot is the classic clownfish. Usually they are spotted as they rise up a few feet above an anemone, hanging in the current. When the clownfish spots you approaching it quickly retreats into the anemone, hiding away inside the stinging tentacles that provides protection and a home for the fish.
A shy Clownfish peers out of its protective anemone to see if I have gone.
They can be a little tricky to photograph as they constantly move, quick jerky movements darting in and out of the anemone, you are not quite sure where it is going to reappear so you can spend a while before you capture a nice shot.
Sometimes I have spent 30 minutes hovering above an anemone just trying to get ‘that one shot’ … Usually Jon goes off and continues the dive on his own and comes back at the end of the dive and I am still in the same spot still trying to get my image.
After 45 minutes of our check dive, everything seem to be working well so we returned back to the boat.
A quick spot of lunch and an hours sunbathing whilst the boat moved further out to sea and the crew refilled our tanks with gas for our next dive.
Dive 2 would be at Abu Abdad, two large pinnacles of coral rising from the sea floor reaching to just below the surface of the ocean.
We are first in, a huge Napoleon fish casually passes by as we descend into the blue. We head out past the pinnacles to some huge blocks of corals, it's amazing how big these formations are.
Huge pinnacles of coral rise up from the ocean floor like skyscrapers.
Jonathan found an entrance to a small cave like structure, so we went into explore. Inside was like a cathedral, quite incredible with the bright sunlight of the Egyptian sun piercing through the cracks of the cave above us.
Mother natures giant spotlight shining down and showing us a path to follow. We explored the cave and found our way out back onto the reef as we slowly made our way back to our boat.
Mother Nature's spotlight illuminates our way into a cavern.
We had been diving for 65 minutes and the time had gone quickly.
The final dive of today was a night dive a little further up the reef. We waited for the sun to drop below the horizon and for the ocean to become inky black before we got back into the water.
Night diving is usually the time the hunters come out, moray eels swim freely looking for unsuspecting fish to prey upon. Lionfish spread out their feathery toxic spines trying to corner its prey before striking lightening quick with its extended jaw.
Jon had brought with him an ultraviolet torch (known as ‘black light’) which was new to both of us, we was going to give this a try tonight. It shows up the coral in florescent light, it was amazing to see the reaction this light had on the coral, it was a whole new perspective to night diving.
Disco night on the night dive.
The glow of coral from 'Black Light'.
Some of the hard corals would light up illuminous green under the black light, and others would absorb the light showing up a deep purple, fascinating to watch.
The night dive was only scheduled to last 45 minutes, but it was almost an hour before we returned to the boat.
A welcomed shower and into dry clothes for dinner. The boat would be making an 8 hour journey during the night, we are heading out to open ocean. Tomorrow, it's a 5.00 AM start, we are going looking for sharks !.
Friday November 20th 2015.
This morning we are up before the sun and we are sitting in a dive brief at 5.30.
We have travelled down to our next dive location over night, Daedalus. A large circular reef with a big deep drop all around the shallow reef that goes down thousands of feet to the sea floor. In the middle of the reef is a lighthouse that is manned by the Egyptian military.
We dived here a couple of years ago and were allowed to the top of the lighthouse which gave wonderful views of the reef below.
The dive brief goes through the next dive that is planned and once over we head out to the dive deck to get kitted up. The sun is just showing above the watery horizon, it will only be minutes before it is high in the sky and blazing down upon us.
We depart our dive boat in ‘zodiacs’ and head around to the back of the reef, the plan is to look for Hammerhead sharks. A backwards roll from the Zodiac and we are into the blue.
Hammerheads are usually found at depth only, they are a very skittish animal and you have to let them approach you, rather than you go to the animal. We are in open ocean which can be a little disorienting when you do not have any physical landmark to visualise, you are just drifting in deep blue water.
We dive down to 38 metres and hang in the water and wait, we wouldn't be able to stay too long at this depth due to the build up of Nitrogen in our body. We are breathing a gas called Nitrox which has a higher percentage of Oxygen added, usually 32% as opposed to the standard 21% you are breathing whilst reading this. This helps to reduce the Nitrogen build up in our bodies which gives us longer underwater.
Unmistakable shape of a Hammerhead shark comes up from the depths below us.
After 20 minutes, I saw a Hammerhead come up from the darkness below, it was cautious as we expected, it made a swim past, not quite close enough but I managed to get a few shots of it as it went back into deeper water. It clearly had no intention of coming to check us out for a closer look.
Jon and I headed up to 20 metres and swam across to the reef that encircled the lighthouse above us. The reef is really stunning, lots of lovely hard and soft corals, waves of anthias (goldfish) in their thousands darting about in synchronised movement in the current.
In the blue ... exploring the reef at Deadalus.
We finished the dive off following a hawksbill turtle around the reef, watching it amble along the walls of coral feeding as it went.
A Hawksbill turtle shares the same ocean current as we drift along the reef.
Back on the boat for breakfast, completed some adjustments to the camera and before we knew it, we were back on the zodiac heading back out to see if we can have a another go at spotting hammerheads.
We were out of luck this time, its always a chance encounter with the odds stacked against us generally but it's always worth going down into deeper water to have a look.
Anthias (Goldfish) sweep up from the reef in waves.
After spending some time in deeper water we came up shallow to finish the dive exploring the reef for 40 minutes, which is always really nice and relaxing to spend your time.
We grabbed a few rays of sunshine on the top deck of the boat, making the most of the winter sun. We had heard that winter had arrived back home which made you feel thankful we were sitting in the warm sunshine.
Our next dive was scheduled for 3PM, just before an Oceanic Whitetip shark had been seen from the top of our boat, these sharks are my favourite of all.
Well known to be very inquisitive, Oceanic Whitetips are open ocean sharks, nomads that cruise the ocean with huge pectoral fins. They can be a little intimidating if you have never dived with them before and can be a little ‘boisterous’.
If you just be aware that they are a wild animal and treat them with the due respect that you would with any large predator, they are simply exhilarating to be in the water with. Jonathan and I decided to get into the water and to hang at 5 metres to see if we could get the shark to come into us.
When we first dived in, the shark was already here, but it didn't stay and we just caught the sight of its tail disappearing into the blueness. Damn!
We stayed hovering in the water for another 20 minutes when Jon pointed behind me. Oceanics are known to be a little crafty and tend to like the element of surprise in their approach. I watched it coming head-on into my camera, it showed no fear of us and approached face on, all the time swimming straight at me, coming in closer and closer, finally turning within just a few inches of my wide angled dome of my camera.
You have to hold your nerve and face it head on, it's like a game of chicken who will look away first and you have to make sure the shark turns away from you, and not the other way around. No denying your heart quickens pace, but it's always thrilling to see such a beautiful creature so up close and personal. We had hoped it would turn and come in to check us out for a second look, but again it vanished as quickly as it arrived, back into the blue.
Beautiful ! An Oceanic White-tip comes to check us out.
After 68 minutes, the light is fading so we call it a day and head out of the water as the sun is setting.
This evening we have another long boat journey, a 14 hour sail South to Rocky Island … we hear that 4 Tiger sharks have been spotted hanging around down there ! So tomorrow, we plan to go hunting Tigers, fingers crossed.
The sun sets on a great days diving.
Saturday 21st November 2015.
We have arrived at Rocky Island over night. Rocky Island is aptly named as it just a long rock that sticks out of the ocean, that has no distinguishing features. Nothing on the rock, no vegetation, nothing !
Rocky Island, nothing happening on top, but serious action below !
It's an early start again, we are up before the sun and having our usual diving brief on the mid deck whilst trying to wake ourselves up with coffee.
We have been told that Rocky Island over the last few weeks has been a focus point of an exceptionally vast amount of sharks. In fact, it's been the best time to dive here in more than a decade, so of course, we are itching to get into the water.
Now, as a diver that loves sharks, especially Oceanic Whitetips, then when you look over the side of the boat and see them already circling the dive deck, then it's Christmas come early.
Christmas has come early ... sharks are here and circle our dive deck !
Jon and I are the first in the water, straight away I spot two Oceanic Whitetips under the hull of our boat.
We head over to reef that surrounds Rocky island, and it's a really beautiful reef, packed with gorgeous hard and soft corals of every colour.
For Jon and I we are concentrating on the sharks, as they seem more than a little interested in us. We come of the reef and swim a little out into the blue, this is the invitation that Oceanic Whitetips like to come right in.
Inquisitive and a some-what boisterous, you have to watch 360 degrees.
We have four quite large sharks circling us, some approaching quickly, almost charging in and then coming into the camera within just a few inches, again we are into the stare off with them, but it's a little more trickier this time as we have 4 of them to monitor.
It's hard not to feel your heart beating at times when you have these big ocean predators circling you in deep blue water. You really have to be on watch 360 degrees as the sharks will come in from behind you given half the chance.
Coming in from every angle, thrilling and heart pumping diving.
It is always an amazing privilege and experience to be able to get so up close and personal with these incredible animals, I always feel very lucky when I am in their company.
After each dive, it is required to send an SMB to the surface (a Surface Marker Bouy which is inflated below the water like a balloon and sent to the surface to show the boat crew above where in the water you are going to surface).
Then from this you are required to complete a safety stop before surfacing, which requires levelling at 5 metres depth for 3 minutes. Of course the sharks love this, Jonners and I sitting in the blue, shallow and unable to do much, Jon looking one way watching my back, whilst I watch the other, watching his.
Jon and I completing our mandatory safety stop ... with a gatecrasher !
The Oceanics still managing to get between us and trying to separate us. You have to admire these gorgeous opportunistic nomads of the ocean.
We had three action packed, adrenaline fuelled dives here over the course of the day, each dive was quite an experience. Tiger sharks were spotted by some of the group, but unfortunately not by myself. All in all, we had so many Oceanics on the three dives that I had barely time to think about the Tiger sharks.
Two's company, three's a crowd, an Oceanic getting between us.
It has been a great days diving at Rocky Island, and we leave with some great memories. Tonight we set sail further South again, our next stop is St Johns. We have dived this before and it was amazing, hoping it still meets our expectations second time around.
Sunday 22nd November 2015
I woke up this morning not feeling too well at all, more than likely something I had eaten but whatever it was, it was making me feel a little rough (I'll spare you the gory details)!. I managed to haul myself out of bed and get to the dive brief at the usual crack of dawn time of 5.30.
We have arrived at our furthest Southernly point of the trip, St. Johns. Gota Khebira was our first dive site this morning, a huge circular reef that sat just a metre below the surface and then dropped down to the ocean floor, probably several hundred feet below us.
After yesterday's adrenalin rush at Rocky Island where it was nonstop action packed diving, today was going to calm us all down as we would be concentrating on reefs.
Gota Kherbira reef.
The reefs here are stunning in places, the low number of divers that come here compared to the more easier locations ensures the preservation of the corals. In addition, this is also a National Park which also administers strict regulations to protect the underwater environment.
So this was a pleasant dive even if I wasn't feeling 100%, the reef life was very busy and full of fish of every colour thinkable.
Reef top !
Gota Saghalir was our second dive site of the day, basically another reef, just smaller from the dive we had done early this morning.
I had fallen a sleep and missed the dive brief and the Zodiacs that were meant to be carrying us across to the reef, so Jon and I quickly got kitted up and jumped off the back of the boat and swam there !
A spot of lunch and the boat moved on again, this time to one of my favourite diving locations, St.Johns Caves. This is a fabulous diving location, for two reasons. St Johns has an amazing cavern network of long swim throughs that wind through the rocks and coral like an underwater maze.
The magical St. Johns Caves.
This is really good fun to dive, the sunlight shining through the cracks and crevices above your head illuminating the way, twisting and turning and swimming though small gaps in the rocks.
Secondly, the coral gardens here are quite astounding, some of the best I have seen whilst diving. A real mixture of hard and soft coral formations of every colour, two or three stories high from the sea bed, quite amazing. Each immense stack of coral must be thousands of years old, they are the home to millions of tiny creatures, just incredible to swim round and to scrutinise in such detail.
Huge coral blocks dominate the topography.
Paradise reef is our fourth and final dive today, this will be a night dive. The night dives are not the most thrilling here but with Jons black light it does make for some great atmospheric images.
It’s a 14 hour sail back up North as we start to make our journey home. We still have a couple of more day diving in the meantime, tomorrow we stop at Fury Schoals.
Dive deck at night in preparation for tomorrows diving.
Monday 23rd November 2015
It goes without saying that it's the usual start to the day, early !
We have arrived at Fury Shoals overnight, and our first dive will be at Shaaba Malawi. Shaaba translates to ‘reef’, and Malawi is ‘amusement park’, the local guide said that we would be up high one minute and deeper the next whilst exploring this reef. It sounded fun.
Jon and I got into our dive gear and jumped into the sea from the back of the boat, as soon as I put my face under the water and started to descend I could see huge gigantic pinnacles of corals towering up to greet us from a white sandy seabed.
A huge Napoleon fish, 5 foot long and 3 foot high came in for a closer look, it's beady eyes giving me a good look over before he swam off into the blue.
A large Napoleon fish accompanies us on our decent.
The coral formations and colours are incredible, the tips of every pinnacle teeming with hundreds of golden anthias, rising up into the sunlight then falling back down into the protection of the reef.
Incredible stacks of hard corals.
The guide was right, we are up and down as if on a roller coaster, there is lots to look at and every turn reveals another breathtakingly beautiful underwater scene.
There's nothing better than a healthy, thriving reef .
It's a full 75 minutes of exploring before he head back to the boat for breakfast. A couple of hours surface interval to let our nitrogen levels get back to safe levels and we start preparing for dive number two.
Claudia is our next location, another beautiful reef laying an hours boat ride North of our first dive site. There is a fabulous cave network here which is similar to St. John's from the day before, so we were keen to into the water to explore.
Inside a cave network, looking out.
Jon and I managed to get split up going into the caves, Jon going right and I went left so we ended up going our own way through the caverns. The network of swim throughs twisted and turned in every angle, each crack in the rocks was like a window opening out to the most vivid blue from the ocean.
Jon and I finally meet up 20 minutes later when we both exited out of different parts of the reef and then we carried on exploring outside.
I think Claudia is the best reef of the week for me, the topography is quite incredible. We are presented with huge walls of colour, mostly hard corals, pink, royal blue, greens and yellows.
Coral are gardens dotted about within shallow lagoons, being able to fly over these mountains of colour like eagles is an amazing experience.
Coral garden reflects on the underside of the surface.
A video clip of life on top of a coral block.
A coral garden.
The hundreds of species of fish that frequent every part of the reef is a joy to watch, all of them either hunting, feeding, courting or protecting its own few inches of territory in this vast ocean.
Some even working and providing crucial services to its neighbours, cleaner wrasse for instance removing lice from the bigger fish, sometimes going right inside their mouths to clean their teeth !
A goat fish floats vertically, a sign for cleaner wrasse to come in to clean off lice.
One of my favourite fish is the Lion-fish, I haven't seen many this trip but they are quite elaborate, (more often nocturnal and are more visible on night dives) they fan out their feathery spines which are poisonous.
At night, they follow you around, almost stalking you as they like to use the beam from the torches to hunt by, you have to be quite aware of them as you do not want to get stung.
A lionfish displaying his feathery poisonous spines.
Abu Galawa Sochayz is our final dive of the day, after the first two dives this can only be classed as mediocre for me, a little bland after we had been spoilt this morning.
We did visit the sunken yatch that was laying on its side after colliding with the reef several years ago. Coral has started to reclaim this vessel for itself as it clings to every available part of the boat.
It's back to the boat for a shower, dinner and an early night.
The sunken yatch being reclaimed by coral growth.
This week has been nonstop and I am starting to feel tired out, even though the diving has been incredible. By the end of the week you are ready to go home for a rest !
This evening we have a 14 hour journey North again, our next stop is Elphinstone … We could be seeing more Oceanic Whitetips if we are lucky, plus we have a lay in !
Tuesday November 24th 2015
Bloody hell, what a night !
The wind had obviously picked up on our epic journey Northwards to Elphinstone and the crossing was rough. With little sleep being rolled from side to side in the small cabin beds, I could hear the crashing of the plates and cups crashing off the shelving in the dining area falling onto the floor. Thankfully they are obviously designed for such events so no breakages.
I could hear the captain of the boat shouting at his crew at around 3 in the morning as they were trying to tie the boat in at Elphinstone in horrendous winds, currents and swell … not a job I would envy.
After a while I heard the engines fire up and we were on the move again. We did get our lay in as promised but it was all a bit pointless as we couldn't get any sleep. When I got out on deck in the morning, we clearly wasn't at Elphinstone.
The captain explained the current and swell was so bad that they had broken two mooring lines whilst trying to secure the boat. The mooring lines are seriously strong so you wouldn't of fancied diving in conditions like that, it was simply too dangerous. Especially with the added ingredient of Oceanic Whitetips thrown in at this location too.
So we had moved on further North, in fact we had now gone full circle and we're back at the dive sites of our first two dives we had done at the start of this weeks adventure. We finished the week with a couple of nice, leisurely reef dives, bimbling along the reef and watching the marine life go about its hectic day.
The final leg off our trip was returning to Port Ghalib which we arrived back at late afternoon. By the end of a weeks diving on a live-a-board, truth be known, you feel, look and probably smell a little worse for wear.
With the strict weight restrictions imposed on us by the airlines, by the time you have packed your dive and the photographic gear required for the week, you have just enough space for a small bottle of shower gel, a tooth brush a pair of shorts and one t-shirt.
So by now my shorts and t-shirt are pretty minging and I'm resembling an unshaven tramp, so when the chance comes up of spending the final night in a hotel, we take it. We check into the Marina Lodge and it's heaven.
I have a bed that isn't rolling about, a shower that has hot water and that the colour of the water doesn't have a hint of orange to it, it's good to be back on terra firma !
We fly back late tomorrow so we hang out for the final hours by the hotel pool, it's been a fantastic adventurous week filled with exceptional wildlife experiences, my kind of holiday.