Out from the ordinary ... into the blue.
''From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free'.
Jacques Yves Cousteau
The Egyptian Red Sea has been attracting divers from all over the world for as long as man has been able to breathe underwater. The Red Sea is a rich and diverse ecosystem, more than 1200 species of fish have been recorded here with around 10% of these are found nowhere else.
This is my adventure of exploring the southern area of this beautiful part of the world ...
I arrived just after midnight into Port Ghalib in the south of Egypt, after an hours delay from the five hour flight from Gatwick, and then a three hour drive from Hurghada airport. It was a relief to finally see our boat for the week, M.Y Elite.
After completing some required paperwork, providing my diving licences and diving insurance, I quickly put together my equipment and headed to bed, by this time it was almost 1.30 AM.
M.Y Emperor Elite ... home for the week.
The alarm call was for 7 AM, but I was awake by 5 after a sleepless night. We departed port and started to head out to sea, going South. The sun was already high in the sky, the desert to our right stretched out as far as the eye could see, looking hostile and barren. The wind had picked up and was creating a swell as we bounced over the waves as we started our journey.
Abu Dabab Reef ... Dive site 1
Within a couple of hours we were at our first dive site, Abu Dabab IV. This was to be a check dive to ensure all our equipment was working as it should and to just get familiar with being in an underwater environment again.
We dived off the back of the boat and descended into the blue, checking my dive computer the water was a warm 25 degrees centigrade and with visibility that seemed to go on forever. I dropped slowly to 20 metres and reached the white Sandy ocean floor.
Huge pinnacles of corals sprang up from the seabed, each one covered with brightly coloured soft corals, hundreds of bright orange fish called anthias swarm like bees around the pinnacles, looking striking against the bright blue of the ocean.
Anthias dance in the current ...
We explored the pinnacles for an hour, watching the lion fish hanging motionless in the water, their venomous feather like spines giving us a warning not to approach to close.
Elaborate and displaying like a peacock extended its alluring fan tail, the Lion fish is similar, but with a sting in its tail.
Lion ! Alluring but caution required ...
I leave the Lion fish posturing at me and head over to another coral block where I find one of my favourite reef inhabitants, the Clown fish.
Sometimes bold and sometimes nervous in nature, usually a little of both, the Clown fish will seek sanctuary into the anemone that gives it protection when approached too close.
In a symbiotic mutualistic relationship, the clown fish feeds on small invertebrates that otherwise have potential to harm the sea anemone, and the fecal matter from the clown fish provides nutrients to the sea anemone. The clown fish is additionally protected from predators by the anemone's stinging cells, to which the clown fish is immune. The clown fish also emits a high pitched sound that deters butterfly fish, which would otherwise eat the anemone.
The clown fish peers out from its protector to see if I have moved on ...
Send in the clowns ...
After an hour, we return to the boat with no problems with our equipment, so we continue South. Next stop, Elphinstone.
We normally come to Elphinstone during November as it's a wonderful place to dive with Oceanic White-tip sharks, but unfortunately none were here to greet us today. In fact I had a few issues with my camera equipment so I wasn't able to take any pictures during the dive, we returned to the boat after an hour exploring the reef.
The boat would now travel overnight further South.
We woke the following morning early and I could already see the familiar landscape of the black and white stripes of a lighthouse, we were at Daedalus.
The lighthouse sits on an egg shaped reef with steep drop offs that descend down several hundred metres. The attraction here is Hammerhead sharks. Notoriously shy, Hammerhead sharks are found usually at around depths below 30 – 40 metres in depth and are usually away from the reef and out into the blue. A little luck is required to spot them.
This time we transported into smaller boats called Zodiacs that would take us round to the North side of the reef to the best location of finding the Hammerheads.
Heading out to look for Hammerheads ...
We roll backwards off the side of the zodiac and descend rapidly down, levelling off at 35 metres.
We hang in the blue looking beneath us for a shape of a Hammerhead, but alas, nothing. The problem with being at depths of 35 to 40 metres you do not have too much time before you have to start ascending.
We are breathing Nitrox which is air enriched with a higher percentage of oxygen which enables us to stay a little longer then if we were breathing normal air as you are now reading this.
But, after 20 minutes there are no signs of the Hammerheads, so we make our way back to the reef where I find a Hawksbill turtle busily feeding on coral at the top of the reef.
Life in the slow lane ...
I love turtles, especially the Hawksbill. They are relaxed around divers and will happily approach you, even looking straight into your camera lens as if checking their own reflection. They meander along the reef letting you follow them along quite happily.
The turtle completely ignoring me as I do my best paparazzi job taking pictures of it before my computer is beeping me to warn me I am running low on Nitrox. I watch as the turtle drifts past me and it seems like he is flying in a cloudless beautiful sky.
It's time to return to the boat.
We had breakfast and collapsed out in the sun for a couple of hours, our next dive was at 11, when again we would look for Hammerheads. We return to the North edge of the ridge and drop back down to 40 metres, I can feel the thermocline of the colder water which makes me shiver a little.
After 10 minutes of staring below me into the dark blue, a shape appears. It's the unmistakable shape of a Hammerhead. It's deep, deeper than I can go, but it's a Hammerhead circling below me.
The camera is unable to focus on the shark very well because of the lack of light at this depth, so I can only watch and hope it comes up a little shallower. The Hammerhead swims below me as if knowingly teasing me, he turns and circles back but then drops back into the deeper water and out of sight. It never returned.
A fleeting visit ...
Happy to of at least seen a Hammerhead shark, I completed the necessary decompression safety stops and return to the boat.
We had another couple of hours before our next dive so we visited the lighthouse, climbing to the top to witness the spectacular views of the reef and our dive boat.
A birds eye.
Framed ... M.Y Elite
Dive three I just jumped from the back of the boat and thought it would be fun to explore the reef and to dive under the lighthouse jetty. I always have a soft spot for clown fish and anemones so it wasn't long before I spotted the familiar white stripes of a clownfish that quickly retreated to the protection of the stinging arms of the anemone.
Plenty to see on this reef, from atmospheric shots of the lighthouse jetty to the beautiful reflections of the reef on the underside of the oceans surface.
Time to reflect.
Two large Napoleon Wrasse were cruising the reef at 25 metres so I dropped down to see if I could photograph them, but they wasn't as cooperative as our turtle earlier today.
Another hour was quickly over and it was time to leave.
I showered and sat on the top deck writing this blog on my iPad and watching the sunset. A good days diving. It wasn't long before Elite started her engines and set sail again into the night continuing our journey deeper south.
It was a 15 hours sail over night before we arrived at St.Johns, we are in the very deep South of Egypt, anything further South goes into Sudan.
We awake to a flat calm ocean and the sun blazing down already hitting 30 degrees at 6am. Our first dive site this morning is Big Gota. I go and prepare my diving equipment, ensure the camera is ready to go, analyse my Nitrox and then we have a diving brief to go over what we can expect once we are in the water. It's time to dive.
It's a relief to roll backwards from the zodiac and into the cooling water, we descend down to 25 metres and onto the reef. The soft corals are incredible and stretches along the length of the entire reef, each coral block covered with hundreds of fish.
I'm attracted by a large Napoleon Wrasse that seems a little more friendlier then the one I saw yesterday, so I dropped down a little deeper and swam beside it. It was a nice size size fish, 1.5 metres in length and they have the most intricate and beautiful markings on their scales.
I returned back to the reef and spent some time with a beautiful lion fish gracefully hanging in the current above the soft corals. The detail of the lion fish stinging spines looked incredible against the electric blue of the water as it flared itself to warn me not to approach any further.
Stunning lion fish ...
Blue spotted rays could be found resting on the sandy sea floor underneath coral heads and clown fish quickly hid away as you swam over the top of the reef. This is a good dive, the condition of the reef is incredible.
Eye to eye with a blue spotted stingray.
After an hour it's time to leave, I spent my safety stop photographing the top of the reef where the sunlight illuminated the hard corals that reflected back on the underside of the ocean surface, almost like a mirror effect.
We return to the boat.
Whilst having breakfast the boat moved again onto our second dive site of the day called Habill Gafar .
This dive site resembled a volcano shaped reef, rising up from the sea bed and reaching a pinnacle that sits 6 metres just below the waters edge.
We travel back out by Zodiac and onto the South side of the reef, the current is ripping. The plus side of having a strong current is that its where all the action is. The current tends to be nutrient rich so it brings all the smaller fish out, which in turn, attract the larger predators.
Groups of barracuda zig zag along the current, huge jacks and travelies gather in the anticipation of a meal, there are thousands of fish of every size and colour gathered here.
The minus side of a strong current is that it's hard work staying in the midst of the action. Eventually you have to surrender to the force of nature and you have to ‘go with the flow’, this is known as drift diving. If you relax and let the current take you it's like being on a conveyor belt watching all the action pass you by as you are being pushed along.
Juvenile Barracuda making easy work of the current.
The current has taken me around to the opposite side of the reef and here the water is calm, but the excitement is on the opposite side of the reef. We circle the reef to return back to the current, I end the dive here, tucking myself tightly into the reef trying to protect myself from the force of the water.
I wait until 65 minutes and then return to the boat. The next dive is scheduled for 3pm, so I head to the sun deck and get some sleep. Even with breathing the oxygen enriched air (Nitrox), the build up of carbon dioxide in the blood stream makes you feel tired.
Elite has moved again and we are now at Dangerous Reef, earning it's name for the hazard it is for shipping rather than diving.
Pinnacles of coral sit just out of site below the surface, invisible to passing boats that navigate his stretch of the Red Sea. At dangerous reef the attraction are the caves, or caverns more aptly. Here you can swim through cracks in the rocks that twist and turn into the reef.
The sunlight pierces through cracks in the reef, shining down like the brightest spotlights onto the white Sandy sea floor, creating the most fantastic atmospheric dive.
Moray being cleaned by wrasse.
These caverns are mothers natures cathedrals, tall dark structures with the sunlight guiding our path as we make our way through the cracks and tunnels, each leading into a new chamber to investigate.
It's a divers playground.
Moray eels are in amongst the rocks, their heads poking out, monitoring their surroundings like century guards on duty. Small cleaner Wrasse busily run up and down the eels body cleaning it of any lice, even cleaning the teeth of the eel as it sits with its mouth open.
We maximise the dive here to 71 minutes before we reluctantly return to our boat.
Our fourth and final dive of the day is going to be at night. We sit watching the blistering sun sink below the desert mountains, it's a mesmerising sunset, the sky turns orange, darkness soon follows and it's a signal to get into our dive gear again.
Deep South sun set.
We dive from the back of the boat and descend into the inky black water, I switch on my torch and the beam of light shines down in the depths below me.
I level off at 18 metres and we start our dive. At night in the ocean, it's the time for the hunters and predators to come out of the shadows of the daytime and hunt.
The biggest Moray Eels I have seen for a long times are swimming freely throughout the reef, trying to capture unsuspecting fish. Normally shy and cautious during the day, tucked away in the reef, at night time they are bold and free swimming without a care.
Hunter and hunted ... night diving.
Lion fish become a nuisance as they use the beam of our torches to hunt fish, sometimes you would have several around you in the darkness and you have to be aware of their venomous spines.
Even more of a worry are the superbly camouflaged stone and scorpion fish, again both highly venomous and could cause serious problems if you was to place your hands on it without looking.
Master of disguise ... the hazardous Scorpion fish.
Octopus are also using the darkness to hunt, another master of camouflage and very difficult to spot.
After an hour we return to the boat. Dinner is eaten in more or less silence as everyone is exhausted from the day, by 9pm the boat is silent.
Always a joy to watch, Octopus.
I awake at 5.30, still tired but I head down to the dive deck, go through the familiar routine of checking the diving and camera equipment and analysing the nitrox. I have time to grab a quick coffee and head into the first dive brief of the day.
We have arrived at ‘Small Gota’ A small reef that can be seen from the surface of the water that slopes down to the ocean floor and out of sight to the human eye.
We head to the North side of the reef by zodiac to catch the current at its strongest point. Hammerhead sharks have been spotted here occasionally so we will try our luck.
Descending over the reef.
We roll backwards into the water and descend to 35 metres, the current is strong. I hang motionless in the blue scouring the darkness below me for any signs of anything big. After a few minutes, a silvery grey shape appears, it's a Hammerhead.
I drop to 40 metres and the shark is flirting with us, circling below at a depth that we can't go to. It comes up a little more, I dropped down to 43 metres, my maximum depth allowed on the enriched air I am breathing.
The shark is still too deep, I try to take a couple of shots with the camera, but I knew they would be useless. The Hammerhead turns and disappears into the depths and out of sight.
Maximum depth but still just out of reach.
I ascend to the reef at 20 metres and the current is physically demanding at times to deal with. Eventually we get round to the southern side of the reef and the current subsides, we have been in the water an hour by this time so we follow the mooring rope from the reef back to the boat.
There is a plume of jellyfish in the water and I stop to take a few pictures of the fish nibbling the edges of the jellyfish. Similar to how we eat Jaffa cakes, nibbling the outer edge and saving the orange centre until last.
Fish nibbles ...
We eat a big breakfast to fill ourselves up with calories we will burn during the day. Our next dive will go again in only 90 minutes. I shovel some food down my neck and get a little rest before we dive.
The sun again is intense, sitting in a cloudless sky and burning down onto the boat.
Dive two is a repeat of the first dive. Although I didn't spend so long at depth and spent more time on the wall of the reef marvelling at the beautiful soft corals. I had not paid much attention to the variety and colours that are here, at close they are beautiful and intricate and contain some of the most amazing macro life.
It's 66 minutes and I am the last diver in the water so I make my way back. The plume of jellyfish are still drifting under the boat in the current and still attracting he attention of passing fish. I skip lunch and head up to the sun deck at the top of the boat, the temperature is 40 degrees, a slight sea breeze masks the heat a little. We are moving North for our third dive of the day.
Exploding anthia's bursting from the reef.
We arrive at St.Johns caves, for me the hi-light of the trip.
This is a remarkable dive site, the caves here are an absolute joy to dive. Similar to the caverns of Day 3, St. John's caves are much longer and branch off in all directions allowing you to explore and also providing some wonderful photographic opportunities.
We arrived a little later than I would of liked for lighting inside the caves, it was almost 4 PM before we were diving from the rear of the boat.
We descended to 18 metres and were greeted by a large Napoleon Wrasse, who came over to check us out and then proceeded to patrol the reef again once it realised we were of no interest. We located the entrance to the caves, here for some reason I took the right channel and my dive buddy took the left without either of us noticing.
I didn't meet up with him again until 70 minutes later when we both exited out of the caves at the other end !
I explored the caves on my own and it was a wonderful dive, the sunlight piercing the holes in the cavern ceilings gave photographic opportunities one after another.
Every twist and turn of the caves led to another hole in the rocks that went into another chamber, some narrow and dark, others tall and wide and a spot light provided by Mother Nature shone like a spot light on an empty stage.
Time to explore.
Small fan corals grew on the walls of the caverns and each chamber fish hung motionless like a child's mobile hanging from the ceiling.
Eventually the cavern system opens back out onto the most amazing reef with huge coral blocks reaching up from the white sandy sea floor like city high rises.
I meet up again here with my dive buddy swimming between the coral blocks, my computer shows 72 minutes so we return back to the dive boat.
A fabulous dive.
Our fourth dive will be another night dive here at St.Johns caves, although penetration of the caves will not be allowed at night as it's too dangerous.
We wait once more until the sun drops below the desert mountains before we kit up again one final time. Oddly enough this night dive ended up being an hour of nothing. After yesterday's action packed night dive I was looking forward to getting back into the black water, but it was a little bit of a let down this evening.
For once I was glad to get back onto the boat, showered and changed out of my wetsuit. Dinner was served at 8.00 PM and within an hour I was back into my cabin, struggling to keep awake as I write up my blog.
The boat has set sail again to travel back North over night, a five hour journey will hopefully deliver us to Fury Shoals in time for our first dive of tomorrow.