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Red Sea 2004

Trip Report

My 2004 trip took me to the Egyptian diving region of Marsa Alam for a week on the 'Kawarty 2' liveaboard. The idea was cooked up after I met up with Vic Porter in London and we decided to get a trip together; since Vic was able to provide overnight digs en route to the middle east, it was suddenly feasible to go there instead of the usual bahamian region.

The red sea is the number one warm water diving destination for european divers, serving the same function as the carribean area does for US based vacationers. The northern resorts of Hurghada and Sharm-el-Sheik were the first to be established and remain the most popular destinations because of the high concentration of wrecks in the area but since I am not all that interested in wrecks, we decided to go for the less-travelled areas south of Marsa Alam. We hoped that the smaller number of visitors would give us a chance to dive on less crowded sites with more pristine corals, and as it turned out we were right.
The choice of boat and itinerary was dictated as much by schedule as any other consideration; we needed a boat going south in the first two weeks of August and there was a choice of two: The Hurricane and Kawarty 2. Hurricane offered the chance to do some technical training (Basic nitrox and rebreather) which would have been attractive but since the boat was full we went with the Kawarty.

My flight from San Diego (via Chicago) was the usual uneventful thing, although the 4 hour layover at O'Hare made it a long day so that by the time I got to Heathrow at about 7:30am the next day, I had been going for an awful long time. No matter, all I needed to do in London was buy a charger which would work on 220 volts and catch some sleep in Vic's hammock! Then it was on to Gatwick to catch the charter down to Egypt. Catching 40 Brazilian style Believe it or not, with all the flying around I do, I had never been on a charter flight before and I had heard all sorts of horror stories about narrow seats, terrible food and flight crew with the demeanour of a tasmanian devil. Well, I am happy to report that none of this is true, at least for this flight, which was on Excel airlines (why would someone name an airline after a spreadsheet?). The downside was the movie, Shrek 2, which I had watched on the way over from Chicago and I can only stand so many fart jokes in one 24 hour period - it's a high number actually, but Shrek used up the whole quota.

Arrival at the airport was fun; utter bedlam, with crowds of egyptians shouting out the name of their particular travel company so that they could stamp a visa in the passport and kidnap our return tickets. There seemed to be no alternative to this system and we weren't surprised to find that, once on the bus to the boat, we were expected to ransom the tickets back for a nice premium over the advertised cost of the visa. Our little entrepreneur had decided that the visa would be twelve sterling, no dollar option offered, which is a $6 overcharge, but hey; he was nice about it - there's nothing like being robbed with a smile!

some of the crew The drive to the boat lasted approximately five minutes, including negotiating the inexplicable trenches in the road; this is a really nice feature of doing a liveaboard here - the marina is not at Marsa Alam, which is a good 50km south of the airport, but right there almost within sight of the air terminal. Now, when I say 'marina' I am being very precise, because as of this writing that is all there is - a place where you can tie up boats and get some diesel fuel, all else is desert. Next year there will be a bustling resort centre with apartments, shops, hotels, bars restaraunts and no doubt camel rides on the sand dunes. I know this because all the foundations have been dug and there are even a few concrete shells here and there, but if you are offered a night at Port Ghaleb marina, opt for the alternative if you have one.

Having dissed the place already, I have to make amends and say it will be a spectacular place once built; if the plans at the airport are to be believed, it will have just about everything mentioned above and then some. There are already quite a few boats going out from there and there will be room for a lot more, so I have a feeling that this region will start to feel very crowded in a few years and we will look back on this trip as the halcyon days of yore.

On arrival at the boat, which is very much as advertised: large and modern with a shady dive deck at the rear and nicely appointed saloon and cabins, we discovered that we were the last of three sets of arrivals, which meant that the competition for the best gear slots was over before we even got there. This really didn't matter, though, because there were only ten divers on a boat built to accomodate sixteen and one spot was pretty much the same as any other in any case. lovely view over the building site The dive deck is laid out so that you put your BC and regulator on a tank on the first day, and then just leave it there for the rest of the week. The tanks are filled in situ and gearing up is just a matter of slipping into the harness and you're done; at the end of the dive, you reverse the procedure unless you have come back on a zodiac, in which case your gear will magically reappear in your spot (most of the time; it's as well to check).

The boat was crewed by eight Nubians, plus two divemasters and the captain - the divemasters were a Swiss/Egyptian husband and wife team - and the guests were a very mixed nationality bunch indeed. We had One Swiss, two Germans, two Aussies and five Brits, and I have to say that the people made the trip very pleasant indeed. I have been on trips where groups kept themselves apart but this didn't happen at all on Kawarty, and as a result everyone had an excellent trip. guests The Diving itinerary took us out for a checkup dive on the morning of the first day, then to Elphinstone reef where we could see an oceanic whitetip circling the zodiac before we even got in the water - check out the movie! The second day took us out into the middle of the red sea, to Daedalus Reef, which has a landing jetty and a large lighthouse - built by the French in the mid nineteenth century, this is a marker for the shipping lanes out there and this is where we saw one of the very few container ships during the week. Naturally, I got the teeshirt. whitetip After this the boat travelled south and we spent the rest of the week in the St John's area close to the Sudanese border, sailing back north for the last couple of days diving closer to Marsa Alam.

The diving is spectacular. By comparison with the bahamas region, which is my only other experience of warm water diving, the coral is in better condition and has a distinctly different feel to it. For one thing, there are very few sponges and a proliferation of soft corals, which are mostly absent in the bahamas. The majority of dive sites are at isolated coral reefs and are subjected to very strong currents at various times - this is not a trip for inexperienced or faint-hearted divers, but if you are a reasonably strong swimmer and can handle a DSMB (delayed surface marker buoy) then you will find these sites very diveable. One thing to keep in mind is that the drop offs generally start at the surface and get very deep before levelling off; there were only one or two daytime sites we dived which had a usable bottom (night dive sites were selected for this feature, of course).

pyjama slug We had one incident during the week where most of us had trouble getting back to the boat because of a strong adverse current and I got a nice black eye from a swinging weight belt during 'team efforts' to help out one of the weaker divers who was having some trouble. At another location the DM called the dive due to strong currents; on this occasion we were rapidly picked up by the circling zodiacs. I have to say a word about the crews of those RIBS: on many dives we went out in a couple of 12 ft RIBS (which everyone seems to refer to as 'zodiacs' probably after some popular make of boat) and were then picked up by them from wherever we happened to surface . During the dive, the zodiac crew would watch for bubbles and be magically right there just when you wanted to ascend, which was a major feat of bubble-observation, considering that the water was almost always choppy with a lot of wind blown surface froth. I tried to spot divers while I was in the boat but found it impossible, so I reckon these guys are real pros. This is a comforting thought to those of us who heard about the party of nine divers from the 'Oyster' who were swept away in the current and drifted for eleven hours before the Egyptian navy found them.

zodiac maniac Finding interesting sea life is pretty easy. We had no trouble finding large morays, free swimming as well as backed up into holes, and there are plenty of spotted rays and other large pelagics such as manta rays, dolphins and Sharks. Relatively uncommon fish such as napoleon wrasse and unicorn fish are easy to find and there are large numbers of tuna and other shoaling fish. The signature fish, though has to be the lionfish. This is relatively common, but so spectacular and unafraid of divers that it makes getting a good photo really easy. Night dives bring out the inverts, and there are spectacular feather stars and nudibranchs, although very few lobsters and only a smallish number of shrimps. My particular favourite creature is a kind of feather star which crawls out of its daytime crack and finds a nice exposed rock from where it can expand its feeding arms into the current.

st johns coral passage One dive site stands out for its scenery alone, although there is no shortage of life. St John's Reef is a sheltered site with the bottom at about 70ft and superb swim-through tunnels. If there is one thing I think the trip could have done better, it would be to arrange for multiple dives at this site, which was not possible on our trip.

The end of the trip was marred by bad organisation on the part of the trip organiser. We had been told that there was a possibility that we would spend the final night aboard but that probably we would be sent off to a resort hotel. In fact, this second option was what the boat crew had been told would happen and so we came back to port, earlier then necessary, at midday where they expected us to depart during the afternoon. The problem was that Diving World, the company responsible for the UK based divers, had neglected to book any rooms for us and so just told us to stay aboard and amuse ourselves until flight time the following day at 9:30PM! When you consider that the boat crew had no provisions for the extra meals, that the marina was a building site, and that the new guests were expected aboard at 11:00AM, this was a ridiculous suggestion. A lot of arguing with the London based company saw us staying overnight on the boat (and the crew did a good job of rustling up dinner and breakfast even if it was not up to their usual high standard) and then took a bus at our own expense to the resort we had been promised. This was a good place to stay for the day, and we took full advantage.

In summary, the boat and crew were great, and the diving truly spectacular. It is worth noting that this itinerary covers a lot of miles, and as a result there is less diving and more sailing on pretty rough seas than on other trips. I did eighteen dives from a total possible nineteen, which compares with twenty four dives during a week aboard the aggressor. As for the UK based company who organised the package, I am not so impressed. The failure to book hotel rooms was only one problem out of several, and the company owner made several promises over the telephone which were subsequently broken - he had absolutley no intention of keeping them, it was clear.

The Red Sea is superb for diving; I can't recommend it highly enough. This area, at least, is relatively uncrowded with great reefs and corals and the abundance of life which inspired us all in Jacques Cousteau's original movies. In fact, this is where those old originals were made and not too much has changed on the reefs since then. Getting to Egypt from Europe is a breeze, and is very inexpensive compared to the Carribean.

pack of lionfish Sam relaxing feather star