The Red Sea must be the favourite place for Europeans to do some warm water diving. It's the nearest place that you can see coral reefs, and in fact they're the most northerly reefs in the world. So people were often surprised that I hadn't ever been there. For various reasons, I'd never got around to going. I had, after all, dived in various places around the world.
So when I discovered that the office I was working in was going to be shut over the Xmas period, I hit the web. About the only space I could find was on Cyclone, a boat run by Tony Backhurst. The price was £850 for a week's liveaboard out of Sharm-El-Sheikh on a wrecks and reefs safari in the northern Red Sea. The luggage allowance included an extra 5 kgs for a total of 25 kgs, but it wasn't enough for all my kit plus camera equipment, which is why there are no photos.
So I found myself getting up at 6am on Boxing Day to drive down to Gatwick, If you've never been to Gatwick on Boxing Day, you're lucky. It was complete chaos. I've never seen it so busy. It was obvious that we weren't going to leave on time. However, a technical fault meant that there was no chance that was ever going to happen. There was something wrong with the fire suppression system. They had to send a new part from Luton. They sent the wrong part. So after 5 hours of sitting on the plane with plenty of screaming children, having waited over 3 hours for a soft drink, we all got off again. Eventually we all got back on again and took off 8 hours late.
Sharm airport was absolute chaos. By the time we arrived, half the immigration staff had gone home. There wasn't so much a queue, more a scrum as about three queues all merged into one. Eventually I got on the transfer bus and I remember remarking to one of the other passengers that the whole point of coming to Egypt for a week was that it was close, and that I could have gone to the Maldives in that time. Little did I know that the Maldives had just been hit by the tsunami.
I finally got to the boat at 3am local time. My boat briefing consisted of being told not to put paper down the toilets. The cabin was like a sauna, the air-conditioning was barely working and it was very hard to sleep. The first dive was scheduled to be at 7am. Obviously, no-one in their right mind would jump in the water after so little sleep and the journey I'd had, so at 7.30am, I stepped off the back of the boat.
I only own two diving suits. One is a 3mm shortie, the other is an Otter membrane drysuit. The water temperature was 23ºC, so I'd brought the drysuit. I did think that perhaps bring a Weezle Extreme undersuit was a little over the top, but it's all I have and I wasn't about to buy the Compact just for a week's diving.
It was quite a weird feeling diving over coral completely dry, but I soon got used to it. The water felt a bit warm on the first dive, but not unpleasantly so. The first reef was just outside of Sharm and was basically a checkout dive, though we didn't have to do any skills. Since I'd missed the full briefing because of my late arrival, I never actually showed anyone my logbook or any of my qualifications. I just signed the waiver.
The first dive wasn't bad, a fairly standard reef. My maximum depth was 24m and I had a nice, long dive time of 53 minutes and saw various anthias, pipefish and my first electric ray. The coral was in reasonable shape, though the area did have quite a few sandy patches. Getting back on the boat, I was glad to get out of my suit in a hurry as it was a little warm in the sunshine with a air temperature in the low twenties. So I was quicky out of my suit and undersuit and in the cabin enjoying a cup of coffee whilst everyone else on the boat was drying themselves off.
The boat then moved off and we went to Stingray Station. I saw one big stingray, a leopard shark, morays, loads of small reef fish and a big Napolean wrasse. Maximum depth was 21m and my dive time was 43 minutes. Having already done one dive that day, I didn't feel too warm on this dive.
The boat moved off again to the wreck of the Marcus, also known as the tile wreck, because that was its main cargo. The crew went in first and laid lines through the wreck, though they had to borrow the reels off the customers, so taking your own wreck reel is a good idea. We were split into groups of about 6 and followed our guide through the wreck. The hold were fulls of tiles and we also made it into the engine room. Our maximum depth was just under 20m and dive time was over 50 minutes. Unlike the previous two dives, the boat didn't moor into the wreck, but some way away, so we were shuttled back on one of the two Zodiac RIBs, As it was quite late in the afternoon, the sun was getting low in the sky and the wind was quite strong. So on our boat there were 7 divers feeling the cold and one warm unbearably smug diver in his drysuit. I'd definitely made the right decision.
There was a night dive, but I really didn't feel like it after the day and the previous night. Soft drinks were free on board; the had Coke, Diet Coke and Sprite. There was a bar and you could sign for drinks. It wasn't exactly cheap. I'd followed the advice of the operators and bought myself a bottle on Mount Gaye in Gatwick duty free, so drank this mixed with the free soft drinks. The crew not only didn't mind, they actually went out of their way to get a fresh bottle when something ran out.
Having left the window open during the day, it was quite a bit cooler in the cabin. So sleeping wasn't as much of a problem. As usual the first dive of the morning started before breakfast and was the Giannis D. I'd put my torch on charge overnight, but the Sea and Sea charger has no light on it to show it's working. Of the two plugs in our cabin, only one of them worked. So I was just about the enter the engine room, which was really quite dark when my torch started to fade. I did most of the dive on the outside. It was still a good dive though. The wreck itself is quite broken midships but both the bow and the stern are reasonably intact. There is a enormous gouge out of the reef where it must have hit at quite a speed. Maximum depth was 22m and time was 48 minutes.
The next dive was the wreck of the Carnatic. By now all the day boats had arrived, so it was pretty busy down there. A wide array of diving skill was on display including lots of techie wannabes with about twice as much kit as you really need for a 24m dive. My particular favourite was the guy who for some reason was swimming on his back and ploughing a furrow in the sandy sea bed.
The wreck itself is quite broken up, though there's still a couple of bits big enough to swim through. There's plenty of life on it with surgeon fish and gold body trevally were hunting the glass fish around the top of the wreck. We finished the dive off on the nearby reef for a total dive time of 51 mins.
Third dive of the day was the wreck of the Ulysses. By now we'd crossed over to the African coast of the Red Sea. The Ulysesses lies on its side and is quite broken up. There's enough to swim around, but 15 mins is more than enough. Fortunately the reef it struck is particularly good with some really nice table corals, unicorn fish, turtles, black spotted sweetlips and loads of Red Sea anemone fish. Again, three dives a day was enough for me, so I didn't go on the night dive.
First dive of the next morning was the Rosalie Muller. This is quite a bit deeper than the other wrecks. One group was planning to go into the engine room, but when I realised that that was al they would have time to see, I decided instead to stick to the deck and see more of the ship. In fact we managed to get around the whole thing just getting into 5 minutes deco. There were loads of glass fish being hunted by grouper and lion fish. The depth meant that there wasn't a lot of coral growth, but it was still an interesting dive, being more of less intact and upright. My maximum depth was 36m sticking to the deck and dive time was 41 minutes. It was also a bit cooler at that depth with my computer registering the coldest water temperature of the trip at 21ºC.
The next dive was the wreck of the Kingston. This was really more a reef dive as the wreck is very broken as it sank in 1871, though the rudder and prop are still intact. Fish life was interesting, with crocodile and scorpion fish, some type of yellow squirrel fish I couldn't find in the book, plus a turtle. Maximum depth was 21m on the reef. The wreck was shallower. Dive time was 52 minutes.
The next site was the famous Thistlegorm, which was discovered by Jacques Cousteau. On the first dive we went inside the wreck and saw the cargo of open bed trucks with wellington boots and BSA motorcycles in the back. I saw another crocodile fish and a turtle. Max depth was 24m with a dive time of 40 mins.
The plan had been to do a night dive, but one quick look at my computer showed that I just didn't have any no-deco time left. Really I should have taken up the option of using nitrox on this day, as this was one fourth dive that I would have liked to have done. Still, we were up before dawn the next day to do another dive on the wreck before the day boats turned up. We were in so early that we had the wreck to ourselves for the first half of the dive. My buddy and I managed to lose everyone else, not entirely by accident, and it was really nice to be down there, just the two of us, for most of the dive.
We descended and headed towards the bombed section. The stern is twisted and lies at an angle to the rest of the wreck. There are two guns still on it. There's also a tracked vehicle on the sea bed and a steam locomotive which we also saw. It was one of my favourite dives of the trip. Maximum depth was a shade over 30m with a dive time of 48 minutes.
I decided that I wanted to do a night dive, though it had been so dark at the start of the Thistlegorm that I thought that really counted as one, so I sat out the next dive, which was on a reef. My next dive was at a site called Little Crack and it was a reasonable wall dive to a depth of 20m, but nothing that exciting. We stayed there for the night dive too, though this was a much shallower dive with a maximum depth of 14m and only for 35 minutes.
The next morning we did a reef dive at Ras Mohammed. The coral life was good, though the fish life unremarkable. Maximum depth was 23m and dive time was 52 mins. After that came another reef, though I didn't catch the name, let alone be able to spell it. This was quite a sandy reef with patches of coral bommies. Probably the highlight was seeing another turtle.
Then we sailed back past Sharm and up the Gulf of Aqaba. We had to stay a fair distance off-shore because President Blair was holidaying in Sharm at the time, having flown out at the British taxpayer's expense. I bet he didn't have to queue for an hour at the airport to get his passport stamped.
Our next dive was Jackson Reef. The Red Sea is very deep in this area, and the wall just plunges away into the depths. It really is fairly sheer, which combined with a reasonable current made the dive quite exciting. There were loads of basslets all round the reef as well as some large grouper and a couple of turtles. You could have got a depth of several hundred metres, if not more, but I stuck to 20m, with a dive time of 49 mins.
That night was New Year's Eve. The chef excelled himself by somehow cooking a big turkey in the small galley with all the accompaniments. Then there were a few games, but these finished quite early on. In the end, it was a bit of a struggle to hang on until midnight to send the gloating text messages back home. Vodafone Egypt even managed to actually send about half of them.
My first dive of 2005 was Thomas Reef. There is a narrow canyon which apparently has 3 arches over it. I went down to 33m and saw the first arch, though didn't go deep enough to go through it. The other 2 arches are quite a bit deeper. It was another nice wall dive and we did 50 mins.
Then we headed back to Sharm and moored just off the beach. There was some sort of loud, Italian entertainment happening there. There were a couple of choices, and I decided to just go in off the main boat. I'd had enough of climbing back into RIBs by this stage. So I dived a group of pinnacles called Temple. There was an enormous Napolean wrasse, and the coral on the current side of the pinnacles was nice. I also spotted a small, ghost moray on the way back to the boat, which was nice. It was a shallow dive, at 16m.
Cyclone and the trip had far exceeded my expectations. The crew were very friendly, and there were a lot of them. You'd come back to your cabin to find everything had been tidied up and your towels in swan shapes. The food was very good and there was no hint of any stomach problems. Everything was well organised. The dive briefings were adequate and quite amusing as the dive supervisors used to do them with a variety of props including towels, water bottles, ash trays and anything else that came to hand. After the first couple of dives, we were generally free to dive in buddy pairs if we wanted to. There was no nannying onboard, though most of the people were reasonably experienced on this trip.
Back onshore and it was a different story. We were back on time if not early, so were all ready to get on the coach at 3pm. Unfortunately, Hurricane, one of the other boats run by Tony Backhurst had just arrived. We asked if we were going to have to wait for them, and were told that the coach could always leave and come back for them. As the hotel was about 20 mins away, it could easily have. But it didn't. So we found ourselves in the Three Corners Hotel, still not checked in 2 hours later.
We were supposed to be booked into twin rooms sharing with the same person as on the boat, but the hotel had run out of rooms. They proposed to put 5 of us, including some guy off of one of the other boats, who we didn't know at all in a “family room”. We objected to sharing with the other guy as we didn't know him and had a lot of expensive kit. So 4 of us were to share. When we went up to the room, it had one double bed in it. Eventually after ages hanging around and wasting our time, they did find some additional proper beds for the rest of us. It really wasn't how I wanted to spend so much time on my last evening on holiday.
One of the group had booked a table in the restaurant for all of us. When we got there, we were told we'd have to sit on two separate tables. The food was mediocre, certainly not as good as on the boat. It was a fair walk into town, but taxis were available as was a courtesy bus, though this was full when we tried to get on it. There was the usual farce of the driver asking for an extortionate fee and then agreeing to a quarter of what he'd originally asked for. Coming back from town was more of a problem as none of the taxi drivers seemed to have heard of the hotel.
The bars in town stay open until 2am, as do the fast food places including Pizza Hut. After that I decided to have a look at Pacha nightclub. Now even by my standards, after a week on a boat, I was scruffy and unshaven, so I wasn't really surprised when one of the door staff told me that they were full. However, the other one asked me about 3 questions in some language I couldn't understand, and then let me in for free! I have a sneaking suspicion he was speaking Russian. Drinks were quite reasonable in there though I didn't stay that long.
The next morning, I had a look around the shops in Sharm itself. There wasn't anything of any great interest. Lots of shops all selling the same touristy junk, like T-shirts and various souvenirs.
The airport was the now expected chaos. The duty free shop doesn't take credit cards, so bring dollars or Egyptian pounds. It was very cheap. Our departure gate seemed to keep changing, but eventually we got on the plane. However, the fun hadn't stopped as the checkin staff hadn't given the right seats to people. Those who had paid extra for more legroom hadn't got the correct seats and if they didn't have their letter with them, the cabin staff wouldn't move people. I did rather well out of this as I was sitting in the front row, hadn't paid extra and no-one asked me to move. There were also children allocated to seats they legally weren't allowed to sit in. Eventually the co-pilot threatened to stop the plane taxiing until people agreed to move and warned us we'd have a two hour delay. Unsurprisingly, everyone complied rather quickly and the flight home was uneventful and on time.