Red Sea – October 2010

Diving always seems to be an “early” thing and so it was that Alan turned up in Langley Vale at 5:50am on Wednesday the 13th of October. Diving is one thing I’ll get up for at that time of day! Alan’s cousin, Mike, was coming along with us. Mike runs his own business, Biodiversitybydesign, so we began to talk environmental shop straight away. At check in I was the first to face the potential wrath of the check in clerk, as my diving kit, camera box and hand luggage, all amazingly increased in weight since they were carefully checked at home, were put onto the scales. The man was merciful, as despite purchasing an extra 10kg my kit was still over the allowed weight! Perhaps the value of g is greater at Gatwick than Langley Vale. He kindly treated us a single mass entity and as the rest of the party had manage the miracle of packing under the allowance we were through without hassle. Thanks everyone!!

We had time for a decent coffee and some breakfast as well as, in my case increasing the mass of the aircraft still further by purchasing half the battery stock of Dixons, before getting to the departure lounge. Last year Alan had been awarded a commendation for rescuing one Graham from Bristol . Clearly, Graham had been so impressed by this that he wanted to see if it could be done a second year running. Yes there he was with his friends Damon and Ellie. However, Alan felt it only right that for a second attempt a fee should be charged. I don’t think a final agreement was ever reached.

The flight out to Marsa Alam was uneventful. A good thing too as if we had wanted to get out of our seats for any reason the pitch was so small we would have to be levered out with a diving knife. Sorry Julian and Andrew you’d have had your knees up by your chins! We arrived in darkness of course and the transfer to the Sea Serpent was well arranged.

Sea Serpent is a bit tired and needs a refurb. Various bits and bobs in the cabins didn’t work – the odd light, the drain in our sink, the flush on the loo jammed, but what the hell we were several thousand miles away from work and other stresses. As usual our first morning was leisurely and followed a long briefing about safety from our Egyptian dive guide, Sam. Now Sam has a marvellous sense of humour yet managed to convey the serious things as well. Our other dive guide, Fiona, was well, just serious. I set myself the challenge of eliciting a smile from her by the end of the week – and got off to a very bad start! Our check dive was at Abu Dabab 3. We were supposed to do a DSMB deployment. Everyone’s was exemplary – except mine. With a mind totally emptied of all thoughts of discipline of any kind I let my reel jam so it soared off to the surface. Throughout the week, whenever I did anything even remotely dodgy, Fiona would materialise from nothing or somehow manage to swim 500m in an instant, and see it all. So it was with my failed DSMB deployment, and after the dive she gave me a good talking to [ie a bollocking in diver’s talk] and also suggested I had actually touched a part of the reef – which was completely untrue.

The first few dives were relatively easy. How good it was to be in very clear warm water. The water temperature was 30°C helped by the geothermal heating that occurs in the southern part of the Red Sea . The viz must have been at least 40m. The reefs were generally in good condition too with plenty of fish to be seen along with morays and one very large barracuda on Little Habili, that sported some very impressive looking razor sharp teeth. Alan made a valiant attempt to get this fish to test those teeth….but failed. Curiously the barracuda was chased away from the reef by some trevally, something I have never seen before.

By this time we had completed 4 dives and were as far south as we were going to be. Cameras were giving trouble all over the place. My TTL converter despite being serviced in June had become so unreliable I had to mask the hot shoe and run in manual mode, Dave’s housing was leaking slightly…but Dave you should use some O ring grease at least once a year!

Very soon after the start of the trip we had coalesced into a group of 6 by inviting a policewoman called Jo to join us. However, after the first day her camera had completely flooded. I lent her my Canon Ixus for the rest of the week. Now look, here there was no ulterior motive at all m’lud! One of the couples on board were from Shrewsbury , Clare and Paul. Paul showed a side very different to his usual calm friendly nature, when upon falling down the stairs, he managed to restrain his vocalisation of the pain he felt for no more than 10 seconds before using language that would have made a sailor blush. The narrow stairs with their pathetic strip of worn non slip, proved a hazard. No less than 4 people slipped and fell on the stairs, including yours truly whilst carrying that dirt great camera as well. None of us managed to match the bruise that Paul got, for sheer extent and depth of colour and so on it took first prize. Paul also managed to flood his flash gun – but then a couple of days later I managed the same, though it’s a testament to Sea and Sea kit that after rinsing it out and drying it for an hour or two I plugged new batteries in and off we went with it working fine!  

As the week slipped by the diving got better. At St John’s Caves we had a plan to dive as a group of 4 and as soon as we were in it was abandoned and myself and Jo [with whom I ended up diving for most of the week] headed off into a different entrance to Dave and Alan. These crevasses are wonderful with lovely views out to the blue, sunlight showing beams in the caverns and superb swim throughs. Half way through the dive Jo signalled to me to lead the way back into a very narrow tunnel. Inevitably I had just got through the rather tight entrance when Fiona appeared with 6 divers in tow and I had to turn round in no space at all and beat a hasty retreat from the scowling face behind the mask. 

After the caves we were at Fury Shoal for the afternoon and night dive. Navigation at night sometimes relies on a compass. On this occasion went in as a group of 4, Dave not feeling too good. Sue, Alan, Mike and me. Apart from a large moray the main focus were the lionfish. Typical of Red Sea lionfish in such places they were used to divers and indeed knew perfectly well that divers torches would allow them to see those little blue fish near the sand and gobble them up. The lionfish were rather too friendly – at one point I had to go over to Alan and show him a lionfish that came perilously close to ending all chances of future happiness for him. Come time to end the dive Mike decided that he really had to show us just how bad his sense of direction was and headed off north west , despite the fact that our compasses indicated a very firm easterly swim was required. Although maybe not, as we had become so engrossed with the lionfish we had actually drifted almost under the only other boat moored here. Our ascent, detailed examination of the wrong line, and subsequent descent and swim back to the right boat was probably one of the few misdemeanours missed by the lovely but serious Fiona.  

One morning – and I really can’t recall which one, we were lucky enough to snorkel with dolphins. At least that’s what we were trying to do and whilst we caught a few glimpses of them and could hear them squeaking away to each other, there were in truth far too many snorkellers in the water so the dolphins seemed to want to get away from the noise and we could not keep up with them.

A dive at Maksour was followed by the brilliant Claudia Caves and another night dive at Abu Galawa. Here was that little American wreck, a yacht that had run aground, broken off its rudder and sunk just off the reef. At night it’s a spooky dive, but we were able to spot those gorgeous little porcelain crabs in the hard corals on the hull. On the way back, we were “hailed” by one Irene, more of whom later, who had cleverly spotted a Spanish Dancer. The next day we were led on a long dive through the middle of the same reef, then, when most turned right to look at sand eels and other things, Jo and I turned left and made a bee line for the wreck. We had 20 minutes alone on the wreck before others arrived, which allowed us to take some decent pictures. I had dived this very site in 2006 with Rita Batelle, and no doubt some of you will remember her. The wreck has rotted a little, but the coral has grown on it.

All too soon we were back near Marsa Alam and were able to get the occasional mobile phone signal. Why did we need that..well I don’t really know its just one of those things. The best night dive for me was the last, on Abu Dabab 6. I dived with Dave. The reef looked battered and rocky, and unpromising. However we managed to spot 3 crocodile fish, a holothurian, a small red lionfish, a snake eel, several crinoids and a tiny cuttle fish that became so indignant at our presence that he squirted ink at us. Naturally I had left the camera behind for this dive – it always seems a sure way of making sure you see lots.  

All too soon our last day’s diving arrived – but the fist dive of the last day was Elphinstone! Promises of sharks at 40m at the northern plateau of this multi level reef had prompted us all to have an air top after the night dives 32% Nitrox. Cleverly working our air consumption so that bottle pressure went down to 150bar meant that with the air top we had about 28% for the 40m dive – perfect. A very rapid negative entry and quick descent followed by a short fight against the current led us to the very end of the reef, where there is a chasm and the reef becomes almost a point. The viz must have been 60m, allowing us to see down both drop offs at once. All too soon at 40m the remaining no stop time evaporated, and we drifted back along the eastern wall, slowly rising to the end of the dive at 5m. No sharks were seen. Personally I don’t think they exist here. I’ve seen more sharks on one dive in Kapalai or the Maldives , than in all the dives I have done in the Red Sea . Our final dive was just outside Marsa Alam, attempting to see the resident dugong – who did not appear. Rumour has it he’s gone south. We did see a number of rays and a turtle. The turtle looked dead – but it turned out was asleep!

With diving done we packed and were off the boat with almost indecent haste to the Marina Hotel . Despite having been here before I managed to lead Sue a merry dance trying to find our room…15 minutes of searching when actually it was 60 seconds from reception!! So much for my navigational skills. That evening the inimicable Irene (who, diving without a wet suit was in constant danger of submerged wardrobe malfunction) had organised a party for her other half and we were all invited to join in. The hotel produced a cake. This was the third or fourth cake of the week as the crew of the Sea Serpent had (amongst others) made a lovely cake for Sue – Happy Birthday Sue!!  

The next day was spent packing. Sue took about 10 minutes to pack – me, well about an hour and half trying to re-compress all the kit and photographic junk into the various boxes and nooks and crannies. We did find time to go and look at the lovely Grand Sea Serpent. We have all sworn that we will do a trip on this little ship one day.

All too soon we were saying our goodbyes to Clare & Paul and the others, and were squashing into the coach and heading for the airport where we to have a last bit of fun. Mike Hill had to empty his hold luggage. Why? A diver’s knife, perfectly legally nestling in the hold bag, had attracted the attention of one official, who seemed to think it a grand idea to try and get some dosh from Mike in order to let said knife through. Check in was tense….hand luggage was weighed along with hold luggage and somehow, my total luggage weight had expanded to a massive 49.1kg. I was prepared to be hauled up and charged almost infinite amounts of Egyptian Pounds for this flagrant violation of my allowance. Nothing, not a flicker from the clerk. Almost by way for revenge though we were to be stumped by something more benign than a knife or a mere 49.1kg of luggage. 

Batteries. Yes, despite the CAA regulations saying that virtually any battery can be carried in your hand luggage especially if it’s in its sealed packing, batteries were not allowed in the hand luggage by Marsa Alam staff. The logic escapes me….but Dave and I had to head back to check in having already passed though passport control once and then surrendering our passports as we went back through – a potentially difficult administrative situation. Could they find the hold bags? No, because the luggage check tags for the 6 of us (Jo tagging along still), that were all in the name of George Mitchell, had, as of course you would entirely expect, been stuck to the passport of Alan Sedgwick who had already gone through. Perfectly logical really. The sight of all my batteries, variously AA, AAA and so on, prompted one official to ask “So, you are a battery dealer, no?”….NO – I AM NOT A BLOODY BATTERY DEALER!!. In the end Dave nobly sacrificed his in flight comfort by stuffing the batteries into his hand luggage and sending it down the chute. Thanks Dave!!  

That was it – we were able to have a nice swimming pool of really good coffee then were shoehorned into the aircraft. With 100mph headwinds and the additional drag on the aircraft due to my excessive amounts of kit we only had to sit completely still in those cramped seats for 6 hours, arriving full of joy at Gatwick, welcomed back into the nice cool 0°C night air.

Thanks Alan for organising the trip, the lifts and being constantly cheerful. Well done to Dave who clocked up some Dive Leader dives and cracked 40m. Well done to Sue for those negative descents and thanks also for putting up with me as a cabin companion again. A great trip….Oh yes, did I manage to make Fiona smile – just about, when she said goodbye to us. But was it “glad to see you go” or was it “nice to have met you”? I shall never know.

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