Thursday, April 30, 2015

Nest of Eels

I've heard the expression "a nest of eels," but I don't think I'd ever seen one until today. We were diving at Sha'ab Sharm off Wadi el Gamel, and as I drifted by a coral pinnacle I noticed a huge eel tail. Where there's a tail, there's a head, so Dennis and I looked carefully into a few holes until we found it. And it was huge. And there was another big eel in there too. They were intertwined, I think they were mating. The next dive ended in the same area a couple of hours later, and the two eels were still in that hole together.

Chef Said made an amazing cake for dessert at lunch today. It was decorated with sliced fresh fruits and whipped cream, and tasted delicious. He put on his chefs' whites and his toque to present it, I'm sure he was justifiably proud. After lunch I took a nap while the boat moved north. We're now near Marsá Alam, about 30 miles from where we started last week in Port Ghalib. We made an afternoon dive at Habili Marsá Alam. A habili is a submerged reef in Arabic. The dive started nicely, there were lots of coral heads rising from a white sandy bottom, home to blue spotted rays and colorful fish.

Divemaster Erin said we would circumnavigate the habili, and there would be "a little bit" of current on one side that we would have to swim against. Erin is young and fit and that "little bit" was actually moderate and we had to swim against it for about 10 minutes. Many people found this quite unpleasant, and a couple of people blew through most of their air in it. The current crossed over a huge expanse of rubble, so we had all the fun of an aerobic swim with not a whole lot to look at. Finally we got around to the lee side of the reef. The reef came out to a point, with several swim-throughs. I went the long way around the outside, and it was cute to see the other divers popping out of the reef in different spots. I also saw two amazing angelfish: the dark blue and yellow Arabian, and the multi-striped Emperor. Unfortunately I was not able to photograph these stately colorful creatures. I also saw a couple of leopard spotted blennies. Blennies are adorable fish, they have sort of wedge-shaped bodies, rounded fins, and big googly eyes fringed with long "lashes." This pair was larger than I'm used to seeing, and they hopped rather than glided. Blennies can be shy, and as I approached with my camera they burrowed down into a cranny in the coral.

Miko and Nils made this dive together (they did one yesterday, too). They held hands most of the way, and she seemed to be doing a decent job for a complete beginner. I was thinking maybe I had misjudged him until I sat down to write this post. They're sitting across the bar lounge area from me, just within earshot, and he's telling her everything she did wrong on the dive. They got into a minor argument about her not understanding something he had been trying to tell her underwater about her technique. On the plus side, though, now that she's actually diving, he has to pay attention to her and can't just take off or do gonzo stuff. Tensions between him and Darwish seem to have abated. I hope he's still not going to try to get Darwish fired. Tomorrow is our last day of diving. We'll be dropping in twice in the morning, hopefully at the famous Elphinstone Reef but of course it all depends on the sea conditions.

Miracle Under the Sea

Miko is now diving. I guess she got all the mask stuff worked out, because Darwish took her through the swim throughs at Abu Ralahib Cave (really a bunch of cracks in St. John's Reef), and she swam excellently. I did say in the beginning maybe she'd surprise us all and do well, while Wendy had pegged her for a wash-out. I'm happy for Miko that she got though the skills that were bugging her and now can enter the underwater world.

Dennis had another adventure with another Napoleon wrasse. This one was as big as a medium-sized dog, and it was hanging out under the boat when we got back from "exploring" the caves. Of course Dennis swam after it to get its picture, and of course the fish would swim just out of good picture taking range, and then slowly reapproach when Dennis lowered his camera. The fish did this to Alvaro, too. Alvaro's wife Sara was able to swim right up to it, but she wasn't holding a camera. I found this all highly amusing.

I greatly enjoy swimming through areas that test my buoyancy skills, especially cracks and cathedrals where the sunlight spills down into a darkened area. Abu Ralahib is great for this, except that there were several other liveaboards here, with one other dive gang in the site at the same time as us. I didn't know they were there until divemaster Erin took us around a corner and blam they were coming the other way. I had wondered earlier why one chamber had so much sand kicked up in it, even our least elegant diver had improved greatly throughout the week and no longer stirred up the bottom.

Twenty divers in one corridor going in opposite directions was unpleasant, like being in stop and go freeway traffic. I sunk myself to the bottom, edged over into a sofa-sized alcove, and waited for the chaos to sort itself out. Because there has been no surge or current lately, the water layers have not been mixing. It was quite cold in that alcove. I shared it with a gorgeous Emperor Angelfish who I tried to photograph, but I was too close so the picture was blurry.

I'm enjoying doing three dives and then resting on the spacious shaded "bar" deck of this excellent yacht. Wendy's husband Gary and I have taken to reading and napping up here while most everyone else goes on the fourth dive of the day. The staff schedules five dives a day, but I'm not interested in keeping up. Putting on and taking off all my wetsuit layers is a chore, and I really do love laying around up here writing, working on my photos, and gazing at the sea.

St. John's Reef

The furthest point south on our voyage was St. John's Reef, about 130 miles north of the border with Sudan. On the west side of the Red Sea, Egypt makes up about half of the coastline. Sudan lies to the south, then Eritrea, with Djibouti standing at the entrance the Indian Ocean. Looking at a map, St. John's Reef is where the Tropic of Cancer crosses the Red Sea, between the towns of Berenice and Bîr Shalatein. We spent two days here diving at Big Gota and Little Gota. The water has gotten another degree warmer, now reading 73-74 on my computer, which might actually be 76-77 in real life. It's cool, but very comfortable in all my layers of Sharkskin and neoprene.

We've seen very young white tip reef sharks, turtles, nudibranchs, and beautiful soft corals crowned with clouds of little fish. A Napoleon wrasse followed my buddy Dennis for an entire dive. Every time he would try to take a picture of it, it would swim away either straight up or straight down. Then, when he started ignoring it again, it would come back and hang out in his bubbles, just over his shoulder. Dennis would then try to take its photo, and the game would begin again. I started laughing out loud under water because this fish was so funny.

There haven't been any issues with he-man Nils on the past few dives, so I'm assuming he's settling down. I did find out, however, that he booked the Open Water certification course for his wife Miko without her ever having done the confined water dives. Usually when you get basic dive training, the first few dives are in a pool to keep things extra safe and to help build confidence before jumping into the ocean. The divemasters here had emailed back and forth before the trip to find out if Miko had done the confined water dives, and got conflicting answers to what should have been a simple yes-or-no question. Anyway, small wonder why she's so freaked out.

Hell Hath No Fury...

...like a pissed off divemaster. Nils (I've been spelling it wrong all week) did some more jackassy stuff, and divemaster Darwish gave him what for in front of everyone. I've never seen a divemaster so mad. Drama aside, we had two lovely dives at Big Gota in St. John's Reef. I've been looking for a particularly pretty nudibranch people call a "Pajama Chromidorus." It's about two inches long, and is black, purple, orange, and white. Someone pointed one out for me, and I'm super pleased that I managed to get a decent picture of it using my Flip macro lens and my hand-held video light. We also saw a good sized shark, and had a fun swim into a cavern. There was a hole in the ceiling, and sun rays streamed in like through a window in a cathedral.

The second dive was similar, with the added excitement of small white tip reef sharks coming by three times. We moved on to Abu Bassala, "bassala" means "onion" in Arabic, this place got its name when a load of onions fell into the sea and washed up on the reef. Today the sea was as smooth as velvet, all different shades of blue, with a few white boats off in the distance. Underwater was lovely too, and I got a picture of the cutest little red starfish. My ear was being a tiny bit iffy, so I've decided to sit out the fourth dive of the day.

The latest drama update is that Nils wants Darwish fired. Nils claims he's friends with the guy who owns the boat. Fortunately the Operations Manager for the boat is on board this week, and is seeing first hand what is going on. Miko, his wife, got back in the water this afternoon. I happened to see her in the middle of the "remove your mask" drill, so hopefully things are going ok for her. I'm not sure it helped that Nils was hovering in the water a couple of yards away watching the whole thing, but maybe it did. It's interesting, having been in a relationship with a self-centered jerk, to see this whole thing from the outside. I am glad beyond measure that I got the jerk I had briefly been married to out of my life.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Dolphins of Sataya

Sataya Reef is a long thin crescent, home to a large pod of White Stripe Dolphins. These are bigger than Spinners and smaller than Bottlenose. They hunt in the open ocean in the mornings and evenings, and spend the day resting in the shallow warm water at Sataya. We got ready for snorkeling (scuba diving is not allowed because it disturbs the dolphins), and made our way out in the zodiacs to slowly and calmly intercept them. I slid into the water in front of the pod, and listened to them squeak/whistle as they swam by. A couple of mother/baby pairs peeled off and circled back to take a look at me. When the pod got too far away, we climbed back into the zodiacs and slid back in at another location. One time a little dolphin was eyeing me, and swam by trailing bubbles thinly from his blowhole while whistling at a high frequency.

The dolphins were so cute we could have stayed all day, but we've got a dive schedule to keep up with so after about 45 minutes we got back on the liveaboard and moved to our next dive site. The next site was at the other end of the very long reef from the dolphins' hangout. Fury Shoals features a deep drop-off topped by a huge coral garden. It was very late in the afternoon so various reef fish were starting to school, which fascinates me. Sadly, I never properly re-warmed myself after swimming with the dolphins, so I ended up getting quite cold on this dive.

Back on the boat it was soon time for dinner. Nels sat himself at my table, and I pointedly ignored him for as long as I could. However, he was trying REALLY HARD to be pleasant and engaging, so after a while I sort of started talking to him. And then he started talking about how he got 42 minutes of deco at The Blue Hole in Belize. I'm sure everyone with him loved that. He also told us that he handed divemaster Darwish a pair of $350 sunglasses to hold while he was snorkeling with the dolphins this afternoon. When Nels got back in the zodiac, the glasses were gone. Nels said he wasn't going to tip at the end of the week because Darwish lost his glasses and "karma is a bitch." I refrained from pointing out that perhaps karma has already been satisfied after this morning by his sunglasses being lost at sea. Oh yeah--update on his wife's (yes WIFE, I found out they've been married for five years) dive lessons: she didn't do so well today and wanted to cancel the rest of the course, but she was convinced to try again tomorrow. She's really hung up on the removing/replacing/clearing your mask skill. When she takes her mask off she starts holding her breath even though the regulator is in her mouth. Bryan came up with a good idea, she should just float on the surface with her face in the water and breathe through the regulator until she gets used to the sensations. Then she should sink herself just a few feet and practice breathing.

It always surprises me when people freak about mask removal. It was never a problem with me because I spent about half of every summer underwater in the lake near where I lived as a kid. I didn't have a mask or goggles back then, so having water in my face and eyes is no biggie. When I was getting my Open Water certification, two burly Scottish guys in my group could not deal with the mask skills either. It took them a while to psych themselves up for it, but they eventually got it. The thing that scared me was having to take off my gear underwater, not float away, and put it back on again. I managed it on the first try but wow did being out of the BC with no weight belt on really disorient me. We'll be motoring overnight yet further south to St. John's Reef, where we should see some more sharks, and where there is a large and lovely cavern to swim in to.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Getting Warmer

The high winds of the past two weeks have dropped off, plus we're much further south, so the air temperature is now about 15 degrees warmer than last week. This will make things rather hot and sticky while suiting up for diving, because the water temperature does not (can not) increase as quickly. We still need to dress for cool water. This morning started out at a new location, Shaab Maksour. The plan was to dive deep to the north plateau and look for sharks. We hopped in the water and had to swim across a current to where the plateau drops off into the deep sea. It was a bit of work but just after we arrived an oceanic blacktip was seen circling. We were down about 85 feet or so. There were actually two sharks, but I never did see the second one.

While all this was going on, one diver separated himself from the group and swam much further along the drop-off than where we were hovering. It was our resident legend in his own mind, Nels. (Last week's solo wanderer, Bryan, stayed in the vicinity.) At one point Nels had purposely gone so far away that divemaster Darwish told us all to wait, and started swimming after him. A furious exchange of hand signals ensued, which ended with Darwish throwing his hands in the "air" and turning around and swimming back to us. The newer divers were running through their air because we had been quite deep for quite some time, so we swam shallower along the reef for a while. Still no Nels. We did safety stops, still no Nels. We were getting back into our zodiacs, still no Nels. The group I was with was all back on our zodiac and were motoring back to the boat and still no Nels.

The other zodiac waited and of course he came back, and I'm told he got an earful. Not only was this the second dive where he took off on his own, he also had gone into deco (only a short obligation, but still). Yesterday, he left a dive in the middle, abandoning his buddy, because the dive was "boring." When the staff asked him why the heck he left his buddy, he just shrugged and said that nothing was going to happen to his buddy because it was such a boring dive. This all pissed me off enormously. We're a boat at sea, with a mixture of divers. In my mind the more experienced people need to be attentive and respectful so that the divemaster can keep an eye on the people who actually need watching. Nels swimming off is a problem, the people who know what they are doing should NOT be the ones causing problems. When I saw him back on the boat I said to him, loudly, angrily and in front of everybody, "I don't care that you are a demolition diver and a Naval officer, you are a douchebag in the water." He rolled his eyes and said "right," which was what I expected. I was damn mad, because the last thing we needed was for this jerk who was bragging last night that he hacked his dive computer to finally make a real mistake. If dude wants to do gonzo stuff on the job or with his tech diving friends that's his business, but here on the boat there are ways of doing things, and no one should be above the rules because that models bad behavior.

He was bitching at one point that this was a horrible boat, but the senior staff talked him down. They also talked me down a bit, but now that I've yelled at that ass I'm done with him so it's all good. I have no reason to speak to him for the rest of the week. We moved the boat after breakfast to Shaab Claude, a reef with labyrinthine swim throughs. Erin wound us through the maze, and we ended up in a gorgeous coral garden. We cruised around for a while, and some guys with rebreathers and side mount rigs wandered by. It looked like a lot of stuff to deal with. I'm assuming they were rebreather students from another boat because I can't imagine why else anyone would be diving in such a shallow area with all that gear, plus they weren't very good swimmers underwater. I am not sure but I think we are having to Sataya now to visit the dolphins. I think I have another late afternoon dive coming up, too.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Heading South

This week ten new passengers arrived on the boat. Including myself there are four Californians, four Portuguese (two who have been living in Mozambique), a Swedish guy who is moving to DC with his not-yet-diving Japanese girlfriend, a Japanese man, and last week's buddy from Tenneesee. We range in experience from Miko, who is getting Open Water certified this week, to her boyfriend Nels, who used to do underwater demolition in the U.S. Navy. The whole Nels-Miko-diving dynamic is, shall we say, interesting to watch. Nels is a gung-ho name dropping gearhead who told Miko that she really must learn to dive. Miko isn't exactly loving it, but she's giving it a good try. I wish her well but I think my extrovert new friend Wendy is secretly taking bets on how long it will be until they have a screaming fight. Nels is kind of obnoxious. We got in the water at Abu Dabab and according to him it was an awful boring dive so he got out at 36 minutes. It's fine to end a dive because it blows, but it was actually a lovely dive and he sounded rather bitchy poo-pooing it.

We actually started the day back at Marsá Shoana. I'm now diving with Dennis, a nice man in his late 60s from Carlsbad. His wife couldn't make it so he came alone (plus she doesn't like cool water). He's a very good dive buddy, is great in the water, and his somewhat faster than me air use means that our dives are 50-55 minutes. This is fine by me, as I am now getting out of the water before I get cold, unlike last week. Stuff at Marsá Shoana seems to come in size large. I saw the biggest scorpionfish I've ever seen, a huge nudibranch, and a massive turtle. The dugong did not turn up again, sadly.

After Marsá Shoana we went a bit further south to Abu Dabab, where we ended up last Friday because we couldn't get to Elphinstone. I didn't dive Abu Dabab last week, and was happy to get in today because the sea was much calmer. Although he-man Nels hated the site, I thought it was a fun dive. First we swam by a wooden boat that caught fire and sank about six years ago, then we made our way though a slot passageway though the reef. I enjoy swim throughs, this one was twisty and went up and down, dumping us out in a coral amphitheater full of jellyfish. They looked like moon jellies to me, they did not have long trailing tentacles. We visited a bright red anemone, and then worked our way back to the boat. There appeared to be some sort of low air drama with one of the divers from Mozambique, but it happened practically next to the boat so it looked like simple reassurance from divemaster Erin handled everything. Those divers probably just didn't realize we were right by the boat and had been swimming at 5 meters long enough already that they had already completed their safety stop. Anyway, all is well. We are now motoring about 100 miles south overnight to Fury Shoals. Aside from diving, we will also try to snorkel with a resident pod of striped dolphins. After that we will go a bit further south to a place called St. John's Island, which is supposed to have a big lovely sunlit cavern you can swim in to. I do not know how much longer I will have an Internet connection for, but I will at the most be back online on Friday with more log entries and pictures.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Red Sea Rising

After dinner on Thursday night, we departed Daedalus for the 7-8 hour crossing to the Egyptian coast near Elphinstone reef. The weather report showed the winds had picked up and that the seas had 4-6 foot swells, so the Captain planned to motor to our more protected backup site near shore. If things calm down by morning, we can easily backtrack to Elphinstone, otherwise we can dive where we are. I've been on plenty of rocking and rolling ships at sea, and my usual method of dealing with any queasiness is to sit outside and look at the horizon. That doesn't work so well when you are in the middle of the sea with no land in sight after dark. I watched the light from the beacon at Daedalus, but realized I would not be able to see it after a while as it is only visible for about 30km. The best time to take seasickness medication is before you actually get sick, so I went to get something from divemaster Erin. I found her, along with the crew who were not actively involved in operating the ship, sitting in the outdoor lounge on the second deck of the ship. A few looked kind of uncomfortable. Erin got seasickness pills for several of us.

The other female guest this week, Judi, is a nurse and does rotations as the shipboard nurse for a couple of cruise lines. Her husband Matt was seasick, so she settled him in a beanbag chair in the middle of the salon. Judi explained that it's best to get as low to the waterline and as close to the center of the ship as possible, and also told me that it takes about half an hour for the medication to start working. So, I laid on the shag carpet next to Matt until half an hour passed. After about 20 minutes I progressed from feeling vaguely uncomfortable and anxious about possibly getting sick to feeling like this whole thing was an amusing adventure. My cabin happens to be just above the waterline amidships, so it seemed like retiring there was my best bet. So far, so good.

The Red Sea is clearly not for the faint of heart or the easily seasick. Surface conditions can change in an hour from placid and lake-like to rolling like the open ocean. The famous offshore dive sites, The Brothers, Daedalus, and Elphinstone, can feature ripping currents, heavy surface chop, surge, and high winds. Water temperature this week was 71-74 degrees, and visibility was 60-90 feet. These are not perfect happy tropical vacation conditions. The diving is very good, but I do not recommend the isolated offshore reefs to beginners or the skittish. Next week we will wend our way south through reefs and islands near shore. It should be calmer, warmer, and more suited to my preferred style of diving. I'm not a super gung-ho adventure diver. I like to be comfortable and to float along looking at the pretty fish. I'm not sorry I did this week, though, because I finally got to see hammerheads up close.

I fell asleep after I wrote this at about 1:30am. An hour later I was jolted awake and flying across my cabin. I landed on the floor and slammed the back of my head against the flat wall, which was fortunate in that I had no pain or tenderness later. The same roll also sent Divemaster Darwish into the air, and he landed with his back against the hard wooden edge of the second berth in his room. His back hurts today. I hope everything is ok with him. After that mighty jolt I stayed on the floor and pulled pillows and comforters down to make a little bed. I couldn't fall asleep, and it was too rough to read or play video games, so I just stayed up all night until we reached our mooring at Abu Dabab reef. They let us sleep until 9am and then rang the bell for breakfast. I ventured topside and verified that none of my belongings had gone missing from the dive deck during our rough crossing. Once again, Darwish wasn't so fortunate, one of his favorite dive t-shirts and his snorkel were gone with the wind.

The conditions on the lee side of the reef were ok, but looked bouncy and choppy. The dive briefing didn't excite me so I crawled back into bed and took an hour+ nap. I was awakened by jolting rolling, the divers had returned and we were motoring north along the coast to our home harbor at Port Ghalib. There is no diving tomorrow, it's departure/arrival day for guests, which is just as well as the high winds and rough seas are forecast to continue all day Saturday. They are expected (hoped) to die off again on Sunday, which should feature the first dives with the new guests. We'll be at Marsá Shoana again, which is fine by me as that is the site where I saw the dugong. After that we'll head south for a week, and will again attempt to stop at Elphinstone next Friday.

Daedalus

We arrived around 5am at a reef in the middle of nowhere with a black and white striped lighthouse on it. Half of the boats from The Brothers were also there. Early morning is the best time to look for the hammerheads, so we took a zodiac to the north side of the reef with the plan to go down to about 90 feet and see what happened by. We were barely in the water for two minutes when we found what we were looking for: a small school of 15 scalloped hammerhead sharks. They cruised around us, above and below, and we hung out in the blue (around 70 feet) watching them for nearly 15 minutes before returning to shallower water along the reef.

I took a nap after that, and re-joined the other divers for their third dive (my second) of the day at Anemone City. The idea was to photograph a wall of Magnificent Anemones. As we approached our destination, two hammerheads slowly swam by. We watched them for a while, and then explored the wall. It was completely carpeted with anemones from about 15 to 65 feet. I've never seen so many in one place at one time. For the final dive of the day, we hopped off the back of the boat--and I nearly landed on a grey reef shark who was cruising around the boat. At first I thought he was another oceanic white tip because he was accompanied by a little black pilot fish, but divemaster Erin later confirmed that it was a grey shark. We swam along the wall near where the boat was moored, and saw some particularly lovely orange and lavender soft corals that were just starting to open up into feeding mode for the evening. The shark was still there when we returned to the boat.

The next day the wind started picking up. We went out in the morning to look for hammerheads, and once again were not disappointed. We hung out in about 80 feet of water, and soon enough a few ventured into view.
Unfortunately my dive buddy had disappeared from sight at that point, and I started the countdown to when I had to surface. He had been lagging further and further behind the group, and was also deeper than me, so I started wondering if he'd gotten narcked and gone to the bottom. I tried to tell the divemaster that we were missing a person, but she thought I was telling her there were sharks behind her (which there were). Just then a hammerhead swam particularly close to me so I thought "to hell with him for getting separated from the group" and snapped a few pictures. Yes this was kind of evil of me, and I admit I wondered what my liability would be if my dive buddy died, but the happy end to this story is that by the time I was done looking at the shark the missing man had come back in to view. It turns out that another pair of divers in our group had been able to see him the whole time, but the episode was disconcerting and annoying.

We finished the dive along the reef, where we found a turtle eating his breakfast and some beautiful purple-spotted nudibranchs. After breakfast we were gearing up to go out to see the hammerheads again, but by this point the wind and the seas were picking up and I started worrying about getting in and out of the zodiac. It's not that I couldn't do it, it's just that it makes me nervous and I simply wasn't in the mood to do anything difficult. I'm not a hardcore adventure diver, and I've had plenty of dives of clambering in and out of bobbing boats, whacking my knees and shins on ladders and getting bruised up. A key to safe diving is to know your limits, and I firmly believe this means mentally as well as physically. There's always another dive, unless you make a mistake and have an accident. There are two more dives scheduled for today, and I'm unsure as to whether I'll do either of them because the winds and chop are increasingly strong.

Lucky for me, the winds dropped down in the late afternoon, so I jumped into the water for the final dive of the day. It was a mellow cruise along the wall right near the boat. I saw several eels, two Napoleon wrasse, and a type of anemone I hadn't noticed before. This one had wavy, almost corkscrew, tentacles. My dive buddy lagged way far behind the group again, and I patiently hung out waiting for him to catch up. After the dive the other divers and the divemaster all said something to him about staying closer to the group. He responded that he's solo certified and dives alone at home all the time. Be that as it may, the official Aggressor Fleet policy is that solo diving is never allowed. I'll keep my eye on him but if something stupid happens I won't feel responsible. After the last dive of the day we had a delicious dinner, and then departed for the final dive destination for this week: Elphinstone. Unfortunately weather conditions do not look good for diving there tomorrow. There is a nearby backup spot, though. I'm staying on the boat for another week to dive the "Southern" itinerary, which will give me another shot at Elphinstone next week.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Brothers

After diving the first day at Marsá Shoana, we motored overnight to a pair of pinnacle islands in the middle of the Red Sea: the Brothers. Big Brother has a lighthouse on it, built by the British in the late 1800's. The Egyptian Navy still maintains it, and lighthouse keepers rotate in for two month stints on this small bare island over 50 miles from any shore. Despite the lighthouse, accidents do happen, and there are two wrecks smashed against the side of Big Brother.

We started with a dive along the east side of Big Brother. While we were swimming around a corner a grey reef shark appeared at our level. He swam right under me, and of course I was too mesmerized to take a picture. I skipped the next dive to give my ear a rest, and took a power nap. Between the jet lag and the cool water I've been wiped out. I joined in for the third dive, on the north and west side of Big Brother. We dropped in on top of the wrecked Numidia, which sunk in the 1950s. This cargo ship made a vital navigational error even though it saw the lighthouse, and basically sailed straight into the pinnacle and snapped the bow off. Other ships came, and the cargo was offloaded before she slid down the slope to rest with her stern in deep water. The wreck is completely frosted over with hard and soft corals, and you can swim into the engine room. Unfortunately no one wanted to do this except me, so we skipped that and instead swam along the deck. After the Numidia, we made our way along the west wall of Big Brother, passing the wrecked Aida. The Aida was a supply ship for the lighthouse, and tipped over and sunk while offloading supplies.

There were a LOT of liveaboards out at The Brothers, and our Captain wanted a good position at Little Bother, so we picked up and moved over to the smaller island before the fourth dive. I was amazed at how many dive boats had made the trip over from coastal Egypt, there were about a dozen between the two islands. It had been windy, with choppy and bouncy surface conditions, so getting in and out of the zodiac was somewhat nerve wracking. Fortunately late in the afternoon the winds died down, and our dive on the south side of Little Brother was delightful. We drifted for the first half, along the wall where hundreds of thousands of anthias darted in and out of the colorful corals. Squadrons of coronet fish escorted us: they'd hang out under my stomach or behind my shoulder, and when they saw something they wanted to eat they'd dart out and slam it against the reef to trap it. So many coronet fish were hunting like this it was quite comical. We'd try to shoo them away but they didn't scare easily and kept coming back.

That night while moored off Little Brother, the crew kept seeing an Oceanic White Tip shark. He was quite curious and would swim from boat to boat. We hoped to see him when we dove the next day. When I woke up a 6am Tuesday morning, I went out on deck and saw that one of the other boats was already picking up divers. They had gone in at break of dawn, at about 5:15am. That is way the heck too early! We got in at around 6:45 and went to the plateau at the north side of Little Brother. A gray reef shark circled in the current until another team of divers descended upon him and scared him away. We drifted back through clouds of reef fish, at one point I was completely surrounded by anthias. The divers who scared the shark overtook us, and we wondered where they were going and what they expected to see by going so fast. You find all the good stuff when you move slowly. We saw a golden spotted flatworm and a couple of green moray eels. I watched one getting cleaned by a little black and blue wrasse.

During breakfast reports came in that the oceanic white tip was still around, so on our next dive we went looking for him and for some Napoleon wrasse. I spent most of the dive looking out into the blue for the shark, and was about to give up 50 minutes later when it appeared. It was near the surface, swam a loop in the middle distance, and then faded away into the blue again. I got a good look, though, it was like staring at the sharks in the Monterey Aquarium shark tank. We have two more dives scheduled for Little Brother. Thresher Sharks hang out here so we'll go look for one on the next dive. [We didn't see any, but that oceanic white tip cruised by again.] I'm going to call it a day after that: my ear is doing pretty well and I want to keep it that way. Tonight we will motor 100 miles south and slightly west to Daedalus Reef, which by all accounts should be spectacular.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Desert is Hot but the Sea is Damn Chilly

When I was packing for this trip, I read reports from the boat saying that a 7mm suit and a hood are suggested. I pooh-poohed this, because divemasters are often cold, and besides it was going to be 90 degrees topside so I'd be crazy to wear that thick of a neoprene suit. I should have listened, it's quite chilly in the water, about 73 degrees. I'm wearing Sharkskin socks, shortie pants, long sleeve top, and vest with hood. I also have on reef shoes, gloves, and my dive-o-saurus cap. All of this is topped off with my 5mm wet suit and I'm still getting cold after about 20 minutes. The moral of this story: if I ever dive here again, bring the 7mm suit. Cold aside, the three dives I did today were super. Blue spotted Rays, zillions of fish, several turtles, two octopuses, many eels (including a MONSTER sized green moray that the dive master said was "just average"), and even a dugong. There's lots of coral, both hard and soft. I'd heard that the Red Sea was overrated and dived out, but it seems if you get away from the northern resorts and get on a liveaboard it's much better. Between the jet lag, last night's insomnia, and over three hours immersed in cool water, I am fighting to stay awake. I'm trying desperately to make it to 9pm! There's a night dive going on right now that I'm skipping to give my ears a rest--I had an ear infection the week before last and need to last through two weeks of diving on this trip. After the divers get back, the boat will start motoring to The Brothers, 50+ miles away in the geographic middle of the Red Sea. It should take 7-9 hours to get there. I won't t have Internet out there, but I'll keep my little journal going and catch you all up on Friday.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Not Really "in" Egypt

To be clear, I'm well aware that I'm not "really" in Egypt. I bypassed Cairo entirely, and have gone from airport to hotel to private gated resort, and am about to get on a dive yacht for two weeks. I actually planned it this way. As an unaccompanied woman, I did not want to deal with any middle eastern male-dominated cultural stuff. So far the only working women I've seen were in the Vodaphone shop in Hurghada. No female waiters, housekeepers, or hotel staff anywhere thus far. I'd been warned before I left that even in the tourist resorts Egyptians are frustrating and difficult to deal with. Fortunately EVERYONE so far has been hospitable and pleasant. My strategy of making Egypt easy to deal with by insulating myself from it all has worked. Other tourists have been very surprised that I'm traveling alone; so far I've talked to some Germans and some Dutch. I'm looking forward to getting on the dive yacht tomorrow. My ideal for the middle of nowhere is being on a dive boat with hundreds of thousands of marine friends just a splash away. Divers tend to be a congenial bunch who will talk about diving until the octopuses swim home, so the coming week should be more social.

Red Sea Voyages

I left San Francisco on Tuesday evening (April 14) on Turkish Airlines' new non-stop service to Istanbul, arriving Wednesday evening (April 15). There was a bit of drama at check-in because the counter agent wasn't sure I could fly to Egypt without a visa. I told her and her supervisor that Americans can get a visa on arrival. They then told me that I can only stay 14 days in Egypt, which is also untrue. I was in the middle of pulling up the Egyptian embassy's visa web page when someone relayed the message that yes I am fine and please check me in. I think they were a bit confused because there are a few places (especially Sharm Al Sheik) where you can go without a visa for up to 14 days, but Port Ghalib/Marsá Al'alam isn't one of them.

The 12-hour flight with 10 hours of time zone changes was pleasant and uneventful. I sat "up front" which meant I had a lay-flat seat and a dinner that would have gone on for hours if I hadn't bailed. First there was strawberry juice with mint, with a piece of Turkish delight. Then champagne and pistachios. Then an amuse bouche of three mini savory tarts -- which I thought was the appetizer. THEN they wheeled in an appetizer CART, with about eight selections on it. They looked amazing, I had sliced grilled chicken with avocado, hummus, beet salad with goat cheese, and a smoked trout canapé. They were all scrumptious. I was shocked at the arrival of a soup course: roasted tomato bisque with croutons. At this point I was full, and had about four bites of the main course (a dried out steak with roasted potatoes, they were out of the mushroom ravioli). I skipped the dessert cart entirely, but it looked incredible: chocolate pots de creme, baklava, various cakes and tarts. And there was also a cheese course! I don't know how anyone could eat even part of all the courses. I brushed my teeth and settled down for a 5 1/2 hour nap.

Once in Istanbul, I waited for my midnight flight to Hurghada, on the Red Sea in Egypt. The Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul is even more insane than dinner on the plane: pool table, movie lounge with popcorn, TV walls with wireless headphones so you can tune to the screen of your choice (including a professional netball game), virtual golf, a PlayStation bar, a bank of desktop computers with a printer, a piano lounge, shower rooms, lockers for your bags, and SO MUCH FOOD. There was a pasta station, grilled meats/vegetables, soups, salads, flatbreads with toppings, a café with a pastry buffet, a tea garden with an olive bar, and a fresh fruit bar. Bar carts stocked with a good variety of booze, wine carts, and fridges of water/juices/beer were everywhere (and self-serve). I don't know how they do this but OMG it was better than even the Cathay Pacific business lounge in Hong Kong or the Lufthansa first class lounge in Munich. I'm stupefied by the excess of hospitality.

My connecting flight left on time, and was scheduled for a mere two hours, but that didn't stop Turkish Airlines from loading me up with more food. Turkish delight and lemonade, more drinks (I stayed with lemonade, it had fresh mint in it), a mezze plate with zucchini stuffed with creamy blue cheese, something delicious involving eggplant, and salmon tartare. There was a fresh salad, a cheese plate (on a SLATE!!) and a dish of chocolate mousse. They offered me an entree TOO but I said no. After crossing the Mediterranean and flying over the Nile River delta and Cairo, we landed at about 1:45am Thursday morning (April 16). I had pre-arranged for a driver to meet me, which was great because he turned up pre-Immigration with my visa in hand, and slapped it into my passport, eliminating any waiting in line for me. I was the first person through, but then had to wait over half an hour for my baggage. I had pre-booked the night at the Hurghada Marriott Red Sea Resort, about a ten minute drive from the airport. I arrived, checked in, and was in bed sleeping by 3:30am.

I woke up at 10:00am so I could get breakfast and take a walk. The hotel is nicely situated and the area is pretty in that there is a beach, a little island reachable by footbridge from the hotel, and many yachts tied up along the waterfront. My driver picked me up at 11:30am, took me to a bank to change money (I couldn't get any at the various airports I passed through), and to Vodaphone so I could get a local data SIM (about $10 US for 3.5gig). Then we began the drive south to the planned resort community of Port Ghalib, between Quesir and Marsá Al'alam. I had been told that this was going to be a four hour drive, but it turns out it was only 2 1/2--through the most unrelenting desert I have yet seen. There were low craggy mountains to the west, the Red Sea lay to the east, and EVERYTHING else was rocks and sand. The dry parts of California are lush in comparison. It's Dune, seriously. I have no idea how people live here, even the villages and towns we passed through were unrelentingly dry and sandy. Every so often there would be a tree shading someone's front door, but that was it. No gardens, no farming, most of the time not even any scrub grass. There was a building boom here at one point, which has gone completely bust. Apartment complexes and resorts stand unfinished, abandoned. In 500 years people may marvel over this, wondering what it is about Egypt that compels people to build so much. My silly theory, and this extends back to the days of the pyramids, is that there is NOTHING else here, so people build. What else there to do?

After passing through a few police checkpoints and by a couple of mobile military radar tracking stations (only one in use), we arrived at my hotel, The Palace Port Ghalib. It used to be run by InterContinental, but was taken over by an Egyptian company in February. Fortunately the transfer of reservation information had taken place, so my room was waiting for me. Unfortunately when I tried to pay all my cards were declined. I paid in cash (US dollars) and was shown to my room. It was quite pleasant, overlooking a garden, with a bit of the Red Sea and the marina in view. I called my banks and got the card situation straightened out, the upshot being that they need to enter my card number manually to process charges here. I advised them of the possibility of fraud, and was reassured that so far they had seen nothing and that they'd keep an eye on things. The hotel is "all-inclusive" of meals for an extra 25€ per day, but it appeared to be buffet food only and I *hate* large-scale buffets, so I declined this option. There is a small collection of shops and restaurants nearby, so I set out to explore.

The hotel's pool is lovely, and there is a large beach area with shaded lounge chairs and cabanas looking east over the Red Sea. I walked out on a long pier, and gazed into the crystal clear water to see abundant corals and reef fish. This bodes well for actual diving. The shoreline curves into to the port itself, so I walked by the marina and the harbormaster to the shopping area. Many units were empty, again evidence of the economic situation, but I found an Italian restaurant with upholstered sofas for lounging on and eating. After a tasty dinner of gnocchi bolognese, I returned to the hotel for the night. This morning is very windy, so I've forgone lounging by the pool to sit in a (chain) coffee shop, having a latte and a croissant for breakfast. I am amazed at the number of dive boats here. The boat I'm getting on tomorrow is still out for the week, so I haven't seen it yet.

Camels! I keep forgetting to mention the camels! I've seen four so far: three here as an attraction in the tourist area, and one "in real life" as we were driving down the coast yesterday. We were passing a small village, and Bedouins were camped nearby. The camel was drinking water out of a trough. It was the first time I'd ever seen one not in a zoo. I plan to spend today lounging and reading, and will eat dinner later at an Egyptian cafe/bar/smoking place in the shops near the hotel. I'm going down to the boat tomorrow afternoon, and then it's a week at sea. We'll be heading out to some pinnacle islands called The Brothers. They are 50 miles offshore--half way to Saudi Arabia! From there we go to Daedalus, which I think I read is a coral atoll here in the Red Sea, and finally to Elphinstone Reef. All these sites are far enough offshore that I probably won't have data coverage, but if I get any and can post an update I will. We'll come back in to Port Ghalib at the end of the week for a night, and then will head for some reefs to the south.

To read about the rest of this two-week long trip, keep hitting "Newer Post" below.