DIVING THE RED SEA (and touring
Cairo) - December 3-12, 2015
(Click here to see the pictures from
The executive summary (does that imply that
executive's time is precious or simply that have short attention spans??)
is that we had a really great time exploring both Cairo and the underwater
wonders of the Red Sea on the Red Sea Aggressor, despite some
logistical issues which mainly involved weather. I think I’ll structure
this somewhat chronologically and by category in terms of trip elements.
We were 20 strong originally but two folks had to drop out. The remaining
travelers were: Di Krall, Sophie Lappas, Don & Melinda Dietrich, Mike
& Sharol Carter, Bob & Laura Mosqueda, Tamar Toister, Eric Ernest,
Mark Geraghty, Dave Cooley, Shirley Parry, Marilyn Lawrence, George
Schneider, Britt Evans, and Laurie Kasper & me (Ken Kurtis).
We came from all corners it seems. Most left from L.A. but Don &
Melinda came from Honolulu, George started in Mobile, Alabama, Sophie left
from Seattle, and Britt came in from San Francisco. But we all
rendezvoused in Frankfurt, Germany, and from there flew Lufthansa into
Cairo. (You can also get in on Air France from Paris or British Airways
from London.) As the plan was to spend two days in Cairo before the
diving, that’s where we’ll start.
There were two reasons to spend time here. First of all, Egyptian
civilization has been around for some 6,000 years so how you can you pass
up an opportunity to visit the spots where civilization began, as well as
see some of the amazing artifacts and sites that dominate the landscape,
including the only remaining wonder of the original Seven Wonders of the
World. (That would be the Great Pyramid, which was literally across the
street from our hotel.)
The other reason to spend time in Cairo is a practical/logistical one. You’re
dealing (at least from L.A.) with a 10-hour time difference. Stopping in
Cairo gives your body some time to adapt before the diving starts. It also
allows some time for any missed bags to catch up with you before the boat
leaves port (which fortunately was not an issue for us).
Also – not to sound too graphic about it – but if anyone’s going to
get sick or have issues due to the travel, it’s better to have that
happen in Cairo and have some time to adjust than to have it happen on
your first dive day.
Since we were going to be on the Red Sea Aggressor, we had arranged
the land portions through Aggressor's land-tour office,
LiveAboardVacations (Lisa Stierwalt was our contact). They in turn, hooked
us up with Travel Egypt and those folks were on top of their game, meeting
us at the airport as we got off the plane, shepherding us through
Immigration & Customs, getting us to the hotel, doing our two days of
tours, getting us back to the airport to fly to Hurghada, meeting us there
and taking us to another hotel for an overnight, and then picking us up in
a tour bus the next day for the drive down to Port Ghalib. We’ve got
nothing but good things to say about them.
One thing we learned right away (and had been altered to previously) is
that it seems everyone in Egypt has their hand out for tip money.
Egyptians can also be very . . . persistent . . . in offering to help you.
It seems that “No” to them simply means “Try again.” Amusing at
first but at times, especially at the tourist sites, annoying.
And when you do decide to tip, it seems that a single American dollar is
the right amount. Guy handles your bag at the hotel? Give him a dollar.
Someone hails a cab for you? Give him a dollar. I think the Egyptian flag
should feature an upturned palm with a dollar being shoved into it.
I should also point out that, despite all the recent turmoil in the Middle
East, and specifically the bombing of the Russian jetliner over the Sinai
(hundreds of miles from where we were) as well as the murders in Paris, we
always felt safe and never felt threatened.
That being said, we also couldn’t help but notice that we had armed
security escorts everywhere our bus went, starting at the airport. There
was a plainclothes guy who got on the bus with us, and we were followed by
a small armored truck with four or five armed guys inside bringing up the
rear. This was not uncommon as we saw other tourist busses with the same
arrangement. It seems they have a division called the Tourism Police and
what they do is ensure the safety of the tourists. It’s a mixed bag
since on the one hand you think, “How nice to have an armed escort”
where on the other hand you might be thinking “Why do we really need an
TOURING CAIRO & THE PYRAMIDS
There are 118 known pyramids in Egypt. So when you say, “I went and saw
the pyramids,” no you didn’t. We went and saw the most famous ones,
sort of a Pyramids Greatest Hits, and it also provides some insight into
pyramid building. (And despite what Ben Carson thinks, they weren’t used
for grain storage and they’re not hollow.)
Our guide for all of this was the wonderful Manal Sayed of Travel Egypt,
who was knowledgeable, well-organized, had a great sense of humor, and was
simply a joy to be with. (We had arranged all of this through the
Aggressor office. Travel Egypt is their vendor in Egypt.) The only
drawback to all of this, and nothing Manal can control, was those are
pesky, aggressive, vendor/hawkers who were everywhere at the tourist sites
where they are constantly harassing you to buy trinkets. Definitely
detracts from the experience.
We started off by journeying south to Memphis, the ancient capital of
Egypt and an area that has an alabaster statue of Ramses II as well as the
Alabaster Sphinx. From there, it was a few minutes to Dashur, home of one
of the oldest of the pyramids, the Bent Pyramid, so-called because it
starts at one angle and, about halfway up, the angle changes and bends to
its apex. Dashur is also where we found the Red Pyramid and it really is
redder than all the rest.
The next stop was Saqqara, where we saw the Step Pyramid, so-named because
it looks like six giant steps, each upper one smaller than the lower one.
This was also our first experience with the aggressive hawkers as well
guys with camels offering rides. And you had to be careful about taking
their pictures too because otherwise they want a dollar. Their trick is to
say “Take my picture, it is free.” And after you do they add in, “I
am free, but the camel deserves a dollar.”
But the highlight was our second tour day, when we visited the Pyramids at
Giza and the Sphinx (which was a lot smaller than we thought it would be).
The Great Pyramid of Khufu is the largest of them, built around 2250BC
and, at 488 feet, was the tallest building in the world until the Eiffel
Tower (984 feet) was completed in 1889. As I already mentioned, the Great
Pyramid is also the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
still in existence today.
This stop afforded many of our people the opportunity to do a camel ride
with the requisite picture of them on a camel and the pyramids in the
background. Manal arranged for the best camels (I counted almost 50 of
them to choose from) and organized a small caravan for a quick camel jaunt
into the desert.
That was the other thing that was striking about driving around Cairo.
There isn't really a gentle transition from lush landscape to desert. It's
really a rather stark line and you literally go from a grassy and
tree-lined area into sand in a matter of a few feet.
The Pyramids of Giza contain three large pyramids and three small ones, as
well as the Sphinx. (It's all walled-in like an amusement park, and
there's an admission to enter.) Compared to everything else, the Sphinx
seems rather small. It sits just below - actually east of - the other
pyramids, facing east to greet the rising sun each day, and was very
special to see up close.
After a couple of hours at Giza, we ended the day with a tour of the
Egyptian Museum where we viewed the riches of King Tut. Unfortunately,
Tut's burial mask - probably the most famous piece of the collection - was
off exhibit being restored. But what also struck us as we wandered the
wing where Tut's stuff is displayed is basically how poorly-lit and
rinky-dink the displays were. They've got this incredibly valuable and
historic collection and it's displayed in a rather drab manner.
GETTING TO THE BOAT
Once we were done with the Egyptian Museum, Manal had the bus drop us back
at the Cairo Airport to fly down to Hurghada, about 300 miles to the
south. We overnighted there at the Marriott Resort and then took a large
bus down to Port Ghalib, yet another 150 miles or so south. (This was all
also arranged through Travel Egypt and the Aggressor.)
The drive takes about three hours but it's a good highway and you make a
stop for drinks and snacks along the way. What struck us, though, were the
number of resorts along highway, either abandoned or seemingly barely
functional, a result of the hit the Egyptian economy has taken in recent
In fact, when we pulled into Port Ghalib, which is a $2-billion gated,
controlled resort community, it was like a ghost town. Lots of vacant
land, unfinished construction, minimally inhabited residential units
(hundreds of them), and even along the waterfront where the boats are
docked, lot of stores but not lots of business. In fact, many of the shops
were closed. My saying was "Fully stocked but fully locked."
The Red Sea Aggressor is a 120 x 26 foot single-hull (as opposed to
catamaran) vessel which accommodates 20 divers. The lower deck has seven
deluxe staterooms, the main deck consists of (working from the stern) the
lower dive deck (three steps down), upper dive deck (level with the rest
of the main deck), communal head, dining area, galley, and one of the
master staterooms. The upper deck has a hanging out area and bar, two more
master staterooms, the bridge, and there's a sun deck above all of that.
As far as Aggressor boats go, it was okay, but not great. It felt a little
snug, especially on the main deck. The lower dive deck holds slots for 16
divers and when everyone was trying to suit up at once, it was a bit
crowded. Personally, I was on the upper dive deck where there were four of
us (plus the DMs), and I liked that better.
There are two camera tables on the upper deck which were adequate but most
people had GoPros or small cameras. There was ample space for my large
Ikelite housing but if there had been two or three other large cameras, it
would have gotten tight. There were also two lower shelves with outlets
that were good for charging or storing other camera equipment.
On our southern route, most of the diving is done from the boat via giant
stride entry and then you get back on board via one of two "T"
ladders. There are also some dives done from inflatables and for those,
you step from the boat into the inflatable so timing is everything.
Because of the aforementioned wind (more on that in a bit), we only did a
couple of inflatable dives. On the northern route, which includes the
Brothers, I'm told there's much more diving from the zodiacs and less from
the boat itself.
One thing we weren't too fond of were the master staterooms. These all
have double beds so they're great for couples but they're also $200/person
more. The rooms are a bit small and the room Laurie & I were in (#8)
on the brochure and website shows it having ample natural light coming in
through three large windows but when we arrived, those windows had a tarp
buckled over the outside of them so the room got no natural light at all
except when you opened the door.
And the stateroom doors on all three rooms was another issue. They're not
really "doors" but more like thick wooden hatch covers and they
don't close like a regular door would. Instead, there are simple metal
latches (small deadbolts) on the outside and inside so you can latch the
door from the outside (but if someone's inside they can't get out - safety
issue IMHO) or you can latch it from the inside but then someone coming in
has to have the inside person unlatch it, or you can leave the door wide
open via a hook to the side wall of the boat. You could also leave the
door unlatched on both sides but then it bangs a little bit as the boat
moves and a gust of wind can literally make it fly open. It's a lousy
design and needs to be fixed.
In general, I thought the food was pretty good. There was a continental
breakfast laid out around 6AM, full hot breakfast (same each day - choice
of eggs, pancakes, French Toast, sausage, &/or potatoes), a buffet
lunch, and a served plated dinner. There was always plenty to eat,
including snacks between meals, the food was tasty, and they were also
able to accommodate a couple of our divers with dietary restrictions.
There were three (Mahmoud Abdella - also the Cruise Director, Roberto
D'Ugo, and Angela van de Belt) and they rotated DM duties. Each dive was
guided, usually in two groups, but there was no requirement to stay with
the guide or the group. You were certainly free to dive your own plan,
preferably with a buddy
I would have liked to have the guides do more critter-spotting than they
did. Granted, I 'm used to dealing with guides in places like Yap (John
Pekailug), Indonesia (Basra Tan), and Bonaire (Murph Henar) who I've
worked with over the years and who are great at finding the things that
people want to see. Here, I felt they were more dive-minders than anything
else. They did occasionally bring things to our attention (Mahmoud was
probably the best - especially when he found a school of Hammerheads we'd
been on the lookout for) but that was the exception, not the rule.
I also would have liked to hear more detail in the briefings. They used
PowerPoint on their big-screen TV which was fine (most boats still use a
whiteboard that has to be redrawn every dive) but the briefings generally
consisted of "Here's what the dive site looks like. You'll see a lot
of hard corals and some soft corals. There are many fish. Be on the
lookout for maybe some Napoleons or some sharks out in the blue."
After a while, the briefings all started to sound the same in terms of
what we should expect to see.
The exception was the last briefing Mahmoud gave at Elphinstone after we'd
first encountered an Oceanic Whitetip Shark that we'd hoped to see. He
gave an excellent talk before the second jump about Oceanics, how they
move, what depths they'll stay at (shallow), why they're here, and how to
approach & not approach the animal. His enthusiasm was obvious and the
detail he provided made for a better dive. I wish more of their briefings
were like that.
The first thing to understand is that it was really windy and that may
have affected everything else. The wind was howling a good 15-25mph almost
constantly all week (it calmed down a bit the last two days) and that
eliminated some dive sites as well as made others more difficult than they
might normally be. For instance, the best sites are considered to be the
ones down in the St. John's Reef area but we could only do one dive there.
The wind also made getting out of the water a bit of an ordeal since it
REALLY felt cold while you were wet. We were all very happy to not only
strip out of wetsuits, but to have the traditional Aggressor warm towel
draped over our shoulders as soon as possible.
The wind certainly made for a challenging first day and, following that, a
very rough overnight ride south. When we left Port Ghalib at 8AM on our
first dive day, I'd estimate the seas at 5-7'. Had this been a Catalina
day trip, it's doubtful we would have gone. But we only had a short run to
Marsa Shoana and once inside the reef area, we got some protection from
the chop and the swell. Unfortunately, there were five other boats there
hiding with us.
The diving there was not very good but, in fairness, we didn't expect it
to be. This is sort of their (and everyone else's) checkout reef. But the
wind and the chop reduced the viz to maybe 20 feet or so. Not ideal to say
In general terms and certainly once we moved away from that first site,
viz ran anywhere from 50-70' on average to the occasional 100 feet at
Daedalus (to be expected since it's pretty far offshore). Water temps were
76-78º. I started off wearing my 3mm wetsuit with a 3mm hood and that was
OK, but I found I was getting chilled at the end of the day. One day I
even skipped the night dive (only dive all week that I passed on) because
I was just too chilled to go back in. So I switched to my 5mm suit and a
1mm hood and that was just delightful.
I thought the reefs were okay, but not as colorful or festooned with fish
(except for Anthias which were everywhere and plentiful) as I had
expected. The reefs are mainly hard coral structures without a lot of
color variation like you might find in the Caribbean. There are also some
soft corals but, unlike Indo-Pacific soft corals which come in a variety
of colors and are fairly vibrant (especially in the shallows), these were
mainly pale yellow and rather drab-looking.
But let me be clear that we saw plenty of fish. They just weren't the
clouds of fish (except for the Anthias) I had envisioned, like you might
find in Fiji.
There are roughly 1200 species in the Red Sea and about 10% of them are
endemic, which means they're found only in that location. My absolute
favorite was the Masked Butterfly (I've also seen them called "Bluecheek")
which is a bright yellow butterfly with a blue blotch directly behind and
below the eye. There were sometimes in singles, sometimes in pairs, a few
times in many multiples. They're easy to approach and they make for a
great photo subject, as you'll see when you visit my SmugMug site to check
out all the pix.
Another fav, and a common fish as well, was the Crown Butterfly,
distinguished by the bright red vertical posterior. In fact, there were a
lot of butterflyfish seen throughout the trip: Raccoon (specific species
endemic to this area), Exquisite, Chevron, Red Sea Bannerfish, and many
more. The interesting thing about a lot of these is that they look like
ones you've seen elsewhere, but they've evolved over the years into a
subspecies that's found only in the Red Sea area. (Take THAT
We also saw plenty of Angelfish, Parrotfish, Wrasses (including a number
of large male Napoleons who were quite friendly), Eels, Damselfish,
Snappers, Goatfish, and more. I've assembled a collection of photos on my
SmugMug site which you can access by going to Dive Trip Photos/2015/Red
And we had some fabulous special animal encounters as well.
At Daedalus Reef on our second day out, we dropped from the inflatables on
the NW corner of the reef and were treated (after less than 10 minutes of
searching) to a wonderful encounter with a school of about 15 Scalloped
Hammerhead Sharks. Though they only stayed with us for about three
minutes, they didn't spook as we approached and they even made some fairly
close passes to us, allowing for some nice photo ops.
The following day, at Shaab Claudia, we had a very inquisitive male
Napoleon follow us around the reef. He'd look at us and make a close pass,
then change his mind and dart off, and then swing around and come back
again. He probably hung with us for about 20 minutes, visiting various
divers off and on. Really nice.
At Shaab Sharm, we ran into a Hawksbill Turtle who was quite happily
munching away on soft corals. (I knew they ate sponges, but I didn't know
soft corals were in their diet too.) He was not only comfortable with me
staying right next to him while he ate, but even accepted from my hand
another piece of soft coral which he consumed as dessert.
At Abu Galawa Soraya, there was a nice little wreck in about 50 feet of
water that was lying on it's side and whose holds were filled with Glass
Snappers and the like, which made for a fun and interesting photo
opportunity. Plus, as you rounded the wreck, there was a really neat
canyon to swim through to get back to the boat.
The flip side of all of this was our dive at Sataya Reef, also known as
Dolphin House. From the website: "Dolphin Reef at Sataya offers a
coral lagoon where divers can spend one or two dives snorkeling with
resident Spinner Dolphin pods." And our impression from other info
we'd gotten about this, was that this was going to be a magical encounter
where the dolphins almost sought you out and where there would be endless
photo ops, even to the point that I gave a pre-dive briefing to our divers
about how I wanted the sun behind me, and the dolphins between me and our
divers so I could get a good shot of both because my impression was this
was going to be like having pet dolphins posing for you. Not exactly.
Now, in fairness, I have seen videos from Sataya where the dolphins seemed
friendly and curious. But not on this day. Perhaps it was a result of the
windy weather. Maybe it was just bad karma. But we eagerly piled into the
inflatables and giddily went off in search of the dolphins. When we found
them, we'd bail out of the boat and - rather than embracing us like old
friends - it was almost as if you could almost hear the dolphins say,
"Oh crap!! They found us!!! Swim for your lives!!!" And off they
I think we did four jumps over the course of about 40 minutes. I got off a
whopping total of eight shots. Needless to say the idea of "sun
behind me, and the dolphins between me and our divers" was a total
fantasy. I had a better chance of seeing a unicorn on this dive. I think
"glimpse" is almost being generous when describing the
interaction. And again, maybe we just hit them on an off day (the viz
wasn't very good either) but this was something that seemed to us to be a
case of over-promise and under-deliver.
On the other hand, our encounter with an Oceanic Whitetip Shark on our
last dive day was simply magical. It also resolved another issue. On many
of the briefings, Mahmoud would say "And you might see an Oceanic
Whitetip" and we never did. So that became our running joke on each
dive all week that "Yeah, maybe THIS will be the dive where we see
one." On our final day and our final two dives, at Elphinstone, that
predication came true.
I've seen a lot of things in my day but I've never seen (let alone photoed)
an Oceanic Whitetip and so this was absolutely on my BLF (Bucket List of
Fish). Mahmoud told us what to expect and I decided that I was all-in on
this dive and would concentrate on finding, seeing, and shooting the
Oceanic. So I decided, since they tend to stay relatively shallow, that I
would simply hang around 20 feet deep for the entire dive and constantly
scan the waters, in hopes that I would spot my quarry.
I found a spot near the reef wall and waited . . . and waited . . . and
waited. After about twenty minutes, I heard a jingle-jingle and looked
over to see Laura Mosqueda about a hundred feet away under the boat
frantically waving to me and signaling "Shark." Yahoo!!!! The
animal was on the other side of the boat.
Now I would LIKE to think that I proceeded to swim calmly from the wall to
the boat, but others who were watching me said, "I've never seen you
swim so fast." I made a beeline to the boat, swam under it, and saw
on the other side this gorgeous creature. Not knowing how long it would
stick around, I started firing.
As you may know, sharks have a very strong ability to sense electrical
fields in the water through hundreds (if not thousands) of little
detectors - usually located on their rostrums - known as the Ampullae of
Lorenzini. I don't know if it was my camera and strobes that got the
attention of this shark or whether it was simply my magnetic personality,
but this female Oceanic Whitetip became my best friend for the next 30
minutes, circling around amongst the other divers but always coming back
to me and my camera and allowing for some incredible photo ops and just a
wonderful chance to marvel at the magnificence of this usually solitary
denizen of the deep.
Our shark was probably 5-6 feet long and, like many Oceanics, was
accompanied by a squadron of Pilotfish, six in formation
"leading" the shark’s nose, and one more who usually flanked
the dorsal fin. It's hard to tell if the Pilotfish are really leading the
shark or if the shark is following the Pilotfish, but it was amazing to
watch them all move in perfect unison.
One quite noticeable feature of this shark - and you'll clearly see this
in the SmugMug shots - is that there was a large chunk of flesh missing
under the left eye. It would appear that this was some sort of a bite, and
it seemed fairly fresh. Although it's somewhat rectangular in shape,
within the bite area there appears (to my eye at least) to be a rounded
area that's jaw-shaped. I don't know if this is the result of an attack or
a mating scar or what, but it was pretty nasty-looking. One other thought
is (and you'll also notice when you look at the pictures that there's a
puncture wound under the chin) that this shark got caught in a longline
which produced the puncture, and as it struggled and finally broke free,
the line rubbed the skin off under the eye and that's what produced the
almost-rectangular wound. Regardless of what caused it, it looks painful
but the shark seems to be managing with no obvious problems.
Given our experience with this gal on the first dive, I was very hopeful
on the second dive and this time decided that I would just hang by the
boat (most of the other divers made the same choice) and see if she was
still in the area. She was. And this time, she spent almost the entire
hour-long dive amongst us, circling a bit wider this time, but frequently
coming back to me and my electrical field and really leaving all of us
with a great diving memory. This will definitely go down as one of my top
10 dives of all time. So no complaints from me, regardless of any other
issues, of a trip that produces a memory like that.
OVERALL IMPRESSION AND CONCLUSION
Even though, from a diving standpoint, this wasn't the trip I'd
anticipated, it was still very good. Politics of the region
notwithstanding (and at no time did we feel there were any safety or other
issues), I'd go back but perhaps at a slightly different time of the year
to try to get some better weather and water conditions. I can't speak for
the differences between the Southern and Northern routes but can say that
the Southern route offers plenty of what should be good dive opportunities
and it would be nice to get to a few of the spots (like more of St. John's
Reef) than we were able to hit on this trip, as well as hopefully get some
more cooperative dolphins. And if that Oceanic Whitetip shows up again,
that would just be one hell of a bonus.