DIVING THE RED SEA (and touring Cairo) - December 3-12, 2015

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip)

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.

THE GROUP
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).

GETTING THERE
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.

CAIRO
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 armed escort?”

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 years.

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 BOAT
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.

THE FOOD
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.

THE DIVEMASTERS
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 DIVING
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 the least.

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 evolution-deniers!!!)

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 Sea.

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 went.

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.


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