What can I say except this trip was fantastic. We did the classic 'Northern Wrecks and Reefs' itinerary on MV Whirlwind out of Sharm.
The Boat - great, the crew and guides - great, the other guests, all great, the diving - superb. This trip was all about the pure joy of being underwater. There were 22 dives on offer and I did every one.
For me it has been 7 years since I visited the Red Sea, I'd heard talk of serious decline and ever bigger crowds, but outside of straight of Tiran which was full of snorkellers and lunch cruises we were on our own most of the week. We moored up next to another boat only twice and only on one dive were their divers in the water with us. Political and economic upheaval might not be good for business, but is good for thinning out the crowds.
Prevously I'd either been shore based or down in the Deep South, so many of the dive sites were new to me although their names are famous amongst divers.
After a long flight (5hrs) and a late arrival on the boat in the dark, we awoke on Sunday to the noise and diesel smells of the harbour at Naa'ma bay. However we were soon breakfasted & away to our first site, Ras Katy, an easy, local dive reef long favoured as a 'check out dive'. Clear, warm, blue water, white sand and a sloping reef disappearing in to the blue, the first taste of the diving we had come for.
Lunch followed and a short motor up the gulf of Aqaba to Tiran and the famous four reefs, we dived Thomas first. There were predictable crowds of snorkellers and lots of noise but not too many divers. The reefs were much as I remembered, steep walls, rich coral growth and tempting blue depths, perhaps a bit more sand and a little less profusion of life then I recalled, but impressive none the less. Clouds of anthias and chromis, moray eeels lurking in cracks and caves and resident turtles either sleeping or crunching away at the coral. A night dive below our mooring on Gordon Reef rounded off the day.
All too soon day one was over and after a big dinner we turned in early. For the rest of the week the first dive would be before breakfast and the crew would be waking us at about 6am.
Monday began with a dive on Jackson Reef, most of the guests went to the back of Jackson in the RHIB's to go look for the elusive hammerheads, they remainded elusive. Knowing this was likely T and I dropped off the back of the boat for dive along the reef and enjoyed the wall in the early morning quiet, two other guests did the same but apart from a brief encounter with them we had the reef to ourselves.
The next dive for us was a repeat of our first, but by this time more day boats had arrived and there was a great deal of noise and a lot of divers around. It made us appreciate the tranquility of the early dive even more. I even spotted a another 'yellow box' fish in the distance. Even with crowds the coral garden is very pretty and this time I found the red anemone with its guardian clown fish that I had missed before. After lunch we quit Tiran, leaving Woodhosue Reef undived - heading South to Ras Mohammed for a dive at Jackfish alley, I can take or leave the cave at the start, but the satellite reef is exceptionally pretty with its numerous tall outcrops of hard corals. The diversity of life in the national park is a step above the busy reefs of Tiran and our cameras found plenty of subjects.
In the afternoon we rounded the tip of the Sinai and headed toward Beacon Rock - our mooring for the night. Our last dive of the day was on the wreck of the Emperor Fraser, a live aboard vessel much like our own that sank at this very spot in 2009, somewhat sobering thought, even if it was in exceptional circumstances. For a recent wreck it sports a good growth of life. A huge moray had taken up residence by the stern and the profusion of creatures out on the nearby reef was excellent - we spotted stonefish, bearded scorpion fish, several large and small moray eels, the ever present lionfish and numerous other critters.
Tuesday morning and we headed out in the RHIB to dive the Dunraven, a steamship which came to grief on Beacon rock in 1876. The RHIB driver got the tide wrong and dropped us down current of the wreck, I had to grab T and tow her into the shelter of the stern, this unexpected and unpleasant morning exercise over, we popped inside the upturned hull and explored the huge space inside, before swimming up and over the boilers and out near the bow and onto the reef. Much as I like a good shipwreck (the Dunraven is lovely, stately old ship) the reef was the best bit of this dive. It got better the further we drifted back to the mooring. The coral garden where we ended our dive (and met up with the guide and her student) was delightful, We spotted a massive free swimming moray eel, longer than I am tall, out hunting amongst the coral heads.
After breakfast Whirlwind headed out and down across the gulf of Aden to Abu Nuhas. Mooring up in the sheltered lagoon south of the reef we could see the white waves crashing over far side and the remains of a ship's bow perched up on the reef. Easy to see how ships might be wrecked here and indeed the famous wrecks of Abu Nuhas are what we came to dive :-).
We were warned of an uncomfortable and lengthy RHIB ride through the surf, but it was not so bad, Good omens on the way out in the RHIB - Dolphins riding the bow wave of the boat - a sign of things to come. The Tile Wreck (aka 'probably the Crisoula K') was my introduction to Abu Nuhas and it was brilliant, Parked on white sand in stunning visibility, it looked like the perfect cinema shipwreck. We dipped down to the funnel and watched the garden eels in the sand, swooped around the stern and sailed inside the hold beside the stacks of tiles, still labelelled 'Made in Italy' and still with sharp edges.
It turns out my yellow box is a bit wider than some of the exit holes and I had to reverse half way out, but there you are. The top of the wreck is covered with coral and around the bow in the shallows the hard coral growth is amazing, the reef would be a worthy dive even without the wrecks. Waiting around the stern once more for people to get back in the RHIB (safer and more comfortable to wait below than to slosh about in the surf) we watched a hawksbill turtle greedily and messily munching on broccoli coral with its big beak, not at all bothered by divers. On the way back dolphins appeared and unknown to us the first group out had gone snorkelling with them, a rare treat.
Next up - The Carnatic, just along the reef from the Tile Wreck, the Carnatic lies completely on her side. She is another elegant old ship, sunk over 100 years ago. Her stern lights (windows to you and me) remind me of an old man o' war. Her hull is encrusted with corals and her decks have rotted away leaving her completely open to explore, amongst the frames lurk a shoal of big batfish, who view us with curiosity. Another wonderful dive.
Our night dive tonight is the south side of Abu Nuhas, where our boat is moored. Tomorrow more wrecks await us.
Our grand finale at Abu Nuhas is the Ghiannis D, this modern freighter is a complete contrast to the Carnatic, huge and imposing where the older ships were sleek and elegant. This wreck has considerable opportunities to get inside and explore, so it is a proper adventure :-) It is also tilted over at 30degrees which plays tricks with the brain which briefly tries to make doors, floor and windows appear on the level when in fact they are not. We explore the stern section, floating down and round the huge diesel engine, swimming through the machine shop with lathe and tools still in place, up corridors and through the galley and bridge before emerging beneath the funnel with its huge embossed 'D' that is slowly vanishing under encrusting growth. Many of the divers are at the safe limit of their air at this point, but the dive guide and I take a leisurely swim to the bow section, which lies some distance away over the jumbled remains of the holds. Once more, like the tile wreck the bow is growing into the reef, covered in and surrounded by beautiful hard corals, we've done a longer dive than anyone else and our fellow divers give me some stick as they've been sitting in the RHIB for a bit too long, soaking up the sun, oops! The yellow box really does mean getting the most out of every dive, though of course the guide appears not to breathe and makes a single tank last just as long. Once more there are doplhins around the RHIB on the way to and from the dive.
From Abu Nuhas we made the crossing to Gubal Island, this proved to be rather rough (one of the guests went flying from her chair and took a nasty knock, although ibuprofen and lots of ice had her diving again soon enough). The crew tidy up before they will let us back inside as the bouncing about has upset the plumbing, but there is no hint of a problem when they are done. We moor up just south of 'Small' Gubal and beneath us is a very pretty reef and the wreck of an old barge. Now covered in coral and home to a huge variety of life, this is our next dive. Shallow and splendid in the sunshine, we spot nudibranchs, morays, baby morays (tiny replicas of their giant parents), peppered morays, transparent shrimp, crocodile fish, stone and scorpion fish in abundance (careful not to touch), colourful crabs and huge shoals of fusilliers. As we ascend the tuna are attacking the shoal and the silvery mass is darting to and fro, making quite a display.
After lunch we head out to the dive the Ulysses, like the Carnatic she was from an era when ships still carried tall masts for sailing as well as those new fangled steam engines. The funnel lies on the sand, large anough to swim through, the wreck itself rests on its side. It sports marvellous coral growth and a full compliment of fish life making a home in her hull. The current is running but in the shelter of the wreck we can explore at leisure. Around the stern a large shoal of Sargeant Major fish defend their territory, biting fins, comically attacking their own reflection in camera lenses or masks and even nipping your finger or head if you are unlucky. They are too small to do any damage but it is quite hillarious watching them take on a diver 100 or more times their size :-). When we have covered the wreck we let the current take us along the reef toward Bluff Point, one more impressed with the huge table corals and fields of fire coral that fly by beneath us before we must finally return to the surface.
Before dinner we dive the barge again, this time in the dark. A different array of critters is out and about as well as many of the fish we spotted last time, an enjoyable dive and a totally different atmosphere at night, on our safety stops and from the deck after the dive we watch needle fish hunting the shoal that has formed under our boat. I could do this cycle of diving, eating, relaxing and sleeping for weeks. We are out of range of any mobile phone or wi-fi, away from any sign of other people, save the lights of other boats and the occasional distant building on the shoreline. The sense of detachment and tranquility is, to me, enchanting.
Somehow, it is Thursday already and we have only today and tomorrow left to dive, it goes so fast! Our farewell to Gubal is a drift along the reef from our mooring to Bluff Point. T and I go slowly and enjoy the reef, Bluff point itself has a steep but rather sandy drop off and a large but mostly empty cave, the reef is splendid though. Dive and breakfast over we head out into the gulf again in the direction of the delightfully named Shag Rock and the wreck of the Kingston.
This dive stands out as one of my best ever. First, the Kingston is a very pretty wreck on a very pretty reef, encrusted with coral and upright and open to the sea, the wreck is full of marine life and bathed in sunshine. There was a bit of washing machine swell going on in the shallows but I can live with that because of the dolphins :-). They had been teasing us all week, riding the bow waves of the RHIBS and the Whirlwind, now they came to us underwater, diving down to the wreck and checking us out, moving swiftly and gracefully amongst the divers. Later as we drifted along the reef, they joined us again, swimming back and forth past us, blowing bubbles, clicking and squeaking, coming right up close and staring at us with their intelligent eyes, graceful, swift and totally in their element, it ws a priviledge and a delight to dive with them. The memory of that dive will be with me a long time.
From the Kingston and the wonderful dolphins, it was a short distance to the famous Thistlegorm, the most dived (and most hyped) wreck of the Red Sea. I have dived it before, but not for years and was intersted to see how it had changed from my memory. One other dive boat pulled up as we were preparing to dive, but their divers were not in the water with us. For our first dive the Thistle was misty and moody, the vis was poor and it revealed itself slowly as we swam around and oriented ourselves. The current was running strongly and we had to be clever in taking shelter in the lee of the structures. I was glad to get re-acquainted with this site but after the sunshine and the dolphins on the Kingston it was, dare I say - a little bit of a disappointment?
We dived the wreck again at night, and it revealed a diferent aspect, the vis had improved and the current had slackened off, there were torch beams everywhere like some crazy disco, but the night life was out and about and it was a good dive.
Our last dive day dawned, and I had a plan, fixing my buddy up with a 2nd cylinder meant we could have a good long dive on the Thistle this time with no worries and no guides. We let the rest of the group go off conga-style into the wreck whilst we headed to the stern to check out the tanks, guns and the chain locker, after a good 5minutes we came back and entered the holds in our own time. We did the whole tour :-) All the holds from the break to the bow on the lower level, then up and round the upper level before finally emerging on the deck and doing final circuit taking in the captains cabin. We briefly saw the main group leaving the wreck as we began our upper level circuit, but essentially we had the wreck to ourselves and had a fantastic dive, the way it should be done. Another one for my top 10, even without dolphins.
There were two more dives to go, and I probably should have sat them out, as a week of 4 dives per day takes its toll, but then someone let on I was the only one to have done all the dives so far, and I couldn't let that pass, so I jumped in for the dive on Shark & Yolanda at Ras Mohammad - the site was teeming with day boats from Sharm as we were close to port again, but the dive was worthwhile, the deep, deep drop off, the big gorgonians and then the lovely corals of satellite reef and around the Yolanda wreck. Our final dive was a drift at Ras um Sid, which was actually very good, showing that even close to the big resorts the Red Sea can deliver a good dive. Safely back on board and we had only a short motor in to port and the sudden attack of sound, smells and fierce heat (50C) away from the fresh air and breezes of the open sea. One more night on board, a few hours lounging by a hotel pool and then we would be on our way home, but for now I just savoured the memories of a truly superb week of diving.
See the gallery for photos.