The sun rose about ten minutes after leaving the international port of Sharm El Sheikh. We headed toward Ras Mohammed and a few early risers were up and about snapping the big orange disc low on the horizon in the direction of Tiran Island.
The Alternatives (so named because they provided an alternative to Shark and Jolande Reefs when the weather kicked up years ago) was the location of the first dive. There are many pinnacles here running for over 2 kilometers. We dived one of them and over the drop-off to 25m. Then it was over the channel to Abu Nuhas, where the big wrecks are found, many of them close together.
Our debut wreck for the trip was the Carnatic, which had its 142nd anniversary today since its sinking on 12th September 1869. Visibility was among the best ever witnessed here with an easy 40m in all directions. It was also noon when we dropped in further enhancing conditions. Swimming in and out of the Carnatic in a perfect diving environment is a photographer’s dream and many of our camera owners came up smiling.
The Chrisoula K was the next wreck dive of the day and the visibility no less outstanding even at 3:30pm in the afternoon with a lower sun angle. It was possible to see the whole wreck from just below the surface. A light wind blew for most of the morning, but the zodiac journeys between Mistral and the wrecks were easy enough.
It gets dark at about 6:15pm in Egypt at this time of year. One of President Mubarak’s final decisions as premier was to abolish daylight saving time. Sunsets in Abu Nuhas are stunning and the cameras came out again. Slowly the sky turned light orange and the flicker of distant oil rig burn-offs could be seen on the horizon. Abu Nuhas is a remote Red Sea wilderness with islands and mountains as a backdrop.
The night dive took place under a full moon on the sheltered side of Abu Nuhas reef. A few divers chose not to use their torches such was the clarity of the water and the natural light of the moon.
However, the Ghiannis D had little excuse, coming to grief in clear skies and good weather back in 1983. This popular wreck lies in 3 sections, but all are big and still show the wreck as a large ship. Much detail remains from what is only a 30 year old wreck…a youngster compared to other Red Sea wrecks such as the Carnatic.
It is unusual to have so many diving wrecks in one place…here are four all in a row, like a Middle Eastern version of The Bermuda Triangle. Each appears to have a different story relating to its sinking, but they all end up in the same place!
Ropes up it was off to Bluff Point and the Barge. On route we had a message from HQ to say that two humpback whales had been spotted in the Hurghada area. We kept our eyes out and wondered if we’d see them on the night dive. I don’t think there’s a hand signal for a whale out here.
The Barge is barely a wreck such is its disintegration, but the main purpose of this mooring isn’t to dive a wreck, as to witness the great marine life and coral surrounding it. The clear water continued and several species of fish could be seen, such as hundreds of sergeant majors and flash fish darting around below Mistral. George, the Moray Eel made an appearance (all Red Sea pet fish are called George by the way!) and so did a couple of medium sized Napoleon Wrasse fish that came right up close for a picture. The coral on the narrow strip leading to the shallow lagoon was among the best you could hope to see in this region; truly stunning examples of stag coral in several colours.
The night dive was in the same place and again, with a near full moon and clear water, many chose to leave the torches off. The light shining off the back deck of Mistral attracted several fish and seagulls which would flutter over the surface and pick off small fry. We have our own little eco system!
A short chat about the Rosalie Moller rounded the day off. We will be heading there tomorrow for the deepest dives of the trip.
The ‘Rosie’ is not traditionally a good visibility dive, although that is only compared to other Red Sea sites. You’ll still get 15m on a bad day, which it was today. With moorings in we descended to the stern of the wreck where the relatively small area of bomb damage could be found. Otherwise, the ship is pretty much upright from a depth of nearly 50m to the tallest mast at about 25m. With three dives to explore the wreck we did this by short deep dives, looking at one section of the ship at a time. Such was the limited bottom time compared to other wrecks, it was best to concentrate this way to avoid lengthy deco stops. Still, one can swim over the decking shallower than 30m and get a decent dive in of about 35 minutes before making a safety stop.
The bow of the Rosalie Moller is among the most picturesque in the Red Sea and many have said it resembles the Titanic…old with lots of intact railings around its sharp nose. There is much soft coral on this wreck and usually shoals of glass fish. It is easy to navigate and the visibility is good enough to swim over the wreck back to the line of choice. This wreck is right on the edge of recreational diving and for experienced divers only in the 30m to 40m range. It is also a great tech dive and with additional equipment, gases and training, divers can visit the lower engine room and the propeller area.
As soon as everyone was up we headed back again to Bluff Point for another night on the Barge mooring. Being midway through the trip we decided to visit the island by RIB allowing some of the guests to feel land underfoot. This is a beautiful spot and ideal for some great photography of the sunset and scenic views of remote islands.
That evening we had a one hour presentation about the SS Thistlegorm, which we would visit the following afternoon. Next month sees the 70th anniversary of its sinking on the 6th October 1941. Interest in this dive is high and the stories surrounding Thistlegorm both as an ocean-going vessel and then a world class ship wreck are endless.
The overnight winds were howling but there wasn’t the big swell lashing into the outer reef of Bluff Point where the Ulysses wreck was located.. just smaller white water waves. Still, we kept the RIB capacity small with 4 trips of just 5 divers in each. Once again, the visibility was excellent and little affected by the overhead wave action. Surge continued to 8m but on the wreck it was calm, clear and without current. The Ulysses is another old wreck along with the Kingston, Carnatic and Dunraven, which were both sail and steam powered in their time.
By lunchtime the wind had increased dramatically and we still had the channel crossing to make over to the other side by Shag Rock, which is a few short miles from the Thistlegorm. The guests and crew gathered around the bridge of Mistral for what was anticipated as an event in itself…’the crossing.’ Leaving Bluff Point, the windy chop did indeed turn into a big swell ranging between 3 and 4m high. The waves approached our port side at an angle but instead of being thrown around from side to side like many boats, the stabilizers on Mistral kept it near level even during the most violent of waves. No falling plates or cutlery, just a gentle rocking over the one hour crossing to Shag Rock.
It was here that we dived the Kingston, which bore a similar shape to the Ulysses. The very distinct stern and propeller area was a typical design of that era. The ship is slowly being consumed by the reef into which it plowed over one hundred years ago. Leaving the wreck, divers are treated to a drift dive heading towards the moorings on the opposite end of the reef where it is more sheltered. Stag coral and table coral cascade down the reef, where there is the wreckage of a more recent large fishing boat that went aground twelve years ago.
Following lunch, it was a short hop over to Sha’ab Ali, where we skillfully found Thistlegorm by GPS…and by looking at the other 3 boats already moored over it! They soon disappeared and we had the wreck to ourselves having tied on in prime position right in the middle. The falling sun and light chop made Thistlegorm appear murky and the current had picked up too. However, the marine life produced an unexpected surprise with the arrival of ten dolphins buzzing the guests doing their safety stops on the stern line. They played for a whole ten minutes posing for pictures and competing for attention on this icon wreck.
Our night dive was also memorable because we were the only boat and had 3 hours of diver-free water to calm the wreck and leave perfect visibility inside the cargo holds. Our light penetration involved a cursory look inside, but the clarity was excellent and the colour amazing. The current had abated and the light from Mistral was attracting several fish. There were dog fights between the fusiliers and darting jackfish, all looking for a light-assisted feed at the stern of our boat.
Dinner ended with a talk about the history and discovery of SS Dunraven. We will be diving this tomorrow afternoon.
An early morning dive on the Thistlegorm before the daily boats arrived took place at 6:30am. Getting up early sounds difficult when guests are supposed to be on holiday, but you simply adjust your day and go to bed earlier. It’s not like you’re missing anything being out at sea, the amount of hours are the same, they’re just shifted around a bit. It was the second dive that had the clearest viz and lowest current. We even snorkeled it too. Next month Thistlegorm wreck is 70 years old. We hope there will be many more good years ahead for this special diving destination.
The scenery back to Sha’ab Mahmoud is always spectacular with the Sinai mountains on the left and the many outer reefs on the right. The different depths surrounding them provide many colours with turquoise shallow water turning into rich blue colours, all giving a layering effect around the reef. Many say ‘it’s just like the brochure’ but there’s no Photo Shop here, it’s the real thing.
The next dive was probably the most bizarre we’ve done on the whole trip. At the end of Sha’ab Mahmoud is Beacon Rock. Within 100 meters of each other is one of the oldest Red Sea wrecks and one of the newest. The Dunraven and the Emperor Fraser sit either side of the reef and at similar depths. The Dunraven wasn’t discovered until 1979. It was the ship’s crockery that gave it away and helped researchers narrow down their search to 1873. The recently wrecked Emperor Fraser safari boat of 2009 yielded a small china breakfast bowl with the manufacturer’s stamp on the back of this supermarket style table ware (the Minger Dynasty perhaps!) Maybe wrecks aren’t appealing until they are older and have a ‘history’. Still, it was humbling to dive on a wreck nearer to the date of our own boat, serving as a timely reminder that the sea and weather can be unforgiving. After all, we are on a ‘wreck tour’ and the sea isn’t always selective of its prey! Luckily, all the guests and crew were safely picked up and little damage was done to the reef.
The reef here is nothing to shout about until night time when it comes alive with life and colour. This was the last night dive of the trip and one of the best. A big bonus of safari boat diving is that you can do night dives in remote locations where few other people venture. The marine life is that much better and more plentiful than local sites in the main resorts.
We had talked about the SS Dunraven during the week and one of the presentations featured the funny story of its discovery in 1979. The subject of many rumours and myths, this popular wreck now has its true story well publicized in the former CDWS Blue Magazine which can be checked online. This is one of the wrecks on the trip that also leads into a nice drift dive along the reef that it collided with when it sank. Dunraven sits at the end of Sha’ab Mahmoud, which was unfortunate, because if she sailed just 80 meters further, she would have missed the seven kilometer lump of coral without incident. But we’re not complaining, since the less than observant crew had the decency to let her drop into recreational diving depths allowing generous bottom times and much historical interest to keep safari divers busy for years to come.
It was just an hour over to Shark and Jolande Reefs. Despite having only minimal wreck content, this site should not be missed on any tour around the Red Sea. Where else can you dive a drift, a wall, coral gardens, ship wreckage and huge marine diversity all in one dive? The main structure of the Jolande fell to great depths five years after it sank in 1981. It remained tied around ’Little Jolande’ before the steel cables snapped sending it to 210m below. The cargo remains and divers swim amusingly over the discarded toilet seats, bath tubs and sinks.
Once again, visibility was over 35m and the water a warm 28c in the shallows. Mistral began its slow journey back to port with the obligatory hanging of freshly rinsed dive gear across the top deck. It was the end of a trip with great weather, good divers and nice company. We couldn’t have wished for better and we hope to welcome our guests back again soon.
For now, with grateful thanks to all the guests, crew and guides who made this trip the memorable occasion it was.
See you next time!