So when I was diving in Dahab and Sharm El Sheikh a lot people recommended that I dive down south as well, and the best way to do this is with a liveaboard boat, where you can pack in a lot of diving and get to some of the best dive locations far away from the coast. Most boats were all full but I was still able to find a boat with the itinerary I wanted (called BDE, Brothers, Daedalus, Elphinstone) just a week beforehand. Nice! That’s why I had one week to do the Nile Valley and then get back to the Red Sea coast.
So from Marsa Alam the taxi dropped me off at Port Ghalib, which is where all the liveaboards are docked. And there’s a lot of them! I was able to find my boat and meet some of the guides and crew. I was one of the first ones on board. Apparently the boat didn’t even leave until tomorrow morning (but you slept on it at night), so I had lots of time to explore the marina, which caters mostly to scuba divers and resort goers and is thus very pricey. The trip says it 8n/7d, but it’s pretty misleading as you spend the first day and night and the last day and a half docked in the harbor, so realistically its more like a 5d/6n trip. I also learned that 20 out of the 24 spots were going to be Spaniards. Yikes! If you’ve ever traveled with big groups of any southern europeans, you already know what that means. English is not going to spoken very often.
During the rest of the evening various parts our group filtered in, with the bulk being a diving club based in Madrid that were 16 arriving at 2am. My roommate was a South Korean guy, but his English wasn’t too great. The only other non-Spanish speakers on the boat were two Egyptian guys, about my age, who seemed pretty cool. One lived in Cairo and one lives in Dubai. The Egyptian guide was curious why I didn’t book with American oriented liveaboard, the Red Sea Aggressor. Not only did I not have any clue about the differences in the boats, I booked this trip last minute, so it’s not like I had a choice! I guess it was kind of lucky to be able to book this very popular itinerary so late, but the lack of English speakers was a pretty big bummer.
Then there was the equipment issue! For this liveaboard I wasn’t able to try on my equipment ahead of time, which normally an extremely easy process. In this case I had to send them my specs and they delivered the rental gear from Hurghada, 3 hours north. I asked what the plan was if something didn’t fit right (scuba masks can be tricky) and they said they’d ‘deal with it’. Well of course the mask didn’t fit as well as I’d like and the wetsuit was wayyyy too thick (the Red Sea is warm) and designed for someone who is like 6’6”. I looked like a kid in his dad’s clothes wearing that wetsuit. Ugh.
So obviously I wanted to a new wetsuit and they said that was the only one they brought. So when they said “we’ll deal with it” they really meant I would deal with it. For a whole week. Fun times. I even talked with Russian woman on the phone who was in charge of my equipment rental and instead of apologizing or providing some sort of solution she started getting angry with me for renting gear AND expecting it to fit! And this rental was not cheap! Ohh Russian customer service, just lovely. So that got me nowhere. There wasn’t much I could do but suck it up.
That morning we were off, poorly fitting equipment and all! The first day you don’t move too far, just doing some nice shallow, easy diving near the coast to make sure everyone knows what they’re doing. On live-aboards like this, most people are generally very experienced. I had about 150 dives under my belt, which seems like a decent amount, but that put me in the bottom third of experience level on the boat, with many guys (and girls) having several hundreds of dives, even into the thousands. I was also the only one on the whole boat to rent equipment, everyone else owned their own. Of course I was also the only person on the boat traveling for multiple months at a time! The others had flown to Egypt for a week or so specifically for this dive trip. The dives were good, although the groups were pretty big, but the night dive was especially cool because we saw some Spanish Dancers (coincidence in the name!) that are huge bright red nudibranches that only live in the Red Sea, and when they swim, they flap their whole bodies kind of awkwardly through the water, which is really mesmerizing to watch. All photos courtesy of my Egyptian friends.
The boat drove all through the night and we woke up the next morning at a place called Daedalus. The reason these liveaboard trips are so popular is that they go to dive sites that are in the middle of the Red Sea which attracts big oceanic pelagics (sharks, mantas) that you don’t see too often along the coast. The big draw at Daedalus was supposed to be hammerheads. From the big boat you put on all your gear and board the rubber dinghies which then take you out the dive sites. You do what’s called a negative entry, where you have no air in your BCD, so when everyone falls backward off the dinghy you sink right away, then re-collect underwater and descend to go find some sharks.
Unfortunately we got blanked on the sharks. We’d go down to 100 feet or so, where the sharks supposedly like to hang out, but each time we didn’t see any. Normally you’d look around for 10 minutes, swim out into the blue for a bit, and if you don’t see anything you ascend and do the rest of the dive along the reef wall. Although the reef isn’t particularly scenic, so once you don’t see any sharks the dive is a bit of disappointment. We did three dives and saw no sharks. I mean there’s still other interesting stuff, turtles barracudas, big tunas, some moray eels, what have you, but when you’re paying a lot of money to get out these remote dive sites you’re really hoping to see the big stuff! One of the guides said that 20 years ago this place was crawling with hammerheads, but now it’s much more difficult to find them. They suspect Yemeni fishermen killed a lot of them.
Next stop: Elphinstone. Once again, the boat drove all night and we awoke at 5:30 to a completely new dive site. We did three dives that day and once again, no sharks. Nada, zip, zero. It’s also annoying that all the liveaboard boats have the exact same schedules, they all leave the same day, all hit the same spots at the same time, and all return at the same time. Couldn’t they stagger these trips so you don’t have to compete with tons of other divers at the same time?! I get it, they want it so people can fly in for a week and fly out, but damn if your boat took off a day or two later or earlier than the rest of the pack, you’d have the places all to yourselves. Now you’re part of an underwater dive zoo. The reef at this site was at least more interesting than at Daedalus, and there was some more interesting things to see like the giant napoleon wrasses, but no sharkies! Mentally I was already preparing myself for the letdown of spending all this money on a completely sharkless trip. In addition to the letdown of the social atmosphere on the boat.
As predicted, being a non-Spanish speaker on this boat sucked big time. At first during meals I would sit at a table with the Spaniards, but it was mostly pointless. I would just sit there and eat quietly while everyone else spoke in Spanish. Occasionally I might pipe up and ask a question in English during a lull in conversation, which all the younger people understand just fine, get an answer, and then that’s it. Nobody really engaged me in any way, besides maybe asking what city I was from or something. Eventually me, the South Korean and the two Egyptians would all sit together at the outsiders table. The South Korean guy’s English was pretty awful, so it was mostly me talking to the Egyptian guys, who I liked. Thank god they didn’t only speak in Arabic!
Next dive site: The Brothers. Once again the boat drove all through the night to get there. The site is composed of two different columns reaching up to the surface, surrounded by reefs. One is called little brother and the other is big brother. We started at big brother, which also has two wrecks on it, from ships unprepared for incoming reef! We didn’t see any sharks at depth, but when we started getting closer to the surface there were a few oceanic whitetips that would circle around the liveaboards at around 15 feet. Finally! For safety, it’s important to stick together as a group and always stay below the sharks. If they attack (they rarely rarely attack humans, but if they do it’s always from below). If someone gets separated from the group sometimes a shark will swim up to them out of curiosity too see what’s up. You might have to try and kick them away with your fins. But for the most part they’re harmless. I stuck with the group! So that was pretty exciting, seeing the sharks for the first time on this trip! I’ve seen them before of course, but it’s always fun.
The next day it was short ride to little brother. We awoke at 5:30am again and got the gear ready, went off in the dinghies, and headed down to 110 feet or so to see what was down there. Nothing at first. We just hung around for a while and our guide tapped his tank, pointed out into the blue, and flailed his arms out to the side, the universal signal for a manta ray! I couldn’t even see it at first , but sure enough after kicking a bit out into the blue, there it was, a massive manta gliding along. I’ve also seen mantas before, but I think this is the biggest one I’ve ever seen! And it liked the attention! It swam passed us, took a turn and swam back, and just for good measure it took one more turn and swam back past us one final time. Awesome. As we were slowly ascending we also saw a thresher shark much deeper than us. And then the oceanic white tips near the surface. Since our boat was divided into two groups we got to brag to them that we saw the manta.
The next dive we went to the same spot again. We saw some white tips at first and then one of the guys in our group pointed and put both hands into fists on both sides of his head, the sign for a hammerhead! It swam right below us, maybe twenty feet deeper than we were. For most of us (myself included) this was the first time seeing a hammerhead before, so it was pretty great. You could sense the excitement even underwater! It stayed for a minute or so underneath us and then headed back into the blue. One of the girls started doing a little jig underwater which was pretty funny. We got another glimpse of it out in the blue, and that was it. But then we also saw some more thresher sharks swimming below us, with their distinctive long tailfins. And then more white tips near the surface. So some great dives! On the dinghy ride back to the big boat some people were making the hammerhead signal to the guys back on the boat, which was met with shaking heads and extended middle fingers. We had been the lucky group again!
The Brothers, and more specifically little brother, had made up for any previous disappointment on the boat so far. Scuba diving is very similar to be on a safari, sometimes you drive around and don’t see anything at all. Sometimes you see some sporadic cool stuff, and every once in a while, it all hits you over the head at the same time.
We still had one more day of diving near the coast of Hurghada, which was nice, and we saw some more Spanish Dancers on the night dive, but it becomes a little blasé after all the great stuff we saw at the Brothers. Then we got into the port, and I could’ve stayed another night on the boat if I wanted to, but the Egyptian guys were bussing it back to Cairo, so I tagged along with them. At the bus station they hooked me up with an Uber to downtown and then we went our various ways (Cairo is huge and they stay a little outside of the horrendously overpopulated downtown area). I also got some a few pics and vids off their GoPro.
Lots of the Spanish guys were diving with big camera rigs and multiple strobes (flashes) and I know they got some great photos, but it goes to show you how little friendship I felt with any of them that I didn’t even ask for any of their emails or facebooks at the end of the trip. Oh well. Cairo up next!