Divers, however, are a strange breed. When somebody yells “shark”, most people run away, but divers say “Where?” and jump in the water. Underwater photographers are even worse. They’re experienced divers who want to take shots of the most unusual animals and situations. They may be apprehensive and careful - that’s a good thing - but never so scared that they miss a great opportunity.
Our Optical Ocean Sales Photo Expedition was for two weeks; Feb. 22 to March 7th, 2016. Twenty people had signed up, but as usual we had a few drop out due to work conflicts or health reasons, and a few join in. Several dropped out, however, because they were afraid of the political situation or for their safety. And I’ve had several inquiries since we’ve been back asking if we had problems or if the Egyptian people were hostile to us. We all found that the answer was quite the opposite. We had a great time. We felt quite safe. People were extremely warm and friendly, just as they were on my last trip to Egypt, 18 years ago. Some things in Egypt, like the Pyramids, don’t change. It’s all a matter of perspective.
We started out our land tour in crazy, raucous Cairo (“why use your turn signal, when you can use your horn?”). This is a terribly over crowded city, with heavy, 24/7 traffic. Cairo is the very definition of urban sprawl with 24 million people. It now surrounds the Giza plateau, which was once well out into the desert.
We toured the Egyptian Museum, Pyramids, Solar Boat and Sphinx at Giza and had a great dinner at a Thai food restaurant. Seriously, one of the best Thai dinners we have ever had was at “The Birdcage” in the Cairo Intercontinental Hotel.
Our group then flew down to Luxor, where we stayed at the Jolie Ville Hotel. It was busy and disorganized, having been mostly vacant for a while. They had an oncology conference in progress, where about half of the doctors were smoking like fiends. Public smoking is still pretty much the norm in Egypt; I guess Joe Camel lives on.
One of the highlights of our trip was the next morning when we went hot air ballooning. Taking off just before dawn, with the heat of the burners warming us, we watched a spectacular sunrise from 2,000 feet over the Nile. We looked down on farms, and the tombs of the West Bank, where we would spend the rest of the day touring. Visiting 5,000 year old tombs, with vibrant paintings as fresh as yesterday, the ancient temples of Karnak, Luxor and Medinet Habu, gave one a sense of perspective.
Many times young Egyptian school kids, practicing their English, asked politely to have their pictures taken with an American. We couldn’t have felt more welcome in their country.
But on to the diving: We left the next day on a long 5 hour bus ride to Port Ghalib, near Marsa Alam, where we met the Red Sea Aggressor liveaboard. We came across large hotels, condos and resorts without anyone in them as we drove along the coast. They were like ghost towns. All very sad, as this was high-season. Reaching the boat at dusk, we were welcomed aboard and shown our cabins on this luxurious ship.
The Red Sea Aggressor was rebuilt a couple of years ago and is very comfortable. Although our cabins were pretty small, the dive deck and various sun decks and the salon were very nice and newly appointed. The camera tables were a bit small for our large group, but we managed, with a couple of us using the cocktail tables up near the bar on an upper deck. Throughout the week we were treated to amazing service (better than the other Aggressors I’ve been on) with excellent food, served in a fine dining atmosphere. I’ve been on a lot of liveaboards, and I could see how well the crew had been trained; not just to do their jobs, but to take care of guests anyway they could.
The next morning the boat headed out of port to a couple of close dive sites to test our weighting and settle into our skills. The water was a bit brisk at 74F, but with 5mm suits and beanies on, we were pretty comfortable. The weather this time of year is pleasant, in the upper 70’s and low 80’s. Some days we had some wind, but it wasn’t too bad.
We then steamed most of the night to Daedulus Reef. It was a bit of a bumpy ride, so most of us didn’t get much sleep. However, we were up at dawn and woke up in the cool depths after a zodiac ride out to the reef.
Daedulus is a coral atoll out in the middle of the Red Sea with an old lighthouse on it, first built in 1863 and rebuilt in 1931. We were hoping to see some hammerhead sharks and other pelagics there, but were skunked, only seeing one silky shark (I am told it swimming under my feet while I surfaced on the last dive). But the walls were nice, and there were lots of great hard and soft corals of every hue, in very clear water. That afternoon, we took a break to hike up the dock to the lighthouse, where we climbed our way to the top. A few of us almost lingered too long; the keeper had us locked in!
Steaming our way further south that night, we arrived at the St John’s reef area, where we had some spectacular dives in the caves and swim-throughs located there. We then moved a little north to a great spot that had some pinnacles covered with soft coral and clouds of orange Anthias. Although the current was ripping, it meant the corals were open and the photography opportunities abundant. Also on many dives we were seeing jellyfish, and had a great time on the surface shooting them and each other. Some divers practiced their blackwater dives and got some great night shots of squid and other small squishy critters.
The next couple of days we hit a few atolls and reefs along the southern coast, then moved up to “dolphin reef” lagoon, hoping to snorkel with some dolphins. They weren’t home, so we did a couple of easy dives enjoying the scenery. After surfacing, we found that another boat had anchored next to us. Much to our dismay, a group of snorkelers were standing on the reefs, not really understanding the damage they were causing.
The last day we hit famous Elphinstone Reef for a couple of morning dives on walls and a drift dive along the reef. Schools of trevallies and sardines were amongst the soft coral, with some nice gorgonian fans, not usually seen in abundance. We then steamed back to Port Ghalib for a fun cocktail party and then off to Cairo and home the next day.
Although this was a long trip, all who came seemed to enjoy it and have many happy memories of the ancient cities and colorful reefs of Egypt and the Red Sea. My thanks to Donna at South Pacific Island Travel and the Red Sea Aggressor for providing us with an excellent experience.