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DIVING THE BEST OF THE RED SEA WITH EMPEROR DIVERS

By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

Egypt is a country we have dreamt of visited for a very long time. With a great love of history and ancient monuments, we have longed to see the pyramids, sphinx and the many other temples and tombs of ancient Egypt. But another reason we have wanted to visit Egypt was to dive the famed Red Sea, to explore the many reefs and shipwrecks of this famous dive destination.

 

We have been planning a trip to Egypt for over a decade, but with civil unrest and security concerns we kept putting it off. Well this year we decided we couldn’t put it off any longer, so booked our Egyptian holiday for May. Our holiday plan included two weeks to see the sights of ancient Egypt in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and Alexandria, but we were going to kick off the trip with a week of diving in the Red Sea.

 

While it is possible to dive the Red Sea from numerous resorts dotted along the coastline, we wanted to see a variety of different dive sites, so decided a liveaboard (known locally as a safari boat) was the way to go. Numerous safari boats operate from a number of ports around the Red Sea. We booked a week on Emperor Superior, as having dived with Emperor Divers in the Maldives we knew they operate a great range of dive boats.

 

Arriving in Cairo at the start of May we had time for a quick visit to the Giza Plateau to see the pyramids and sphinx. These ancient wonders of the world were as impressive as we had hoped and set the tone for a wonderful Egyptian adventure. We then flew to Hurghada, a holiday town on the Red Sea and the port where Emperor Superior is based.

 

We boarded the vessel in the afternoon, giving us time to explore this 37m long liveaboard before we departed the next morning. Accommodating 25 divers and a dozen crew, Emperor Superior is a very comfortable vessel to dive from. The vessel has a large dive deck and duckboard, a spacious lounge and dining room, plus a bar and huge sundeck. The cabins are also very comfortable, each with its own ensuite.

 

Over the course of the afternoon and evening our fellow passengers arrived. Most were from European countries, but the group also included two Americans. That night we enjoyed the first of our fabulous buffet meals, a great mix of Egyptian and international cuisine, prepared by the three chefs.

 

The next morning we got underway, heading south for our first dive site at Ras Disha. This reef dive was a little average, as it was just a checkout dive, but we did see some nice coral and a good variety of fish species, including a number of endemic Red Sea species. Emperor Divers operate three safari boats in the Red Sea and offer a number of different itineraries. Our trip on Emperor Superior is known as the Famous Five, exploring the most famous reefs and shipwrecks of the Northern Red Sea.

 

In the afternoon we explored the first of those famous dive sites, the Salem Express shipwreck. This 100m long car and passenger ferry sank in 1991 after striking Hyndman Reef. The sinking of the ship was a great tragedy, as 470 people died. The ship now rests in 30m on its starboard side and is still very much intact. This shipwreck is an incredible dive, and with free nitrox on Emperor Superior we had almost an hour to explore every section of this large ship. In the 40m visibility we inspected the funnels, bridge, bow doors and prop, seeing winches, light fittings and seating. There were also many sad reminders of the unfortunate people that lost their lives, including baggage, shoes and an unused lifeboat.

 

After a second dive on the Salem Express we headed further south overnight to two remote rocky outcrops almost in the centre of the Red Sea known as The Brothers. These barren rocks rise from the depths and as such attract a great variety of marine life, especially sharks. After calm conditions on the first day, strong winds and currents made for tricky dive conditions. Using the tender boats we did our first dive off the eastern side of Big Brother. The drift dive along this wall was just magic, with large gorgonians, pretty soft corals and a good variety of fish. We had hoped to see an oceanic whitetip shark at The Brothers, as they frequent the area, but the currents kept them away. Instead we saw several pelagic thresher sharks cruising in the distance.

 

Our two afternoon dives at Big Brother saw us exploring a few of the shipwrecks that have come to grief at this remote site. The first was the Aida, a 75m long vessel that sank in 1957. The wreck lies almost vertical on the reef slope, the broken up bow in 12m, the stern at 60m. We only explored the upper portions of this wreck, but with 30m visibility the rest of the ship looked very enticing. We also dived the nearby Numidia, a 137m long cargo ship that sank in 1901. This ship also slopes down the reef in depths from 10m to 80m. We explored the holds, the funnels and engine room. Both these wrecks are covered in corals and home to a good variety of fish life.

 

The following day we moved to Little Brother for three more dives. This rocky outcrop has lovely walls to explore and a good variety of reef fish, turtles and sharks. The second dive off the eastern side was the best, as drifting along the wall we saw a group of six scalloped hammerhead sharks, several grey reef sharks, a couple of pelagic thresher sharks and even a small whale shark. Unfortunately no photos, as all the sharks kept a wary distance from us.

 

Overnight we journeyed north to the Ras Muhammad National Park, located at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. This was a spectacular setting to do a dive, with desert and mountains tumbling down to the blue waters of the Red Sea. Here we dived the famous Shark and Yolonda Reefs. These two reefs, which can be explored on a single dive, are covered in spectacular corals. Beautiful soft corals cover the walls and lovely hard corals dominate the shallows. We saw swarms of fairy basslets, schools of batfish, moray eels, turtles, crocodilefish and lionfish. The broken up wreck of the Yolonda was also fun to explore, with its cargo of toilets and bathtubs scattered across the reef.

 

We then relocated to dive the most famous shipwreck in the Red Sea, the mighty SS Thistlegorm. This 126m long British cargo ship was sunk by German bombers in 1941 and today rests in 30m. While covered in pretty corals and a good variety of fish, the wreck and its cargo are the highlights of this dive. With 20m visibility and no current we first explored the exterior of the wreck, checking out one of the locomotive engines sitting on the bottom, then the stern and prop, and finally the bow section. We then entered the first two cargo holds, which are still loaded with motorbikes, trucks, rifles, boots, plane wings and other war supplies.

 

After another incredible dive on the SS Thistlegorm we anchored overnight at a nearby site called The Barge. This small open wreck was a lovely night dive, and only 16m deep. Here we saw basketstars, stonefish, nudibranchs and a good variety of moray eels.

 

Early the next morning we dived another famous Red Sea shipwreck, the SS Rosalie Moller. Sunk only two days after the SS Thistlegorm, the SS Rosalie Moller was a 108m long coal carrier. The ship now rests in 50m, with its decks at 33m. We only had 10m visibility, but it was enough to enjoy this fascinating wreck. We explored the mast, winches, bridge and hold. A good variety of fish call this wreck home, but a highlight for us were several panther torpedo rays, a type of electric ray, resting on the deck.

 

We then explored more shipwrecks at nearby Shab Abu Nuhas Reef. The first was the Carnatic, a 90m long P&O passenger steamer that sank in 1869. This pretty shipwreck rests on its port side and is covered in wonderful soft corals. Sitting in 25m and with 30m visibility, we had a great time exploring this historic shipwreck, seeing stingrays and Maori wrasse. After lunch we explored a more recent shipwreck, the 100m long cargo ship Giannis D. This large ship sank in 1983 and is a sensational dive. While the mid-section of the ship is badly broken, the bow and stern are largely intact. Resting in 22m, we explored the masts, engines, winches and many other features, and saw lovely corals and a good variety of reef fish.

 

Our overnight anchorage was at a site called Dolphin House, and this site certainly lived up to its name. Jumping in at sunset we were greeted by a pod of bottlenose dolphins that took great delight in swimming around us for several minutes. If only all dives started like this! We then explored the reef, seeing basketstars, sleeping fish, moray eels, cuttlefish and a number of bright red Spanish dancers.

 

The next morning was our final day of diving and it started with a bang with another dive at Dolphin House. Once again we had a close encounter with the bottlenose dolphins, including a mother and calf. We then did a lovely reef dive at Um Gamar, encountering Maori wrasse, giant moray eels, longnose hawkfish and several nudibranchs. We missed the last dive of the trip, another wreck dive, as we had to fly back to Cairo the next morning.

 

We had an incredible dive trip to the Red Sea on Emperor Superior and can see why this destination lures European divers back year after year. We also enjoyed two wonderful weeks exploring the ancient wonders of Egypt. At no time did we feel unsafe or unwelcomed in Egypt, in fact the Egyptian people are very friendly and desperately need more tourists. If you have always wanted to explore and dive Egypt now is the time to go, as the Egyptian pound has been devalued and country is almost devoid of tourists.

 

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