Diving the Southern Red Sea on the Sea Serpent | June 5, 2004
Check In at Gatwick
The nerves didn’t hit until I got to the check-in que for my 5 hour flight to Marsa Alam, Egypt. I was heading out on a liveaboard trip called the simply the best. The itenary took in some of the best dive sites in the southern Red Sea. Sites that were as known for their ferocious currents and large swell as they were for their shark action. However it wasn’t the diving conditions or the chance to dive with hammer heads that was causing my anxiety. It was the people in front of me.
I was travelling on my own and planning to spend 7 nights on a dive boat with 19 other guests. On these kinds of trips, the other people on the boat are as important as the diving. Have a good mix and you’ll have a great time, a bad mix and I’d be spending the whole trip locked in my cabin. I checked the group in front. They looked a nightmare.
There were around 12 of them all travelling together. They looked like they were on the way to an England match or a holiday to the Costa Del Sol, not a Red Sea diving holiday. They were checking in more dive kit than an entire Navey Seal team, but looked a lot less fun. Great, a tech diving club from Essex. Please, please don’t be on the same boat as me. I couldn’t bare 6 days of comparing depth gauges, discussing mixed gas diving and extolling the virtues of cold water diving.
Arrival at Marsa Alam and The MV Sea Serpent
After a relatively uneventful flight, I landed in Marsa Alam International Airport. Basically a glorified bus station without the charm. I’m sure there must be a company somewhere that churns out cheap airports for developing countries as they all look the same. The que started to develop and was obviously overwhelming the one guy at passport control. Despite having only one flight that day, it seemed to take the airport staff a little by surprise. I smiled quietly to myself. The joys of travelling to developing countries.
Met outside by a rep of the tour company, I was glad to see the tech divers being led off in a separate direction. I let out a visible sigh of relief as I was directed to the bus that would take me to the boat and my home for the next week. The MV Sea Serpent was billed as a luxury livaboard, and she didn’t disappoint. I’ve been on many livaborads over the years, from backpacker boats in Thailand and Indonesia, to modern livaboards plying the Barrier Reef and Coral Sea, and the Sea Serpent was definitely amongst the nicest I’ve stayed on.
All the guests assembled in the lounge and we were introduced to our “trip director” for the week, a loverly Egyptian dive instructor called Hazim. With an amazingly dry sense of humour, Hazim proved to be both an excellent dive leader, and a great source of entertainment for the rest of the trip. After a quick boat brief we got our cabins assignments, unpacked and set up our dive gear.
Despite having 20 guests and a crew of 16, the Sea Serpent was plenty big enough. With a large lounge, big gearing up area and a couple of sun decks, there was enough of space for everybody. The cabins were a reasonable size, complete with on-suit facilities and after a couple of days, I even got used to the rock hard beds.
Time to get wet
We stayed in port that night and headed out the early the next morning for our first day of diving. As usual on these kind of trips, the first dive was a check dive. Basically this involves going to a relatively easy (read dull) dive site so the guides can make sure you know what you’re doing. Being a dive instructor, I was worried that I’d end up baby sitting inexperienced divers. This has happened to me on more than one trip, so these days I usually don’t mention that I’m an instructor. However on this occasion, I was extremely lucky. I was put in a group with 3 other experienced divers including another dive instructor and a dive master.
We stayed in this group for the rest of the trip, and out of all the groups, probably had the most luck spotting marine life. It’s great diving with people of a similar level of experience, as you can just get on with the dive, without constantly having to worry about your buddy. The more experienced you get, the slower and more relaxed you become. I’m always amazed how many divers think they are in a race. Whizzing off as fast as they can, it’s no wonder they miss so much and run out of air so soon. On the other had, we were often the first in the water and the last out, seeing an amazing amount of sea life in-between.
Rough seas, currents and sharks
After the initial check dive, the first real stop was a pair of islands called The Brothers. They were a 5 hour crossing from our first dive site, and the seas were pretty rough. I don’t normally suffer from sea sickness, however the crossing was unpleasant even for me. I’d say that at least half the guests ended up being sick and after a couple of hours of rolling seas I decided it would be best to get some kip. Getting to Little Brother an hour before sunset, there was just enough time to get in a dive.
All the diving on this trip was to be done from RIB’s, small inflatable boats with an outboard motor. This is pretty common in the UK, but the closest I’ve got to diving from a RIB was diving from long tale boats in Thailand. The sea was extremely choppy so just getting into the boat was a task. Getting to the dive site was even more of a challenge. By this time the waves were big. I’m not sure how big, but I’d estimate some had a good 6+ foot of face on them. Perched on the side of the boat in full dive gear and holding on for dear life, we bounced along the swell for about 20 minutes to reach the drop off point. Every now and then, a big wave would rear up and I’d quietly pray that the boat didn’t get flipped. Luckily the boat drivers were excellent and somehow managed to get us to the drop off point in one piece.
Because of the surge and potential for ripping currents (which could cause buddy separation) we had to do a negative entry. For those non divers out there, this basically means rolling off the side of the boat with no air in your jacket and going straight underwater. If you’re carrying loads of extra weight, this is easy. You just breath out and sink like a stone. However I tend to have just enough weight to keep me down, so as soon as I hit the water I would have to start finning madly to avoid the whirling props of the RIB, and stay with the rest of my group. Never having done this before, it took a bit of getting used to. I wanted to do it with all the grace of Jacques Cousteau, but ended up looking more like a thrashing toddler. At least the boat didn’t slice me in two.
Slowly descending to 30m, I quickly forgot the chaotic and frankly scary boat ride out. A mild current gently pushed us along and we all headed off in search of big fish. Like most dive holidays, each dive slowly blurs into one. I can’t remember if we saw Hammer Heads on this first dive or not. However, throughout the rest of the trip we clocked up an impressive number of sightings. The thing that stood out on this first proper dive was a close encounter with Silky Sharks.
I’ve never seen silkeys before, so it was another big shark to tick off the list. We encountered them at the end of the dive as we made our way back to the boat. They seemed to take a liking to the underside of our liveaboard and swam around us for 10 minutes while we were doing our 5m safety stop. Unlike the hammers, these silkeys were not shy and even managed to scare the video pro out of the water by getting a little too friendly. So predictable were they, that after every dive on “little brother” we’d save an extra bit of air to hang out with our own personal “boat sharks”. Who needs blue planet when you’ve got the real thing 5m bellow where you’re sleeping.
Diving the Brothers, Dadelous and Elphinstone
The days started to form a regular pattern. Wake up at 6am. In the water around 7:30am for the first dive. Breakfast at around 9am and then a long surface interval till 1pm for the second dive of the day. Lunch around 3pm, last dive at around 6pm, dinner at 8pm and in bed by 11pm. The day revolved around eating, sunbathing, diving and sleeping. It was physically exhausting, but mentally relaxing. No worrying about what to do or where to go. The whole day was planned out from start to finish. On trips like this, food is really important, and the only thing that let the trip and the boat down was the sub standard grub. It was OK for the first couple of days, but quickly became a source of complaint. For a budget boat, it would have been bearable, but for something billed as a luxury livaboard (with a price tag to match), the food was pretty poor. In fact, at least 5 of the guests ended up getting ill from the food which was definitely not a good sign.
The next 2 days we clocked up 6 more dives at the Brothers. The seas never abated and the currents got stronger. On a few occasions there were mad up and down currents. Our group managed to weather them pretty well, but on one dive every other group either aborted or got sucked down to depth by the ferocious currents. Funnily, this actually turned out to be one of our nicest dives, with a couple of good close encounters with hammer heads and even a manta sighting. When not looking onto the blue on shark spotting duty, I’d scan the reef walls enjoying the colourful soft corals and looking for critters. I’m a big fan of macro stuff but the southern Red Sea really is more of a big fish destination, so don’t expect to see much small stuff. On one dive we clocked up around 8 Hammer heads and a Manta. Not bad.
From the Brothers we made a much quieter crossing to Dadelous Reef. Looking like a scene from a James Bond movie, Dadelous was a completely submerged reef topped by an impressive lighthouse and jetty. Like the Brothers, the seas around Dadelous were also pretty choppy. However, by this time, I was used to the boat rides and even started to enjoy them. This site also produced more stunning diving with even more encounters with Hammer Heads.
After a days diving at Dadelous, our next stop was Elphinstone reef. I was really looking forward to this reef as I’ve heard tell of lot’s of big shark action. However it’s the closest reef to shore and is gaining more of a reputation for the number of dive boats moored up than the likelihood of encountering sharks. At the time there were probably half a dozen big boats and maybe another 4 or 5 RIB’s buzzing around. This is significantly more than we experienced on any other dive site on the trip, but supposedly a quiet day on Elphinstone. Doing 3 dives here I have to say that I wasn’t very impressed. The coral was nice, and despite the number of boats, we saw few divers in the water. However there just wasn’t the profusion of sharks that I’d expected.
Coming to an end
Coming to the end of the trip, we spent the last diving day in a sheltered bay doing a couple of simple, relaxing dives. The first dive was spent floating around a patch of sea grass looking for an elusive Dugong. Failing to see the fabled sea cow, our final dive of the trip was a nice relaxing dive on a pretty stretch of fringing reef. Very different to the preceding days hard core wall diving and a nice way to end the holiday. We chugged back to the harbour for lunch, spent the evening on the boat and then got transferred to a hotel for the next day.
Who should be at the hotel pool, but the tech divers I saw at check-in. Now acting like there were on a holiday to Spain, I was doubly glad I didn’t end up getting stuck with them for the whole trip. Being on a boat for 7 day, there is no escape from the other divers. As such, it’s the other guests that can make of break a trip. On this occasion I was lucky. Without exception, all of the other divers were great. We all got on really well and had an excellent time together.
On the whole I had a really great week. The boat was good, and the crew were exceptional. Always there to help you into and out of your dive gear, there was always somebody at hand. Coming back from the first dive, the beds were made, the cabins cleaned and fresh fruit juice was waiting for you on the dive deck. Along with Hazim, we had an excellent Egyptian dive guide named Hanny and a great English videographer called Simon.
Apart from the food, my only other complaint was that I’d have preferred to have done 4 dives a day (which is more usual), rather than just 3. However I’d have no qualms about going recommending the Sea Serpent or the diving in the Southern Red Sea. In fact I’m itching to go back and hope to arrange another liveaboard holiday there in Sep/Oct.
Posted at June 5, 2004 9:03 AM