On to the Maldives!

Years ago I pondered whether a career in the scuba industry was right for me or not.  So much travel, so much hard work sweating under the hot sun, so much sand between my toes……OK, OK…I’ll take the job!

Here we are today and I can’t be any happier with my decision.  As part of my “job” (or living vacation, as some view it) I have the responsibility of going and checking our places we may want to run group trips to.  This week, my assignment is the liveaboard charter Ark Royal, and our destination is the Maldives.

This trip is starting less than 24 hours after the Beneath the Sea show ended, so as you might imagine, I am a bit disorganized this morning.  But I’ll manage, and have a high degree of confidence that I’ll make my flight this afternoon. Of course I have nothing packed, and my scuba gear actually just arrived on Friday after Air France lost it and then sent it to Genoa, Italy.  But like Peaches and Herb said, “we’re reunited and it feels so good!’  So I get some clothes together, and review the gear list, take out the cold-water stuff and re-pack for the 85 degrees that awaits me, and toss it all in the van.  Whew…glad I travel light!

In addition to my primary assignment of researching Maldives as a destination, and the Ark Royal as a viable liveaboard for a future Indian Valley Scuba trip, I’ll also be conducting a bit of a medical experiment on this trip, especially in light of the extended travel and flight times, and the stress on one’s system that can cause.  I’ll be traveling with a supply of Divers D\Lyte, the performance drink developed by John Dooley specifically to provide a combination of energy and hydration for divers and any other athlete for that matter.  Loaded with vitamins and electrolytes, this sugar-free, caffeine-free drink should help me  “Get my gills on!”   I look forward to reporting more on this later.

Recognizing that the adventure the next two weeks hold is far more than a mere mortal like myself can handle alone, and still smarting from losing Dave Hartman halfway through last week’s Egyptian extravaganza, I decide to put out the word and see if I can get a volunteer to step up and help me absorb all this culture and information to bring back for the IVS family of divers.  Fortunately, Michele Highley is available to assist in this work, and she signs on as my sidekick for the trip.  This should certainly help get a second person’s perspective on a trip of this magnitude and all the travel and other considerations that go along with it.

Our departing flight is not until 5:45 p.m. so I’ve got plenty of time to get a little caught up from the busy weekend.  A few hundred emails answered or deleted, some unpacking of the trailers from the show, a load of laundry, and I good to go and start packing for this week.  It’s time for the airport run, so I got started right on time at 3:30 (OK, original plan was to leave at 2:00, but who’s keeping score?).  Still, there’s no rush, the bags are checked in a good 20 minutes before the cutoff, no last minute heroics or special dispensation on the part of airline employees to comment on, nothing!  What a difference this trip is, deviating from my normal last minute rushing – I feel like I am suffering from a lack of adrenalin already!

Emirates Air makes the trip from New York’s JFK airport to the Maldives in two hops, stopping only in Dubai.  So that makes sense, doesn’t it?  No, not when you are working on maintaining your Diamond Medallion status with Delta Airlines!  So my route is Philadelphia / Atlanta / Dubai, then switching to Sri Lankan Airlines for Dubai / Colombo, Sri Lanka / Male, Maldives.  Yep, makes sense….not!  But hey, it’s me!  At the check-in counter in Philadelphia the Delta gate agent is a slug – you know sometimes you can read a person in a nanosecond, and that’s the case here.  She is not the helpful Ms Monika that saved the day when I missed my Cairo flight two weeks ago, that’s for sure!  When I started to say about checking the bags all the way to the Maldives, the look on her face said it all – let’s just check the bags to the end of Delta’s route, Dubai, and call it a day.  I’ll take care of things from there.

Sorry, but no “Blue Shirt” stories to tell; they were too busy arguing over breaks and time off to notice Michele’s two bottles of Vitamin Water in her bag as it passed through the x-ray machine  – America’s front line of security was absent today!   We boarded, and enjoyed an uneventful flight to Atlanta.  A little complimentary ‘hydration’ in the Crown Room, and we boarded our flight to Dubai.

Fourteen hours in a coach seat is a long, long time, let me tell you!  The good news is that they were exit row seats with no seats in front, so plenty of room to stretch my legs out and attempt to snooze a little between feedings.  And there were plenty of them, starting with late dinner, midnight snack, breakfast, and lunch, all accompanied by unlimited drinks and excellent cabin service by the flight attendants – so refreshingly un-Air France like, the experience was more akin to that you would enjoy on a cruise ship with the unending buffet line.

Finally, we land in Dubai, and sure enough, I manage to get our bags collected by the great gate agents at Sri Lankan Air, and they get loaded for our last two flights.  First we’ll enjoy 4½ hours of more great service and even more food and drinks are forwarded, served up with great smiles by the sarong-wearing flight attendants, and eventually we touch down in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Funny thing but it’s 5:00 a.m. locally (that’s 7:30 p.m. east coast time – seems they are a half hour out of sync here) making our journey 26 hours so far, with one more flight and a few more hours to go.  Sitting in the terminal, it is interesting to note how many westerners are passing through here, including a number gathered around us at the gate for the flight to Male.  My mind wonders how many of these folks will be our shipmates for this coming ocean adventure!

Finally, it’s time for flight #4, to Male, the only airport in the Maldives, and thankfully it’s a short 1½ hour trip.  The Maldives immigration form has the customary ‘fill in the blank’ format, but it is interesting to note that the space for your name has room for 51 characters – I feel like my parents shortchanged me!  Customs is a breeze and our bags arrive  – what a pleasant surprise!  We walk outside and are met by a couple of representatives from the boat, and we gather with some of our fellow shipmates, a group from Spain, who had arrived on an earlier Qatar Airlines flight.  They walk us across the street to the dock where our dive tender awaits to whisk us to the Ark Royal.  Of course, just to keep the heart pumping, as our tender begins to untie to pull away, a local police boat feels a need to come alongside and chat with the crew – I was afraid the Canadians had sent some intel down here!  But no, just a formality, and we are on our way in a few.

It’s a pretty twenty-minute ride out to where the Ark Royal is moored and being fueled by the local delivery barge.  We tie up and board, and our baggage is hauled aboard also.  A quick briefing and our rooms are ready for us. I’ve got a standard cabin, and it measures about 10 ft x 12 ft, plus a full bath.  The shower is “Dave-size” so that is a big plus, as so many boats really have tight shower enclosures. All the diving will be done from the tender, which itself is actually a 40 ft long dive boat. The tanks & gear will remain on the tender, and will be filled between dives by the onboard compressor system.  Nitrox is the gas of choice and they have a membrane system to pump it right into our cylinders.  The gear is kept in roomy milk crates under each persons seat and there’s plenty of hanging space for wetsuits, but with the 86 degree water, we sure won’t be needing too many of those!

Our plan is to do a quick “check dive” at a nearby reef to make sure everything is in order, and for everyone to get their weighting right.  We pile into the tender, and run about twenty-minutes up the coast to Feydhoo Wall.  This turns out to be a really nice dive, with the wall starting at about 10 ft and dropping down until it ends in the sand at 100 ft.  It is covered with life, and riddled with cuts and grooves that provide refuge for plenty of colorful critters.  The most prominent fish are blue triggerfish, in the 3 to 8 inch length, and there must be 10,000 of them within sight.  Many of them are laying on their sides, with their heads in small holes, ostrich-like.  There are other species of triggerfish here also but the blue ones dominate.  With lots of hard & soft corals, sponges, and gorgonians, the life here is rich and varied.  We see numerous Nudibranchs, a great looking turtle sitting on a ledge, some morays, an octopus, anemones and clown fish, various crinoids, some tuna buzzing by, mantis shrimp, banded shrimp, angels, puffers and more.  What a great way to kick off the week, and we spend 50 minutes with a depth of 100 ft to get a good baseline of nitrogen loading in our systems.

And again, without sounding like a broken record, I must say we feel great after 30 hours of non-stop air travel, and I attribute a lot of that to Divers D\Lyte, which we have been mixing with our water and drinking all along (OK, in between beers for me!).  No sense of dehydration or jet lag to speak of!

Back to the boat, we enjoy lunch, and then motor south a few miles to South Kaafu Atoll, also known as south Male atoll.  Here we tie up for the night in a protected mooring area, off a site called Guraidhoo, and are joined by a few other liveaboards and some sailboats.  Dinner is served and it is delicious, and I sense that my diet plans will be on hold for the next few days.

One comment I might make on the boat and the crew is that there is not a lot of clear communication here on any level.  Having enjoyed some great crew introductions and briefings on such boats as the Spirit of Freedom, Aquacat, Odyssey, Aggressor, and others, one might expect to be introduced to the crew members, get an overview of the week to come, and learn some local culture and information.  Here, the information is doled out on a “need to know” basis, and sadly, that takes away quite a bit of the experience that could be.  And speaking of information, the only paperwork filled out (but not reviewed) was a simple diver info form, and never was a certification card asked to be produced at all! End of soapbox, but you can rest assured it will be passed on the boat’s owners.

Our fellow shipmates for the cruise include Tia (a fellow Lithuanian) & John from Palo Alto, Tony & Alan from the San Francisco area, Bonnie & Dana from Michigan, Cheryl from Colorado, Leigh, originally from Worcestershire, UK, but currently residing in Dubai, and a group of six from Spain who speak as little English as I speak Spanish, so we’ll just skip on the names and origins.

It’s 6:00 a.m. and the wake up bell stirs us.  First dive briefing is at 6:30 and then we’ll be in the water before breakfast.  We learn the dive leaders names this morning, Thippe (pronounced Tippy), and Boee (pronounced Boy), as well as some female DM who spoke Spanish for the rest of the divers, but evidently didn’t interface well with westerners.  Our first site today is Kandoomaa Thila, a pillar that rises from the bottom in the center of the channel, from a depth of about a hundred and fifty feet to approx. 40 ft at the top.  With the tremendous tidal flow of water from the atolls, the current this morning is just ripping as we head out. You can see the diverging flows boiling the surface of the water as we approach the dive site.  We drop on the west end of he pillar, and there is a bit of confusion as the current tries to split the group to the north and south.  Once re-organized, we pass along the north side of the reef, keeping the wall on our right shoulder (OK, most of us do, but in spite of the briefing, a few of the divers still manage to get themselves separated from the group….shaking my head here) and enjoy a nice 35 minute dive from 120 ft to 60 ft of depth.  White tipped sharks, eagle rays, triggers, titans, bumphead wrasses, turtles, all sorts of interesting life to take in and enjoy.  Good dive!

Back up, we return to the mother ship and breakfast is served.  Plenty of food and variety, so no one is going hungry here.  Before you know it the time to dive has arrived, so a quick briefing, and onto the tender tor our five-minute run to the site.  The plan was the same as earlier, we’ll dive in three groups.  OK, well that is the description of the start at least.  We end the dive in about 8 groups, scattered all along the reef – utterly amazing how challenging it is for these DM’s to monitor their groups and attempt to keep any sort of order there.  None the less, it is the best dive yet, with visibility in excess of 200 ft, and sharks, turtles, octopus’s, golden leaf scorpionfish, big spotted morays, titan triggers guarding their nests, and more.  Quick summary – great dive!

On to dive #3 for the day, another channel inlet dive, similar profile with the reef rising to approx 30 ft on either side of a 300 ft wide 100 ft deep channel.  Here we have a strong incoming tidal current, plus an ocean current to deal with, so we start off the dive about 100 ft west of the channel entrance, swim like hell to get down and not washed into the channel, then enjoy a nice deep dive traversing the inlet of the channel.  The water on the ocean side is several hundred feet deep and dark, while on the reef side it is crystal clear, except for some areas of mixed temperatures that make for a “jelly on the lens” sort of effect as you try to focus.  Here we start the dive with some of the usual critters but as we near the far side of the channel the real show begins, with gray and white tip sharks of all sizes cruising in to check us out.  At one point I can count 18 sharks in front of me, very cool to be here and experiencing this!  All too soon our tanks are running low at this depth, so we work our way up the reef to our safety stop and finally surface 45 minutes later.  Excellent dive, but note to self:  doubles would be better here!

Time for a quick nap on the sundeck, and then dinner is served.  Following that there is a lot of socializing and a bit of alcohol consumed as the boat nears our mooring destination for the night.  Well the temperature and clarity of the water is top much to deny, so what better than a late night swim in the ocean?  Not everyone is brave enough, but the intrepid few, consisting of Leigh and Michele, set a positive example for the rest as they cavort and frolic in the sea.  The current here is no small consideration, and one needs to be mindful of that while enjoying the water, cause the anchored boat gets pretty far away pretty darn fast if you are not paying attention.  Sure enough, not enough mind is paid to that, and as the mother ship begins to fade in the darkness, it’s time for the crew to fire up the dingy and head out for a little late night rescue!  All ends well, and there’s laughter all around.

April Fools Day, and we get to sleep in an extra hour for some inexplicable reason.  Communication from the crew continues to be somewhat lacking, but we just go with the flow here and take the extra hour.  We are near a site that lies within some sort of national park, again, can’t get a clear answer on what that means, but I’ve got enough information to make that statement with confidence.  The site is a small bommie, or pinnacle, that rises up from deeper water and it probably isn’t more than 150 ft in diameter, with the top at about 50 ft.  It is absolutely covered with life of all sorts, especially schooling fish such as grunts, snappers, and other local species.  We enjoy watching a turtle having breakfast on the many sponges that grow on the reef, and a couple of not-too-shy octopus are out and about.  Plenty of eels, a local version of a goliath grouper, and some tune darting along make for a great 50 minutes with a max depth of 110 ft.

Back for breakfast, the boat moves a bit, and the plans for the second dive are announced.  We’re going to search for whale sharks in the tender, and if we’re lucky and come upon some, we’ll jump in and snorkel with them.  Then we’ll do our dive, and maybe look for some more whale sharks on the way back.  OK, I just gave you the entire dive briefing, and yes, they forget to talk about the actual dive site at all.  I suppose we’ll figure it out when we get there.   Maybe…

If I may digress for a moment…It is always interesting when I get a chance to dive with non-IVS divers and observe just how “different” that truly is.  The first and most obvious observation is the overall worldly experience this group has, as they drop names of places they have dived like Fiji, Indonesia, Bali, Lembeh Straits, and all sorts of other exotic locations.  Most of them exhibit some great dive skills and their experience diving together as buddies truly shows.  In conversation I find quite a bit of continuing education achievements and aspirations, with a few rescue divers, some public safety diving experience, and more.  It behooves anyone who embraces diving this much to seek a solid understanding of the physiological effects of diving, and a clearer understanding of basic dive equipment and skills, that might in fact help save their lives somewhere down the road.  OK… off my soapbox…again!

So we board the tender and head out to see if we can find some whale sharks. We’re in an area that is somewhat plankton rich, and a good location to find the biggest fish of the sea swimming, mouth open, into the current, filtering out lunch from the sea’s salad bar.  The method of searching consists of putting a few crew members on the roof and looking for shadows in the ocean as we cruise along.  There are other boats out here doing the same thing, but do you think anyone has a radio to talk to each other?  You know the answer to that.  So we pass the other boats and they pass us, repeatedly, as we all search in a fairly large area along the coast.  The plan is to search for two hours, and if we’re not successful, then we’ll dive and search for two more hours.  Let’s hope we find a whale shark in the first session!  One hour, a false alarm, back in our seats, almost two hours now….wait…there’s a boat ahead dropping folks into the water!  Sure enough, it’s a whale shark, who was enjoying a leisurely breakfast, but is now the subject of about 100 snorkelers chasing and racing to swim alongside it.  The scene is reminiscent of the starting line of the Iron Man Triathlon, with plenty of kicking and splashing and pushing as everyone wants the front row seat, but the darn front row keeps moving!   Still a decent photo op and I get quite a few shot off before the shark turns and heads to the peace of deeper waters.  Back on the boat, and the search resumes for a bit.  We find another, but this one is on the game, and heads towards the deep much quicker than the first.  Overall, I think it’s a bit abusive for the whale sharks, but at least they have the option of interrupting lunch and coming back when the crowds are gone.  The good news is that we don’t have to look forward to another two hours of searching now!

So we splash on the reef, and as soon as we get down, there is a beautiful black & purple flatworm swimming along the reef.  It stops and sets down on a piece of coral, and what is right below it?  Two beautiful large cowries, their shells beautiful and shiny, just perfect to compliment the scene.  Plenty of table top corals throughout the area, and lots of fish life, some nice nudi’s, including a really large purple one that bears a strong resemblance to a sponge, need to get an ID on this.  Decent dive, 60 minutes at 80 ft and up, and we return to the boat for lunch and a break before heading back out for a late afternoon dive.

Quick briefing and we’re back on board to our final site, which promises to be a manta ray cleaning station.  First bad sign when we arrive is that there are three other boats already there with divers in the water, and I am thinking, “Just how tolerant are those mantas of divers?”  Well, my suspicions were right on the money, as we spent 60 minutes huffing for a mile or so across so-so reef in search of non-existent manta rays.  A nice friendly turtle, a school of photographic sweetlips, and a stingray being cleaned were the highlights, but overall we could have dove this one a lot closer to home without 50 hours of airline travel!  90 ft max, 60 minutes, another dive in the logbook.  Let’s go to dinner!

Again we appeal to the guys who appear to be in leadership positions in the crew to have the guys introduce themselves, and again we are assured this will happen soon.  Flash forward – this NEVER happens; truly a disappointment to spend ten days in close quarters with nine or ten guys and never know who’s on first.  Something to consider for future charters.

Oh well, back to life on board – another great night under a clear skies with the heavens providing a fantastic star-filled show for us to enjoy.  The boat has a nice celestial telescope so all the amateur stargazers gather around and test their knowledge of the constellations and other things stellar.  Nice bunch on the boat and everyone is bonding well – well OK, there are two distinct groups, those who speak English, and those who don’t!

OK, it’s a new day and time to get some diving in.  Our first location is a wreck sunk in the 80’s as an artificial reef, the Kudhima Wreck, sitting perfectly upright in 100 ft of water.  This old inter-island freighter is covered with life, including a lot of hard corals.  It’s really interesting to see growth of table top corals right off the side of the hull!  We check out some morays, a really nice mantis shrimp playing hide-and-seek with us, big puffer fish, a remora looking for a host, and more of the usual suspects.  Sixty minutes and 100 ft of depth and we call this one a winner!

Back to the boat, breakfast is served, and then we head out to our second location, a site known as Five Rocks.  This is another “thila” (pillar, or bommie to our Australian readers) that rises up like a sea mount, from 120 ft to maybe 50 ft.  It’s split across the top with some deep crevices and just full of life.  We get buzzed by a few white tip sharks and enjoy another turtle munching away on the reef.  Just a thought – how come we can’t touch the reef but the turtles get to hammer away on it?  Just fooling of course, but the dangerous mind wanders you know!

On the way back in to enjoy lunch, I take the time to chat with Thyppe and see if I can encourage him to maybe get a little more diving into our day.  The original excuse was the time it took to fill the tanks.  Now, he confides with me that when the crew proposes four dives a day to a lot of their groups, they are met with laughter, so they learned to back off from that.  Well, this is no ordinary group here this week, I assure him, and we’d appreciate more bottom time.  He says the tanks could be filled quicker, so I challenge him to prove it to me.  As we tie up to the mother shop, he walks over to the white board where the daily diving info is posted, and writes “sunset dive” at the bottom of today’s schedule,  I high five him, and we go in to eat.

After the tanks get filled, and we head back to Manta Point to repeat the dive we did yesterday, which sucked.  Hopes are high that our previous experience was an anomaly, and as we approach the first good sign is that there are no other boats there to scare away any mantas.  We splash, and in less than one minute, there’s our first manta.  Our group displays some good discipline, staying low and not moving much, and we are rewarded with about ten minutes of manta aerobatics as the gentle giant swoops over us, runs through our bubbles, cruises up and down our group and just does about every other manta thing you can imagine.  Very cool.  OK, he leaves, so we move down the reef, and hey, here’s another, and more of the same.  It’s interesting also that the reef is absolutely covered with morays of various flavors and all sizes, and as we sit there motionless they are swimming between our arms, under our bodies and all around – really adds to the experience!  Two more big ones cruise overhead, then a couple more, so we get a total of six mantas for today’s dive – we are glad we did the second take on this one!!  Another 100 ft for 60 minutes total – great dive!

Back for a quick surface interval and tank filling, and we head out for a sunset  dive which quickly turns into a night dive on the house reef.  Very nice, although not very fishy – seems a lot of the inhabitants must head to deeper waters to survive the night.  We have some squid checking us out, a few sharks, and lots of sleeping parrot fish in the coral – seems like Key Largo!  All good, and another 50 minutes of bottom time for the logbook.  Back for dinner now!

What a most brilliant sunrise greets us this Sunday morning as we get up at 6:00 for our first dive.  A quick briefing and we head out to Dhigaa Thila, another lump on the sea floor about ten minutes from the boat. This is a pretty cool site with a dramatic wall that drops vertically down from about 15 ft to 100 ft, riddled with big caverns and crevices.  The soft corals here are the best we have seen yet, and we find a nice big octopus, some more white tip sharks cruising in close to check me out, pretty nudibranch’s, and the highlight of the dive, three ornate ghost pipefish that pose for me alongside a feather star.  Beautiful!  Another 100 ft and another 60 minutes makes for a perfect dive log entry!

Breakfast is served while tanks are filled, and we head out to Maahlos Thila, a beautiful wall dive along the side of yet another channel from the open sea.  We drop down to 100 ft to begin, and then ride the outgoing current along the wall which is covered with bright blue soft corals and so many other corals and sponges that no matter which direction you looked, you found yourself speechless.  Totally covered with schooling fish of all sorts, they wall was also riddled with deep undercuts and quasi-caverns, which provided even more homes for animals of all sorts.  We ended up on top of the reef at 40 ft, with 55 minutes of bottom time.  Overall a most wonderful dive to add to the list!

And this dive was even more special as it was Alan & Tony’s 100th dive.  Pretty cool way to celebrate!

And speaking of small worlds as we weren’t, Alan is wearing one of his favorite tee’s today, featuring Conch Republic Dive Center.  What a coincidence, I point out, that today Butch Loggins and Dave Hartman are leading the IVS crew on a dive in the Florida Keys with Conch Republic this very day!  The IVS dive flag is flying on both sides of the globe at the same time today!

Our afternoon dive was to Dhonkalho Thila, another manta ray hangout.  We dropped in to about 70 ft and there they were, in under a minute, our first two.  Swooping over and past us, they made for a magical experience.  We had about seven mantas in total spending time with us, and we did not move at all. Finally, they left, so we worked our way along the reef a bit, and ended up with another 50 minutes at 70 ft total.

No night is complete without a night dive, so by golly, we had one tonight!  The group got a little smaller as half the passengers opted to head over to the uninhabited island we are anchored in front of to do some swimming before we have a barbecue on the island.  The rest of us headed under, and were treated to the standard night time fare here, including another leaf scorpionfish, some really cool feeding coral with tentacles out about 24 inches, and all the other stuff.  I enjoyed it as a solo night dive, logging 100 ft and 50 minutes.

Now we get dolled up and head over on the dingy to the island, where the crew has put together a nice beach barbecue setting, complete with a 30 ft whale shark carved into the sand as our dinner table – really neatly done!  They have brought the entire dinner over, with all the fixin’s, and the bar too, so we enjoyed a few really pleasant hours dining under the stars and chatting on the first bit of land our legs have touched in a week!   All too soon, it’s time to wrap it up and head back to the Ark Royal for a good nights sleep.

First dive for Monday is a small ridge of a reef line called Fish Head, off North Ari Atoll.  Nice dive, 126 ft of depth, lots of fish life, nudi’s and feeding turtles, a few sharks in the distance, superb viz, mild currents and a great 55 minutes of bottom time.  We motor north while eating breakfast to our second site of another four-dive day, a site called Kan Thila.

For our next dive we head out to a site where big grey reef sharks abound.  We drop in and head down and into the current, and I am thinking, gosh, this is just like the 1st manta dive – and guess what – it was!  It sucked!  OK, so it was 86 degrees, and I am in the Maldives, but the dive sucked.  Or, as Cheryl noted, the best part of that dive was the safety stop!  So we spent the better part of an hour poking under rocks, looking at eels, some Nudibranchs, and not too much more.

Back for lunch, and then we headed out to Hafzaa Thila, to look for even more sharks.  We saw maybe two big grey ones, a few white tips, but the cool stuff was big honking tuna fish shooting along through the schools of baitfish.  There were quite a few of them, all in the 30 to 50 pound size range, and they were cruising for dinner.  Pretty neat to watch, but tough to photograph.  Up on top we had a dozen juvenile white tips, around two feet long, hiding under the table corals and thinking about living a longer life by doing so!  Must be a tough neighborhood when all the big grey’s come home.  Also had some more of the usual, clownfish, a scorpionfish, nudi’s, beautiful anemones, some squid, and zillions of schooling fish trying to avoid becoming someone’s dinner.  100 ft max and 70 minutes of bottom time, with a couple of inquisitive squid joining us at the end to top off a really nice dive.

We head back out to Hafzaa Thila for our night dive, and expect the action to be intense with all the food in the area.  We are not disappointed for sure!  Sharks are feeding all over the reef, big marble rays and morays out for dinner also, and thousands upon thousands of smaller fish seeking shelter and refuge there.  It was like someone pumped some Red Bull into the predators for the night, cause they sure had the energy to burn!  The good news for the prey is that the sharks and eels are terrible hunters, so you get plenty of chances to err, Still quite a few meet their maker tonight, and no one is going to bed hungry that’s for sure!  Another hour of bottom time rounds out the night, and we head in for a late dinner and right to bed.

Up again at 6:30 our plans are to head back to last night’s site for one more visit to this Thila.  But as we approach, there are three boats on it already, so we shift gears and head 10 minutes north to the site we had planned for our second dive, Maaya Thila.  It’s a similar site, although not quite as defined as a pillar, but still full of life of all sorts.  Nice dive, 120 ft max, 60 minutes of bottom time, just enough to work up a good appetite for breakfast!

OK, bellies full (like that is not a recurring thing all week!) and we head out to the original site, Haafza Thila, and enjoy our third dive on this pillar of sea life, where we get to see some more dogfish tuna nailing their breakfast, and the rest of the “busy town” life on top of the coral column.  We explore out in the sand for a while at 130 ft, do a little Project Aware work cleaning up some old fishing line, and then spend the rest of the sixty-five minute dive on top of the reef.  Good way to see three completely different versions of life and visitors on this reef, from yesterday afternoon’s pelagics coming in to visit, to last night’s feeding frenzy, and today to a nice quiet neighborhood to raise your kids if you’re a fish – just get them off the streets before sunset!

After lunch we head to a new site, a channel dive at Rasdhoo Atoll. We splash in on the ocean side of this barrier reef, along a wall that drops down into the abyss.  Large gray reef sharks buzz us, along with tuna, as they patrol the edge of their domain.  I drop down to 130 to check out some of the undercuts and crevices below.  There’s more to see deeper, but my Nitrox mix keeps me from pushing it any further.  I find some large beautiful cowries, a large moray, and schools of swirling bar jacks in the deep.  As I move up the wall, five nice eagle rays swim by slowly in perfect formation, giving us ample time for some great pictures.  Another great fifty minute dive, we collect our divers bobbing along on the surface, and head back to get cleaned up for this evenings island entertainment.

We take the launch over to the island and get a chance to walk through a typical Maldivian community, complete with all your standard Maldivian tourist and gift shops.  Seems this island is a regular stop for all the liveaboards, so you know what to expect.  Still, it is pretty and most of the show owners have a pretty good command of English so I am able to get a lot of questions answered about the islands and the local life.  Then back to the boat for dinner and Part II of our evenings entertainment,

The crew has something special for us, and after dinner, all the dining tables are stacked up in the corner  to make room for a large rug they unroll.  Next, here comes three large double-ended drums, and some cushions to sit on, and before you know it, the crew has transformed into a Maldivian folk band,  For the next hour and a half they entertain us non-stop with some high energy drum pounding and serious synchronized chanting and clapping and dancing.  None of us understand a word that they are singing but it was far more experiential than that, to see the passion that they put into this was truly amazing,  Even more amazing was the fact that these were the same quiet guys who have tended to our every need all week, and here they have their moment to let their hair down and show us with great pride how they like to celebrate – very, very cool indeed!  This is one of those moments words cannot describe – you have to live this one yourself to understand it!

After that, it breaks down into a dance party since the Spaniards are leaving us tomorrow, and the boat turns into a bit of a disco scene.  Well with a five o’clock wake up for some blue water hammerhead shark diving looming, I turn in early to get my beauty rest.

We started the morning off with a 5 a.m. wakeup and quick briefing so we could be out and in the water before the sun peeked over the horizon.  Better opportunity to view hammerheads that way, we were told, as they move to deeper water during the daylight hours.  So we motored out, and although the sun was not officially up, it sure was light when we splashed at 6:05.  We dropped in and immediately descended to about 110 ft, with the instructions to stay in a tight group, better to not scare the hammerheads off.  Well there’s always one, and sure enough, one of our divers felt some compelling urge or personal right to swim out in front of the pack, ensuring that any possible hammerhead sightings would now be a bit further out in the murky viz.  Why can’t some people listen, I ask, and respect the rights of all the others?  Needless to say, 30 minutes into the dive, we turned and headed to the reef to finish it off in shallow water and salvage an otherwise wasted dive.

Yoshimas Thila was our second dive site today, and this was another pillar that hinted at the opportunities for shark sightings.  So in we dropped, and the top of the reef was at 70 feet, so I did a little exploration down the side hitting 160 ft and about a 1.9 ppO before deciding I was close enough to the sand to see that there was not much different here than there was up shallower.  I shot some pics of some nudi’s crusing about the reef, then headed up on top and finished up the dive there, with some nice schooling sweetlips and grunts swirling about us. We headed in for lunch, and afer a discussion with some of our fellow divers, I figured it was time for a little “Come to Jesus” meeting with the chief dive leader, Thyppe.  I told him we had been out enough times searching and hoping for sharks or mantas, and while these dives were cool in their own right, nearly every one of us had a camera, and none of the sharks came in close enough for any decent photographs.  That being said, with five or six dives left on our itinerary, we wanted clear water, minimal current, and close up photo opportunities.  Thyppe understood and agreed that the rest of our dives would meet this criteria.

While we ate, the captain moved the boat across the channel so we could be within range of dropping off the Spanish contingent.  Some of us are wondering if perhaps our itinerary and travel route was compromised by the boat having both 9-day and 6-day passengers on board, meaning we needed to be back near the airport three days earlier than usual so the others could depart.  Hmmmmm…

Our post-lunch dive site is Naseem Thila, a nice bommie that rises up from the bottom and tops out at about 45 ft, with the sides dropping down to the sand at about 130 ft.  In addition to the main pillar, there are several additional coral pillars just a short distance away, all covered with soft corals of every color imaginable, hard corals, and fish.  We get another sixty minutes of bottom time here and a slew of more great photos.

Our fourth and final dive of the afternoon is Banana Reef, another nice lump that comes up from the sea floor.  The current is absolutely ripping when we arrive, so we know this is going to be a fun dive!  We drop in and visibility is forever, and indeed the current is hot.  So we drop onto the corner of the reef, hold on to rocks for a bit to see what is going to come by, and then we let go and work our way around the bommie.  This is truly an adrenalin-producing dive, with currents coming from all directions, including down currents, as we move along.  A dive like this really gets your head into the game, thinking of your next move, being cognizant of the currents as you feel them or observe them affecting the fish or soft corals & sea fans.  Lots of eels, bumphead wrasse, turtle, tropicals of all flavors, octopus and more.  You can surmise that I absolutely loved this dive today!!

The Spaniards leave us when we get back to the boat, and gosh, I miss them already!  Not that I could say that in Spanish, but they were a pretty nice bunch and all really good divers, so it was a pleasure having them as part of our dive group.  The crew has the candles on our tables, and our next to last supper is served, as we enjoy  a quiet evening on the mother ship.  There’s one more day of diving and there seems to be a bit of dissent among the divers, with one camp (led by me) wishing for clear water and beautiful scenery, and another faction seems to think if we don’t go into deep murky water and wait for something big to maybe swim by, then it’s not worth diving.  We’ll see who wins this battle of wills tomorrow.

The day starts off in grand style celebrating Tia’s 65th birthday (yes, they still let them dive at that age here) with our first dive on a site called HP, appropriately named for the ‘High Pressure’ diving and convergence of currents there.  The surface is literally boiling with water moving in all directions and currents crashing into currents – very neat visual to give us a hint of what lies below the surface.  We drop in off the north side of the reef, with the plan to swim to the side of the reef, but the current isn’t too cooperative and is running both downward and parallel to the reef, so as we drop and swim hard towards the reef we are zipping along and down.  Whooops….it’s time to check the gauges, dang, that does say 140 ft and there bottom lies easily another 50 or 60 below us so that is not an option.  Kick, kick, kick, finally we make it over and begin sailing along the reef.  Gotta find some protection here, and after a turn or two we get into some calm areas, where we can enjoy some of the great sea life here, corals of many colors, and beautiful topography.  We do some Project Aware work on this dive, uncoiling a few hundred feet of old fishing lines from in and around the corals and sponges.  Excellent dive overall, 50 minutes of bottom time, and nothing but smiles all around when we get back to the surface.

Lankan Manta Point is our second drop of the day, and true to his word, Thyppe will verify that there are mantas on site before we waste time in the water looking for them.  We arrive, our man drops down, and comes back up to report zero mantas at the site (whether or not they were there, the answer he gave was appropriate, and yesterday’s debate is over!).  Thank goodness for checking – wink, wink!  So we head over to Naseem Thila and do another nice 100 ft dive  for 60 minutes on this proven good site.  Only one dive to go, how sad.

But wait…back on board, John & Tia ask me if I’d like to get another dive, and I have to think about that….for a nano-second!  Yeppers, so we run that up the flagpole with Thyppe, and he affirms, indeed, if we want a fourth dive today, then we get it!  Yippee!

So for our third dive we head out to another Thila, and the current is pretty strong as we drop in. Michele and I just chart our own course on this one, and as we head over to the edge of the drop off, there’s a little octopus looking at us. Great start, and we head over the side of the reef. I’m poking around, and sure enough, there’s another octo, substantially larger, peeking at me from over the edge. I cruise up slowly, and he is not startled by my presence. I spend the next twenty minutes at 80 ft just inches away from him, getting some great photos and interaction with this very intelligent critter. Truly one of those extended moments when life takes on a whole new perspective, just sitting and watching and communicating with another one of God’s great creatures. Sweet!

So I am thinking, that is enough, this dive is complete, and I leave my little eight-armed friend, and head over to check out a bit of a cavern in the reef side a few yards away. As I start to slip inside, I am pushed aside by a Napoleon Wrasse who must have figured if I see something in there, then maybe it is his! In fact he is so close to me I cannot back up enough in the cavern to get his photo, and have to change to the wide-angle lens to get most of his body into the viewfinder. He has no qualms about edging me out in the cavern, and it is yet another take-your-breath-away moment on this magical dive.

OK, enough of that, let me just cruise along a bit, but wait, here’s another friendly moray, and some more sweetlips, and just more great stuff to truly rank this as another of those top ten dives. I am energized for sure!

So we surface, and head back to the Ark Royal for a quick surface interval before we get our fourth dive in. Of course, this one is not without controversy either, as the “other faction” emphatically told the other divers that there would be no fourth dive, as the tender was needed to get provisions for the next charter. I just shake my head, wondering what it is within a person that causes such a need to be heard, without regard as to whatever is being said is factual or not. Some folks will never get it, I must conclude, and we have one of those examples on this charter with us.

So out we go for dive #4, in the tender, which of course is not really happening at all, according to “the voice”. But off we go anyhow, and as we approach, the seas are truly boiling with the currents and the incoming tide. This dive is going to be FUN! So we drop in, kick like made to catch the reef, and then begin our ‘sail’ along the sides of the thila, with currents probably exceeding 4 knots at some points, and what a rush it is! With our regulators cranked down tight to reduce free flowing in the currents, we cruise along, with east-to-west, then west-to-east, then down currents, then up currents, then combinations to just keep it fun and fresh and exciting for the entire 60 minute. We get washed down as deep as 140 ft, and washed up to less than 5 feet, so buoyancy control and situational awareness is key to a safe experience today. I stop to take some pictures of a banded coral shrimp, and as I frame him in the viewfiender, a moray shoots out of an adjacent hole and bites my camera right in my hands – very cool! More good photos, more laughter as we tumble along the reef, what a high-energy way to wrap up a great week of diving – and remember, this dive is NOT happening!!

So we come on back, and the crew takes our gear for some rinsing and drying, as we enjoy our last supper on board. Some more photo sharing, emails are exchanged, and our glasses are raised one last time to celebrate a great week and 30 wonderful dives. One last wake up call and we’ll be heading back to the airport for the journey home – how sad!

Our flights home are uneventful, save for one near-international incident in Dubai. First, the background – on my Sri Lankan flight from CoIombo to Dubai, I order the lamb dinner on the flight, and it is just a little bit stringy, so as I finish my meal, I need to dislodge a small piece of meat from between a couple of teeth, and what do I have at hand to do that with? Well, my boarding pass, right here in my shirt pocket, and what a nice little combination toothpick / floss it makes. Mission accomplished, I place the saliva-laden card on my tray to be disposed of. Now we land, and as we disembark the gate agents await us at the top of the ramp, demanding our boarding passes be turned in to them for some insane reason. Well I hand them my pass from the previous flight, but the eagle-eyed agent catches that and says he needs the one for this flight. Well, I try to explain the whole oral hygiene thing, but you can see it is going nowhere, and he gets a bit adamant in his demands. I take a deep breath, count to ten, and walk into the Dubai airport, leaving them to search for the missing Dave Valaika who must still be hiding somewhere on that aircraft. Amazing, but true.

A few more hours, a flight to Paris, overnight there to allow the French to redeem themselves and show me some love, and then back to Atlanta and Philadelphia, bringing this trip to a happy and safe conclusion.

Summary – we are going back!! Look for the Maldives trip on the website soon!

Before I forget, let me make a few notes here for anyone booking on the Ark Royal. First, Rooms #1, and #8, near the engines, are NOISY! Not too bad when you are dead tired, but anything short of that it might prove to be an issue. Second, if you want a larger tank to enjoy the deep dives that are so common here, you need to confirm it ahead of time. Bring a few bottles of your favorite wine as the selection is limited on board and is only sold by the bottle. Also don’t forget soft drinks, they are sold by the glass on board. If not for the delicious Divers D\Lyte I’d be suffering from a Diet Coke and Diet Mountain Dew shortage! Bring your snorkel for the whale shark chasing experience. Don’t forget the safety sausage and audible alert horn, plus your reef hook. Also you can rent an internet card on line from the crew for about $10 a day to stay in touch with the folks back home!

That’s all Folks!

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Dive the Revolution Tour with IVS!

An so it begins…
Diving has always been to me such a life changing experience, and as an instructor, my ability to share that with others is something I cherish and look forward to every day.  But just like any other Nirvana, sometimes you need to mix things up a bit to keep it fresh and exciting.  So, speaking, as I was, of life changing experiences, how appropriate a time is it to travel to the Middle East and dive right smack-dab in the middle of all sorts of changing things, including governments?

So it’s Friday, and I am thinking, where haven’t I been in a while? Well out of the blue pops Egypt and the Red Sea, so I figure I don’t need to give this any further thought….let’s go!

Indian Valley SCUBA Travels to Egypt and the Red Sea

Truth be told, this is an exploratory trip to conduct some firsthand reconnaissance in preparation of IVS’s trip to this area next year. With so many reports of doom and gloom coming from Egypt and the entire North African / Middle East region, I know the only thing to do is get on the ground there myself, cut through the CNN sensationalism, and come back with the real status that our divers want to know before planning to head there.

So as with any good adventure, we need to start with some packing. Yes, I admit, this trip has been on the books for a while, but does that magically move it up on my priority list? No! Why should this visit to the center of civilization as we know it be any different? Exactly…we’re operating on ‘Dave time’ now!

So as Friday morning dawns, I’ve got about 12 hours worth of work left on my weekly to-do list as of this morning before I depart Philadelphia at 6:25 this evening. So I start the day with a breakfast of diet Mountain Dew and an attitude like the Rob Schneider character in the Adam Sandler movie Water Boy, shouting out ”you can DO it!” First things first, I take inventory, and realize I need to start with piling a load of laundry into the washer, cause without this key step, I’ll be nekkid in Egypt! Not cool, I am thinking, as I get the machine loaded up and spinning away.

But heck, we have a lot to do today, so let me start with some important tasks, such as re-arranging the recycling area, then cleaning up Sue’s apartment. She’ll be coming in to Harleysville for the Beneath the Sea show before I get back, and I have been kinda using her place as a bit of a warehouse for my things – time to clean that up before she picks up on it!! Yes, if you are thinking David might occasionally exhibit some hints of OCD / ADHD you are probably right – but I’ll be back on track with today’s priorities shortly!

OK so I have my packing list out now, but I’ve got time, so before I get into that I sense the geese and duck need some loving before I go, so I decide to clean out the pen a bit, play with them, feed & water them, and play some more. But all this barnyard love only makes me think about the rest of my extended pet family – Pumpkin the cow and Maldives the horse! They are currently living about a half mile from the shop, so I head over there to get some more four-legged loving before I head to the land of the pyramids and camels. They are excited to see me, and so I endure a bit of a mauling when I enter the barn. Big, wet kisses from both of them and I know stopping by to see them was a good decision! Pumpkin is a “rescue cow”, a Jersey-breed dairy cow male, and I don’t think I need to explain the usefulness of a male cow in the dairy herd. Most end up as veal calves or dog food, but this boy lucked out and joined the family a few years ago. He’s about 1,600 pounds of sweet bovine love now, and I sense he is grateful – not always sure but I sense it! Meanwhile Maldives is a 4-year-old Belgian draft horse, and he stands about 19 hands high, which means his shoulders are waaaaaay over my head! He is not yet broke as he has had a bit of a traumatic start, but I’m working with him to get things squared away and let this 2,000# critter know who the alpha male is in this relationship! We end up having a nice morning visit, and I head back to the shop feeling refreshed and somewhat organic from the experience.

It’s 11 now, so still plenty of time to get this all done, and I continue on with my multi-tasking. Clothes are clean & dry, but the emails keep ‘dinging’ in on the laptop….distractions, distractions, distractions! Plenty of time still, no need to worry…yet. Answer a few emails, sort through some more paperwork, another customer in the shop that wants to kibitz a bit….it’s ok, it’ll all fit in. That flight’s not til 6:25!

So finally at 2:00 I start to think about packing my dive gear, and step one is to actually locate my dive gear, which seems to be in a constant state of movement at IVS. I do have a checklist, but sadly, I am a few pieces short of a complete list! What did I do with that double regulator setup?? Where is that wing? Holy smokes, this is painful! OK, let’s swap a few hoses, yes, this will work! We’re looking pretty good now! Regulator located, I need to throw in an octopus in case that is required, but I am hoping the Red Sea operators have stage bottles for me, even at the recreational dive sites. Add a couple of wetsuits, a spare mask, some new boots, and the pile is looking dive-able.

Finally have it together, and I close the two Pelican cases. Each case is amazingly well under the 70-pound limit so I don’t even need to weigh them. It’s now 3:30 and time to pack something to wear. Step one is to empty the clothes from the dryer! OK, how long as I going to be gone for? Yes…15 days…so let’s start…some undies, socks, a couple of bathing suits, bunch of Indian Valley Scuba t-shirts, a pair of shorts, and most importantly, a dozen Hawaiian shirts! Must bring some style to the desert with me! Ooooops…this pile won’t fit in the old bag, so I head back over to IVS to do some shopping. This nice Scubapro Caravan roller duffle seems like it will do the trip, so I take it across the lot for the acid test – will everything fit in?

Lo and behold it passes the test, and now it’s time to clean off my desk. The clock says 4:00, an hour after my “initial” planned departure, so I need to hustle a bit here. Desk is cleaned, now time for me! I jump into the shower, dry off, throw some clothes on, and head into the shop to find my limo driver Ray.

Well wouldn’t you know it he is busy closing a regulator sale, and the retailer in me says I can’t just pull him off of that! So I do some busy work for a few, he closes the sale, and we’re ready to go. Ray fires up his SUV for the airport run but we still have to stop at the bank, as I need a couple of hundred dollars in one-dollar bills for this trip. Seems the standard drill in the land of the pharaohs is a one or two dollar tip for just about everything someone does for you. Looking at that stack of ones, the girls at the bank wonder if I am heading off to some major go-go bar party, but I assure, them it’s nothing like that, only business travel!

So with that stop out of the way, it’s time for Ray to put the pedal to the metal and get us to the airport. OK, I am patient at first, yes that was nice to let that lady in, OK, we’ll wait while this guy makes a left, rather than drive around him on the shoulder…OK…enough! Ray – I’d just like to point out that we have exactly 50 minutes to make the 36 miles to the airport and get me on my flight! Let’s crank it up a bit…a big bit!

We head down the turnpike and we’re cooking around 70 MPH, and I start to relax a little. But wait…as we approach the interchange what is with all this stopped traffic? “Go left Ray” I say, and we pick up a few positions. “OK, right lane looks good” is my next driving suggestion – gosh look at this Route 476 traffic, stop, go (a little) stop again…there’s no rhyme or reason…just a conspiracy to make me late for my flight!

Finally after our umpteenth stop in traffic, I realize that I am not going to make the baggage cutoff for my scheduled flight, so I pick up the phone and call my friends at Delta’s Medallion desk to see what they can do for me. Well wait a minute, they say, let’s call the airport and see what we can do about getting around those baggage checking cutoffs…I shake my head, recognizing that another one of life’s “Rules” has just been reduced to an FAA guideline subject to tweaking when required. “How far away am I” she asks, and I tell her “about ten minutes”. She is on the phone, they have the baggage team involved now, and we come to a complete stop in the traffic. Not wanting to burn a big favor, I tell her there is no way we are making this flight in any fashion, so we forego the secret baggage process, and look at other ways to get from Philadelphia to Cairo tonight.

“Well look at this”, she says, “can you make a 6:50 flight?” Indeed that looks good for the moment, so I tell her “Sure, what do you have?” “How does Philadelphia / Detroit / Paris / Cairo sound”, she asks, and I say, “Let’s do it!” So she begins the process of re-rerouting my travel, but since it’s international travel, we need a ticket counter agent at the airport to get involved. OK, we are in the airport now, and Ray is driving along, dodging the rental car and hotel shuttles all the way. “C’mon Ray, timing is critical here” I point out, and he cuts and swerves us over to the Delta terminal. I grab a skycap, point him to Ray with my bags, and I race inside to get this deal done.

At the Philadelphia ticket counter I approach the agent and introduce myself and explain my “situation.” She introduces herself as LaMonika, and says “there’s no way we’re gonna get this done”. Whoa there sister, those are hardly the reassuring words I was seeking to hear tonight. So I say to the Medallion desk representative, who I still have on the phone, “Ms LaMonika thinks this might be a challenge getting me to Egypt tonight” The phone rep, whose name I never caught, says “Let me talk to her”. I hand over my cell phone, and it’s obvious from the immediacy that Ms LaMonika starts typing with that we have the right team on this job! “Hurry”, she says, “ I need a credit card for the third bag”. Well I pass one over, and she gets it in and hits the “enter” key with exactly one minute to spare – it’s 6:04 as I am taking a picture of my wristwatch and another of Ms LaMonika to start the photo gallery for this adventure.

Up through security, past the IVS bumper stickers strategically located throughout the terminal, and right onto the plane, where, as luck would have it, they upgraded me to the front cabin – sweet! My flight attendant is Ms Avis, and she is just the bundle of joy and purveyor of light beer that this traveler needs right now! I’ve been on a self-imposed two week Coors-free period so tonight is my first taste of the Sweet Nectar of the Gods in fourteen days, and boy, does it taste good! So does the next one, and the one after that too!

Finally we land in Detroit and my connection is not only tight, it is from the opposite corners of the airport with the gates being about as far apart as they can be. So I feel like a celebrity as they repeatedly announce my name over the loudspeaker system, seeking my presence on the soon-to-depart flight to Paris. Finally I arrive and the gate agents are clearly relieved, knowing their mission has been fulfilled and David was on board.

Eight hours later and we set the wheels down on the land of quiche and fried potatoes – France. I’m looking forward to grabbing some fine airport food, because the on-board meal service has been interesting to say the least, with all sorts of French-ish delicacies offered, none of course which I would choose if they were the last meals on earth. Yum, yum… NOT!

On to Cairo and my first Egyptians…

A quick meal at Charles de Gaulle and I board my next and final flight, to Cairo. This is a five-hour jaunt, a piece of cake after the earlier flight, and before you know it I am in King Tut-town. I gather my bags, pass through all the required “Welcome to Egypt” security lines, and there I see Rami, my escort, awaiting there just inside the terminal for me with a big “David Valaika” sign…sweet! He has a pass that allows him to get to the other side of passport control, which is really cool as it helps make sure you start right off in the right line and avoid any immigration hiccups.

So speaking of international incidents, I am in an immigration holding area chock full of Egyptian citizens, Europeans coming to visit or work, and a couple of planeloads of Egyptian blue collar workers in refugee status from Libya. What an eclectic group to be with this evening as I start to absorb this strange new land. But wait, up front in the line voices are rising, then arms are flailing, as one of the immigrants demands faster service from the passport control crew. That leads to him crawling up and banging on the glass on the security booth, which leads to the security guy coming out and screaming back with arms a’ waving, then another guy with more gold stars on his epaulets getting involved and more screaming…God I love this place already!

So I suggest to Rami that perhaps we might consider entering his homeland through another line, and he concurs, so we head over to a less-agitated passport control officer and sail on into Egypt. From there we grab my small mountain of bags, march through the “nothing to declare” line and we’re in-country! Now past a throng of locals wearing the traditional long robes (officially known as Gellabiya) and a few hundred horn-blowing drivers reminiscent of Tijuana or NYC. Finally we arrive at our van and I meet our driver, none other than Mohammed Ali…. no, not that one, but close, named after the great Egyptian leader from long ago! He shuttles me over to the Le Meridian Pyramids hotel where I am to hook up with Dave Hartman to begin our adventure!

But first we have to pass through the first layer of hotel security, the five large steel pipes that are sticking up from the ground completely blocking our passage onto the hotel property. The guard comes out, checks us out, we pass the test, and he activates the hydraulic system which lowers the pipes to ground level and lets us pass.  Now Rami and I unload at the front entrance, and we are greeted by three members of Egypt Tourism Police, an official government security agency specifically charged with security at places of tourism, including hotels, public places, museums, and the like.  All bags pass through an x-ray machine, and we walk through a metal detector, basically the same level of security it takes to board a plane in the U.S.  Again, we pass through successfully, and we proceed to the actual hotel check-in.  That process goes smoothly and I even score Starwood points since this is an affiliated hotel – sweet!  Up to the room with the bags, and there is Mr. Hartman himself waiting for me!

OK, handshakes & hugs complete, it is time to head to the lobby bar and enjoy a cold Sakara Gold’s…. Egypt’s version of Coor’s Light! Dave catches me up on our plans for the next two weeks, which have evolved a bit since we last talked, but what the heck, I am flexible and we’re on a mission to discover the best of Egypt and the Red Sea.  So discover we must!

The hotel is truly first class, with spacious well-appointed rooms, three really nice pools, and a stack of hookah pipes to enjoy!  In the lobby they are celebrating a wedding, and the entire sweeping staircase to the second floor is wrapped in flowers – really pretty and neat to be here to see this part of Egyptian life.  Dave & I are enjoying our brews and the lobby internet until finally the bartender announces he needs to close.  Well closing is one thing, breaking up our party is another!  So he sets us up with a bucket of beers and ice, and we are good for the balance of the evening.  Very nice!  Finally we call it quits and retire for the night to get some decent rest before the adventure really starts tomorrow.

New Pyramid Discovered in Egypt

New Pyramid Discovered in Egypt

Our first morning in Cairo dawns bright and clear and I step out onto the room balcony to check out the view – and lo and behold, there is the Great Pyramid right there practically next to the hotel – how cool is that?  Now my cultural side is pumped, and I tell Hartman we gotta go check these out!  So we spruce up for the day, I pick a nice low-key Hawaiian shirt to allow the Egyptians to warm up to me slowly, and we down to a superb breakfast buffet complete with omelet bar.  And in the European style I like best, they have cold cuts and sandwich fixin’s out alongside the standard breakfast fare.  I am set, an omelet and a ham & cheese sandwich to fire up the Dave-ster for the day, and we’re ready to go get cultured.

View from the Le Meridian-Pyramids Hotel Pool Area

View from the Le Meridian-Pyramids Hotel Pool Area

In the lobby we meet up with Rami and today’s host, Ms Manal, a registered Egyptologist and tour guide.  She’ll be showing Dave & I around today as we absorb a bit of the history of this nation.  First stop is the pyramids I saw from the room, and in fact there are several right here adjacent to the hotel.  So Muhammad drives us over in his van. As we pull up and pile out, we are greeted by a policeman and a bomb sniffing dog, who gives our van and backpacks the once over and approves.  Security is clearly taken seriously here, and that is a good thing. Manal gets our tickets, and we begin out tour, walking over to the first pyramid, the one known as The Great Pyramid, and the only surviving example left of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Five Minutes at the Pyramids and on a Camel Already

Five Minutes at the Pyramids and on a Camel Already

Well I make it about ten steps towards the pyramid before I am accosted by a couple of camel jockeys, blocking my way with their animal.  OK, OK, I was planning a bit of a camel ride on this trip, so lets just get it out of the way.  I grab a traditional headdress, climb aboard, stand this beast up, and we are off for a little ride around the plaza.  Great photo op, and Dave is there shooting away and capturing the moment.  Enough is enough, here, let me give you this camel back, and that’s when the fun begins.  I feel like someone just hit the ‘hyperspace’ button and I popped up in Tijuana, as the negotiations start over what I have already purchased.  Well my two Egyptian friends picked he wrong guy out of he crowd to work over today, and we have at it, and it gets a little heated.  Five dollars is all this was worth to me, and that is about 10% of what a great time they feel I experienced!  Well five is it, and Malan jumps in, and rips these guys a new orifice or two – I am impressed big time!  That ends it, I give them the $5, and we get on with our pyramid tour.

But there is a lot more to learn here than price bickering, and Manal is chock full of Egyptian facts and secrets to share.  So lets start with Pyramid 101.  The main entrances of all pyramids face due north, and their four sides are perfectly square.  Most have a 52 degree angle up the sides, although that varies a slight bit with some measuring only 49 degrees – still pretty darn accurate and consistent in my book.  And when you build a pyramid its not as easy as getting 2 ½ million blocks, each weighing around 3,000 pounds, and piling them up in a nice geometric shape.   First you have to take in all the ancillary structures that go with any good pyramid project, including the mortuary temple for the embalming process, the main funerary temple for the final service, a giant causeway to transport the body to the entrance, and let’s not forget the five 150 ft long boats that are buried around the outside of each pyramid for the entombed soul to use to sail through his or her afterlife.  Yeah, the construction of the pyramid itself is only the ‘down payment’ on this project!

There are actually three major pyramids located here in relatively close proximity to each other.  The largest, and oldest, is the Great Pyramid of Giza (also called the Khufu’s Pyramid, Pyramid of Khufu, and Pyramid of Cheops) and is the first installation in the Giza Necropolis bordering Cairo, and is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that survives substantially intact. It is believed the pyramid was built as a tomb for Fourth dynasty Egyptian King Khufu (Cheops in Greek) and constructed over a 20-year period concluding around 2560 BC. The Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years, built as the final resting place for the king known as Cheops. The base of the pyramid covers 13 acres, 568,500 square feet and the length of each side was originally 754 feet, but is now 745 feet.  The original height was 481 feet tall, but is now only 449 feet.  The majority of the outer casing, which was polished limestone, was removed about 600 years ago to help build cities and mosques which created a rough, worn, and step-like appearance.  How’s that for paying attention to Ms Manal?

Next to that is the #2 pyramid, built for Cheops son Chephren, and finally the third structure sits behind these two, that being the third pyramid and the tomb of Cheops’ grandson, Mercirous.  These buildings are like the world’s largest Lego set, and towering as they do about 500 ft high over the surrounding desert terrain, they are pretty dang impressive to stand next to!  We actually go into #3, and while it is a neat crawl down a long, narrow and tight shaft way, it is kinda cool to be in a place that was so important to a civilization so long ago.  But like visiting the red mountain known as Uluru in Ayers Rock, Australia, you only need to penetrate one pyramid in your life to cross that off your bucket list of ‘must-do’s’.

Solar Boat of Cheops Museum with Headstones in the Foreground

Solar Boat of Cheops Museum with Headstones in the Foreground

One of the neatest things were the burial pits for the boats they had excavated around each pyramid. Measuring about 30 ft deep, and carved out of the solid bedrock with a rounded bottom for the boat, they had several open ones there to examine.  For some inexplicable reason, when they dug up the first three, they found them to be empty.  Its not easy to loot one of these boats, as the top of the pits have about 75 carefully nested stones fitted across them, each one weighing about nine tons.  But they struck pay dirt in the last two pits, unearthing complete boats in perfect condition in each.  One is still being excavated and restored by a team of Japanese archaeologists, but the other has been already brought up and is on display in a custom-built museum structure behind the pyramid.

We get our tickets and enter the museum that is run by a really low-key bunch of civilian-type folks.  First of course it is another metal detector and x-ray machine, followed by the handing out of canvas shoe covers for us to wear while we are strolling around the museum.  Sure cuts down on the mopping and waxing the floor expense, I am thinking!  We suit up, and head in to check out the goods.  The museum starts off with lots of pieces, actual artifacts from the recovery process, lots of photos, and tools used in the restoration.  It keeps getting bigger and better as we move further into this museum that has a spiral design, moving us further and further upward.  We walk past the actual pit, which the museum was built over and around.  Finally we get to the top floor, and what are we greeted with?  The actual boat itself!

The Solar Boat of Cheops-Let's Go Diving

The Solar Boat of Cheops-Let's Go Diving

Holy smokes, how cool is this on a number of levels.  First of all, it is a 4,000-year-old wooden boat in perfect condition.  Second, it was actually buried in “kit” form; it was built, tested on the water, and then disassembled to lie flat in the pit.  The reason for this is that if a dead person is going to use something in his afterlife, it has to be “dead” too, and in the case of the boat, taking it apart after it sailed made it “dead”.  Yeah I know, it’s a stretch, but work with me here.  Anyways, that’s the way it works in the world of the Egyptians!

But even more important are my personal observations and determination how this finely crafted boat fits into today’s society.  First of all, the boat was cut into pieces so some of the wood sections fit together like a Chinese puzzle, with all sorts of angles and tabs and holes and other little things.  And, not a single metal fastener was used; every single connection was made either through interlocking the pieces or with rope – really neat to see!  So here is my theory – archaeological teams from all over the world have studied this vessel, and although it was not noted in the records, I know for sure that the Swedes have been here too.  While most went home with photos and volumes of notes to ponder over later, the Swedes took something else from what they saw in this knocked-down, minimal fastener boat – the idea for IKEA furniture!  And there, my friends, you have it!

So finally we are ready to head towards the next stop on our tour, the Sphinx!  It is actually just around the corner from the pyramids, so we jump in the van and head on over.  It is located on the corner of Culture and Urban Sprawl – seriously sitting right there with a birds eye view of the lesser side of Cairo.  I am sure it was pretty dang dramatic in it’s day, but today, well, let’s just say it is a little anti-climatic to be at a place of such cultural significance with a Pizza Hut located across the street.  Still good for some great photo ops, and that dang IVS bumper sticker keeps showing up too!  Kinda like the best of the old and the best of the new, I suppose!

The Sphinx at the Pyramids of Giza-IVS was here too!!

The Sphinx at the Pyramids of Giza-IVS was here too!!

And now comes the best part – I am looking at a couple of photographs there, just blending in with the locals as I do so well, when this young man comes up to me and asks if I am an American.  Well gosh, my cover is blown, so I fess up “yes I am”.  “May I take a picture with you?” he asks, and I quickly shed my Sean Penn ‘no pictures’ attitude.  “Sure” I say, and he motions to his posse to come over with me.  “Stand next to him”, he says to his wife, and he comes around me, and then another guy, and another woman, and another guy.  ‘Click, click, click’ go the cameras and the smiles are huge and genuine.  He turns and says to me “Thank you” and I say “For what?”.  He explains to me how America’s position, and Obama’s words to Mubarak that it was time to step down, were so overwhelmingly received here.  It was pretty cool to hear that about America from someone in a foreign land.  Then he turns to me and says, “Can I give you something?”.  “Of course”, I say, and with that he reaches into his pocket, and pulls out his January 25th martyr badge, a card that the protesters had printed up and wore around their necks to identify to others in Eltahrir Square and elsewhere what team they were on.  He wore it himself throughout the protests that ultimately peacefully overthrew the government, and wanted to give it to me.  It had the photos of those killed in the initial protests on it and banner of protest (in Arabic of course).  To say I was moved would be an understatement – this was unbelievable and made me so unbelievably proud to be an American.  This is one souvenir from a trip that I will never forget!

Our New Egyptian Friends at the Solar Boat Musuem

Our New Egyptian Friends at the Solar Boat Musuem

OK, sentimental moment over, it’s time to head back into the city and go visit the Egyptian Museum, also known as the Museum of Antiquities.  It is on the other side of town, and Sunday is a workday here.  The Egyptians celebrate their weekend on Friday and Saturday, so Sunday it is business as normal, with all the traffic and congestion that might go along with that!

But first we must stop for lunch.  The locals eat lunch around 2’ish, so we just beat the crowd into a local eatery called Eltahrir Restaurant, of the same name as the famous square in downtown Cairo that my new friend had spent so many days at.  The menu here is interesting, as they have exactly one thing on it – Koushary.  It’s an Egyptian favorite and staple of their diet, and since my options are limited, it is three orders for our table, for myself, Dave and Manal.  It consists of a bowl filled with layers of Rice, Brown Lintels, Macaroni, Hummus, Spaghetti Pasta, topped with Fried Onions and Tomato Sauce.  Yessiree Bob, that is exactly what I was hoping we’d have for lunch!  Well she was so proud to take us to this local place I had no choice but to ‘man up’ and clean my plate, like my counterparts.  Note to self:  ipsnay on the Koushary on the next trip!

Enjoying the Best Lunch Ever with our Guide Manal

Enjoying the Best Lunch Ever with our Guide Manal

Our bellies full, we go to one of the many papyrus making shops for a demonstration of the art and science of making paper from papyrus reeds.  Now let’s just get this straight – these places are all exactly the same, just with varying degrees of class – they are art galleries that have really nice papyrus making displays to suck you in.  OK, now that I cleared the air on that, we headed in to one of the newer and classier ones, the Sonodous Institute.  There we met Amir, who welcomed Dave and I over to a nice little papyrus paper making table, and he gave us a first class demonstration on how the stalk of the papyrus reed can easily be made into very durable paper, good for thousands of years as documented from so many items from the past here.  So after a good demonstration, and just like any good tour, where did we end up but the gift shop?  Actually the whole gallery, and they had a lot of cool stuff, but we were strong and resisted!  Good solidarity!

OK, now it’s time for our next and last stop before the airport, the Cairo Museum, also known as the Museum of Antiquities.  We approach through the unending traffic, and as we near, a very dark building appears alongside us.  Well it is none other than the shell of the former headquarters of Mubarak’s political party, the Ruling Party.  Totally gutted and blackened, it stands as a tribute to the power of the people here, seeking positive change for themselves and generations to come.  The amazing thing is the control that the people exhibited, this was not mindless mass damage like the L.A. Lakers fans exhibit after winning another NBA championship, setting random cars on fire, and of course looting all the Korean businesses (why do they hate those people so much?).  No, this was directed solely towards and against the man and his rule, and nothing else was damaged or destroyed in the process.

We pull up to the museum entry road and are greeted not only by the Tourism Police, but by real soldiers with real automatic weapons and real tanks and armored personnel carriers, all here with one specific purpose – the people have spoken, and Egypt is not going to be trashed by a few radicals.  Enough said, there is more than enough firepower present here to straighten out anyone who gets out of line.  Really nice to see, and everything is really cool, there is no bravado, the soldiers are smiling, the people are smiling, the guns are there but not threatening, a very clear picture that nothing bad is going to happen here today!

Smoozing Security at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities

Smoozing Security at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities

So we worked our way through the traffic to the front of the line, pass the required tests yet again, and drive onto the museum grounds.  We park between a tank and an APC, I snap a few photos, and we walk into the museum front yard.  Some more photos, and we have to check our cameras before we enter the museum.  Wait though cause it turns out the Ruling Party headquarters is locate right next door, so major photo op here!  We snap a hundred or so pics, and then turn our cameras in for the interior tour.

There is so much to see here, and our time is limited, so we focus on the treasures of King Tut, the Boy King.  He is the most documented King in the history of Egypt for one primary reason – no one knew where his tomb was until 1954, so it was never looted or stripped.  Once discovered everyone was pretty dang sensitive about history being lost, so it was documented, cataloged, moved to the museum, and put on permanent display for generations to enjoy.  The funny thing is that of all the kings and rulers of Egypt, he was the most inconsequential, serving only from age 8 to 18, dying a mysterious death, and leaving nothing of any legacy behind him, except a well-hidden tomb full of not-yet-stolen treasure!  Hardly the impression the world has when his tour comes to town, but that is the official Egyptian take on King Tut.

But one of the neatest parts of the display was Tut’s collection of coffins and storage chambers.  Of course he was mummified, then, dressed in all sorts of solid gold bling, like a big ornamental helmet, hand protectors, and lots of chains & stuff.  Then he was placed into a solid gold, 220 pound coffin that essentially fit his body very snugly.  That was then placed into a slightly large gold plated one, that in turn inside a slightly larger wood & gold one, and finally that into an even larger solid wood one.  Then, these were placed into a specially constructed box with a door on the end, and that was placed into another box, and that into another…you get the picture?  So, I am thinking that perhaps he was not given the credit he was due for his inspiration for one of the most fascinating trinkets that still amaze people until today – the nesting Russian matryoshka dolls!

The 220 Pound Solid Gold Inner Coffin of King Tut

The 220 Pound Solid Gold Inner Coffin of King Tut

But all that aside, the display is huge, covering nearly the entire second floor of the museum.  We visit it all, and Manal is amazing in her knowledge of things past, and also of all the various theories and contradictions that exist. But as most of you who know me can attest, my “stink-0-meter” is always on, so I take everything with a grain of salt.  Manal says a few things that don’t quite add up, and can’t answer a few pointed questions I ask, debunking some of her theories.  We are enjoying a good and positive banter back and forth on history, physics, physiology, mechanical engineering, and more, when this woman pops up in my face, and says to me, with an accent – “Sir – can you please save your discussion for outside? The tour groups are listening to you and not the tour guides!”  Well gosh, aren’t I just so sorry to bring some illumination of the slightly distorted ‘facts’ those around me?  Perhaps it was the guide over there, who as I walked past his group earlier, he was telling them that the famous River Nile passes through a total of nine countries – when in fact it actually passes through eleven!   Good tour guide training program they have here at the museum!!  So I say to her, ” I will see what I can do” and she turns on her heels and snubs me as she storms off.  With that Manal speaks up, loudly, that “She is just a French journalist and she gets in her for free – this is not her museum – don’t listen to her!” OK, that’s all I needed to hear, no ‘Ugly American’ story here, international incident over, it was just a French journalist!  Dave 1, French 0.

We finish our tour, having only seen perhaps 10% of what the museum has to offer.  I definitely need to get back here!  One thing we also did get to see was where the scumbags broke in during the revolution and stole quite a few artifacts; I hope they are caught and dealt with in the true Islam way…. tough for a thief to break in again with your hands missing.

From there we pile back into Mohammed’s van and head towards the airport, enjoying some more exhibits of military might on display as we pass by a number of the embassies and consulate offices.  Lots and lots of hardware out there, no one is going to stir any crap here!

Time to leave the desert & start diving, Red Sea style…

On the way to the airport we bid farewell to Manal, and Rami escorts us the rest of the way.  Once at the airport we endure a bit more security right at the airport entrance to keep the riff raff out, and then enjoy some really first class treatment at the Egypt Air ticket counter.  Really nice folks and really nice treatment!  We bus out to our plane (they are not big on jetways in this country) and enjoy a short flight to Hurghada on the coast of the Red Sea.

Upon landing we are met by Steve and Clair Rattle, owners of Pharaoh Dive Club in El Qusier.  They’ve got a van waiting, so we get right on down the road to our next hotel, the Movenpick.  Located right on the shores of the Red Sea, this resort offers everything a diving or non-diving tourist could want in this region.  We check in, head to the bar for a few quick ones, and call it an early night – OK it’s 2 a.m. – and get ready for our 7:30 pick up to go diving tomorrow!

Our Morning Transfer to Pharaoh Dive Club

Our Morning Transfer to Pharaoh Dive Club

Dawn breaks beautifully with a sunrise to greet us coming in from the east over the Red Sea, and it’s time for these two adventurers to get moving!  We head down to breakfast which is even grander and bigger than we had in Cairo, with everything you can imagine, plus a few other things, out for our consumption.  We fill our bellies and walk out to meet Steve and his crew who have come to pick us up in the Pharaoh Dive Club van.  Gear is already loaded so we jump in and head down the road about two miles to the dive center, which is located at the Fanadir Hotel on the beach.  Great dive center, not our kind of hotel, of that I assure you!  Glad we are staying where we are!

We meet the staff and get all checked in with paperwork, they inventory our gear for us to make sure they don’t lose track of it while they wash it, and we get the lay of the land, so to speak.  The highest priority of course is to properly “sticker” the place and we get that done with IVS stickers proudly displayed in all the key locations!  That out of the way, dive #1 is going to be the house reef right in front of the resort, one of the 80 shore-based dive sites that Pharaoh has identified in the local area.

Steve Rattle of Pharaoh Dive Club Briefs the Fanadir House Reef

Steve Rattle of Pharaoh Dive Club Briefs the Fanadir House Reef

We set our gear up, and the crew questions whether I am really an American or not, since my regulators are all DIN-style.  They usually only see that from the Europeans and Russians, but I assure them I am 100% Grade A Prime U.S Beef!  Once we have everything set up we wade out on the reef about 100 yards in knee deep water, then it drops down to about 4 ft of depth. Fins on, we surface swim a little further, and then drop into the top of a hole down into the reef.  It bottoms out around 35 ft and from there we enter a cavern that we follow through and out to the actually reef face.  The sand is about 35 ft and the reef wall comes right up nearly to the surface all along it, in some places actually poking above the surface.   The water here is a tad saltier than the Atlantic, so we actually had to add a little weight to achieve proper buoyancy.

The Numerous World Class Dive Sites in El Quseir

The Numerous World Class Dive Sites in El Quseir

The coral life is so very alive and healthy here, with an amazing variety of hard and soft species, lots of reef fish, and all the neat little critters that make a dive special.  We head north about a half mile along the bottom, then reverse back higher up on the reef, and I am positive we have picked a winner here!  Water temp was 75 degrees, so while not quite ‘tropical’ certainly no gloves or hoods needed.  I’m wearing a 4/3mm full suit for warmth (and to avoid marine incidents!) and doing fine with staying warm. We finally head back in and as we surface and stand up on the top of the reef, where we are greeted by Steve’s team who is there to carry our fins and assist us back in – service plus indeed!

Large Pristine Hard Coral Head on Fanadir House Reef

Large Pristine Hard Coral Head on Fanadir House Reef

We enjoy a bit of a surface interval here and the wind kicks up, blowing at about 30 mph off the sea.  Let’s hope this dies down soon!  After a nice break we toss some tanks in the van, and head north to the harbor, about a mile up the road in town.

We pass through the downtown area of El Qusier and pull into the harbor.  Here Pharaoh Divers keeps their local fleet, consisting of a 28 meter (90 ft) long “day boat”, their “Speed Boat”, a 20 ft Zodiac-style boat, and another larger Zodiac.  Additionally they utilize another local boat for some of the inshore dive sites, and that is what we’ll be diving off today.

Port security protocols are a little different here than in the U.S. due to a heightened worry of invaders from across the sea.  Folks who follow my blog know that I have bit of personal experience with port security and international invasions.  Obviously the Egyptians also have a little history here to support that fear, as this land has been invaded dozens of times in it’s history, and most often from the east.  That being said, Pharaoh needs to have permission from the Coast Guard on a daily basis to leave and return to the harbor, and ultimately one single Coast Guard official in the local office grants this permission.  Seems he “went out to the desert” a few days ago and has been incommunicado, so Steve cannot operate the big boat for diving until they find the guy.  This also explains why there is no night diving by boat off the coast, cause you know you’ll be in some missile launchers sites all night long while sitting out off the coast.

El Quseir Harbor-"The Land that Time Forgot"

El Quseir Harbor-"The Land that Time Forgot"

But it gets better – the government built a new fancy police station here in town, and the Coast Guard felt slighted, with their little office on the water in the harbor.  So they demanded a new building too!

And they received it – a brand new, shiny Coast Guard station – except the only land available was a couple blocks from the harbor, in downtown El Qusier.  And after spending all that money on the ‘crib’, guess what they did not have?  Money left in the budget for a vehicle!!!  Yes, in spite of the fact that the station is located far from the water and the coast they are “guarding”, they have no vehicle assigned to the station.  So every day that Pharaoh wants to head out with their boat, they need to drive over to the Coast Guard station to complete the paperwork (no radios here!) and then, if the officer wants to do a visual inspection, they have to drive him to the boat, and take him back to the station when complete.  Shaking my head here…

So we load the gear onto the big boat and get a chance to tour the vessel.  This is nothing like any day boat you will find in North America, as it is 100 ft long with a 22 ft wide beam, and roomy beyond description.  Although built only 12 years ago, the all wood construction is full of details such as curved glass doors, a hardwood floor throughout the salon area, a bar, couches and chairs with ornate wooden legs and details, enough sun deck area for about 40 people, and more.  By Egyptian custom and prudent local security foresight, the captain lives on board the vessel.  The whole experience is a bit surreal, as you feel like you have gone back in time when you look around at all the details and finish that you’ll never see on a Newton or Island Hopper boat.

The Huge Sun Deck of the Noir El Medina Dive Boat

The Huge Sun Deck of the Noir El Medina Dive Boat

So we will use this vessel today as a staging platform for our diving, plus a nice place to do our briefings, complete our surface intervals, and enjoy a hot cooked lunch.  The crew shuttles our gear over to the smaller neighbors boat via the zodiac so we can head out for our first dive.  We get our wetsuits on, climb down, transfer over, and head out of the harbor.  You may be asking, how does this boat get out?  It’s all in the licensing and the local Egyptian ownership, but that is a whole story in itself. The good news is that we are diving, and the wind has died down!

First drop is at Ras Qusier (literally the Head of Qusier, don’t ask).  We do a hot drop and backroll off the boat, dropping onto the reef wall face.  Everyone is cool, so we drift on down the wall to the sand, and narcosis junkie that I am; I keep heading down to hit the 150 ft mark.  There was plenty further to go, but I don’t want to worry my friends, so I enjoy the euphoria for a bit before heading back up to a shallower depth along the base of the wall.

A Large Coral Outcropping Busting Out with Red Anthias

A Large Coral Outcropping Covered with Red Anthias

Lots of cool critters here to see, in addition to the amazingly healthy varieties of coral.  So much vertical profile in the reef, with lots of grooves, channels, and holes to explore.  Fish life is healthy, even with an indigenous population of lionfish, who have been here for thousands of years and evidently have developed a following of natural predators that keeps their population in check.  It’s funny when you talk to the locals about lionfish problems because that is truly an alien concept to them, having had them living in balance with the rest of the marine population here for as long as anyone can remember.  We see Nudibranchs, black lobsters, turtles, Napoleon wrasses, yellow tail barracuda, huge flatworms, Crown of Thorns starfish, and many more delightful citizens of the deep, large & small.  Our plan is to head along and then cut out to see some “secret” pinnacles covered with anemones and clown fish, but we are having such a great time we never make it nearly far enough down the reef to see that.  We’ll have to come back!

Crown of Thorns Starfish on Fas Quseir Reef

Crown of Thorns Starfish on Fas Quseir Reef

We surface and the boat is right there to pick us up.  It’s kinda cool to be the only boat in the ocean, let alone the only divers on the entire reef.  Nice!  We head on back to the ‘mother ship’ and the crew swaps tanks while we enjoy a little sun and surface interval.  But the cook has been busy, and we are called to lunch in he salon, another great spread of hot and cold items, varieties of meats, and more.  We talk about our next dive, and agree to return to where we left off on the last one ‘cause it was way too nice to not see more of it.  After that we’ll just motor over to another reef location for our fourth dive of the day – I am liking Steve and his passion for diving!

Large Moray Eel Surrounded by Red Anthias

Large Moray Eel Surrounded by Red Anthias

So back we go, drop down, enjoy even more of what I mentioned above, surface, and motor over to the last site.  This is the Cathedral, and consists of a bunch of cavern and cave-ish systems under the reef.  We drop and I lead the group in, and what a really cool dive this turns out to be.  I so love being inside caves in the water and there is no disappointment here as this labyrinth goes on and on under the reef.  OK, my friends are cold so we need to head back on up, all smiles and laughing over what a great dive that was.

Blue-eyed Lobster hiding in the darkness of the Cathedral

Blue-eyed Lobster hiding in the darkness of the Cathedral

Back to the mother ship, and we pack the gear (OK, the crew packs the gear, this is a Trish Arrington sort of resort – the boys do it all for you!). We grab our personal things van it back over to the dive center, say good night to our friends, and get shuttled back over to our hotel.  Once there, Dave heads over to the restaurant to grab dinner, but I am so beat I just crash for the night, still in my bathing suit!

Day breaks and we’re up and running early, at the restaurant at 6:15 to make our sandwiches.  The van is spot on time for a 6:40 pick up and we down to the dive center, where Steve and a group of nine German divers await us.  They pile in and it becomes decidedly more “friendly” in the van, but we’ll be fine for our hour and ten minute ride south to the Marsa Alam region, where Pharaoh has another of their four operations is located.  Here we’re going to head out on a 10 meter Zodiac, similar to the Wild Side boat in Bonaire, to dive a couple of sites on Elphinston reef.

Our stepping off point is a ‘camp’ sort of resort, with actual tents on the beach for rooms, a nice restaurant, and a pretty hopping dive center with a pile of fast Zodiac boats.  We gear up under the shady huts, and walk on into the water, where about 75 feet out, we walk up a set of stairs to a dock.  Now one thing I have noticed with docks and jetties here so far, is that a) wood must be expensive for the legs, and b)it is easier to work at low tide.  So, as a result, every dock we have seen so far is under water at any time other than dead low tide.  Interesting!

Shagra Dive Camp with view of floating dock and dive tenders

Shagra Dive Camp with view of floating dock and dive tenders

But I digress… we get on the dock and then into the Zodiacs, with the Germans splitting into two groups.  Three of them join Dave and I on our boat, along with our guide, a young man named Mohammed.  He’s got a great command of English so we enjoy a lot of banter as we get ready to head out.  The briefing was completed back under the huts, so there is no need for any more of that detail now.  We are heading into the wind with seas running around 3 to 4, with an occasional 6 and 8 footer.  It’s a bit of a Wild Side experience, but we pound through, with our captain looking very much the Somalian pirate part with his headdress flying in the wind as he races our boat out the 5 or so miles to the reef.  The reef itself is a seamount that rises from the deep ocean floor to a depth of approx 10 ft at the top, and it’s about 1,000 feet long and 100 ft wide.  Before we go we decide to send in the Germans, who drop off the boats in a fairly  un-synchronized fashion in spite of the eins, zwei, drei, loudly shouted out by the leader.  A couple of minutes later, heads are popping in various places around us, so the lack of synchronization was not limited solely to the boat entry.  They finally get them all back on the boats and re-position for a second drop.  Meanwhile we decide it is time for us to go, so the three of us drop over and down.

Colorful Coral Heads on Elphinstone with Swarms of Anthias

Colorful Coral Heads on Elphinstone with Swarms of Anthias

We are at the very northern point of the seamount, so I decide to drop to 160 to check out the life there, before heading up slowly with the team and working our way along the edges.  The density and variety of corals here is amazing, and the entire mount is covered with fish.  Pretty darn cool dive, and we get a good 45 minutes of bottom time before shooting our surface maker and getting picked up by the boat.  Once we have the Germans on board, we head in, break down the gear, and load up the truck for our second site inspection, just back up the road a bit in Abu Dabab, home of the dugongs!  The dugongs are eastern manatees, and the love the grassy flats here as do quite a few large sea turtles, so our hopes are high!

Second dive was in Abu Dabab off the beach at Solymar Resort, a beautiful seaside complex catering to Italians.  It is a bit surreal gearing up to the lilting sounds of Italian classical music being piped to speakers on the beach.  We wade on and this starts out as a grassy flat plain in 10 to 25 feet of water, and is the year round home of a dozen very large green sea turtles, in the 400 to 500 pound range.  We aren’t down four minutes before we are greeted by the first of our turtles, a huge green one, complete with a couple of bright green remora escorts and a pilot fish.  This turtle could not care less that we were right there, and swam between Dave and I, munching away on the sea grass.

Big Turtle with Remoa and Pilot Fish in Two at Abu Dabab

Big Turtle with Remoa and Pilot Fish in Two at Abu Dabab

What an excellent photo op this was!  We accompanied him for a bit, flashing away with the camera, and finally turned and left him on his own as we searched for our next exciting sighting, and we were immediately rewarded with a guitar shark swimming past us. Cool!  Another turtle, more sharks, ho hum, this is getting boring…. just kidding…this is fantastic.  We decide to head over to the adjacent reef which is covered with life but unfortunately the viz here today is quite low so it is tough to really appreciate the true beauty of this particular area.

For those Fish ID’ers amongst our readers the Red Sea has a lot of the critters we see in the Caribbean and the Florida Keys, but also some interesting additions to our regulars sightings:  pipefish, guitar sharks, crocodile fish, unicorn fish, Picasso triggerfish, Emperor angelfish, Sweet lips, batfish, blue spotted stingrays, bright green remoras, amazingly multi-hued parrot fish, and huge morays that I could not get both hands around touching finger to finger – don’t ask if I tried!

Back in the truck we head another 10 km north to Shoni Bay, where another of the Pharaoh Dive Club centers are located.  After a tour of the beautiful grounds, we gear up and wade out to Steve’s Zodiac boat. Once onboard, we motor out about fifteen minutes to our entry point and drop into the reef, descending down the wall to about 100 ft before leveling out and starting our drift dive home.  This reef, like so many of the others, is absolutely pristine, and so full of life and variety is it utterly amazing.  We spend an hour poking around and working our way south, finally turning the corner into the bay and ending up back at the beach where we started.  Another wonderful dive in the books!

Superfast  Zodiac Tender at Pharaoh Dive Club in Shoni Bay

Superfast Zodiac Tender at Pharaoh Dive Club in Shoni Bay

On our way back to the hotel we stop to visit Port Ghabil to check out some liveaboards that we might use for a future trip, and also get to drool over some high-end custom yachts docked along the waterfront.  This harbor area is the result of a Kuwaiti investment and nothing was left untouched – it has a Disney-like feel to it, with everything first class and welcoming.  After our stroll, we stop in at the waterfront TGI Fridays for a snack.  One great day of diving with friends, and now here we sit, Pink Floyd music being played, professional soccer on the TV, and cold beers – does it get any better than this?

Finally it’s time to go, so back in the truck to drop off our gear at the dive center, and head back to our hotel for the night.  Second night in a row I am too beat to even make it down to dinner, so we blog a little, upload some photos and videos, and call it a night.

Wednesday morning and today’s plans are to do a little wreck diving just north of us in Safaga.  Steve picks us up at 7:15 and we travel 80 km north the port town. On the road to dive I take advantage of an opportunity to learn even more about the local customs in Safaga 80 k north of El Qusier.  First, there are a lot of police checkpoints along the coast road – these guys pretty security conscious and take invaders and other nere-do-wells pretty seriously.  The second thing I pick up on are the white lines that are painted down the middle of the road, in some areas they are dashed, and other areas have a solid white line.  This comes to mind because Steve crosses that solid white line a few times to pass slower moving vehicles, and I just thinking, “hey, correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t that solid line indicate something about passing?”  Well I am glad I asked, because Steve enlightens me on the local highway department practices, and suggests I look a little closer at the solid white line, and take notice that they have repainted it with a dashed white line on top, indicating it is now OK to pass.  “Silly me”, I am thinking, “of course!”  Not like they could have blacked out the old white line or anything…. just paint white stripes on top!  Amazing.

So our 80 kilometer ride is mainly through continuous desert broken only occasionally by a single home or hotel or military security checkpoint.  We pass some islands covered with mangrove trees, some of the only greenery we have seen in this region.  One thing I have noticed is there are literally hundreds of partially constructed homes, hotels, resorts and the like, which are sitting with no obvious indication of recent construction activity.  I query Steve, and here I learn of another little quirk in the local law – the government owns nearly all the land, and individuals can purchase it for development, but, and this is a big but, you have to start construction within a certain time frame or the government repossesses your real estate!  Hence the “pour the concrete and lay some bricks” approach – we can work on finishing it later!  Not pretty, but it works for these guys.

New Wooden Live-aboard Being Built at Dry Dock in Safaga

New Wooden Live-aboard Being Built at Dry Dock in Safaga

We drive past a huge drydock facility, where they service and maintain boats as well as construct new ones.  Every boat built here, like our day boats, is made of 100% wood.  Sure, that makes sense to me, as I gaze upon the barren desert – where the heck do they get the wood?  So I ask a few folks today, and get the same answer – “I don’t know”.  A pretty closely guarded industrial secret I am thinking, cause no one knows where the wood comes from!  That actually sort of becomes the trivia question of the week, and no matter whom I ask, no one has a clue.

And I am thinking, if you came here with a fiberglass hull mold, you could kick butt in the boat building business – there’s my business tip for the day!

Finally we enter Safaga, our destination for today.  Most of the resort areas here are somewhat dedicated to attracting tourists from one or two nationalities, and Safaga is basically a German town.  Our dive operator is Ducks Diving, who runs 6 large day boats out of the harbor here. This is a pretty first class operation, and their shop, boats and equipment are pretty state of the art.  So we back the truck up with our gear and here come the equipment handlers, leading a donkey pulling a cart!  How cool, I think, as we load our tanks and gear onto the cart and the donkey is lead down the dock and to the boat.  You know we’re not in Kansas anymore!

Our Donkey Equipment Tender at Ducks Divers in Safaga

Our Donkey Equipment Tender at Ducks Divers in Safaga

Gear loaded, we get on board and wait for the others to load. But wait – there’s no one else getting aboard – Dave, Steve and I have our own 110 ft long private boat and crew for today’s diving!  Talking about living large – this is VIP treatment to the max!

Before we go, though, we get to enjoy another local treat – there are four or five mosques within earshot of the docks, and you can quietly hear the background start to come alive with the call to prayer.  Each mosque has a huge loudspeaker system mounted in it’s minuet tower, and the leaders call out to the members that is time for one of the five daily prayer sessions.  So the calls get louder and louder, and sort of like a Led Zeppelin soundtrack, they pass from tower to tower as the leaders somewhat synchronize the cacophony of chants.  Some of our crewmembers stop their work, and begin their prayer sessions wherever they are.  I am honored for the opportunity to be here and observe this cultural and religious experience.  Very, very different!

Back to our private yacht for the day, this really displays an amazing spirit of cooperation between dive operators in this region; this would be such an alien concept in the Florida Keys where this is so much bickering and in-fighting between the dive operators.  Steve has, over his 20 years here in Egypt, developed a great network of friends and allied businesses, and it truly helps him stand out as a professional in his field and someone I would heartily recommend to others.

Our first stop today will be on the El Arish or (El Tori) wreck, a 240 ft long ferry boat scuttled allegedly as an insurance fraud claim in the early 2000’s completely intact.  It sits on its port side in 120 ft of water a mile off the coast, and everything is still on the boat from the day it sank, including the automatic life boats which never fired upon sinking – good maintenance there for sure!!

Wreck Briefing on Sea Tiger by Divemaster Emad and Steve Rattle

Wreck Briefing on Sea Tiger by Divemaster Emad and Steve Rattle

Emad, our multi-lingual divemaster, gives us a thorough briefing of the dive site, and points out that there is NO PENETRATION on these wrecks.  God, I love a good guideline!  We splash, and can see the wreck right from the surface in the clear water.  Down we go, and we begin to swim along the wreck, until I come upon an opening in the deck…well you know where this is going!  Let’s just imagine, if you will, that I actually penetrated this wreck!  Very cool, but of course one would need to take care as there are objects falling and hanging inside, silt is thick, and there are no escape cutouts…. hey this is a neat wreck!   I (might have) spent a half hour or so inside, working my way around the machinery and fixtures, before rejoining my Steve and Dave.  Dive stats: 111 ft for 45 minutes – way to start off the morning!  Very cool wreck – we’ll have to come back and actually do some penetration!  (wink, wink).

Nudibran and Red Corals on the El Arish Wreck in Safaga

Nudibran and Red Corals on the El Arish Wreck in Safaga

Back on board, we talk about what might be inside that wreck if we were to actually penetrate it, and begin our slow drive over to the next site.  One thing about these big wooden boats with single engines…they are slow as heck!  So our surface intervals won’t be a problem at all!

Dive #2 will be on the wreck of the Salem Express, a 330 ft long ferry boat lost due to pilot error in a storm that drove it into the reef in 1991 with the loss of over 1,600 lives, mostly Egyptian Muslins returning from a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.   That is the unofficial count, which, if official would make it the greatest peacetime maritime tragedy ever, surpassing the Titanic.  But you would have to have records for all those extra seats sold, cause the ship was only rated for 650 passengers, which happened to be the official count of how many were on board when it sank – interesting!

Large Cafeteria Area of the Salem Express

Large Cafeteria Area of the Salem Express

The ship is resting on its starboard side in 115 ft of water, reaching up to within 35 ft of the surface.  We drop down, and again, like Ulysses and the Sirens, there is an opening in the deck just screaming out my name!  OK, I am weak, and I must obey the call, so in I go.  I drop into the cargo hold, and let me tell you, my breath is immediately taken away as I swim silently over thousands of suitcases, boxes and bags or personal belongings, seeing the name tags and claim tickets which will forever rest at the bottom of the sea, along with the owners.  This is almost overpowering, just sensing the madness that went through this area one late December night twenty years ago when the ship hit the reef and was lost beneath the waves within two minutes – too fast to even launch the lifeboats, which were still in the davits.  We spend an hour down here, touring sleeping rooms, the bridge, and some machinery spaces, before heading up to debrief aboard.

It’s prayer time again on board, so the crew tends to that, and when done, it’s time to bring out the hookah, so they gather in a circle on the deck huffing away and sharing a good smoke together.  Clearly, we’re not in Kansas anymore!!

Wreck #3 on today’s adventure is the Al Kafain, a 300 ft long cargo freighter that caught fire and sunk here in 2006.  Wind drove it into the side of a reef and it capsized, coming to rest on the bottom with the superstructure at 90 ft and the keep sitting up at 30 ft (which was until recently on 6 ft, so the ship is collapsing on itself).  Our plan originally was to drop from the Zodiac, check out the wreck briefly, and work our way around this pinnacle back to the mother ship, but we kept the option open to spend more time at the wreck if we liked it.  Turned out to be a very cool wreck, so we checked it out a little more closely.  It was kinda eerie as I entered (in my imagination, as there is NO penetration!) the first cargo hold and there are all the life jackets floating and jammed against the ceiling – spooky! We explore the wreck for about an hour, finding an all white Pepper Moray, a nice swimming black flatworm, a bunch of nudi’s, and some more of the usual critters.  But you know me, and there is an underlying need within me to “root around” so root around I do, and guess what I find?  The ship’s china, and there is perfectly preserved coffee cup with the emblem “K” on it from the shipping company.  How cool is that for a souvenir??

Large Propeller of the Upside Wreck of Kafrain

Large Propeller of the Upside Wreck of Kafrain

Finally it is time to head up, so up we go to the safety stop, and I unfurl my SMB and shoot it up to the surface for our supposedly waiting Zodiac driver to see.  We hang, expecting to hear the sounds of a speeding propeller at any moment.  We hang some more…well we have to hang, cause Steve is diving a Suunto computer and still has another seven minutes of deco obligation to off-gas (no comment on the Cochran vs. Suunto bottom time match-up).  Finally, we surface, and with memories of a recent Coral Sea incident fresh in my mind, there is no Zodiac in sight.  In what is evidently the local fashion, Steve shouts out at the top of his lungs, and the boat crew finally picks up on it, and here comes the Zodiac.  Man how I love it when a plan comes together!

Back on board, we pack our gear and enjoy the leisurely ride back to port.  Did I mention these boats were slow?  We pull up near the dock, and the crew gets it together, with lots of obligatory shouting and yelling that’s Egyptian for “discussing”) we finally manage to swing it around and slide it into the dock. Our donkey awaits, the gear is off-loaded, and we head off south again.

Roots Camp, water-pipes, and local ‘connections’…

Steve has a surprise stop for us, at a new project he has undertaken.  He has partnered with Roots Camp, an alternative style lodging and adventure resort along the coast.  The facility is great, with nice low budget, low amenity rooms, common showers, some new self-contained rooms, a restaurant, dive center and more.  Backpackers and budget travelers love these places, and what better location than right here for one!  We are really impressed with the operation and sit down for a chat with Steve’s two Egyptian partners.  Hassan is the former local chief of police, and Nazese, also known as “The Doctor”, is a railway engineer, and a professor of engineering at Cairo University. He also happened to have spent two years working on his doctorate in engineering in the lovely state of Oregon, so he was pretty savvy about the US and our language, which helped a lot in our political discussion about the world and the current state of affairs in Egypt.  Tonight the news announced the ‘regular’ police were coming back, as they had been sort of hiding for the past couple of weeks, after picking the wrong team to support in the revolution.  Eighty-five police stations were torched over three days during the revolt, so the people voted with their actions and showed the love they have for the cops.

Hanging with Locals at Roots Camp...When in Rome....!!!

Hanging with Locals at Roots Camp...When in Rome....!!!

We are there yacking away for a couple of hours, and enjoying some cold Stella’s (OK, maybe the Christian side of our table is enjoying the beer) and out comes the shisha, or water pipe.  “What flavor tobacco would you like”, I am asked, and I get to choose from honey, cherry, some other fruits, and a couple of flavors that I have no clue about.  I stay on the conservative side, picking cherry, and they set the pipe up.  Some cooling water in the bowl, a replaceable sanitary tip for the mouthpiece (pretty nice feature), the tobacco gets loaded in the top, then some glowing charcoal is placed over the tobacco to provide the heat to drive the flavor (and all the other good chemistry) out of the tobacco and into the pipe.  It is a pretty hard inhalation to get good flow through the pipe so it’s a little ‘heady’ just getting good puffs going, but I soldier on, not wishing to insult my hosts in any way.  Out comes a second pipe, with a different flavor tobacco, and I start to enjoy that.  Water pipe, cold beer, I am thinking, how could this get any better?  So I jokingly say, “I bet this would be great with hash in it”, and Hassan’s eyes light up and he says, “You want hashish?”  Whoa now, OK, let’s keep this nice and ‘proper’, so I respectfully decline the offer.  Whew!  International crisis #3 averted!  Finally it’s time to head back down the road and we say goodbye to our new friends, enjoy the short drive back to the hotel, and call it a night.

Thursday now, and our next to last day of diving with Steve and his gang.  The Coast Guardsman has been located, and we have permission to leave the harbor, so we head out in Pharaoh’s boat to a couple of sites just south of El Qusier.  The area is known as Serib Kebir, and we are going to do three dives here. Our first drop will be from the zodiac, which will run us a bit to the north, and we’ll dive our way back to the boat, which is moored in the center of the site.  We splash in right on top of some fantastic coral formations, and spend 55 minutes, with depths to 85 ft, just taking in the fantastic hard and soft coral here, literally covered with fish and anemones.  This place will be tough to beat, I am thinking, as we head back up to the boat.

Pharaoh Dive Club Divemaster Fatie Conducts Briefing for Serib Kebir

Pharaoh Dive Club Divemaster Fatie Conducts Briefing for Serib Kebir

A little de-gassing time on board, soaking up some sun on the upper deck, and it’s time to dive again.  This time Steve is going in with us (he sat the first one out) cause he wants to show us this site personally.  OK, I like the sound of that!  We head in right from the mother ship, with no zodiac ride, and swim south along the outside of the reef at first, finally stopping and turning towards shore and into the labyrinth of coral pillars and mounds.  Each turn through these formations just gets better and better – not even in Australia did I see such a collection and variety of healthy first-growth corals and fish counts – I am literally blown away.

Glass Eye Snappers Congregate on Serib Kebir Reef

Glass Eye Snappers Congregate on Serib Kebir Reef

Can it get any better, I ask myself.  Well, yes it can…cause there are caves here!!  Really cool caves, into the reef, with hundreds of navigationally challenging passages, dead ends, and cathedral-like openings – no narcosis needed here, I am in total awe.  An hour later, with depths to 120 ft, and we re-surface, and I tell Steve that without question this has been one of the Top 10 dives of my life!! I am amazed.

Shallow Swim-Through on the South Side of Serib Kebir

Shallow Swim-Through on the South Side of Serib Kebir

Back on board the crew has lunch ready for us, and it’s tough to chew with the huge smile on my face after that last dive.  We have another surprise, as there is a visitor on shore for us to pick up.  Andreas Tischer, the owner of Dive In Dahab, has driven over to meet us.  He will be our host for next week’s segment of the ‘Dive the Revolution’ tour, so it is great to meet him and start the transition.  It’s an immediate good connection, and so we spend some more time talking, relaxing and de-gassing, before finally Dave & I head in for our third dive, with Fati leading us.  We zodiac south a bit and work our way back to the boat, limiting ourselves to 100 ft for an hour, and passing again through the area we just explored with Steve.  Man, I really love this area!

Enough diving for the day, and still in quiet awe over the second dive, we head slowly back in.  And I mean slowly, holy smokes, this single-engine heavy wooden boat makes the dive boat Venture look like a cigarette boat!  But we make it eventually, and clean up for dinner with Steve, Claire and Andy.  Another great evening, and we put our heads on our pillows for the last time at this hotel.

Luxor and the southern antiquities…

Today we are going to head up to Luxor, with a few stops in between, but there is time to get in at least one more dive!  So we gather at 7 a.m. and head down to the beach in front of the Roots Camp to check out that reef, known as Abu Sauatir.  The wind is howling from the north today and it is cold, but we are here to dive.  We gear up on the beach and Andy is joining Steve, Dave & I for this one.  Wait a minute, we are in the Sinai, diving the Red Sea – what the heck is Andy pulling out of his gear bag?  A 7 mm Waterproof Drysuit!  What the heck is up with that?  Next thing you know he’ll be diving a Suunto!  We gear up, and head in.

Steve Rattle Briefs Andres and I on the Roots Camp Reef Abu Sauatir

Steve Rattle Briefs Andres and I on the Roots Camp Reef Abu Sauatir

Here we have a cut out through the reef, and there is a strong seaward current out the cut as it carries all the water from the waves that are breaking over the shallow reef.  Evidently it gets quite strong at times, as Steve has installed a pull-rope system underwater to use if needed to come back in, hand over hand.  Fortunately it is not needed to day, but we certainly feel the outward flow upon our return.  Since it’s the only dive of the day, I slip on down to 160 ft for a bit to check out the deeper marine life, and we end up with a 50 minute underwater experience on another fine local reef.

Clownfish Protect Their Sea Anenomoe on Abu Sauatir

Clownfish Protect Their Sea Anenomoe on Abu Sauatir

Back to the hotel, grab breakfast, showers and pack, and we jump into Steve’s van with one of his drivers for today’s journey.  Steve has given him good instructions, we think, cause we’re in trouble otherwise as there is no common language between him and the two gringo’s he is hauling around.

Our first stop is about two hours north, in the harbor town of Hurghada.  This is the largest and most southern Egyptian city along this piece of the coast, complete with an international airport and a busy harbor.  Our purpose here is to check out a couple of potential liveaboards for a future trip or two, and so we have agreed to meet one of the owners at the Marriott, right on the harbor, which is also where his fleet docks.

Nathan and Fefe of Blue O Two in front of Blue Horizon and Blue Fin

Nathan and Fefe of Blue O Two in front of Blue Horizon and Blue Fin

We walk in, pass through security, and there in the lobby is Nathan Tyler, the Director of Blue-O-Two, and his International Business Development Manager Frederique “Fefe” Morisod.  They are excited to have us there and have two of their boats at the dock for their end-of-the week turn-around, so we get to tour them without any customers on board. As we saunter down the dock past the other large boats, it suddenly becomes obvious which two boats we are coming to see, because they stand out among this crowd for size, finish & cleanliness.

If I thought the day boats here were nicely appointed, then there is no way to describe these vessels.  Nothing but rich finished woodwork everywhere, like a high-end traditional yacht in the states.  Every floor is fitted mahogany or teak, there is no paneling or fiberglass or painted surfaces anywhere.  The furniture is right out of a nice living room; the bar looks like it belongs in an old English pub – truly just amazing. And nothing was scrimped in the rest of the creature comfort department – they have huge dive decks and swim platforms, sunning areas, every cabin is way oversize compared to any liveaboard I have been on – let’s just say I was impressed!

I Take Command of the Blue Horizon....Good Thing We Are Docked!

I Take Command of the Blue Horizon....Good Thing We Are Docked!

So impressed, in fact, that booked a ten-day trip for 2013 right there while I was talking to them – we need to spend some time diving the Red Sea on these puppies!  Look for more details on that later!

Business complete, now we head towards Luxor, approx 400 km west.  We drive past at least a dozen or more military /police checkpoints, filled with cops of various flavors, all basically just leaning on their AK-47’s and chain smoking cigarettes, waving the cars by.  Some checkpoints had “guard towers” which is just a nice name for another place to put another guy or two that is doing nothing.  Talk about a job creation program – these guys make the TSA look like a productive workplace.

We drive past more random steel barricades set up in the streets without any warning or hazard lights, and speed bumps galore, just in the middle of any old road – seems this is the national program to slow cars down, and they are doing it well.  Update – we have just passed our 20th checkpoint now – not that I am counting or anything!

In fact, only at one did anything even remotely resembling any sort of security process take place.  A plainclothes cop (like all the regular cops are – there are no uniforms for the ‘regular’ police) came over to the van and asked Dave & I to write our names on a blank form he had,  – yes, just write our names, never asked for any ID, no passports, no nothing – just our names…Dave had the form and I said just put my name there too – Mickey & goofy is what I think he wrote, but the cop was happy to have two lines filled out n his form, and we were allowed to pass.  What a waste of humanity and resources this entire security system is.

By the way, the security checkpoint count is up to 24 now and we are still not in Luxor.

Travel by car here is not for the faint of heart or queasy of stomach – the drivers are absolute cowboys – constantly beeping horns, flashing lights, passing anywhere on left or right or opposite lane, ignoring oncoming traffic, tailgating you… name something you could get a ticket for in the states and I will point it out to you while it is happening here – weaving, swerving and cutting, this is a good place to hire a driver and forego the desire to rent and drive yourself – note to self!

We enter the town of Luxor, passing through another half-dozen police points and probably 20 more impromptu traffic barricades – still unlighted and unmarked.  We come to an intersection, just past another police checkpoint,  – and our non-verbal driver stops the van and just jumps out, leaving it running.  OK, this is weird…now he returns and some other non-verbal guy climbs in the passenger seat…who the hell knows what is going on here…this is really weird…I am in the third seat so I say to Hartman “ask what’s going on here”, but he is speechless, and frozen in place.  Is this another international incident unfolding before my eyes?  Is this guy a good guy, or what?  Hartman asks if he is our guide and the one-word answer is  ‘no’…OK, that too was weird…at least we are still on well-lighted streets so I am not yet thinking that some Saudi princess has targeted me to be kidnapped as her stud muffin and eternal cabana boy, but you never know…stranger things have happened…

Suddenly, that fantasy is shattered as we lurch to a stop, the mystery man jumps out, the driver jumps out, and it takes me a few seconds to realize we are at our hotel.  Long story short, through an interpreter we learn that our driver was clueless on directions in the town of Luxor, that the guy was in fact a cop (how would you ever really know that?), and he had been asked by our driver to provide directions to the hotel.  OK – interesting local custom, but we are here, my stud muffin dreams are shattered, and we have to check into the hotel.

View from our Room of the St. George Sonesta Pool Deck

View from our Room of the St. George Sonesta Pool Deck

In the lobby we meet with our host and Learning Through Travel’s head of Egypt operations, Afifi, and his associate Ahmed at the Sonesta St George Hotel, right on banks of the Nile River.  This will be our base of operations for one night and a day while we speed-tour the cultural sites here in Luxor.

Ring, ring, goes the telephone and it’s our early wake up call to get started on today’s tours.  We grab some breakfast and jump in the van, heading south along the Nile to cross over the bridge.  This area is very lush in crops, and there are vast fields of sugar cane to the left and right of us for miles as we drive along.  There are also literally hundreds of guys hauling sugar cane, from huge diesel tractors pulling multiple wagons of the cut plants, to pickups piled high, to donkey-drawn carts with smaller loads.  Exactly how the financial model works here eludes me, and no one I ask understands enough to give me a straight answer, so I just enjoy the view and give up on trying to figure it out.  I can tell you, they don’t farm this way in America!

Hot Air Ballons Rise Over the West Bank of the Nile in Luxor

Hot Air Ballons Rise Over the West Bank of the Nile in Luxor

Finally we cross over the bridge, and find ourselves on the West Bank of the Nile.  In ancient Egyptian culture, East means life, relating to how each new day is born with the sun rising over the eastern horizon, while West is equated to death, again, dominated by the sunset and each day coming to an end.  So it is natural that you find most of the life, temples and events located on the East Bank and the tombs, cemeteries, and other resting places located on the West.  By no means is this a hard and true law cause there were plenty of examples of exceptions, but it’s a cool cultural thing.

On our way though we get a very nice surprise.  Right here alongside the road is the site of the Colossus of Memnon temple.   It was huge back in the day, with all sorts of ceremonial sections, rooms and buildings, but a few good earthquakes over the years, coupled with a complete lack of any sort of maintenance program, led to it’s demise and the dilapidated state it is in today.  Add to that a few thousand years of local contractors hauling away stones and supplies for homes and other things they are building, and you can imagine what ultimately remains.  But this particular temple has been the target of continuous archaeological research for many years now, and you can see the tents and camps of various schools and groups set up, with a lot of people poking around, scratching the dirt, and sifting through sand for bits of history.  But right smack in front of the former entrance there are two huge carved statues, and I mean huge, which originally flanked the entrance to the left & right.  They were too big to steal I suppose, and carved right out of the ground so the earthquakes and robbers were not a threat.  And right in front of that there is an active excavation taking place, and we get to witness history in the making!

So here is a hole, maybe 40 ft long x 15 ft wide x 6 ft deep, being hand dug by about 15 guys with picks, who are filling up rubber buckets with dirt, passing them up out of the hole, and another couple of guys with wheelbarrows are running non-stop, emptying the buckets into the wheelbarrows, and then running them over to a growing pile a short distance away.  Look, I’m not saying anything, but one guy with a backhoe and a dump truck could take over this country!

But wait…there is a lot of shouting in the hole, and the westerners who were obviously the scientists or supervisors come running over.  They’ve hit something in the hole, and no one knows what it is!  So they continue to dig away, eventually unearthing a stone that measures about 18 inches square and five feet long, covered with ancient carvings.  By Jove, it’s a piece of the temple!  So now to get it out of the hole!  OK, where’s the nylon sling for the backhoe…oh wait, forgot where I was.  Fine, let’s just grab a bunch of mis-matched pieces of rope, get the whole 18-man team on it, pushing and pulling and lifting, and well look at that, it is now outside the hole!   High fives all around and a great photo op for Dave and I!  Timing is everything, eh?

Tombs of Pharoahs Inside the Natural Pyramid of the Valley of the Kings

Tombs of Pharoahs Inside the Natural Pyramid of the Valley of the Kings

OK enough of this, back in the van and let’s get up to the Valley of the Kings before it gets busy!  This is a site in the rocky hills here where they have unearthed to date 63 different tombs of kings, pharaohs, nobles and a few select other inner-circle types.  In the visitors center they have a really well done acrylic three-dimensional display, showing the valley and landscape about, with the tomb entrances, and then underneath, to-scale representations of the actual tomb excavations.  Truly amazing how deep and long so many of these man made anthills go into the earth, and a testament to the early engineers (and early cheap labor!).  From there we walk out to the bazaar that serves as the pathway to the shuttle trains (think Disney parking) that will take us to the tomb entrances of King Tut, King Ramses the IV, and the rest.  But first we have to run the gauntlet of local pushy vendors and their wares, which are constantly shoved at you at every step here. It’s a Tijuana atmosphere at many of these public places with the vendors – -evidently  ‘no” and “no thanks” are NOT in the Egyptian language at all.  So I shift to Plan B – indifference…maybe they’ll get the hint!

The Tomb of King Tut Ankh Amun

The Tomb of King Tut Ankh Amun..Buried in his Jammies!!!

Once inside the tomb entrance area, we buy a pass that lets us enter a few of them, and let me tell you, these babies are built for comfort as opposed to the pyramids we experienced the other day.  Nice wide walkways, high ceilings, great symbolic artwork on the walls, just a very neat thing to experience.  The sad part is the scumbags, squatters and grave robbers who have visited these places before us.  So many of the mummies were actually discovered elsewhere, cause it was a common Egyptian ‘smash-and-grab’ tactic to pop the top off the coffin, throw the mummy over your shoulder and run like hell.  Then, once you’re in your safe place, you rummage around on the dead guys corpse and hope to find all the jewelry that legends have it he was buried with.  But in some cases, the last guys to close the coffins made sure that all that gold wasn’t going to waste, and it never ended up in there in the first place.  Sort of like inner-city paramedics stripping wedding bands and jewelry off unconscious or dead victims as they transport them to the hospitals – yes, sad but true.

Finally we have had our fill of dead guys holes, so we head back out, survive the bazaar once again with wallets and money intact, and jump back in the van. We pass back out of the valley, passing the Valley of the Queens next door, and a few other significant temples and building sites, some intact, some restored, and many in ruins.  We run back up to the hotel to grab a quick lunch, get our bags, and head out for Part II of the world’s fastest cultural tour – the East Bank!

The Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatchepschut in Valley of the Queens

The Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatchepschut in Valley of the Queens

This is the last day all of us will be together, as Dave will be flying back to America tomorrow while Afifi continues on with me to the Sinai Peninsula.  After all these cultural tours and my many questions, Afifi mentions to Dave H that he is really looking forward to this upcoming week with me…mostly cause I will be underwater most of the time!  Nice.

Stop number one on the afternoon tour is the famous Temple of Karnak, located smack-dab in the center of Luxor.  This is a huge, and if I mentioned huge before, then this is the hugest huge temple structure.  It was really the cult center of ancient Egyptians back when Luxor was the capital of civilization.  There are hundreds of towering carved columns here, obelisks everywhere, stonework, sacred rooms and chambers, a special ceremonial & spiritual pool, and more, of everything mentioned above.  This place, if I have not mentioned it yet, is huge!

Afifi El Shimy and I in Front of the Main Pylon Wall of Karnak Temple

Afifi El Shimy and I in Front of the Main Pylon Wall of Karnak Temple

We come upon the Holy Scarab statue – legend has it you dance around it seven times and your wish comes true.  Yeah, right…but wait, there are a couple of German girls going round and round….go figure, these guys are from the land of the Maypole Dance, so it’s not too big a stretch.  The rest of the tour ends uneventfully and we head back out to the van for a drive-by of a few more sites on our way to the airport.

The most impressive is the ceremonial causeway, a virtual super-highway built to connect Karnak to Luxor Temple.  It is a couple miles long probably 200 ft wide, and all hand placed stones, with zillions of carved statues lining each side.  These guys clearly had too much free time on their hands!

Sinai or bust…

We get to the Luxor airport now for our flight to Cairo, where we’ll bid farewell to Dave and then continue on to Sharm El Sheikh for some more diving and educational touring.  Here the skycaps are just a gang of un-employed guys with a few shopping carts, so we take good care of them and our bags are delivered safely to the counter.  Once there, we know we are in Egypt again as Afifi has to argue with the counter staff, and involve a supervisor, and negotiate my extra bags (they wanted $700 in extra baggage fees!).  End result: Team Afifi/Dave 1, Egypt Air 0.

An hour after takeoff we touch down at Cairo International Airport, and taxi to a stop.  There are just a few jetway ramps here so the norm is to park out on the tarmac and unload into buses for the ride to the terminal.  Once there we have some time, so we do some promotional videos for Learning Through Travel, interviewing me, Afifi and Dave, with some good infomercial sort of discussions thrown in to promote tourism and travel in Egypt. Finally it’s goodbye to Dave, and he goes and collects his bags.  Rami will be meeting him here and escort him to his hotel, and he’s got a morning flight back to the land of the red, white & blue.  Afifi and I kill some time in the terminal before catching our connecting flight to the Sinai, landing at the Sharm El Sheikh International Airport just north of the city.

What a pleasant surprise awaits me there – it is Mohammed Ali, our driver, who Afifi has sent from Cairo to be our transport here for the week.  Very nice to meet a new/old friend here in this land so from home!  We roll into the town of Sharm El-Sheikh, and what an eye-opening experience this is, so vastly different than any part of Egypt we have seen so far.  Think ‘South of the Border’ meets ‘Las Vegas’ – this place is pure neon and glitter!  Mile after mile (OK, kilometer after kilometer) of hotels and resorts and golf courses and aqua parks, and even casinos – if you are looking to play then this is the right place!

But before we get into all that, let’s look at a little history.  Back in the late 60’s the Egyptians needed some money to build a hydroelectric dam at Aswan on the Nile, and approached their international friends for some help with the financing. The story has it that England, France and Israel all said that it was a good idea and they would bring their checkbooks to the party.  But when it came time to pony up, the big buys balked, leaving the Egyptians without funding for their dam project.  “Well we can fix this”, they thought, decided to take possession of both sides of the lucrative Suez Canal.  Yeppers, that’ll show ‘em!

Well needless to say, but some ideas definitely look better on paper, and this quasi-military action fell into that category.  It was not long before the powers that be decided to take back the canal and open it up to the world.  That certainly did not sit well with the leaders in Cairo, and they stewed on it for a few years before deciding to act.  Now while it was indeed a novel idea to invade the Sinai and Israel – let’s just say this proved to be not one of their most well thought out plans.  As history would show, they failed miserably and quickly, hence the incident being known forever as the Six Day War.  To help ensure a little advance warning the next time Nassir decided to send his tanks Eastward, the Israeli’s help on to the Sinai and occupied it.  They took advantage of the place, and guess what – they built some settlements!  What a surprise!

Finally, fifteen years later, a major international peace conference, the Camp David Accords, was held, and Israel gave the Sinai back to Egypt.  Of course there were a few restrictions; for starters, there was to be no Egyptian military presence on the peninsula. So you get one guess who got to hold that bag and expense to ensure this land was not up for grab – yes, the United Nations, and primarily the US, have been here “defending” this border ever since.  Sense a financial fleecing here?  Someone should revisit this idea and end this taxpayer-funded negative cash flow!

But I digress…all this touring and typing has my whistle a little dry, so I say to Afifi, “Hey, let’s stop at one of these little supermarkets and I’ll get some drinks for the room”.  “OK”, he says and instructs Mohammad to stop at the next one.  We pull to the curb, and I jump out and say, “Give me a minute here”, and Afifi says, “Wait, they will take advantage and overcharge you in there, let me come”.  OK, no sweat, and the two us head into the store.  I grab a few Diet Cokes and a water or two, and we put it on the counter.  Of course, nothing has a price marked, and everything is done a little hand calculator, so who knows what the real price is at any point in time.  The clerk announces the total in Egyptian Pounds, and Afifi says, “Do you have any Egyptian money?”.  Well no I don’t, so he pulls out his wallet and says he’ll tae care of it.  But before the transaction is completed, there is the customary arguing and verbal exchange for some negotiated discount, and then he pays the adjusted new amount. Whatever – that sort of shopping experience is so alien to me; just tell me what it costs and I can decide if I want to buy it or not.  We walk out and I offer to settle up with him later.  But they had no beer in this store, so I say, “Let’s go next door for some brews to go.”  We go in, I grab some Stella’s and Sakara’s, we put them on the counter, out comes the calculator, some more negotiation, Afifi’s wallet is out again, and we’re done.  So we’re walking out to the van, and out of the blue, Afifi turns to me and says, “So who’s your daddy now?” I just about bust a gut, this coming from such a relatively low-key guy.

Finally, we pull up to our ‘crib’ in Sharm, the Radisson Hotel, and Mohammed honks the horn at the front gate.  And as typical with most of the major hotels here, the driver hands his ID over to the security guard, and we sit quietly while another officer does a quick walk-around with the highly-trained (yeah, right) bomb sniffing dog and we pass the tail wagging test!  To the reception area, and Afifi takes care of checking me in.  The front desk manager has a ‘special offer’ for us, in light of all the business Afifi brings them, to upgrade my room.  Only hitch is I might have to “walk a little” to get to it.  Heck, I’ve been in hotels before, how can I go wrong with an upgrade.  And a little walk could be a good thing.  So I accept their offer and we complete the check in process.  One of the staff pulls up in a golf cart and shuttles me, along with my baggage, to the room.  I note we are riding at a pretty good clip for about five minutes, and it’s all downhill…that should have been a hint, eh?  We finally arrive and the room is indeed nice, with a view right over the pool and the Red Sea – very nice!

Sunday morning dawns and I pack up my dive gear in my mesh bag and head up towards the reception area for breakfast.  Remember that “little walk” thing?  Thirty freakin’ minutes of uphill climbing and zigzagging through this immense resort facility and I finally arrive, huffing like a steam engine, at the front area of the hotel.  Into Mohammed’s waiting van and we are off!  We pull up to the guard house, collect Mohammed’s ID, and pull out to meet a van from Pharaoh Dive Center, our operator of choice for the next couple of days.  It’s a twenty-minute ride to Sharks Bay harbor, where we will board our boat for today’s diving.  There I meet Pharaoh Dive Center owner Osama “no, not THAT Osama” Roshdi, and my fellow divers, Maria and Verresch Dufraing from Antwerp, Belgium, and Sebastiano Dallago and Paula Sangiovani from Bergamo, Italy, a small town about 50 km north of Milan.  The five of us have our own 110 ft long dive boat for the day – sweet!

But before we can board we have to have our group together and Osama needs to request permission for the boat to dock.  I take the opportunity to snap a few photos in the harbor, but when I shoot a few of the security area, the cop in charge gets pretty livid about having his photo taken and demands that I delete it.  OK, sure, I can do that…good thing I shot 3 or 4, so I delete the lousiest one.  He is satisfied, and we avoid another international incident.  Now that gets me to wondering, what would a cop have to hide, not wanting his photo taken….hmmmm….was he perhaps one of the club-swinging, crowd-busting camel riders from the recent protests in Cairo?

Enough of that theory, it’s time to board, so the boat pulls up to the dock and we walk out to greet it.  We climb aboard and meet the crew, but wait; here comes a few guys in street clothes following us aboard, talking to Osama.  OK, they are police of some sort, and they need to see ID’s for everyone on board.  I don’t have my passport as I left it in the van with Mohammed and Afifi, but Osama says, “Just show them your diving card”.  I do, they pass it around, it evidently passes muster, and the cops collectively agree that they have completed their mission today and national security is intact, and we can finally head out to sea.  To be honest, these guys make America’s TSA agents look like rocket scientists – it’s obvious they don’t have a clue what they are looking at, they never counted how many bodies were on board and if that number matched the number of ID’s they had, you get the picture.  As far as the ID is concerned, it has to be something “official”, like a government issued passport, or maybe a library card.  They all carry the same weight with these guys – amazing.

The captain fires up the engine, and then, to my complete surprise, he fires up another engine!  Whoa – so unlike our previous day boats this puppy has twin diesels!  Unlike most diver operators around here who lease privately owed boats each day, Osama actually owns this boat and another smaller (60 ft long) one.  That gives him an upper hand in controlling where we are going and when we are leaving, both important attributes in avoiding crowds of divers.

Huge Sea Fans at Jackson Reef, Straits of Tiran near Sharm el Sheikh

Huge Sea Fans at Jackson Reef, Straits of Tiran near Sharm el Sheikh

We motor out past hundreds of other yachts and commercial vessels in this busy harbor and start our way up the reef line.  Today we head north to the Straits of Tiran, off Tiran Island, which is the home of a large UN military base.  It’s taboo to come too close to the island or especially ashore, so we will dive on some of the many pinnacles that ring the island.  As we sail along the reef, we pass quite a few hulks of sunken and half-sunken vessels that have crashed into the reef and been left to decompose in place, doing whatever additional damage to the reef that may involve until the sea has absorbed the wreck.  Unlike the US and other areas, there is no agency here that would address such things as reef protection and removal of sunken boats from them – sad but true.

We are actually diving in the Gulf of Aqaba, which is that part of the Red Sea that lies between the eastern shore of the Sinai Peninsula and the western shores of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan.  We will start our dive day from a moored position so we head to one of the two moorings along Jackson Reef.  There is one boat already there on the other mooring so we tie up on the free one.  These are actually double moorings, so the boats tie up bow and stern parallel to the reef edge.  We are still tying in when another boat pulls up, and ties alongside the first boat, “raft-style”.  Wait, here comes another, and another – soon there are four boats rafted together on the other mooring.  I turn and look and here is another boat coming our way, and they pull up alongside us, then another, sow within the course of perhaps 25 minutes a total of seven boats have descended upon this reef to discharge their divers!  Kinda like Molasses Reef in the Keys on a busy Saturday in the summer!

While I am taking this all in I start to hear a sound coming across the water….I listen hard, sure enough, I hear it again, clearer and louder….it’s someone calling out “Hello Dave Valaika”.  What the heck, here I am about 8,000 miles from home, and who the heck is calling my name?  Well it turns out to be one of my Scubaboard compadres by the name of ‘Crowley’ who had been following the blog and knew where I was diving today, so he brought his boat from Sinai Divers out to dive near us – what an amazingly small world it is indeed!  We connect, have a laugh, and make a date to meet up for a beer (or two or three) later tonight in town.  Cool!

So we get to gearing up, and Osama is going to dive one-on-one with me to show me the best parts of one of his favorite reefs.  As we dress he looks over at me and says, “How deep do you want to go?”.  Wrong question to ask, I am thinking, but I’ll play along “Let’s see what we can find”, I respond.  OK, that settled, we finish gear up and splash.  From the moment we hit the water it is clear why this is one of his favorite reefs – there is an unbelievable array of colorful healthy corals and swarms of fish everywhere I look.  We cruise along, working our way down the wall, and I am thinking how thankful I am that Osama has brought out these fat 15 liter (108 CF) steel tanks for me, and that I chose air as my mix of choice just in case opportunities for some nice deep-ish drops like this came up.  We continue to drop to an undisclosed depth, and spend nearly an hour enjoying the reef around us.  We start our deco with a minute at 70 ft and slowly work our way back towards the boat and up to the surface, coming up with nothing but smiles after one fantastic narcosis-enhanced dive.  Welcome to Sharm El-Sheikh!

Masked Butterfly Fish on Tom's Reef, Straits of Tiran, Sharm el Sheikh

Masked Butterfly Fish on Tom's Reef, Straits of Tiran, Sharm el Sheikh

We relax on board for a bit, enjoying some ‘Sinai time’, as the crew works on lunch.  You have to be patient to dive here (yes, I can’t believe I said that either!) but soon we are called to eat.  Today we have a few selections to choose from the enormous spread the crew has prepared – salad, some other sort of local salad, fresh baked pita bread, meatballs, fried chicken, hamburgers, stew, pasta, rice, fried sweet potatoes, soup, and a couple of other things that the crew could not explain well enough through the language barrier to make me feel confident enough to give them a try.  Plus the best part – Osama has Diet Coke aboard!  Woo hoo!

After lunch there is time for some of the crew to enjoy a nap, while the rest of us sit and enjoy a truly international political discussion.  It is pretty interesting to hear how different the views are on world politics and events from folks who hail from different corners of the globe.  We had Belgium, Egyptian, Italian, and American points of views and commentary of so much of what was going on around us.  Today is an interesting day as Mubarak’s trial for crimes of corruption begins on this first day of the Egyptian workweek.  He was arrested at his home here in Sharm a couple of weeks ago so that really opened up a lot of discussion on Egyptian standards and customs.  But it was really interesting to hear Maria and Verresch share some stories of their recent vacation in the Tunisian border town of Djerba, where they were suddenly surrounded by about 250 refugee Chinese workers who walked across the Libyan desert to Tunisia to escape Ghadafi’s violence and madness there.  They had no food or water for the past two days, and the hotels in Djerba put out a big spread – really heartwarming to see how the people of the North African nations are pulling together to help each other as the region goes through this period of political upheaval and change.

And it turns out that Sebastiano works in a handicapped community in Italy, and noticed my IAHD-Americas Dive In Festival t-shirt.  We spoke at length about the programs and how the members of his community would benefit from the opportunity to enjoy scuba diving experiences.  Look for a visit to Bergamo in my near future.

Finally, finally we can dive again!!  Yes…I was jonesing to get back in the water!  Osama is sitting this one out for some crazy reason (I’m thinking the blood coming out of his right ear after our dive might have been a sign), but my gills need moistening!  So I buddy up with Verresch and Maria, and in strict accordance with PADI standards, I make the second dive shallower than the first, limited myself to the official Egyptian depth limit of 160 ft – yes I know, what a rule follow I am!

I have to take a moment to compliment Osama on being such a savvy businessman and owner of such a class operation.  He owns his own boats, which gives him a lot of control over dive site selection, departure times, and most importantly, customer relations as it involves his crews.  All of his guys are really friendly, open and personable, and they make it feel like family to be on the boat with them.  Everyone acts like a professional, and there is no yelling or screaming here. Of course, Osama being an Egyptian helps too, but still he has chosen a good team and done what is necessary to keep it together.

So what better way to celebrate a great day of diving than a few cold ones with friends at the pub?  I have arranged to meet Crowley at Champions sports bar so Mohammed drives me over and I head in to a decidedly non-Egyptian atmosphere.  I sit down at the bar, they pour me a tall draft, and before I even inhale half of it, there is Crowley coming in the door.  He’s from the UK, an has been teaching here in the Red Sea for about 8 years now, with some interim stints in Australia and a few other places.  We sit and chat and shoot the shit for a bit, and a couple of his friends join us for some fun and laughs.  All too soon it is time to call it a night, and I head out to Mohammed’s van and he whisks me back to the hotel.  It’s “lights out” about two minutes after my head hits the pillow, and I sleep with a smile looking forward to another great day of diving coming tomorrow.

Monday now and it’s time to dive the famous Ras Mohammed National Park area on the south side of Sharm El-Sheikh.  This area is highly rated and a must-do dive in nearly every guidebook you pick up on Red Sea diving, so the excitement is high.  We’ll be diving again with Pharaoh Divers who did such a great job yesterday.

I call for the golf cart at 7:30 (the heck with that ‘little walk’ nonsense) and meet Afifi and Mohammed in the reception area.  Grab a quick breakfast from the sumptuous spread the hotel restaurant offers, and we head out.  We drive to Travco Harbor, which is a few miles south of yesterday’s departure point, and closer to the Ras Mohammed area.  Osama truly runs a first class operation here and has thoughtfully moved the boat during the night rather than make us have a longer-than-necessary boat ride today.   Through security, and I am reminded “No Pictures No Pictures No Pictures!!” so I only get a few discrete shots!  In keeping with the general inconsistency of the security process here, we are not required to show any ID at this harbor.  Go figure.

We wait in the ‘holding area’ while Ligia, our dive leader today, requests permission for our boat to approach the dock.  Here we meet the rest of today’s team, including a couple from the UK and a Brit taking his open water class.  Again, five customers and 110 ft of boat – not too crowded!  Finally permission is granted, and we walk on down to board the boat.  It’s a relatively short ride out of the harbor to the dive site, and our plans are to actually do a drift dive here, starting at Anemone City and then swimming past Shark Reef.  We gear up, gather on the swim platform, the captain toots the horn, and we drop.  The reef opens below us and the viz is as we have come to expect here, forever!  I buddy with Verresche and Maria again and we start along.

Clownfish at Anemone City, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park near Sharm

Clownfish at Anemone City, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park near Sharm

The first impression of the Anemone City portion of this dive site is really good, with huge carpet anemones and oodles of clownfish swimming about.  Lots of colorful soft corals and life here, and it’s tough to take it all in.  We could have just spent our entire dive here with a camera, and in retrospect, we should have!  But swim we must, so we cruise along, and at some point Verresche turns off into the blue, with Maria following.  Who am I to argue, so I go along, and what we are doing is crossing an open area to get us to the next pinnacle, which is Shark Reef.  We spend another forty minutes cruising along here.  Halfway along we pass by the wreck of the Yolanda, a small freighter that was evidently carrying plumbing supplies and sank on the reef, cause the sea floor is littered with piles of piping and hundreds of porcelain toilets and sinks.  Interesting, but once you’ve gotten over the novelty of an intact toilet on the sea floor, the rest get pretty boring.  Ho hum….move it along.  One thing I notice here is that this reef is in a period of rebuilding, with all the basic hard corals that originally built the pinnacle structures essentially dead, and now serving as a rocky framework for all sorts of new soft corals, some sponges, and some young hard corals.  Very much like a Key Largo reef to be accurate.  I hate to judge too quickly, but I am not overly impressed with Ras Mohammed, at least not yet.

Blue Spotted Stingray at Jolanda Wreck, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park

Blue Spotted Stingray at Jolanda Wreck, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park

We move the boat a bit as Ligia needs to make her “instructatory dive” with her student.  After some initial confusion on my part, I learn that this is Egypt-speak for an Open Water Discover Scuba Dive.  We head towards a mooring area, and it’s raft up city again, as we pull up tight to two or three other boats already moored there.  These Egyptians sure are sociable here, cause they like to keep the dive boats close!  She splashes with her student and we get some additional chill out time for de-gassing.  You have to be pretty dang relaxed diving here, cause they sure like to move at a leisurely pace.  Clearly, we need to adjust that for our upcoming IVS trip!

Instructatory dive over, it’s time for the lunch spread to come out.   I didn’t think the crew could out-do yesterday’s feast, but I am wrong.  The variety, quantity and tastiness of the food are truly amazing and no one will lose any weight diving here.  And of course we enjoy some leisurely off-gassing time, which of course means we are missing potential bottom time, so the net result for a nitrogen-addict like me is that I will have to plan this next dive ten feet deeper to make up for the stress!

Sheer Coral Walls at Ras Ghozlani, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park

Sheer Coral Walls at Ras Ghozlani, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park

We finally move to our second dive site, called Ras Ghozlani, still in the park.  A little confusion between the captain and the crew, but eventually we hit the desired drop spot, and over we go, again this being a drift dive along the reef.  A pretty area, with scattered coral heads and coral clusters, separated by white sandy areas in between, it makes for a pleasant dive.  We keep this one shallow, 100 ft max, for an hour.

From there we head back in, and make pretty decent time with this twin-engine boat. Osama is waiting for us dockside, and we get our gear unloaded and into the van.  But before we go, he has a surprise in store for me!

Water Rescues & Hyperbaric Chambers…

“Let’s take a little walk”, he says, and we head a few properties down the street.  We stop, and with a wave of the arm, he announces we have arrived, at the Sharm El-Sheikh Water Rescue Team headquarters.  Technically called the Red Sea SAR-Med Center, this is a pretty cool and very vital operation, responsible for ALL water rescues and emergencies in the entire southern Sinai area.  We meet Mostafa Nabil, and the takes us out back where he shows us their souped-up Zodiac boats, loaded on trailers and ready to be launched and underway in under 10 minutes.  We head inside and he shows us the radio communication system, medical clinic and everything else needed to help ensure the health and safety of the water sports loving public here.  It is interesting because the facility was built with private money and gets no assistance from the government, in spite of the number of tax dollars paid and jobs created by the scuba and water sports industries.  One hundred percent of their operating budget comes from donations and insurance company billings.  But, as our host points out, close to half of their rescues and emergency calls are from locals, who typically are not insured so they perform more than their fair share of charity work. It’s just really great to see such dedicated people who are here in the event that they need to be called upon.

I thank Osama for that pleasant surprise and begin to say goodbye, but he says, “No, we are not done!”. OK, cool, I’m still in, and with that, we walk across the street to a building under construction, with a low white building next door.  As we get nearer I can read the sign; it’s the Hyperbaric Medical Center! Well how about that, I think, this just keeps getting better!

So we walk in, and there ready to greet us is Dr. Adel Taher, the founder, designer, director and chief medical officer for the center.  Osama introduces Afifi and I to him, and we sit down to chat.  The talk, naturally, turns to hyperbaric medicine, and within minutes he and I have connected with mutual friends throughout the diving medical community and the hyperbaric medicine associations also.  Another example of an extremely small world, and how the web you weave in life can touch upon so many other connections that you would never imagine.  He knows the guys at the University of Pennsylvania’s team, and at DAN, so the bonding is again, immediate.  And on top of that he designed his chamber system, which of course is right along the lines of what I have done over the past thirty years of my engineering career, so we are talking valve choices, regulators, system redundancy, etc etc etc like a couple of excited school boys.  I sense he doesn’t get a whole lot of visitors that have such a handle on not only what he does there, but also how he does it.  I look over and Afifi is rolling his eyes – this darn American knows everyone!

And this entire hyperbaric medical center is his baby, from concept to daily operation.  As an avid diver and medical professional, he saw the need for a treatment center in the Sinai with the exploding growth of the diving industry.  Me worked his connections to get through the local political traps and secured the land for his clinic.  Recognizing Egypt as the “Land of Unfinished Construction Projects” that it is, he knew that he needed his system to be designed so that the locals could not sabotage his plans with excuses, delays and shoddy workmanship.  Also recognizing the complete lack of maintenance support and funding for spare parts available the system needed to be able to operate with multiple component failures without jeopardizing the patient undergoing treatment.  In his own words, it needed to be “Egyptian-proof”.  A pretty tall order, but Dr. Taher was up to the task.

He started by designing the entire center around using standard 40 ft shipping containers, which could be easily transported to the site and interconnected by his own staff.  Like a modular home, the first three containers sit side-by-side, with the reception and examination area in the first, the chamber and treatment area in the middle one and finally the complete piping, controls and gas storage system in the third.  Additionally a fourth container contains redundant emergency generators to keep the process going through a local power loss, which is not uncommon at all.  He had the system built in the US, securing donations and funding from a variety of sources and personal connections, and then had it shipped to the site, which he had already prepared.  The containers arrived on Friday and by Sunday afternoon the chamber was fully operational!  That in itself was a tremendous feat and all the credit is due to Dr. Taher.

But it gets better!  In addition to his redundant valve, piping and control design, he can operate the chamber fully automatically, or eve with multiple failures, in the manual mode, ensuring that a patient being treated will be guaranteed service without interruption.  And his tinkering is not limited to the mechanical realm – he added a booster system and helium lines to the system so he can experiment with chamber treatments using high helium blends which have proven to be more effective for treatments than a standard Oxygen or Nitrox mix.  He is also seeing very positive results in treating other conditions, such a Cerebral Palsy, using his custom blends and high gas pressures.  The downside is that these treatments are considered “alternative” and as such, not covered by insurance, so the lack of funding limits the development of these new and exciting processes.

But the clinic is doing well, and currently Dr. Taher is installing a twelve-place treatment chamber from Germany, with individual gas mix feeds for each patient and a fire suppression system, which is really cutting edge in chamber designs (and helps avoid an Apollo-like incident).  He showed me the system, which is partially installed in a new building he put up, adjacent to the original clinic.  It looks great, but I took one look at the smoothly bent stainless lines, compression fittings, neatly routed conduits and the overall general finish of the installation, and said to him, “Are you using local contractors for this work?”.  He laughed, and said, “Remember what I said earlier?  This is being installed by crew from Germany – it’s obvious isn’t it?”  We laugh at the mutual understanding and appreciation of professional contracting and workers who take great pride in everything they do and touch.  Enough said.

And yes, there’s an IVS label on the chamber to let the world know we were here!  Can’t forget that finishing touch!  As we are getting ready to leave, he says he has something else to show me, so we walk out to a garage he has out back, and Dr Taher proudly shows me his motorcycle collection.  I am not surprised that he is a motor head also, another trait of that left brain thinking process.  But wait, “What’s this?”, I ask, eyeing a couple of older models, painted in olive drab.  Sure enough, it’s a 1942 BSA WM40, built during the war years and exactly the same as those that are stacked for eternity on the Thistlegorm, the most famous wreck here that I am not going to be able to fit into my dive plans this week, sadly.

Well sensory overload complete, Osama still wants to show me his dive center, so we jump in the van and head over there.  Another grand tour, he introduces his staff, all of which have been with him for years.  He’s got a great operation, a PADI 5 Star Instructor Development Center, complete with everything you need to teach every level of scuba programs.  He has a large well-maintained rental inventory, a redundant compressor system, and all the other accouchements that make it a place you want to hang out at for a while after your day of diving.  Very nice indeed.

Ready for a little Dahab-ing…

With all this extra touring and diving-related sightseeing, Afifi decides to keep us here at our hotel an extra night rather than drive up late to Dahab.  For starters, you can’t drive the coast highway after dark, for security reasons.  So while I have been gabbing with all these folks, he has already moved our checkout to the next morning, and we’ll plan to get on the road early to Dahab.

And like I have not had enough surprises this week, he asks if I would really like to dive the Thistlegorm, because he can arrange it.  Well is the Pope Catholic?  “You betcha”, I answer I a heartbeat.  “OK, let’s do it”, he says, and we start looking at our options.  I am supposed to fly from Sharm back to Cairo Friday night, so we’re thinking a couple of long deep dives that day might not be in my best interest.  But wait, he has Nitrox, can Afifi move my flight back?  That doesn’t look good so Afifi calls the next place I am going on my tour, to see if we can shorten that by a day to get back here.  Well no, they have a calendar full of great stuff for their special guest and now we are coming in mid-day rather than being there first thing in the morning, and yes it will really rock the apple cart if I try to cut a day out of there.  So that doesn’t sound like we want to mess with that!  Then the phone rings, and Afifi’s office has managed to move my Friday flight back to 9:30 at night, so we are good.  Friday it is!  I’m gushing as I thank Osama for his efforts, and Afifi for making mountains (or pyramids) move!

On the way back to the hotel, we stop at another market and I let “Daddy” take care of my alcoholic beverage needs for me – it’s good to have a “Daddy”!

Of course because we stayed in the town an additional night, and now are leaving, Afifi has to go down to the local Tourist Police station and get my “get out of Sharm El-Sheikh” card – friggin’ amazing to have so many petty rules and BS in place in a country that otherwise seems pretty modern.  More on that topic later for sure!

We check out of the Renaissance and enjoy an early morning 100 km hour-and-a half ride up the eastern shore to the town of Dahab. I take the time to attempt to update the blog, but we are in the land of the asphalt speed bump, and no town has more than Sharm El-Sheikh, so a few thousand typo’s later, I give up and enjoy the view. The ride and scenery is beautiful, in a desert barren wasteland sort of way.  All traffic on the coast road needs to be registered with the police so they supposedly know who is out there – of course, in reality, they don’t, but it sounds good.   As we enter the highway to Dahab, we come to the control station – OK, really there three-in-a-row control stations.  Step one, about a dozen soldiers and an equal number of Tourist Police, and we show them our permission slip to travel the coast road.  They want to keep it but Afifi argues NO and we get it back – not sure what that was all about, but again, the “rues” here are truly negotiable guidelines!  OK, we move up 75 feet to station #2, maybe a half-dozen Tourist Police all slinging AK-47’s and 9 mm side arms, and one sticks his head in the drivers window, does the customary handshake with Mohammed and Afifi (skips the obvious infidel, me) and we are good to go.  Go another 75 feet, where the army has a dozen more heavily armed guys in helmets standing around, and we give them a wave and pass through.  Maybe they are scaring some one, but I really don’t get a strong sense of unified national security here.

Camels Roam Freely on the Coast of Dahab....Old School Egypt!!

Camels Roam Freely on the Coast of Dahab....Old School Egypt!!

As we pass through the desert we begin to see actual Bedouin camps, shepherds and herds of animals in the fields.  I have no idea what these animals exist on for feed.  Talk about some primitive living, man there is nothing here!  OK, except piles of litter – the concept of a landfill or trash collection has not made it here yet, so you can imagine the result.  There is some scattered greenery here, indicative of some recent rain this winter, and one of the hazards here is flash flooding, since he ground is so porous when it rains it just runs, wreaking havoc and danger everywhere.  Of course we pass through two more police checkpoints on the way – help me understand – there is only one road, and one way in – how could these subsequent checkpoints ever discover anything different than what the entry points found?  Maybe a lot of tourists skydive in, I don’t know, but there must be some reason other than government job creation, dontcha’ think?

The IVS Adventure Tour bus finally rolls into the quiet seaside hamlet of Dahab.  The word Dahab actually means ‘gold’ which came from the effect of the sun shining on the waters surface and the industrial base is 100% travel & tourism dependent.  It had early historical significance due to its location as a port near Saudi Arabia and a good harbor.  Today there is no airport or ferry service so the only way in is via the highway, and there are only three of them that get here!  There are only five hotels here (that meet western standards) in this town so the crowds are non-existent. We pull into our home du jour, the Iberostar Dahab, and they are a bit less paranoid here, with no dog sniffing of our vehicle.

Our host here is Andreas ‘Andy’ Tischer and Hans Langer, owners of Dive In Dahab.  We met Andy last week when he came over to El Qusier to dive with us at Roots Camp, and the bonding was good and immediate.  He came here in 1998 from Germany and opened his dive center with partner Hans Lange and the business has grown steadily, helped in no small part from his partnership with a German travel agency.  I will be one of the first Americans to grace his operation, so the pressure’s on for me to leave a good “typical American” impression.  I’ll be doing my best indeed!

Andy meets us at the hotel ahead of time (remember, he is German) so I need to hustle and get ready – no rest for the weary here!!  We follow him out and he has a few stops planned.  The first, and most impressive, is the hyperbaric chamber, where he introduces me to the doctor, gives me a complete tour, and makes it clear that they are here to assist if needed and called upon.  It’s very comforting and very great to see that safety and health so high on his list of priorities.  From there we head towards the other side of the harbor, on dirt roads, and end up on a very long straight road to the beach – turns out this was the Israeli military air strip during the years of occupation.  Here we visit Miracle Lake, basically a Sinai version of Palau’s Jellyfish Lake, with a dozen of more endemic species of critters found here and her alone – neat to see!  We take in a fantastic beachfront view of Andy’s ‘House Reef’, stretching about 4 miles down the coast and 100% accessible and dive-able.  Impressive to say the least!

We head over to the dive center and Andy personally introduces me to every one of his staff members, with a genuine smile and a sincere handshake exchange with each.  I meet 21 year old Matthias, who is here doing a six-month divemaster candidate internship, and Angelika, a 34 year old neurosurgeon from Köln, Germany who is here taking her digital underwater photography course from Andy, both of whom will be diving with me the next few days.  Overall the staff here at Dive In Dahab is like family for sure, a real different sort of operation than so many of the other operations here.  There is no caste system and everyone pitches in.  The team energy is high, and Andy assures me that is anyone starts so exhibit slacker qualities, the team either fixes them or votes them off the island, the sense of solidarity is that strong.  He gives me the complete tour, triple compressor system, classrooms, barbecue and socializing area, even where the all-important “deco beers” are kept on ice!  No “Daddy” needed here!

From there we walk over to Marine Biology lab that Andy and Hans have constructed next door to the dive center.  It is a completely self-contained research facility, built with private funding and support from several universities to conduct marine biology and similar programs for research and educational venues.  I meet Dr. Marc Steinegger who is currently working on doctoral thesis in marine animal behavior with the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland.  His particular area of study is cooperative hunting, such as that exhibited by goatfish as they work sand patches alongside each other, kicking out prey and then directing it towards their neighbor’s mouths.  He has an entire marine eco-system set up complete with underwater video recording systems here in the lab, and he demonstrates the behavior for me by dropping a small crab down a pipe into the tank. Sure enough the goatfish gather around and take turns batting at the crab with their barbels until he is popped out of the pipe and eaten by one of the fish.  It’s funny but we witness this behavior often on the reef and never truly recognized that it was as organized as it is between the goatfish.  Part of the practical aspect of this study is that although cooperative behavior, and hunting, is often observed with mammals such as coyotes and dolphins, it was never thought that fish, further down the evolutionary chain of development, were capable of such advanced behavior.  Pretty cool to see live and being documented right here!

The lab also hosts educational youth camps year round, with students from ages 10 to 18 coming to spend two to six weeks on site, working in the lab, the lake, and the ocean to learn more about the ocean and all that goes on within it.  Check out the lab’s website to learn how you might get involved with this great endeavor!

After that exciting portion of the tour, Andy takes me out to me meet my driver for today, Salem Hassan Hamdi.  Salem, like all of Dive In Dahab’s drivers, owns his own nicely kept Toyota pickup.  After experimenting for a few years with a company-owned fleet, Andy decided to hire a team of drivers, each of who own their trucks and who take very nice care of them.  That solved a lot of maintenance and expense issues and raised the bar for guys who want to drive for Andy.

Salem is excited; as his wife is due to have their first baby in the next day or two.  He has a pretty decent command of English, so he shares a bit of his life story with me.  His wife comes from a big family, and he tells me how great their wedding was, with over 2,000 guests coming to the wadi, and a dozen camels and fifty goats slaughtered for the feast.  He tells me how excited his friends were, with the traditional display of joy, firing thousands of rounds into the air from their AK-47 automatic rifles.  I point out how that can be dangerous, with all those bullets falling back down from the sky, and he says yes they know that, so they angle the guns down now and don’t shoot them straight up.  Ah, evolution at work! I’m thinking you just don’t want to be at the party next door!

Andy is really excited about the diving he has to offer so it’s time to get this party started!  Our first site will be right out front on his house reef; at a site he calls “The Islands”.  We are planning a “normal” dive, 60 ft max for 60 minutes max, with clockwork like precision on the navigation, depth and timing – what else would you expect from the Germans?  Andy, Matthias, Angelika and I wade in from the beach until we hit a hole about 4 ft deep, where we don our fins, and then drop right vertically down into a cavern that leads out to a sandy area inside the outer reef.  I love a dive that starts off with an adrenalin rush like that! This site is a series of coral pillars and structures, with huge crevices and valleys between, and a vertical profile of about 40 ft.  It is stunning to put it mildly.  There is so much variety here and healthy corals that is beyond description.  Andy takes me out to an area that was until a few years ago used by local dynamite fisherman, and the destruction to the reef structure is so apparent, with gaping holes in the pillar corals showing how they were blown apart by the indiscriminate blasts of the fisherman.  Thank goodness that has ended, and thanks to the overall health of the surrounding reef, this area is recovering at am amazing pace.  It is truly beautiful what nature, unaffected by man, can do to cure our sins.   We surface exactly 60 minutes after we went in….are you surprised?

OK, now that we have that “normal” dive behind us, it is time to ramp it up a bit!  We drive up the road a little bit to a site called “The Canyon”.  This is a little north of the center of town, and another beautiful site.  Before we go in, Andy asks me if I have a light.  Well yes I do, showing him my OMS canister light.  “Very nice”, he says, as he pulls his canister light out of his bag.  “Is that an mb-sub?” I ask, and he replies, “Yes it – seven years old and only serviced once!  They are the best in my opinion.”  Well what a small world, once again!  I tell him that mb-sub founder and designer Michael Bienhaus is a personal friend and he tells me that is who personally serviced his light for him when he went home to Germany.  I then explain to him that we are the North American distributor for the mb-sub line, and he is blown away.

Alright, dive industry group hug over, it is time to get wet!  Here again we walk on in, and then drop down the face of the wall, to a depth of 200 ft, where we enter the bottom end of a narrow cut in the reef.  It is not quite a cave, being open at various times to the sky, but at other times closed over completely.  We follow the sloping floor towards the shore, finally exiting at around 50 ft.  Way cool indeed!  Such dramatic scenery and views, with a bright overhead sun filtering down through the holes in the roof, really make it a surreal dive.  The narcosis probably helped a bit too!  Once we emerge, we re-connect with the other two, who did not come down to the depth with us.  Angelika is taking photos for her class, so Andy works with her while Matthias and I swim alongside.  What’s this swimming towards me, some sort of flounder?  No, by golly, it is an electric ray, just cruising right over to check me out!  According to most books, they have a charge of about 400,000 volts, but he is so cute, I am thinking, “How bad can this hurt?”  No, I did not carry this experiment any further forward, but must admit I did put it on the bucket list!  We finally surface after 50 minutes of bottom time, again smiling ear to ear with what we just experienced.

It’s lunch time now, so where better to eat than at the local Bedouin restaurant on the beach?  There are plenty of them here, with little huts with pillows and low tables (no chairs in this culture!) and an offering of local coffees, tees and food.  The place we choose is one of Andy’s favorite, and the owner puts a nice spread out for us, a rice-based dish with chicken, lamb or tuna in it (plus some unknowns for me to pick out).  It is perfect after our dive, and we are refreshed.

In fact so refreshed that we are good for a third dive!  We head to the middle of downtown Dahab, right on the water, to an area known as “The Lighthouse” after an old navigational aid that used to exist here.  We pass by about two dozen dive retailers, none of which offer dives or training (part of the unwritten law here, kinda like the Dahab mafia).  Then we get to the waterfront.  There are 54 dive centers in Dahab, and I think about 52 of them are located on the properties that ring this harbor area call the lighthouse.  Andy explains that this site offers year round access even if they are having storms and that most of the local training takes place here.  There is also snorkeling and swimming, plus a few other water sports.  OK, I am thinking, the Dutch Springs of Dahab!

Well I could not have been further from the truth!  The moment we put our heads under water, there was a snake eel looking up out of the sand at me!  Cool!  We swam a little further out, saw more cool stuff, crocodile fish, pepper and giant moray eels, a big octopus, shrimp, crinoids coming out for the night and opening up on the reef, and so much more.  We came upon a nice commemorative plaque that the local dive association had made and sunk in memory of the martyrs of the January 25th revolution, and that was pretty touching – ok, well except for the part where they spelled Egyptian wrong!  But I got the drift!  We explore the wall down to 150 ft, but Andy needs to head up early, as his Uwatec is giving him 13 minutes of deco obligation (versus zero for my Cochran) so we spend the second half of the dive in a “same ocean buddy” sort of mode.  We surface together after 55 minutes and it’s nothing but high fives all around for another great dive!  Back to the dive shop to rinse the gear and Salem takes me to the hotel, where I decide to relax a bit before dinner with a brew at the bar and a little blogging.

The bartender and bar manager come over and talk to me, asking where I am from.  When I tell them America, it is handshakes and smiles all around.  They are thrilled I am here (how come I don’t get that same reception at the Harleysville Hotel?), and upon learning that, keep filling my glass to the delight of a couple of Polish girls on holiday having a party of their own at the other end of the bar, flirting and smiling. I am like a prisoner here, with the Muslim bar staff doing their best to lead me down a road of potential international debauchery – I need to get out of this place!!  Whew, I manage to finally escape unscathed, bid my goodbyes to everyone, and head up to my room to crash.

Technically, we’re still diving…

Wednesday morning and it’s time to meet Andy at 7:00 for an early start.  We have a technical dive planned for later this morning but we want to get a base-loading of nitrogen in the tissues first before we start throwing helium in – all part of my never-ending DAN medical research.   We dive in at a site at the very far north end of the road (if you call it that) known as The Bells, adjacent to the world-famous Blue Hole, which we will dive a little later today.   This is a beautiful remote area with crystal clear water and viz forever.  One of the most interesting features is actually ashore, where the towering bluffs along the coastline here are actually made of coral skeletons, pushed up by tectonic plate action from the bottom of the Aqaba Gulf some 80,000 years ago – just another wonderful example of our earth at work!

The Entrance to the Bells Just North of The Blue Hole

The Entrance to the Bells Just North of The Blue Hole

OK, focus back on the water now Dave! We slip into a crevice that drops out down and out to the reef at about 150 ft, and from there we work our way south along the outside fringing reef that makes up the seaward side of the Blue Hole.  I drop down to about 220 ft and work my way along, slowly decreasing the depth as we head south.  Over the top of the Blue Hole reef we go and then a nice blue-water swim through the center of the hole to cap off a great 38-minute dive.

The 80 Foot Long Chute of The Bells...very impressive!

The 80 Foot Long Chute of The Bells...very impressive!

Now we head back to the dive center to grab the rest of my gear for a “real” technical dive with Dahab Divers.  There we meet Tom Steiner, the owner, his assistant Audrey, and two students that are looking forward to completing their TDI Extended Range program this morning.  We get our gasses analyzed, and run the dive plan through Deco Planner software.  My bottom mix is 18% O2 and 30% Helium, so we plan our maximum depth, deco stops and total run time.  I have two 80 CF sling bottles of deco gas; yes a bit of an overkill, but you know how they’re thinking – “new guy, might be a heavy breather!”  One contains 32% EAN and the other 70%, with gas switch depths of 120 ft and 40 ft planned.  We drive back up to Blue Hole and holy smokes we get caught in the morning “traffic jam” as herd after herd of camels are being led down the road to greet the tourists arriving from Sharm, eager for their hour-and-a-half camel ride up the coast to the little fishing village of Ras Abu Galum (named after the cactus-like plant that can hold vital water supplies for years in between rains).

It’s pretty funny seeing the camels that are not kept in pens, as they have a rope tied between their two front legs.  This limits their range, so you don’t have to look so far when you are collecting your camels.  I am thinking a fence or a leash might be an idea, but don’t want to scare the locals with thoughts of innovation!

e Blue Hole in Dahab-Just Like on Belize but this Hole is Shore Dive

e Blue Hole in Dahab-Just Like on Belize but this Hole is Shore Dive

Finally we are at the dive site, and I have driven there in Dive In Dahab’s pickup truck with Ibrahim, a driver who has worked for over 12 years with Andy – you gotta love that long-term workforce stability!  There are close to a hundred vans, pickups and jeeps all lined up along the shore, all in the traditional local color of WHITE – how on earth are we going to find our technical diver friends?  Wait – of course, here they come, in the all-BLACK pickup!  True techies to the core!  It’s funny, all of these guys have additional lead strapped to their tanks, and I am feeling a bit under-dressed.  They ask what I need in weights, and I say none, and they are amazed – how can you maintain your buoyancy?  I don’t know, just watch me I suppose!  Sorry, I should have given them a more technical answer, but hey, it’s me!  Weighting chat over, we gear up and I buddy up with Audrey while Tom takes his two students in tow.  The plan is to drop in inside the hole, descend to about 170 ft or so, and pass through the dramatic archway that leads out to the open sea.  Unfortunately the viz inside is not as great as it was outside this morning, but still we drop, and Audrey and I enter the archway.  Looking at the depth and the potential for dis-orientation due to narcosis, it is no wonder there are a line of memorial plaques along the seawall remembering many of the divers that have perished here.  Funny thing is, most of them are Russian – must say something for that vodka consumption during surface intervals that is a common practice among them.

Traversing the Arch in the Blue Hole with Plenty of Tech Gear in Tow

Traversing the Arch in the Blue Hole with Plenty of Tech Gear in Tow

Audrey and I cruise down to 210 ft then work our way further south, spending 15 minutes at the depth before beginning a slow ascent.  My Cochran shows a first mandatory deco stop at 90 ft for a minute, but that is due to the helium in the mix, not the nitrogen.  We switch gasses at 120 ft as we work our way up the reef, and then continue to zig & zag back & forth, slowly ascending, off-gassing as we go, until our second switch t 40 ft.  From here we can swim over the top of the reef to the inside, and now enjoy the view from the other side as we spend another half hour floating along.  I take advantage of this time to do a little Project Aware work, accumulating quite a pile of water bottles, coral-choking towels, and various other bits of debris in my arms before finally, at the 60 minute mark, we surface.  Great dive and a great team to dive with, even with that black pick up truck!  As we break down our gear we do a bit of chatting, and wouldn’t you know it, but Audrey spent two years working in King of Prussia, 10 miles (14 km) from Indian Valley Scuba.  Amazing!

The Coral Covered "Saddle" of the Blue Hole

The Coral Covered "Saddle" of the Blue Hole

Andy and Angelika have been diving alongside us, albeit at a shallower depth, as she continued to work on her underwater digital photography skills.  We connect after the dive and head back to the shop to re-arrange the gear and get another dive in.  I really love this guy’s passion for diving, and am truly looking forward to introducing him to more of the IVS family of divers.  Our final location for the day is Um El Sid, a great easy shore entry on the far south end of Dahab, technically outside the city limits and located in the Nabquec National Park area.   We decide to keep this one shallower, no reverse profiling for David today, so 160 ft is the max depth, and we work our way up and along the reef from there.  Lots to see, huge gorgonians, schools of Red Sea Bannerfish, clown fish, jumping which was really tiny shrimp, lionfish (it’s OK, they are natural here) and more.   Finally, 50 minutes later, it is time to head to the land of the mammals again, and we call it a day.  Not too shabby at all, three dives, about 600 ft of total depth and three hours of bottom time – life is good!

Emperor Angelfish at Um El Sid in Dahab

Emperor Angelfish at Um El Sid in Dahab

Hans & Andy decide to throw an impromptu barbecue tonight at the dive center so it’s time for a quick shower, arrange my growing locks, and throw on another low-key Hawaiian short to blend in with the locals.  I invite Afifi to the party, but seems he has been a bit busy today; visiting the Tourism Police station three times already to get “permission“ for me to travel back to Sharm tomorrow night.  Hold on a minute while I climb onto my virtual soapbox here – I have been in Eastern European countries during the 80’s and early 90’s when communism was still in vogue, and the way the game was played was you secured a visa to visit the country, and once there, you could enjoy yourself, spend money, and see the land.  And this is from the real big guys with real big guns.  Here we are with a bunch of AK-47 toting camel-riding cops and they are so friggin’ paranoid about one stinking tourist traveling back down the road 60 miles to where I was already approved to be that they need the president to approve my ‘permission slip’ – but wait – there is NO president.  What a friggin’ circus this is for a so-called National Security program – these guys are afraid of their own shadow and tell me, where do these forms we file “in triplicate” ever eventually end up????  Heck, even the TSA could trump these guys!

OK, back off my soapbox now, Andy picks me up at that hotel and we head to the party.  There I meet a bunch of Dive In Dahab’s guests, and they have put on a nice barbecue spread.  Burgers (meat source unknown, but definitely not pork), baked potatoes, salads, veggies, and all the fixin’s.  We have a great time and I really enjoy this social aspect of this particular dive center – it’s got sort of a “Cheers” atmosphere from the TV show where you want to come and hang around. Finally, enough burgers and beers consumed, I head back to the hotel, steering well clear of the bar and the Polish girls!

Thursday and Andy has planned a day of boat diving for us.  Early get-together at the dive center, load the gear, and we drive from there over to the town dock, or jetty as they are called here.  This is a much smaller harbor than any of the previous ones we have visited, with about a dozen boats in total, and a two-man security force, one plainclothes cop and a uniformed Tourism Police officer.  We have our Egyptian version of a “hall pass” in hand, our permission slip, so we pass on through, with no ID’s, bag checks, or any other sort of security procedure – gotta love the consistency!  We board our boat, the Romy Star, another 80 ft twin-engine nicely finished day boat.

Forty minutes later we arrive at our dive site, Gaber El Bint, where we anchor and plan to do two dives.  We have a few other passengers on board, so Andy will be briefing the entire boat, then diving as my buddy.  He draws another typical highly detailed dive site plan, with divemaster-candidate Matthias watching intently as the master’s hand works.  That is another compliment to the depth and detail that Dive in Dahab put into their training programs – each DM candidate is required to maintain detailed logs, site maps, and time/depth graphs for each dive they do here.  This is just one aspect of how Andy truly prepares his candidates to conduct themselves as true professionals wherever their scuba career takes them.

With the boat secured on the mooring, we head on in to begin our dive, starting in the northward direction.  There is a truly dramatic drop-off that is just screaming my name, so answer I must!  I drop down and spend the first 10 minutes cruising at 200 ft, then work my way back up, finally enjoying the return leg to the boat on top of the outer reef at 30 ft.  One more phenomenal dive and another greater 50 minutes under the sea!

A little break time and relaxing on board, and for this second dive Matthias is going to be my dive guide, with Andy observing.   OK, as we gear up, I realize that this “supervision” will fall under what PADI terms “indirect”, meaning that poor Andy is too chilled to get back in the water!  Major woos!  Matthias & I head in, and get another great 60 minutes underwater while enjoy the southern end of the reef down to 100 ft.  We also conduct a bit of a Project Aware dive here at the end, collecting a dozen or so plastic water bottles and other bits of trash & debris off the reef.

Another great day boat lunch is served up and we fill our bellies while warming up in the sunshine on this perfect day.  We’ve got one more drop planned today, so we head back north towards the town to do our drift dive at a site called Shahira.  The boat captain drops us a bit north of the reef we intended to cruise over, but you know what?  The viz is forever, the water temp is good, there are no currents and we are diving – life is good!  A little more Project Aware work, and another 100 ft’er, with 40 minutes of bottom time to add to the logbook.

Back to the dock now, unload the boat, back to the dive center to rinse gear & say goodbyes (plus enjoy that mandatory deco beer or two), and then I get whisked back to the hotel, rinse off, and pack my gear (loosely) for the ride back to Sharm El-Sheikh.

Time for one more great wreck…

Permission slip in hand, we roll into Sharm and head directly to our hotel for the night, the Concorde.  Our stay here will be very short, which is unfortunate, because this might be the nicest hotel / resort we have stayed in yet.  Really nice, huge multi-level dining area, live music and shows, nice rooms, great grounds – but except for a quick dinner with Afifi, it is all for naught, cause I have a 6 a.m. show up time at the dock for our final day of diving on the Thistlegorm.

Mohammed and Afifi are up and ready to drive “Miss Daisy” to Travco Harbor for our departure.  It’s a little early for security, so they just sleepily wave us through, all the way to the dock.  Nope, no passports or ID, no permission, just basically “have a nice day”.  I am sensing the supervisor must come on around 8:00 and I am sure it gets sticky after that.  So, terrorists and other ne’er-do-wells – the early bird gets the worm here!

We board another nice day boat, but this one is even better than all those before it – it has a steel hull, along with twin engines, which gives it an actual cruising speed in excess of ten knots – woo hoo!  I am thinking about water skiing here today!  I meet my dive buddy for today, Pharaoh Divers’ manager and technical diving instructor, Yann Vautrin, a Frenchman from the Brittany area.  He’s been in country nine years primarily focused on technical diving and training for Osama.  He sees my gear, complete with an extra clip or two, and some color, and comes over and thanks me for not being a ‘cult-based’ (wink wink) tech diver.  He just spent a week with a group of them; all dressed identically in black and one-piece harnesses, and basically described them as serious wanna-be’s hell bent on suicide. Nice!  They were aghast at the fact that Yann smoked, chastised him for it and went on about how it violated the cult philosophy and rules.  But, he said, they had no qualms about downing more than their fair share of beers, and acting upon the results, at the end of each day of diving.  Just funny to hear that perspective from an unbiased third party.

It’s a two-and-a-half hour ride to the wreck so we enjoy a nice breakfast on board on the way out.  And I re-unite with an old-new friend, Ligia, the Instructor from Pharaoh Divers, who is also on board and leading a group of divers on the wreck.  Our plan is to let the recreational divers splash and then go about setting up our gear.  As they are nearing the end of their dive, we’ll go in, hopefully having the entire wreck to ourselves while everyone else is up doing their surface intervals.  Of course we are counting on few to no other boats here, but with our early start and the fastest boat in the harbor that should be the case.  Yann tells me that sometimes during the busiest summer seasons there may be upwards of 25 boats, with 30 divers each, out here diving this wreck – not a thought that excites me for sure!

A little history about our dive site – The Thistlegorm was a British transport ship, just built in 1940, and was sailing from Cape Town, South Africa, full of munitions and supplies for the British troops in Egypt who were, at that time, getting their tea-drinking butts kicked by the Axis armies.  It was attacked at anchor in October 1941, by German dive-bombers operating out of Crete and who were actually searching for a transport ship with 3,500 Australian soldiers aboard.  Good for the Aussie’s as they were not found, but bad for the crew of the Thistlegorm, 8 of who died during the attack and sinking.  The boat went to its watery grave before it could get it’s cargo unloaded, and came to rest in an upright position on sand at 110 ft.  In spite of a fire on board during the attack, the ship, first “discovered” by Jacques Cousteau in 1956 (like no one knew it was there?) is virtually intact, as is the cargo, which includes small arms, ammunition, grenades, a couple of tanks, two locomotives, a few trucks and all the other standard war goodies you find on these sort of wrecks.  It was approx 500 ft long, and has grown a little over time as some sections have opened up or spread out, but essentially it is the size of the Spiegel Grove, just not so “sterile”.

We get about to analyzing the gases, and as requested, we have 36% for a bottom mix and 50% for our deco gas, so my plan of reducing my nitrogen loading prior to a couple of long international flights is looking good.   As we pull up to the wreck site our prayers have been answered – there are no other boats here!  We gear up and splash, and can look right down at this great wreck below us.  We drop down, get oriented, and then head off into the sand to the port side.  Sure enough, just as Yann predicted, we come upon one of the steam locomotives that was blown off the wreck by the explosion, coming to rest a couple of hundreds yards from the wreck, sitting upright and pretty in the sand.  Strange to see it sitting there, but it is picture perfect with great viz and a bright sun lighting things up from above.  The current is fairly strong so we pass on heading further away from the wreck, and work our way back in to explore it.  By now we are alone as all the other “survival divers” have exhausted their air and have gone up on the boat.

If I may take a moment to digress, as a diver who travels quite a bit and gets to see a lot of other folks diving, it is as obvious as day and night when divers are well trained and confident in themselves, their skills and their abilities.  That is always the case with Indian Valley Scuba divers and it is so refreshing to see those same traits exhibited by other non-IVS divers elsewhere.  Today’s divers on our boat did not fit into that category at all, hence my “survival diver” comment.  I call them that because it is amazing that they actually manage to survive dive after dive, and keep coming back to the sport to roll the dice again.

OK, back off the soapbox, the dive is fantastic from beginning to end.  We explore every open space above and below the decks on this wreck.  Row after row of light and heavy trucks, cases upon cases of Enfield rifles, airplane parts, hundreds of motorcycles, locomotives and rail cars, ammunition, and plenty of other cargo.  We see at least three different species of Nudibranchs, a colorful flatworm, a huge crocodile fish, the biggest scorpion fish I have ever seen, eels, and a blind shrimp meticulously cleaning the hole it shares with a goby, using it’s antenna on the goby’s tail to let it know the coast is clear or not to come out of the hole with trash & debris – pretty cool.

Coal Tender on the Deck of the WWII Wreck of Thistlegorm

Coal Tender on the Deck of the WWII Wreck of Thistlegorm

We surface after an hour-plus at 100 ft, and come back on board just as the rest of the gang are jumping back in for their second tour.  The main salon smells good as the crew is getting lunch started so we’ll have some good eating this afternoon for sure.  As soon as the recreational divers re-board lunch is served and it is another winner.  No one loses weight here while diving!

BSA Motorcycles Lined Up in Cargo Hold #1 of Thistlegorm Wreck

BSA Motorcycles Lined Up in Cargo Hold #1 of Thistlegorm Wreck

We head back towards the port, and there seems to be a certain sense of urgency as the ship is making good headway heading into the docking area, weaving between the lines of boats tied up or idling blowing the horn like a cab driver, and just generally showing a bit more urgency than I have come to expect here.  We are being waved into the dock, then waved off, then waved to dock at the end so the captain is pulling it in alongside another boat, which is great, but we are backwards and cannot get off the boat.  The captain figures that out and we move again, dodging other 60 to 100 ft boats all doing the same thing.  Well it turns out that there has been a law since the Six Day War about boats navigating on the Red Sea after 5:00 in the afternoon, so if you are caught out you get hammered with a fine.  So none of the boats want that, so it’s a mad rush to touch the dock before the bewitching hour.  The Tourism Police commander, so obviously absent this morning, is on duty and in fact standing right on the dock, acknowledging the boats as they come in.   What a circus, and so unnecessary – these guys need a unified scuba industry association to get together and get some of these antiquated laws fixed!

But before we disembark, Yann tells me he has a surprise for me – this is like Christmas every day here with surprises!  He has co-authored a book on the Thistlegorm and wants me to have a signed copy.  But he has already called in to the other author to bring a copy to the dock, meet me, and sign the book together.  I am touched by this gesture, and know that I have made the right contacts for Red Sea adventures on this trip.

One last look at security – lots of it…

Afifi and Mohammad are awaiting me in the parking lot, so once we get our book signing out of the way, I jump in the van to head to Cairo.  We have opted (wisely) to blow off the flight tonight, and since Mohammad was already driving to Cairo with the van, I suggested that we just ride with him.  Healthier for me, cheaper for Afifi – everyone’s a winner.  As we leave Sharm, we pass through a major security checkpoint, and Afifi tells me to make sure I have my passport and travel visa ready because these guys will be checking it.  We pull up, and get the customary wave from the collection of soldiers and cops there.  That was interesting, I note to Afifi, and question why we needed the passport out.  He said normally they would have gotten up and come to the car to check out papers – I am thinking the operative words here are “gotten up”.  No one is expending any more energy than they need to at these security checkpoints. In fact, over the next 500 or so kilometers, we must have passed through another twenty of them without incident.  I ask myself out loud, “Is anyone really fooled into thinking anything is getting done here?”

But as we approach the Suez Canal, there is road construction, so they detour the traffic to a short stretch of road that is, in Afifi’s words, “Army territory”.  Whatever that means, I am not sure, but we pull up to a couple of old 55 gallon drums in the dark, and there is one soldier in uniform and one cop in street clothes, who stops the van and asks who we are.  Well hell’s bells, we are the traffic that was just diverted fro the road construction, I want to shout out to him – but I refrain.  So he takes the drivers ID and our “Get our of Sharm” permission slip and gets on his cell phone, shouting into the hone and carrying on like we had the stolen nuclear devices in the back of our car.  Then he is at the window shouting at Afifi who is shouting back, and then he is shouting on the cell phone again – so friggin’ unnecessary so subjective is this whole security process.  Finally some conclusion is reached, our ID is handed back, and we continue.  At each of these stops when asked who is in the back, they simply say “an American” and that satisfies whoever is asking.  I question Afifi about what a “bad” nationality would be, and he can’t give me a clear answer, so I wonder what is the point of asking at all?  It’s back to that Mickey and Goofy thing again.

As we get even closer to the canal here is another checkpoint with a scattering of Egyptian army armored vehicles here to frighten the weak of heart.  We are directed to pull off into a parking lot, where again, so supervisory type questions our driver, and a pair of foot soldiers open the sliding door of the van and stare me down.  Guess they were waiting for me to blink or something, that would have given me away for sure! One is holding a mine detector – yeppers that will work well on a steel vehicle – rocket scientist he is not!  The other says something to me that I don’t understand, so I shrug my shoulders and say that I don’t speak Arabic, so he says something else, also not in English, I shrug again, then finally it clicks and he asks where I am going.  Well my little gun-toting genius, friggin’ Cairo, where else does this road go, is what I want to say, but I limit it to “Cairo”.  We must have passed the test cause he smiles, waves goodbye and closes the door – that was one tough test for sure!  Can you sense that I might have exceeded my checkpoint congeniality limit by this point in the trip?  We continue on our merry way, through the Suez Canal tunnel, and into Cairo, where I am staying at the Iberotel at the airport.  Time to re-pack the bags, post the blog and get ready for my flight home in the morning!

What a fantastic week this has been, not only from the cultural and social aspects, but the diving has been phenomenal – 28 dives logged, all but six of them deeper (or a lot deeper) than 100 ft, with five deeper than 200 ft, and 1,520 minutes of total bottom time – I am so loving the Red Sea! And looking forward to coming back in 2012 & 2013!

So I get up and check my email for any late breaking news, and guess what – there’s something here from my friends at Delta Airlines! Yes, there might be yet another surprise on this never-ending adventure.  I open it up and am, to say the least, shocked!  My 7:35 a.m. Air France (a Delta partner) flight to Paris will now be leaving at 10:00, and, they note, with my 1:55 arrival time at Charles de Gaulle airport, I may miss my 1:40 connecting flight to New York.  May???  Not sure what you’re smoking in your shisha, buy I know if I land fifteen minutes after my connecting flight is taking off, then I have missed it.  So thank goodness for Skype; I dial up Delta and get a Medallion desk representative on the phone.  “Hmmm,” he says, “I’m not sure why they did that. Yep looks like you are going to miss your flight, but they re-booked on the same flight the next day”.  Well not that a night in Paris doesn’t sound inviting, but I’ve been away on this adventure for 14 days already and it is time to go home before everyone forgets who I am.  “Who would be paying for that night in Paris”, I inquire, and he says, “I’m not sure.  Delta didn’t change this ticket”.  Great, now they are going to fight over me.  “Look”, I say “what other options do I have to get to America today?”  Well we run through a lot of possibilities, but this late in the day, Philadelphia is not looking good.  So he rebooks me on a Cairo/Paris/New York/Philadelphia itinerary, and agrees Delta will put me up in NYC tonight, and I can catch my flight to Philly in the morning.   I can decide once I get to JFK if I want to rent a car and head home tonight or just relax and get there in the morning.

So my escort Romi calls and I give him the news and we adjust our morning a little.  Time now to enjoy a nice breakfast at the hotel, then we all pile into Mohammad’s van for one last little ride, to the airport.  Romi gets me inside, past the outer security ring, and the inner one, and to the ticket counter.  He picks the friendliest French girl at the counter, and I can see why his friends’ nickname for him is ‘Romeo’. The ticket agent re-issues my tickets, takes all three of my 30 kilo (70 pound) bags, gets me aisle seats with no one sitting next to me, and stamps my credentials for admission to the Air France lounge at the airport.  OK, not bad for a morning that showed all signs of starting off terribly.  I hit the lounge for a bit, then head down, take the bus to my plane, and get to enjoy (endure?) another 4½ hours of French-flavored service – oh boy!

Now I’m not one to bitch, but let me tell you, the “Let them eat cake” mentality did not die with Marie Antoinette* 250 years ago, it is alive and well with the flight attendants that Air France employs today.  If you miss your beverage service cause your eyes were closed, it is like pulling teeth to get them to pony up a complimentary drink.  Ask for another?  You’d swear they were paying for it themselves.  Note to travelers – avoid Economy Cabin service on Air France flights if at all possible, or pack your own snacks for onboard.

Penmanship, and how it threatens Americas borders…

We finally land in New York, clear immigration (but not before being chastised for not using good penmanship on my customs declaration, so I had to wait while twiddle dum asked me “what town is this?” “what state is this?”, etc as he felt the need to painstakingly re-write the answers and fill in the blanks on my form, knowing full well that you simply hand this card to his brother, twiddle dummer, on the way out, and they never, ever go anyplace other than the trash.  But he is satisfied that this important national security process is complete, and I am given the green light to come back home.

Next step – with neatly filled our customs declaration form in hand, I walk over to claim my baggage at the carousel.  Jockeying for position with all the other bag grabbers that feel a need to crowd the belt, I snag one bag, wait a little while, grab another, and wait for the third.  I wait, it’s easier to see the bags on the belt now cause the crowd is thinning out, and I wait…yes you got it, no soup for me today!  Bag #3 is M.I.A.  Here’s a friendly-looking gal with a clipboard, so I walk up to her and she turns to me and says, “Are you missing a bag with a claim ticket ending in 0138?”  Her intuitiveness amazes me, and she continues, “I’m looking for it too.”   OK, that doesn’t necessarily sound good, but I play along.  Turns out that bag came up missing on the manifest when they matched up passengers and luggage on the flight from Paris, so they’ve got an APB out on my bag.  “Head over to the Air France office when you clear customs”, she says, “and I’ll meet you there.”  OK, fair enough, I do as directed (I am such a rule follower) and hand my neatly filled out form to the robot who is working at customs, he slaps it, without even glancing at it, on the huge pile of other blue customs declarations forms, and says, “Have a nice day.”  I just shake my head again…

So I saunter into the Air France baggage claim office, and meet Gabrielle and Heftzi.  In pops the girl with the clip board so I’m ready to start the battle, but no, there will be none of that here today.  All the customer service that Air France has surgically removed from their flight attendants, has been implanted into the staff here in the baggage service office!  These guys are amazing, and since I sense I am in a good place, I mention that one of my bags that did arrive has been somewhat man-handled by the folks on the ground and damaged.  Well while Gabrielle works on my lost bag issue, Heftzi comes out and says let’s see your damaged bag!  The line is starting to form a little bit but these two ladies stay focused so taking care of me, and before you know it, my missing bag has been found (or course it was found in Genoa, Italy – don’t ask!) and my damaged bag claim filed, and they tell me they will watch my luggage and give me directions of who to go see to get fed and out up in a hotel for the night – first class!  I’m feeling pretty good here, so I head upstairs and meet with Roberta at the Delta/Air France office, and explain my predicament.  She shakes her head and says “yes, Air France has a habit of doing this; changing flight times and screwing Delta’s customers with connection.”  But she takes care of me, gets me a nice room at a local Doubletree Hotel, gives me $30 worth of meal vouchers for dinner, and leaves me with a smile.  I go down and get my bags which have been under the watchful eyes of Heftzi and Gabrielle, they point in me in the direction of the Air Train that I need to take to catch the hotel shuttle, and it’s farewell to all.

I roll my cart across the street and take the elevator up to the train platform and I’ve got a few minutes to wait for the train.  I notice a group of women that are in need of some help; it is obvious from how they are asking folks there in the train station and not getting the answers they need.  I sense their frustration and ask if I can be of some assistance.  Well, it turns out they are here from Germany, actually on their way home from a tour of China, and are in the same situation as me, being stuck overnight here in NY.  They don’t understand their directions and no one wanted to step up and help, so ambassador-at-large that I am, I decide to see what I can do.  Well over the course of getting them on the train (same one as me) and to the hotel shuttles to their lodging, we chat, and they are divers also, and talked about the Red Sea (they have dove it) and in fact are going to Bonaire a week after our trip in June.  They take a photo of me with them for their memory book, and head off to their hotel.  What a small, small world it truly is!

Well my shuttle is here, the pillow will feel good tonight, and I’ll be home in the morning.  What a most wonderful adventure this has been!  I can’t wait to back.

The end!

*Note:  This statement is historically inaccurate, was actually said 100 years before her by Marie-Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV.

Scouting Report from Bonaire – Amy & Brian’s visit

Note: This blog entry is brought to you by Amy & Brian Dunn, members of the Indian Valley Scuba diving family!

Well after Brian spent the last 18 months recovering from Achilles Reattachment and Knee Surgeries – we were both itching for a vacation and had the urge to submerge!  We spent the last few months of 2010 trying to decide where to go….We have done a bunch of Caribbean diving to date in the Bahamas, Jamaica, Bermuda, Cozumel, St.Lucia, Caymans, Tulum and of course with IVS/Amoray in Key Largo……

But once we heard all the great comments and feedback from Dave, Bev, Brian, Roy and Butch regarding last summer’s IVS Trip to Bonaire – we had narrowed the list of destinations fairly quickly to between Belize and Bonaire….then the direct flight from Newark and more great feedback from Brian at the Shop convinced us to book a week in Bonaire staying at the Harbour Village Beach Club (http://www.harbourvillage.com/)  The holidays brought the Dunn family some much needed new dive gear and it was clear that Santa had stopped at the IVS Shop to gather regs, computers and other goodies to fill the stockings!

So now we had the reservations and new gear but since it had been a while since we had been in the water we took Bev and Dave’s invitation to share some pool time with them at the Harleysville YMCA one Thursday evening.  There we took the opportunity to practice some skills and familiarize ourselves with our new equipment (especially the Epic Dive Computers.)  Satisfied and wet we stepped out into the 11 degree weather confident we were prepared for our trip now just 3 weeks away to Bonaire.

Fast forward to our departure night of Friday February 25th……..we took a red-eye direct flight from Newark Airport to Bonaire.  With the one hour time difference we arrived in Bonaire at 5:30am Saturday morning.   Upon arrival we quickly got our checked baggage and headed out to be greeted by the agents booked for the airport transfers by the concierge at the Hotel.  15 minutes later we were pulling into the gates of the resort and being escorted to a temporary room they had set up for us to relax in until we could check into our Beachfront Suite at 11:30am.  Amy and I relaxed from the overnight flight for a few hours and then headed to breakfast.  By 11:30am we had checked into our suite and taken delivery of the pickup we had rented for the week.  Now we figured we should head to the on-site dive shop – Adventure Diving and introduce ourselves.  After getting all the paperwork out of the way, and a tour of the shop, we were given a mandatory educational overview of the Bonaire National Marine Park.  That completed, we were issued our Park Passes (Good for One Year and at a cost of $25).  We scheduled our mandatory check out dive with the shop for the next morning (Sunday).  We spent the rest of the afternoon playing on the famous private beach at Harbour Village before relaxing in the room and having wonderful Duck Dinners at La Balandra which is the main restaurant at the resort.  Below are 2 shots of the room and view from balcony.

Interior of Harbour Resort Hotel Room

Interior of Harbour Resort Hotel Room

Balcony View from our Harbour Village Room

Balcony View from our Harbour Village Room

Sunday breakfast was filled with good food and anticipation of the excitement the days’ activities would bring.  First, we headed to the Dive Shop and were shown both our “day” and “night” locker spaces  – then we were issued our weights and headed for our check out dive to the house reef which contains a small wreck “ Our Confidence”  shown below in just 50 feet of water…..

The Our Confidence Wreck off Harbour Village House Reef

The Our Confidence Wreck off Harbour Village House Reef

After that we headed out in our rented pickup to get the lay of the land and familiarize ourselves with the maps and some of the dive sites that had been recommended both by IVS crew and in a great book “Bonaire Shore Diving Made Easy”  (http://www.infobonaire.com/bsdme/)  Our first stop was at the dive site called 1,000 Steps (having just dove the house reef – we decided to head down to the site and snorkel.  Tons to see whether diving or snorkeling!  Reef is beautiful, current minimal and many turtles, barracuda, eels call this spot home!   From there we motored along doing a loop of the Northern Half of the Island.  That evening we ate a great Argentinean steakhouse called Patagonia.  The steaks were paired with a fine Malbec – delicious!

Our Rent A Pick Up Truck/Dive Tender

Our Rent A Pick Up Truck/Dive Tender

The next day (Monday) we headed to breakfast then the minimart to stock up on lunch fixings (Raisin Rolls, Peanut Butter & Jelly etc.)  Then we threw some tanks and our gear in the truck and headed to the dive site called Andrea One which we had scoped out on the previous day’s drive.  This dive was nice to be able to drive right up to the shore (see pix below) and has a pretty easy entry but we missed the sandy slot and had a more challenging exit.  This dive has a short swim to the buoy and great reef….we saw many blue faced trumpet fish, green moray as highlights.  After this dive we decided to drive around the entire South end of Bonaire and take note of more of the many Marked/Unmarked Dive Sites.  We dined that night at a wonderful little French place called Bistro de Paris.  Reservations are recommended as it is a quaint small place but the food was awesome..for example the Belgian Waffle Appetizer complete with shredded Duck Breast and Whip Crème topped with a Black Cherry dressing was so unusual  – had to be tried and was truly enjoyed! 

Gold Spotted Moray Eel

Gold Spotted Moray Eel

Tuesday morning found us headed to the South side of the island and to dive site called Margate…..lots to see there as far as reef and fish life!   Easy entry and exit and just a short drive to Windsock where we sat on the benches on the shore and enjoyed a picnic lunch….afterwards we headed for some snorkeling back at the Hotel’s House reef and prepped for the night dive we scheduled for that evening.  The night dive was great with us entering via the sandy beach at Harbour Village heading out to the Wreck and then off to the reef to see eels, tarpon, barracuda, parrot fish, lobsters, angel fish, nurse shark and unfortunately a large lionfish (which we reported to the Dive Shop the next morning). 

Orange-striped Triggerfish

Orange-striped Triggerfish

Wednesday we decided to take a sea kayak over to Klein Bonaire.  The trip took just a few minutes and once we beached the kayak we did some snorkeling the choral there is beautiful and we saw a green sea turtle just as we were leaving.  Once back at the resort we had lunch and Amy joined the afternoon boat dive from Adventure Diving.  There were 12 divers in the group and the dive site was a quick seven minute  boat ride to the far tip of Klein Bonaire.  The drift dive was beautiful, relaxing and included the highlights of seahorse, spotted eel and puffer fish.  Amy also got to witness first-hand the removal of a Lionfish that was spotted by one of the Dive Guides.  That evening we dined at a great seafood restaurant at the Marina called “It Rains Fishes” – al fresco, great food and pretty location at the Marina for sunsets!

Sunset from Harbour Village Marina

Sunset from Harbour Village Marina

Thursday brought us back to the South Shore of the island to the dive site “Invisibles” .  This is an easy entrance/exit with a brief swim to the buoy.  Then it is down to the reef….tons of fish including large schools, many Trunk Fish – saw a friendly green sea turtle there as well! 

Smooth Trunkfish

Smooth Trunkfish

Green Turtle at The Invisibles

Green Turtle at The Invisibles

That wrapped up our diving on this trip to Bonaire…..we spent the last day relaxing on the beach,  taking in the Spa and having a celebratory Chef’s dinner on the balcony of our suite!  We really want to thank Dave and everyone at IVS as we appreciate everyone’s comments, feedback, tips and recommendations that helped us pick this overdue vacation!   We really enjoyed it and will be back to Bonaire hopefully with the IVS crew in 2012!

 Thanks for letting us share our adventure!  Hope to see you all soon!

Brian & Amy Dunn

Becky DunnBrian Dunn