A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: lloydthyen

Desert above, paradise below

Diving the Red Sea from the Sinai

sunny 20 °C
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The third of three dive locations in our world trip (no, we don't count the white shark dunking expedition), I was looking forward to the Red Sea and yet was reserved in my enthusiasm, as both Vietnam and Papua New Guinea had been such (relative to normal) disappointments. Diving with my brother, our local resident connection in Egypt, would be a bonus and make the trip, regardless of conditions, yet I still hoped for some luck with good conditions. As the locals would say, I would have my wishes "In sha Allah". And I did! Learning of Jacquie's rendez-vous with Roast Beef dinners and other home comforts, I was initially "Red" with envy but the Red Sea was doing her best to console me!

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The Red Sea delivered on its promise of clear visibility, vibrant sea-life and interesting coral and rock structures! The water was exactly as normal – 73-74 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course I failed to do any research on this fact and was greeted to a chill diving in with a meager 3MM shorty, but my enthusiasm warmed me enough to get me through at least the first 60+ minute dive in the fabled Ras Mohammed aquatic park off the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula.

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Sunrise from our room at the Crowne Plaza Sharm

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An amazing collage of fish lit by the afternoon sun

Booking two boat dives with the dive operator at the hotel earlier in the day, I took for granted that in this dive mecca we would be on a dedicated dive boat. The delay of over an hour in the parking lot of the marina, waiting first on the majority of remaining passengers as well as the local authorities permission introduced me to two things in Egypt: 1) the Russian tourist hordes; and 2) Egyptian efficiency. Neither of which seemed too bothered with timeliness, politeness, nor appearance. Picture if you will a boat of six scuba divers trapped with more than a dozen babushkas, half in thong bikinis, most smoking, all loud, and none less than 200 pounds of Slavic flesh. No, I did not take any pictures. You should thank me for this. I still have flashbacks. Or are they "fleshbacks" . . . . ugh!

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Menu from the Crowne Plaza restaurant. Avoid the Fattouche ("Arabic Herpes") . . . I think the cook/translator was Russian!

Luckily the undersea world did not disappoint! Typically an escape from reality, jumping off this boat took on more meaning given its inhabitants, but if we had been alone in a zodiac, the topography, visibility and abundant life would still have impressed. Roger and I settled in as good dive-buddies, and for possibly the first time in our lives, I think we have a common hobby that we both enjoy, do well and can enjoy together. Probably has a lot to do with the fact I can't talk so much underwater . . . In any case, we had a very good time diving off the boat and enjoying the Red Sea. I would have to count my first blue-spotted stingray and a couple of pockets of glass-fish as highlights of the dives, along with the wonderful visibility and great buddy.

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We saw a few schools of glass fish - these were in a cave

Back at our hotel later in the day, we decide to opt for a night dive, as well as booking an early morning dive (0630AM) to catch one more dive prior to departing the Crowne Plaza, Sharm el Sheikh (where by the way, if you claim my brother as a friend, you can get 50% off the dive. This WILL come in handy . . .). I figure – hey I'm in Egypt and don't know when I might return, so let's dive, dive, dive! The night and morning dives are shore dives, but since all dives in the Ras Mohammed preserve must be accompanied by a local diveguide, they cost about $100 each. Ouch! We even have our own kit, so there is no rental fee in that number! Steep is a nice way of putting it, but in Egypt, it seems there are all kinds of systems in place to get your money out of you and into local hands. In any event, use the "Roger Discount" and some of the pain can be alleviated. Despite the costs, we enjoyed the night and morning dives, and I was very surprised to find that the house reef was, well, beautiful! Again, the visibility was excellent, there were wonderful coral and rock formations, nice sandy patches and a healthy diversity of fish life. Aside from floating Russians, we saw some great fish including some cute (as always) anemone fish and a very large Napolean Wrasse.

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Clowning around with some anemone fish. No Nemo here!

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My first sighting of a blue-spotted stingray

After more than 5 months travelling with Jacquie, this had been our first time apart for more than a few minutes. After 3 days, I was eagerly anticipating her arrival and excited to start sharing Egypt with her. I missed sharing her so much in fact, I emailed from the hotel in the morning after our dive before hitting the road. When Roger's cell phone rang, just before we prepared to enter a cell dead-zone in the Sinai desert, and Jacquie was on the line, I must admit there was a moment of worry: was something wrong in Bridlington? Was she sick? Are her parents fine? Instead of having any concerning news, she simply asked (rhetorically),"You do realize I don't fly in to Cairo until TOMORROW!?"

OOOPS! We're run our entire trip to a precise and wonderfully executed itinerary, and somehow we all missed the fact that the portion for Egypt had Jacquie coming in one day earlier than was the case. After my initial disappointment, we did realize that, hey – one more day of diving!!

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I've never seen so many clams everywhere. Some beautiful blue

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Here's Rog over a coral head

Quickly detouring, we head north up the coast of the Red Sea to a small town called Dahab. It is well known for diving, mostly for a site called the "Blue Hole" (gee, never heard that one before . . .) at which numerous divers have died over the years attempting to dive to her 70 meter (~230 foot) deep arch. Roger calls in a favor to his dive instructor Hussein, and before we arrive at our lovely little hotel in Dahab called "Daniela", we are set to pick up tanks and head out to do some shore diving on our own. Since I'm a qualified divemaster, and Hussein is training Roger as a DM, we are able to avoid the heavy additional fees of a dive-guide with Hussein's help! Our cost per dive plummets quickly, to about $10 each per dive – the cost of air fills here. Dahab is a quaint little resort, mostly a dive location, so the amenities and services are less than in Sharm. If you're looking for good but crowded diving and a nightlife to go with it, try Sharm. If you want a quieter scene, with fantastic shore dives, less crowdeed diving, and the prospect of "camel diving" (getting a camel to bring your dive kit to certain hard to reach shore spots for you), then Dahab is the place.

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Here's Nemo! Sleeping snug in his anemone.

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A nice yellowhead moray eel peeked out of the rocks for us at night

Rog and I spent a quality 16 hours in Dahab and fit in 3 fantastic dives at 2 dive sites enjoying a bit of afternoon and early morning solitude at "the Canyon" and some great structures diving "the Islands". After enjoying our extra dives (at about 10% the overall cost of Sharm and 110% the quality), we headed off for our return trip across the Sinai via a mountain pass close by Saint Catherine's monastery, the fabled place of Moses' climb of Mount Sinai, at the base of which he saw the burning bush, before taking a hike up the hill and finding "fifteen, no ten . . . ten commandments" (please reference Mel Brooks' comedy, "History of the World: Part I"). The drive was fantastic, with gorgeous mountain scenery and endless wind swept terrain and desert scenes that reminded me very much of the desert southwest.

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Roger and I preparing for an early morning dive in Dahab. We're the only ones here!

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A lionfish and a grouper hunting in the dim morning light

A busy day to be sure, but one of the most diverse, starting with dives in the Red Sea, and finishing with picking up Jacquie in Cairo shortly before midnight, just in time to start celebrating my 37th birthday! A guy couldn't ask for a better birthday gift.

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Roger and I practicing buoyancy - great diving, great fun! Thanks, Bro!

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Posted by lloydthyen 21:31 Archived in Egypt Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Finally, Eastern Fields: Golden Dawn Part II

Big blue, big waves, big fish

storm 23 °C
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After six days steaming up and down the coast of Papua New Guinea just south of Port Moresby, the capital, we headed out for the Eastern Fields, a 98 nautical mile ride southwest, which would take almost 12 hours. Arriving to the fields is almost anti-climactic, with nothing more than white-cap breaking waves on the horizon and what looks like an oil slick of translucent emerald green shimmering almost like neon, announcing shallower worlds of coral below. While the waters and their contents were worth the wait, the journey has taken its toll on Jacquie, and she continues to struggle fighting her head cold and battling the ill-effects of an unreasonably rough sea. At times, half the boat has been taken ill, and the all-night journey produced many groggy travelers on the morning of our arrival.

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Within 15 minutes of arrival, we waste no time and get into the wet. Days of murky visibility and green, brackish water gave way to the deep blue of Coral Sea beauty. While the visibility could be better (currently at about 75 feet) it is stupendous in comparison to what we have dealt with, and the hoots and squeals of delight, along with fist-pumping and large smiles barely obscured by our regulators reflect the mood of finding nice open waters. Finally we found the BIG BLUE!

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Big smiles as we find BLUE waters in the Eastern Fields!
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Reef fish abound
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Lots of barracuda too - they would swim right to you and envelope you!
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We saw some great big tuna as well - schools of a couple dozen or so

The fish life abounds here, with schools of numerous species, many I have never seen: hammerhead shark, large (400 pound!) dogtooth tuna, huge (300 pound!) potato cod, rhinopius or lacey lionfish, flashlight fish (that emit bioluminescence at night) and sea-snakes were all part of the cast of marine animals we came across. In addition there were uncounted numbers of corals, sponges and small life like reef-fish and nudibranch.

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Of course the biggest impact to our visit was the cyclone. The captain of the boat and many others we met with many years of experience in Papua New Guinea, said this was the earliest such weather seen in at least 20 years. Normally we should have found sun, dormant (or “doldrum”) waters and amazing visibility below. While this was not the case, we still feel lucky to have visited a very remote marine eco-system. We made the best of it, and have actually considered creating a new PADI certification (named for our new small club): Cyclone Divers!

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You can see Cyclone Guba (white swirl) in the top right - we were on its south-western edge. Too close!

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Not all the days were bad, and we had one or two nice days in the Eastern Fields

Although remote, one draw for us to such places is to see large pelagic sea-life, especially sharks. Unfortunately, sharks were in short supply. The reason: shark finning operations that came through the are 3 years ago, decimating the shark population. One such vessel was caught by Australian authorities just south of the area, and confiscated 240 tonnes of shark fins. That’s just the FINS. No doubt untold thousands of sharks were destroyed to meet the demand for shark-fin soup – a delicacy that has no taste. The fins are after all merely cartilage – it is prized merely for some mythical properties of potentcy prized by Asian (mainly Chinese) markets. So – if you ever see shark-fin on the menu of a restaurant you are at, please walk out and let them know it’s a horrible, destructive practice.

On the whole, the dive experience was good, but due to the weather and rough seas, we were limited overall. It still amazes me to see the things we can see while taking a peak into the undersea world. It is also humbling and sad to know the devastation we can wreak so easily. I'll be back here someday, without doubt, and hope the waters will be as vibrant with life as they are now, and possibly rebounding with more big life.

Posted by lloydthyen 13:14 Archived in Papua New Guinea Tagged round_the_world Comments (3)

Cyclone Divers: Golden Dawn Part I

Diving the rough and tumble waters of Papua New Guinea

storm 19 °C
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Months of anticipation as we travelled the globe brought us finally to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea for our 10 day live-aboard scuba diving trip. On arrival, rain greeted us, and has since not stopped. Once on the boat, we have suffered the heaviest seas we’ve ever encountered (6-8 foot swells, with lots of white caps and 35 knot winds) keeping Jacquie down and out of the water. At least she can say she’s lived (literally) through a cyclone!

What we thought was simply unseasonably bad weather turns out to be the earliest cyclone experienced in the area in at least 20 years, and has affected at least half of the 9 passengers on board, keeping Jacquie in good company! As with hurricanes, cyclones are named as well, and this one is Guba, which is the Papua New Guinean word for “Strong Wind”. Of course it could also have been named something like “Cyclone Obstinate” or “Cyclone Stubborn” as she has refused to budge, keeping us essentially trapped just off the south shore unable to make way toward the Eastern Fields. The Eastern Fields, an awesome dive area that is essentially at the northern end of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, lie 120 nautical miles from us to the south, and the storm has just hung there, day after day after day . . . .

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One of the dozens of lionfish so far!

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Can you find the Pygmy Seahorse? He's dead center, and in reality about 1 cm long!

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Luckily, I quickly found my sea-legs, and have had a chance to get into the water for about a dozen dives so far. The volume of life and diversity is amazing, albeit a bit muted with visibility down to 20-30 feet. Normally, it is around 100 feet or better, but we’ve only experienced that on one dive so far. Sharks, lionfish, scorpionfish, and puffers have all made regular appearances, as well as – for us - a number of new species: several pygmy seahorses, lacey lionfish (Rhinopius), a sea-snake, and a crocodile-fish.

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Of course, I saw most of the cool new stuff WITHOUT my camera, so you’ll have to wait until the next installment for any of those IF we see them again . . . and I really hope we do!
All in all, we’ve been able to keep relatively good spirits despite the lack of any sunshine. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for fair winds and more sun and hopefully report on an amazing ocean adventure! In the meantime, Jacquie is counting the minutes before she’s back permanently on solid ground in another 6 days…

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Posted by lloydthyen 03:59 Archived in Papua New Guinea Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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