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January 2007 Vol. 22, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Heaven Diamond, The Red Sea, Egypt

a desert oasis of world-class diving

from the January, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Divers,
Are Americans missing out on some of the world’s best diving due to the war on terror? On board the Heaven Diamond, I was told by the crew that I was the first American resident to ever book passage on any of the Heaven Fleet’s boats. Waiting in a group (again, I was the only American) at a local hotel before boarding the boat, several European guests raised doubts about my sanity in coming to the Middle East. One dive guide even asked why I didn’t proclaim that I was Canadian.

I find this strange. Although there are 19 countries currently on the U.S. State Department’s Travel Warnings List, Egypt is not included. The country is hundreds of miles from the conflict in Iraq and Palestine. On four previous visits to dive the Red Sea, I found the Egyptians among the most cheerful and friendly people I’ve met anywhere in the world.

The only Egyptians conspiring against me on this trip were the ancient gods Isis and Osiris, who created an unseasonably strong northwesterly wind across the Red Sea during my two-week trip in June. Remember Shakespeare’s comment about “an ill wind which blows no man to good”? Heaven DiamondThe good thing about this brisk breeze was that it did prevent a lot of day boats from coming out and crowding dive sites. Since my first visit 15 years ago, there are an increasing number of desalination plants and oil refineries on the shores discharging chemicals that don’t mix well with marine life, but the vivid colors of the soft corals and the cornucopia of fish signaled to me that the Red Sea still provides worldclass diving.

Heaven Diamond2I came aboard the Diamond thanks to some German friends I had met while diving the Maldives who had invited me to join them. The first week was to dive the famed Brother Islands and the Daedalus and Elphinstone reefs smack dab in the sea’s center. The second week called for a trip south toward the Sudan border and the Egyptian Marine Park (which requires a minimum of 50 logged dives) to dive Rocky and Zabargad Islands, and St. Johns Reef. Thanks to a sturdy boat and a determined crew, we rocked and rolled to most of the proposed dive sites the first week. But those winds prevented dives in the second week in the southern waters that I had dived and loved in the past.

The Red Sea is a unique body of water, with vivid marine colors contrasting against the drab desert running along much of its length. It is reported that there are more than 100 species of corals and more than 1,000 fish species, perhaps 200 of those endemic. Although most dive sites in the southern Red Sea are relatively close to the Egyptian coast, the jewels are the relatively offshore pinnacles rising from the depths.

Under a blazing Egyptian sun, I backrolled from a roomy Zodiac into clear, 78-degree water to begin my fourth visit at the Brothers and a first-class dive site of Big Brother, a rock about the length of four football fields, with an old British-built lighthouse sitting atop it. Little Brother shows only a few square yards of rock above the surface. Both, however, have walls dropping thousands of feet. Little Brother was an hour of pleasure watching the gray reef sharks, a silky shark, parrotfish (including a bumphead with the girth of Rosie O’Donnell), and schools of unicornfish, surgeons and snappers. Brilliant clouds of anthias, the signature of the Red Sea, thrilled me again.

Later that afternoon, my German dive guide Elke and I watched two six-foot morays intertwined, seemingly attempting to bite off each other’s head. One of the fish ID books called it “mating behavior”; Elke maintained instead that we had watched a real “donnybrook.” Next was a dive at Big Brother to the silversides- infested Aida wreck, a ferryboat for WWII troops now festooned with soft corals. One highlight was a garden of fan corals that Sally Rand would have loved to use for her dance routines. To quote Shakespeare again, fittingly from The Tempest, it truly “doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange.” On the drift back to the boat I saw stonefish, parrotfish, bannerfish, lionfish, a large inflated porcupine fish, pairs of connubial butterflyfish and the ubiquitous schools of anthias. Yawn.

Heaven Diamond is the flagship of the German-owned and managed Heaven Fleet. It is a roomy vessel, more than 105 feet long, and can accommodate 16 guests. There are two “honeymoon cabins” with double beds above the main deck, which were not a good option during the heavy seas we encountered. Below deck are four cabins with twin single beds, and two forward smaller ones with bunk beds, all with separate bathrooms, plenty of storage space, a mini-fridge (stocked with snacks and drinks), excellent reading lights, and TVs. The mostly Egyptian crew of nine men provided deluxe service. They changed the towels and bed linens mid-week and a steward cleaned the rooms and made the beds twice daily. The policy was no paper in the marine toilet, thus the used TP was placed in bathroom wastebaskets, which were promptly removed every morning. Also noteworthy was the unlimited supply of fresh water, so we could take as many showers a day as we liked.

Although many of my European friends kept their cabin doors and portholes open, I enjoyed the individually controlled air-conditioning in my midship cabin. Neither I nor other passengers had to complain about engine noise or lack of privacy. The open deck aft of the bridge is covered by an awning for protection from the brilliant sun, although temperatures stayed in the mid-80s and cooled down at night. The top deck with a flying bridge is also covered and provides a comfy place to enjoy the stars. The spacious main salon has four dining booths seating four guests each, as well as a bar, lounge areas, a TV with VHS players, books and magazines. Although several fish ID books were in English, most of the books and movie videos were in German.

The dive deck and operation was as smooth as suntan lotion. On the aft deck, I put my BCD in racked tanks and tied them snugly with belts and buckles, not frayed bungee cords. Under my seat was a plastic crate to hold dive gear. I could hang my wetsuit out of the way on overhead rods with large plastic hangers. My fins were tightly set in railings at the swim platform. I used the shower hose on the swim platform for my after-dive rinses and then reached for the bathrobe hanging up with my name on it –- literally. Compartment spaces for cameras, rinse tanks and extensive charging stations with 220-volt outlets abounded. There were two oxygen tanks, and the crew pumped aluminum 80 tanks to approximately 3000 psi. Nitrox is included in the trip price, although a substitute engineer broke a part so we had to do without it the second week.

Logbooks were supposed to be checked, but I didn’t see any opened. However, each guest had to fill out a form indicating certification level as well as total dives and medical fitness. The 16 of us were divided into two teams, “Red” and “Blue.” Each team alternated diving, thus ensuring that the two Zodiacs were never crowded. Dive sites were never more than 10 minutes away. The dive briefings were prompt, detailed and in German, but I got my own condensed English version.

We had four dives a day, starting at 7 a.m. The night dives (we did them at all sites except in the Marine Park) were originally scheduled for 9:30 after dinner, but this meant late meals so we changed to before-dinner night dives at 7:30 later in the trip. Maximum depth was 120 feet with no decompression diving, and I usually came up with 500 psi. Heaven Diamond3Depending on the site, dives started either from the Zodiacs or the swim platform. On some Zodiac dives we were able to easily swim back to the Diamond; on others, our alert drivers Adek and Ayman II spotted us promptly, and handled our gear and cameras with care. Access to the boat was up a strong wide ladder, and a crewmember was always there to assist with fins and weight belt. With my arthritic knees, I asked for assistance taking my tank/BCD to the Zodiac or swim platform, which was accomplished with a smile.

Fathi, our captain, comes from a long line of seamen and fishermen. Like the rest of the crew, he was always helping with the Zodiac loading, launching and unloading. Watching him do direct mooring of the boat out at those windswept dive sites was a lesson in seamanship. We had two German divemasters the first week and an Egyptian and Dutch duo the next. Being a single diver, I almost always got to dive with a guide. All were informative, capable, safety-oriented and devoted to showing us the best underwater sights available. We were allowed to go at our own pace, with no herding, and we were all treated like adult, experienced divers.

After the Brothers, we moved across to Saudi Arabia waters to dive lighthouse- topped Daedulus Reef. There I enjoyed dolphins, a thresher shark, schooling barracuda and coronet fish hovering above, waiting to snack on unwary prey. A dive along the sheer walls in the slanting afternoon sun evoked images of a futuristic skyscraper city, with anemones and anemone fish as citizens. Then the seas picked up, and strong winds brought sand off the desert that dusted the top deck. Despite our trip south being cancelled, we continued to dive prime sites in the north. Visibility ranged from 50 feet at worst to over 100 feet at best. Entries in my log book included the aggressive titan triggerfish, a variety of eels and turtles, several octopi, crocodile fish and throngs of snapper. Colorful clams were always visible on the reef tops. On night dives, Dray pointed out two ornate ghost pipefish, baby cuttlefish, a conger eel, nudibranchs, a multitude of crabs and a magnificent flaming scarlet pleuribranch. Sharks are not as plentiful as in the past, and the Egyptian government must be concerned because we were required to complete a questionnaire at the end of the week describing shark sightings, feedings and other data.

Food feeds the soul and fuels the human diving mechanism. The Heaven Fleet has two boats in the top “diamond” class based largely on excellent dining, great service and free beer, wine, soft drinks and espresso coffee. Chef Reda and his assistant Housni worked cheerfully and noisily, obviously loving their avocation. Food was served family style at each of the four tables by Ayman, our hyperactive steward, who also gave massages and provided cool drinks after every dive. Breakfast was served after the first dive, a repast of eggs, pancakes, sliced cheeses and meats, cereals, yogurt, juice and that delicious bread with jam. Lunch consisted of a salad with fish or pasta, and usually fresh fruit for dessert. Snacks like sugar-dusted raisin crepes and baked fruitcakes were served mid-afternoon.

The four-course dinners started with a steaming soup tureen placed on each table by Ayman, then a large bowl of fresh salad, a huge platter of the main course (steak, chicken or fish) with separate bowls of vegetables, a starch and freshly baked bread. I recall a chocolate mousse that, Medusa-like, could clog my arteries just by my gazing at it. Exuberant Chef Reda, who spoke good English in a loud voice, presided over the final night banquet starring a turkey with all the trimmings. Wearing chef whites and a large toque, Reda’s carving, to the flashing of cameras, was quite a production.

Being American was far from a disadvantage when mingling with crew and passengers. I became friendly with a charming Swiss lady who had perfected her English as an au pair in London and had some interesting takes on the world. I learned of the thwarted ambitions of one of the Egyptian crew hoping to emigrate to the US. I spent long hours on the top deck under the stars talking with an Austrian economist who explained the European Union. Some of the friendships I made with other passengers were even more rewarding than the underwater wonders I saw.

The Red Sea is the nearest top-class dive site to Europe, so prime season can become crowded with boats. This is especially true regarding the day boats out of Sharm-el-Sheikh further north. But in the deep south, crowds were not a problem. Although I am scrupulously careful about recommending dive vacations in areas that aren’t so friendly to Americans, I would not hesitate to recommend a trip aboard Heaven Diamond if creature comforts coupled with excellent diving are important considerations. – E.Z.

Diver's CompassDiver’s Compass: I booked with Reef and Rainforest (800-794-9767) www.reefrainforest.com . . . The boat is docked (with other Heaven Fleet boats) at Port Ghalib, three miles from the new international airport called Marsa Alam -- not to be confused with the town of Marsa Alam farther south on the Egyptian coast. To avoid the Cairo airport and an overnight there, I flew LTU out of New York, overnighting in Dusseldorf, Germany, then non-stop to Marsa Alam. Others flew into Hurghada, then rode a Heaven Fleet bus to Port Ghalib. A number of European airlines fly non-stop to Marsa Alam and Hurghada . . . Although visas can be issued on entry, consider obtaining one from an Egyptian consulate prior to departure . . . I paid $1540 for each week, plus a two-week total of approximately $200 for park fees. Payment for park fees by dollars or Euros is required . . . Divers must have at least 50 logged dives in order to dive the Egyptian Marine Parks included in the Diamond Fleet itineraries, or else they stay topside. Current on the boat is 220v. Bring your C-card, log book, copy of insurance coverage and a note from your doctor attesting to fitness to dive. You are required to have a safety sausage . . . Egypt is hot in summer, cool in winter, so the best diving can be done in late spring, early autumn. My fellow European passengers spoke excellent English, as did most of the boat crew, including the dive guides. Web Site: www.diversheaven.com/british/index_engl.html.

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