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November 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Red Sea Aggressor, Egypt

big critters will give you bang for your buck

from the November, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

The wind blew in from the desert, and its sands settled in the sea. The Red Sea Aggressor rocked and wallowed through six-foot waves as we steamed between Marsa Shouna and Daedalus Reef. The Egyptian crew, sprawled on cushions in the salon and on the sun deck, slept soundly. The passengers -- two Aussies, four Yanks, two Spaniards and a Pole -- did not. Some wondered why their cabins did not look like the elegantly appointed habitats promised on the website. Others recognized the photos as being from a different Aggressor vessel. On the queensized bed in our upper-deck master suite, my partner and I took Dramamine and tried to sleep, waiting for the nine-hour passage to end.

Red Sea Aggressor, EgyptAt 6 a.m. the next morning, the group assembled for a continental breakfast of toast and sticky buns in the main deck's salon and blearily watched instructor Erin Spencer's briefing, with the reef depicted on a large flat screen monitor. "Last week, we had 15 hammerheads on this dive," she said in a noticeably British accent. "And the seas were flat." Mmm hmm.

The day before, I had assembled my gear before our checkout dives at Umm Ras. The crew had filled the aluminum 80s to 2800 psi with nitrox (32 percent) from long hoses attached to a compressor well away from any diesel fumes. They helped us divers into wetsuits, turned on our gas, then assisted each of us into the Zodiac. When we returned, they dipped our cameras into a dedicated rinse bucket, put our masks and fins back into the crates beneath our seats and rinsed our suits. After hot showers on the deck, we were handed warm towels and cold juice. Then it was a short cruise to another coastal reef, Marsa Shouna, for two afternoon dives and the only night dive of the trip. The water was green from the sand blowing off the desert, but the lettuce, honeycomb, fire and dome corals were vibrant and healthy. Blue-spine unicornfish, emperor angels and masked pufferfish shared space with dozens of striped butterflies.

Then off to Daedalus, a 500-yard-wide pinnacle crowned with a dilapidated lighthouse, 52 miles off the Egyptian coast. Its sheer walls descend 90 to 130 feet to a dropoff that plunges more than 1,500 feet down. Visibility on the lee side in the morning was well over 100 feet, but the seas were high. With nine divers, guide and driver crammed into a RIB powered by an 85-horsepower engine, the trip to the reef was a 30-minute ordeal as wave after wave slammed the nose of the crowded boat; it felt like the beach landing at Normandy. No one fed the fish but it was a relieved group that backrolled in and dropped to 50 feet, with instructor Mahmoud Abdela leading the way. I waited in the blue for the hammerheads of dawn. And waited. Maybe they didn't like the wind either. At 13 minutes, we headed toward the reef and descended to 85 feet, where a gentle current propelled us along the wall. The reef was solid coral, hard and soft, predominantly blue and yellow, with magenta and purple soft species here and there. A gray reef shark cruised below. Hordes of red fairy anthias and half-and-half chromis stayed close to the reef, while a Napoleon wrasse eyed me from two feet away. Below, a scalloped hammerhead heading into the current checked me out with one eye.

Red Sea AggressorWe gradually ascended along the reef shoulder, and at 48 minutes, were taking the prescribed 15-foot safety stop while pairs of bannerfish and blue-cheek butterflyfish mingled with schools of fusiliers. We had been asked to surface with 500 psi, but no guide ever checked. The dinghy heaved at the surface while I passed up my weights. I kept my fins on my wrists in the plunging sea, climbed the short ladder and flopped aboard. I thought the ladder ill-placed, just abeam of the engine, until I saw the ladderless RIBs other liveaboards had, and witnessed fully-geared divers being pulled into boats by struggling crews. (Seven other ships were moored at the southern end of the reef, producing a parade of inflatables ferrying divers to and fro).

The post-dive breakfast was eggs, chicken or beef sausage, pancakes, toast, fresh fruit, yogurt and cereal, with good Egyptian bread and hummus for the asking. The second dive at 11 a.m. was followed by a buffet lunch, with a cream-based soup and over-dressed salad, then pasta or sautéed fish covered with a heavy sauce, veggies and potato or rice. Fresh cookies or cake followed the 1:30 p.m. dive, and fried calamari, shrimp or mini-pizzas were available after the 4 p.m. dive. The crew served dinner, beginning with a hot appetizer, then chicken, fish or steak in a buttery sauce. It didn't take long for my stomach to rebel at the rich food, and when one menu featured Chicken Kiev, I asked for simple grilled chicken instead. It was served with fresh rosemary and turned out to be my best dinner of the trip. Drink dispensers offered the local version of bug juice in tasty red or yellow that masked the blandness of the desalinated water. Coolers were filled with free Coke, Sprite and beer. Of course, cracking open a frosty Stella or Sakara would end your dive day. Egyptian wine was served with dinner, but mysteriously went untouched, except by the Aussies, who seemed quite willing to drink anything.

Cabins 1 to 7 were downstairs, below the salon. There are no water-tight doors between the sea and the salon, so if the boat took on water aft, these rooms would flood. The only water-tight door on the main deck led to the engine room, but due to the heat, the door was usually open. All cabins had heads and showers, but the water pressure and hot water were better on the dive deck, so I usually took Navy showers there. Speaking about the cabins, were the upscale ones I saw on the Aggressor website before departure from the old Susanna before she was re-outfitted as the Red Sea Aggressor? Was it an honest mistake? Or bait and switch? When asked, cruise director David Patterson simply did not reply. The Red Sea Aggressor is privately owned by Aussie David Home and Egyptians Tarek Abbas and Tarek Hamza. The Aggressor Fleet, as with all its boats, manages the bookings, marketing and website.

Red Sea Aggressor, EgyptOur second dive at Daedalus was closer to the boat, meaning a mercifully shorter RIB ride. The coral was so healthy, my buddy and I stayed around 60 feet to enjoy the colors gleaming in the morning sun. The third dive was led by the taciturn David Patterson (he's since left the boat), who was an excellent photographer, but he paid more attention to his camera than to his charges. With the exception of an American woman who started the trip with 85 dives, the rest of us each had well over 500 dives and could handle ourselves in the water, but the current and upwellings were treacherous and changeable. Any time a dive leader had photo fixation, we knew we were on our own.

The dive started in 84-degree water, perfect for my 3-mil suit, but I swam in and out of vertical thermoclines, where the temperature crashed to what my computer recorded at the mid-70s but felt even colder. One highlight was Nemo City, which began at 10 feet, where anemones harboring Red Sea anemone fish packed the wall to 120 feet. After the dive, I noticed other liveaboards were running their guests over to the lighthouse, which wasn't on our agenda until we prevailed upon the crew to put us ashore at the pier, where we could climb to the top of the lighthouse or buy a T-shirt from the friendly (and bored) staff.

The first manta of the trip showed up on the fourth dive and had the camp counselor-ish Erin bouncing about in critter heaven. Most crew spoke little English, so Mahmoud served as third- party interpreter. We were deep into monthlong Ramadan, and as the days wore on, the crew members, who took no food or water during the day, became more quiet and distant.

At dinner, we learned we would be heading into an increasing wind, making the usual seven-hour crossing to The Brothers a 13-hour bump fest. I took a 24-hour Dramamine and regretted it. I woke at 1 a.m., with the ship plunging into the troughs head-on, and did not get back to sleep. Groggy and dopier than usual, I strode off the dive deck at 7:15 a.m., dropped to 70 feet and clung to the rock at the south end of Big Brother and waited for thresher sharks to appear. None did. I would have waited longer than eight minutes, but Mahmoud signaled us to the east side of the sea mount, and we headed into an easy current to be entertained by Arabian Picassofish and rusty parrotfish, and watch Titan triggers prepare their nests for spawning.

The next three dives were on the Aida and Numidia wrecks. The Aida rests almost vertically and can be entered at the bow, but to see it properly, one needs to drop to 130 feet, and that was below the maximum operating depth dictated by 1.4 atmospheres of nitrox. Returning to the Aggressor, I glimpsed a silver-tip shark zipping below but never saw an oceanic white-tip -- apparently the season is September through April. Still knocked out by the Dramamine, I skipped the Numidia dive. My partner reported 200-foot visibility, and the wreck, encrusted with hard and soft corals, was resplendent in the sun. A school of dog-tooth tuna patrolled back and forth, and gray reef sharks passed by.

After an hour-long trip to Little Brother, we moored close to the southern tip, with the current rushing in from the north, seas thrashing in the wind. Another boat, the Muad'dib, was anchored 50 yards to the west. The Aggressor crew tied a tag line to the reef, dropped a current line astern and we dropped in. We proceeded into the current, and, like the other sites, there were masses of orange and red soft corals, wrasses, trevallys and tunas. After drifting back, we took a stop, then ascended to the tag line. The current, bisected by the reef, rejoined at that precise point, and in an instant, I swept past the line toward the open ocean. My partner and I grabbed the current line and dragged ourselves to the ladders, the sea pulling us sideways, the line tangled in our rigs. Other divers clung to every line in sight and slowly climbed aboard. Once out of our rigs, I looked over at the Muad'dib. Everyone there was looking at the sea, hands shading eyes. Two of their divers were gone. Apparently they had missed their own current line and been swept south. Our crew instantly had two Zodiacs in the water, the drivers equipped with Nautilus Lifeline radios, and began a zigzag pattern south of our mooring. The Muad'dib crew added their own RIB to the search. The boats would drop out of sight in the wave trough. Ten minutes passed, then 20. No one on either ship used binoculars. None of the chase boats had them. After 30 minutes, I saw Mahmoud's Zodiac coming home with two black-clad passengers, the boat disappearing and reappearing in the swell until the divers were returned to their ship. The man shook hands with someone. The woman hugged the captain and fell to the deck.

The Muad'dib suspended dive operations for the day and departed for Elphinstone. We welcomed Mahmoud aboard with applause and cheers. He said the lost divers had SMBs deployed, but they were not visible to boats approaching from the north. One of the Aussies on our boat was a certified lifeguard and noted that the search pattern should have been a grid rather than random zigzags. That afternoon, we returned to the water and headed up the east side of the reef. A manta somersaulted in the undersea wind, feeding on the current-borne bounty. As we hung in the water at our safety stop, a long-awaited thresher shark did figure-eights beneath us.

That night, the wind died and a threatened 15-hour passage to Elphinstone was managed in a mere six. After one uneventful dive, crammed in between four other boats, we headed off to Port Ghalib. Our last dive was back at Umm Ras, where the captain wedged us into a parking lot of 12 other boats, gently nudging day-boat snorkelers out of his way. I counted 72 bobbing bodies in the water. I knew this had been done to get us back to port early, and I found the ensuing dive disappointing, despite a bird wrasse, black-tail dartfish and the dive watch my partner found on the bottom. The other boats all departed at 12:30, and there was a constant roar underwater as they headed to Port Ghalib at high speed.

That night at the farewell gathering, the crew really relaxed. They had been onboard six months without a break since the boat was re-commissioned for the Aggressor Fleet and were looking forward to some time off.

Except for the oceanic white-tip, my checklist was full, and the reefs were healthy and colorful. Rough seas and no schools of sharks, but dive trips are a roll of the dice. You pays yer money and you takes yer chances.

-- D.L.

Red Sea Aggressor, EgyptDivers Compass: A seven-day trip in a deluxe stateroom with single beds or a bunk bed is $1,699, and the master cabin goes for $1,999; all diving, meals, beer and (ahem) wine is included, but the price goes up $100 next year . . . I waited a while to reserve directly with the Aggressor Fleet and lucked into a $500 discount for the trip, often offered when their trips don't fill . . . Ten-day trips to the Sudan coast will be $2,999 and $3,149, respectively; Nitrox costs $100 for the week, and Nautilus Lifelines are available for $35 . . . All of their rental gear was stuck in Egypt customs, so there were no extra masks, fin straps, surface marker buoys, or even hats or T-shirts, so check ahead if you wish to rent . . . I flew Egypt Air from JFK to Cairo, with a one-hour hop to Hurghada for $1,148, but upgraded to business class at the airport for $750 per person . . . My partner and I were met in Cairo and escorted to a currency exchange, where we bought visas for $25; in Hurghada, we were met at the airport and took a threehour van ride to Marsa Alam (you can fly straight to Marsa Alam and skip the van ride, but the connections are tricky) . . . We overnighted at the beautiful InterContinental Palace for about $200, and next day the Aggressor picked us up and took us on a five-minute ride to the boat . . . Websites: Red Sea Aggressor - http://aggressor.com/redsea.php; InterContinental Palace at Marsa Alam - www.ihg.com/intercontinental/hotels/gb/en/marsa-alam/ptgha/hoteldetail

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