This is one of the most anticipated classic dives of the St John’s itinerary although I would have to say that the intensity of visits to the dive site is beginning to negatively affect the site – there are numerous examples of broken hard corals and damaged soft corals and the dive guides speak of queues of divers waiting to be led through the caves during high season and sometimes divers barging through and not waiting their turn. This is my third visit here and I can see that it is suffering from increased diver visits.
Apparently there are plans to build a dive centre / holiday complex this far down in the south of Egypt and if it comes about (thankfully unlikely in the current economic climate), then day boats will become the norm at St Johns and the reef will suffer accordingly.
On this trip, there were two other boats moored to the reef but we were determined to be the first into the caves by completing our briefing rapidly and following an agreed dive plan which enabled all the 24 divers on the GSS a chance to see the caves without too much congestion and hopefully without churning up the bottoms of the cave passageways too much.
The dive map for this site contains more information of use to a diver - namely depths.
There are two routes possible through the caves – one is relatively easy (the right hand side of plan) with wider passage ways and is somewhat forgiving on buoyancy technique and the other (left hand side) is much narrower with a few squeezes and requires good buoyancy control. All eventually lead to the central lagoon with its wonderful sweeps of hard coral at the exits (if you have come in through the caves) or entrance (if you are heading for the entrances at the rear of the caves).
I choose to follow a guide through the left hand section because my buoyancy control has improved significantly over the past few dive trips
and am rewarded by the narrow squeezes but also
openings into large caverns with sunlight streaming through roof holes
Hidden away on ledges are a variety of life which prefers
the dark and also soft corals which usually grow at depth where it is darker but here, the darkness is mimicked by the effect of the shallow caves.
Outside there are the usual fish
a blue spotted ray with its characteristic tail clearly evident – this can effect a nasty wound if it strikes you but
this issue is almost unknown because they shoot away if you come near to them or they feel threatened.
And there is a well camouflaged marble headed grouper resting on the bottom.
All of the hard coral has a number of clams of various sizes living on them. Their valves are clearly visible as you go over them and when they sense the current disturbance you create, they close and open again a few minutes later when they think you have gone.
Underneath the boat is a large Napoleon Fish – this one is about 1.5 metres long and gently swims around you keeping an interested eye on your activities and comes quite close. We were to find large Napoleons at three
dive sites and some have got used to being fed hard boiled eggs by dive guides – not a natural food for them!
Re-boarding a dive boat at the stern
The process of returning to the dive boat takes some discipline and needs to be done in a non rushed and orderly manner.
Because we are all diving to roughly the same dive length,
we all tend to assemble in the area of the boat ladders at the same time doing our safety stop at 5 metres. My computer always requires the standard 3 minutes but invariably adds a further 1 minute ceiling stop if I have ascended too fast down in the depths.
There are two types of ladders commonly in use, the best and easiest is one where there are rungs either side of a central pillar which enable you to easily climb with your fins.
The other sort is the standard ladder type but I find these hard to climb with fins on and therefore take them off underwater and hand them up to the deck staff before starting to climb out. I also keep my regulator in and mask on until I am on the deck, just in case I slip and fall back into the water.
When you get to the top of the ladder and are half surfaced, you hand up your camera and any other hand held equipment to the deck boys who put them into a tank of freshwater.
Another safety rule best observed is to stay away from the ladder whilst someone else is climbing up, just in case they fall off the ladder and back into the water and hit you on the head. In general however, climbing back on to the boat is easy unless the weather is rough and the boat is pitching up and down quite a lot.
When you get to the deck, one of the team removes your fins and you feel the weight of your tanks and equipment again and stagger to your allocated dive deck position. Then you are helped out of your equipment, you note your end of dive air pressure and someone quickly connects your tank up to the compressors for a refill – 200 to 220 bar was the norm on the GSS. One good characteristic of the Grand Sea Serpent was that the nitrox percentage was raised as the diving got shallower and we always got good refills – it is not unknown for pressures as low as 180 bar to be the norm on some boats.