Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Diving in the Red Sea - St John’s

Because of the enforced pause, it has been just over a year since I was under water and so a week on a liveaboard was high on the priority list when permission was given to recommence travel.

St John’s in the Southern Red Sea is an area I have already been to twice but as all divers know, you may have dived a spot before but it will not be the same next time – fish change, currents change, everything changes other than most of the coral. Therefore I never have problems going back to an interesting dive site. One difference however between this and previous trips to St John’s is that this time, the whole of the week is being spent diving down there rather than gradually diving ones way down the coast and spending only a couple of days there. Why go there again? The water is warm (28C is the norm), the water is clear, the currents are usually mild and normally there are few other dive boats in the area.

To get there, it is a flight to Marsa Alam on African side of the Egyptian Red Sea, then a short drive to nearby Port Ghalib where you board a boat for the overnight trip down to about 30 miles above the Sudan border (after a check drive close to Port Ghalib).

The Scuba Travel website describes the week as:

St Johns is a large reef system right at the end of the Egyptian Red Sea and all time favourite with scuba divers of all abilities. Lying a hair's width above the Sudanese border, a trip St Johns is a trip to the very edges of the Egyptian Red Sea- and back again. Not content to only offer up the awesome diving of the deep south, this itinerary packs in more, stopping at the stunning reef systems of Fury Shoal and Wadi Gamal. This itinerary truly is the best way to see the Southern Red Sea in its all its glory, on a luxury liveaboard holiday far from the crowds.

After the check dive, Shaab Sharm is the ideal southerly stopping point on the way down to St Johns. A large oval reef with walls and colourful plateau, Shaab Sharm is an excellent dive day or night. After sailing overnight, you will wake up in the heart of St Johns. The entire region is filled with every kind of marine life, from the smallest nudibranch's to the largest. Bumphead parrot fish, baby white tips, barracuda and napoleons comb the deep south, whereas snapper, hawk fish, batfish and morays roam the more northern stop offs. Flat worms, nudibranch's and cleaning stations give ample reason to smile especially for the macro fiends amongst us. In between dives, keep an eye on the horizon as dolphin pods move between the reef systems on the hunt for a tasty snack... or some bow waves to ride.

Diving the habillis is the order of the day. These submerged reefs are simply sumptuous wall dives where gentle currents, great gorgonians and soft corals abound. Lazy afternoons at Gota Kebir, Gota Soraya, Abu Basala or Dangerous reef make time for dives around pristine pinnacles and plateaus. St Johns cave to the north makes for a memorable dive. Here shallow cracks in the reef plate open into caverns and overhangs. Fury Shoal is famous for her hard corals - do not miss Shaab Claudia, Malahi or Abu Galawa Soraya. These ancient structures are as bright as they impressive. Shiriniat in Wadi Gamal is a must see stop off on the way back north for a lighthearted drift Final dives in the Marsa Alam region closes a spectacular week of unparalleled reef diving.

The St Johns itinerary is perfect for every diver, no matter what experience level. The diving is straight forward so you can concentrate more on the mind blowing marine life in this veritable underwater aquarium. Diving takes place both from the boat and RIB. With walls, pinnacles, caves, night diving over the whole week, the St Johns itinerary is packed with the dives that everyone can enjoy. Currents tend to mild and minimal.

Every diver on the St Johns itinerary faces the same impossible task - to decide which is the star of this show. The reef life is breathtaking and everywhere you look there is yet another fishy spot for the log book. Yet the pristine and healthy corrals are as much a super star on this itinerary. See for yourself just why the Southern Red Sea keeps people coming back for more year after year.

Another diving website describes St John’s thus:

St. John's Reef is 14 square miles of splendidly diverse coral atolls and offshore reefs, located 40km north of the Sudanese border and 20km South West of Zabargad / Rocky Island. This is the most remote diving from egypt, and is commonly called 'deep south' live-aboard diving. St John's reef is accessed by liveaboard from Marsa Alam.

The extensive reef system has over a dozen known dive sites and many more unexplored experiences. In view of its sheltered nature it is accessible all year round and offers great dives in winter and summer. There are many tiny circular reefs which come to just below the surface, such as Four Metre Reef. Huge shoals of fish congregate around spectacular vertical underwater gardens full of soft corals. Fusiliers, surgeon fish and unicorn fish often swarm together, in one big feeding frenzy. Look out for the curious and impressive Bump-head parrot fish, that are typical to the St Johns area. Turtles are common as are Napoleons and gray reef sharks. Hammerheads, Gray sharks, Silvertip Sharks and White tip Reef Sharks can often be spotted out in the blue. Barracudas, Tuna and Mackerel are also often sighted here, as well as rare sightings of Manta Rays and Dolphins.

St. John's reef is as remote and unspoilt as you can get in the Egyptian Red Sea. Excellent corals, fish and shark sightings likely.

These are remote dive sites, and weather can be rough. These sites are only suitable for experienced divers i.e. with 50+ logged dives. Best time to visit is during the summer, seas can be rough in the winter.

Maps showing all of the dive sites in the 14



square miles of St John’s are hard to find but the above map shows some of the main sites. Every dive guide however seems to have their own names for a dive site and all divers know that you only have to dive at a slightly different position to a different depth and you will get a totally different experience.

The liveaboard I am on is “The Grand Sea Serpent” which reported to be one of the larger and more luxurious liveaboards in the Red Sea – I have not been on her before so it will be interesting to see how she compares to the others I have experienced.

Getting there is the usual trek from London: drive to Gatwick; and then a long cramped flight

737 to Marsa    

heading south east on a Thomson 737-800 operating close to its maximum range. Certified divers get an extra checked weight allowance on top of the standard 20 kg (effectively an additional 3kg) which is useful because my dive gear weighs in at 18kg and I still need to pack clothes!

Gatwick to Marsa

Although the flight is nearly six hours long (almost long enough to cross the Atlantic), apparently it is not long enough to count as a long haul flight and hence the seats have a cramped 28” pitch, there is no in-flight entertainment and food has to be paid for.

Across iew of Italy

The route goes down the western side of Italy where the sky suddenly clears of cloud and you can see across the whole of Italy, crosses the African Coast and follows the Nile for quite a way.

Nile City

above is the city of Sohag

The importance of the Nile for irrigation and supporting the population is clearly evident from the air – there are frequent towns along the Nile and its adjacent canal and the green corridor either side of the Nile runs the whole way down it.

Nile Plane Map

Nile Valley

the city of Al Banya is on the curve of the Nile

Nile City-1

the city of Asyut

We fly a long way down the Nile before heading out across the desert once more to Marsa Alam which is on the coast.


Marsa Alam airport is a small airport and has a reputation for being bureaucratic and efficient on the way in and the reverse on the way out. An early example of the bureaucracy is that a visa costs $15 (really a tourist tax) and in arrivals there is a man to give your visa to the man who sticks it in your passport, then a man to stamp the visa and a man to watch that the man has stamped the visa, then a man to record that the man has watched the visa be stamped and then finally, a man to check that you actually have a visa and that all of the other men have done their jobs. When you get to the baggage hall however, your baggage arrives far more quicker than the passengers, indeed it is the quickest of any airport I have flown to anywhere in the world.

The airport was built to serve the nearby development

Port Ghalib Building Site

(aka building site) of Port Ghallib and is in fact 65km north of the city of the same name which also is a building site. The above picture shows the land behind the official entrance to Port Ghallib – you do not see this until you have passed down a grand palm tree lined route and turned off onto the road leading to the port.

Passenger numbers through the airport have dropped 30% over the past year and this has not helped the local economy or local employment - hence the somewhat desperate methods of some of the locals to extracting large tips from anyone who looks to be a tourist.

The weather forecast for the week is good with the weather


being similar each day – temperatures at sea rising to 37C (apparently expected to be 42C on land), winds blowing


east west rising to 10 knots at about 2 pm and quietening down later, no rain, no cloud, no anything but hot sun.

And so 13 hours after closing my front door (very quietly) in England, I open the door to Cabin 5 on the Grand Sea Serpent – my home for the next week. For the next day or so, there is both WIFI and Mobile Phone coverage and so messages of safe arrival are sent off. Once we seriously start to head south, then coverage will cease.

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