Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Off diving at St John's in the Red Sea again

I have blogged about diving at St John’s three times in the past and there cannot be much left to talk about so these blog entires are going to be short. I know that many divers look at the dive maps so I shall record them where possible and any other relevant details but if you want to know about the boat, flights, hotels etc, then hunt down the earlier entries.

The flight out was the usual cramped 737 flying close to maximum range, being its third trip of the day, we left a bit late and arrived a bit late. The airport still shows all of the signs of the Egyptian way - one passport checking booth open (out of 6) with a resulting long queue buts lots of staff standing around doing nothing but watching you stand in a queue. All of the turmoil in Egypt and the Middle East during the past few years has hit tourist numbers and in an attempt to recover lost funds, the Government has increased the Visa Fee which you pay at the Airport from $15 to $25. 

Unfortunately the once weekly flight to Marsa Alam from London now leaves later in the day which means you arrive on the boat too late to walk around Port Ghalib where the boats tie up. The Port is almost as undeveloped as it was when I first came here eight years ago but there are signs of a small amount of new development taking place now. However this has not stopped them from hard selling built and unbuilt flats / houses to anyone foolish enough to look into the sales shop window - prices are cheap but the place is rather isolated for a weekend away.

Despite the stories we hear of increased bureaucracy due to the military taking over management of the Port, we were underway and out of port before anyone was out of bed - this put us at least four hours ahead of the normal first day schedule of: late get up, rest around until the officials get bored, set sail to the first dive site a few hours south for a check dive dive before lunch.

St John’s is the southern most set of dive sites in Eqypt and lies with a few kms of the Sudanese border. Hence getting there involves a long sail south. This distance has an effect on the shape of the dive plan which is for two dives the first and last day and four dives every other day -  a total of 20 dives over the week.

Dive site overview











 Dive 1 - Check Dive at Abu Dabab

It is a rule of diving that the first dive of the trip is an easy dive more focused on testing your equipment, getting your weight correct etc than anything else. So our first dive was at this standard spot - off the stern, sort out weights and other things then down to around 15m, explore the wreck of a dive boat which sank there, generally mosey around looking at fish, practice sending up an SMB and then return to the boat.

Abu Dabbab Dive Site









On our boat was a very good divers atlas of the Southern Red Sea (unsurprisingly called "Divers Atlas Southern Red Sea by Martin Krejca") and the dive map in it for Abu Dabab is as above. You can compare this to the actual view taken from the top of the Hurricane

Abu Dabab L R




The above picture is of the reef at the top right of the dive map and our boat was moored roughly where the red spot is on the dive map. The atlas contains not only a map but also an explanation of the site and its features and life.











Wreck 001









The only items of note which I saw were the  dive boat wreck itself (the number of dive boat wrecks is somewhat disconcerting ! ) which is looking more dilapidated than before. This is to be expected because this is a day boat dive site










Hawksbill Turtle 001









and a very large male Hawksbill Turtle which was totally unconcerned with our presence and carried on eating coral.

Dive 2 - Sh’ab Marsa Alam

About two hours south is Sh’ab Marsa Alam which is just off the town of Marsa Alam. This is a largish reef with three possible dive plans. We mored to the east of the reef but went round to the western side for a negative rib entry and then finned south around the bottom of the reef and eventually got back to the boat. It seemed it was to be a routine dive for the three of us

Coral Garden 001










Coral Garden









with average coral gardens,

Crocodile Fish











plus a Crocodile Fish

Scorpion Fish









and (first time) a Scorpion Fish.

But just as we has passed

Cabbage Coral











a rather nice (and very large) Cabbage Coral and were heading back to the boat after about 60 minutes dive time - DOLPHINS.


Dolphin Surround









Suddenly we were surrounded by a pod of dolphins who were intent on showing us how much better than us they could swim underwater

Dolphins Close










Dolphin Sex









and also how they could have sex underwater (numerous times with numerous partners). They swam around us, through us, by us and away from us, constantly showing off their skills. At one stage they were only a couple of metres away from me. Eventually we had to head back to the boat because we were on our air safety limit. It turned out that we were the lucky three and were the only people who had really been close to them, most of the other divers having either already surfaced or too far away to know about the dolphins.

Dive 3 - Habili Ali

After a long overnight cruise south (luckily my cabin 5 is at the bow and hence avoids the noise from the engine), we arrived at St John’s for the first for three dives today. 0530 wakeup; 0600 briefing; 0632 in the water for a 55 minute dive, rib drop off, negative entry. All fairly routine with two white tips and then just as the current got strong,










a medium sized Manta feeding in the current with three Remora quite clearly attached underneath it. We had to take the mooring rope back to the stern due to the strong currents.

Dive 4 - Habili Gafir

There are 11 recognised dive sites in St John’s and we are working our way around most of them. This one is a ring of coral filled with water in the middle with numerous scattered pillars around the edges. The dive plan

Unconventional Briefing tool











(explained using a crate and a towel) is to negatively descend to 25m off the stern and then fin around the Habili as many times as possible but at steadily decreasing depth. However, the current was very strong on one side of the Habili and therefore only once went all the way around and reversed on subsequent circuits when we hit the current. There was hazy viz on the current side of the Habili and clear on the other. 

Hard Coral









apart from some nice hard coral

Comic Fish











a pair of Comic Fish acting as they always do

Lion Fish









a Lion Fish (we did not see many on this trip)


Titan large









a large Titan Fish (always stay away from them, they are unpredictably aggressive and can inflict a nasty bite)

Spanish Dancer









and a nice Spanish Dancer,


White Tip scale 001









and the real highlight which was a small White Tip Shark which was resting underneath an overhang until we came along.

White Tip above









It was too small to threaten us and therefore probably got more attention than a more mature shark would have done. At a guess (based on its size of about 1 metre), it was about 8 years old.

Dive 5 - Um Aruk

The visibility was very poor and therefore the only photograph of note was that of a Moray

Moray Um Aruk












which we were told was not interested in us because its mouth was open - apparently if their mouth is open they are breathing and if closed, they are preparing to come out to bite. I shall not test this item of information with a Moray !

Dive 6 - Gotta Kabir

This was supposed to be a leisurely drift dive along a wall starting at 30m rising to 10m in order to see some caves.

Fast past caves












But it turned out to be a fast drift dive and the caves were missed (they are speeding past in this picture) because we went straight past them.

Rib back to Hurricane









After our rib drop off, we drifted over 3 kms and therefore had a rib pickup us well to get back to the Hurricane (we were supposed to have made our own way back). There were not a lot of fish but the drift was pleasant enough.

Dive 7 - St John’s Caves

For me the caves here are one of the great dives of the area although they are beginning to look a bit battered. There are numerous pictures of the cave and a dive plan in earlier year's blog entries so I will not put a lot here save for

St John s Caves












the sunlight beaming down through the roof - I was relatively shallow here so there was no read absorption in the water

St John s Clam









a clam - I have a weakness for blue clams and their reaction if you touch them or wave a hand over the open part of the clam

St John s Fish












some common fish just hanging there in the shade of a coral pinnacle

St John s Coral Garden 001












St John s Coral Garden












and some nice coral gardens. As we surfaced, the resident Napoleon arrived right under the boat but on the sea bed which was too deep for a quite duck down without ruining our dive profile.

The caves were superb and because we were the only boat there and the first divers into the water, the viz was good. The coral gardens at the end were particularly nice.

Dive 8 - El Malaki

Stopped for a paper check by the Egyptian navy on the way here who took exception to one of our number taking a photograph of their vessel - hardly a secret vessel but the military are very twitchy at the moment. Our boat had to provide copies of our passports and numerous other bits of paper before we were allowed on our way.

El M Coral Channel












This is a very beautiful dive site with a number of nice caves and channels through the reef with numerous passages.

Coral Block









There are numerous very large coral blocks everywhere. Overall, this is a very pleasant dive spot where one can relax and just enjoy being a scuba diver.

Dive 9 - El Malaki

A night dive done high but above the channels.

Feather Star









Lots of very small life including feather stars which retract their tendrils in the light of your dive torch










shrimps which are quite easy to spot because their eyes (just like a cat) reflect back your torch beam










 and a small cuttlefish which did its best to confuse us.


Night climbing the ladder









Ascending back up the stern ladders 

Torches at Night









is done through a myriad of torch beams as other divers hang at about 5 metres doing their safety stops.

Dive 10 - SS Turbo Ras Banas

Unusually for a live aboard, I awake to see that having starting the return trip north yesterday, we are now going back down south at full speed. I reach this conclusion not because I am adept at navigation but because the land is on our right as we move. It rapidly becomes apparent that we are sailing south to go to a wreck site which we were unable to go to the previous day because the sea was strong.

Ras Banas is the pointy bit of land which sticks out from the African part of Egypt down near the Sudan border. It has an interesting history being the site of the ancient port of Berenice (300BC to 600 AD) and an important place on the trading routes of that time. More recently, the US nearly built a military camp there and it has a large (unused) airfield.

Ras Banas









To describe the area as inhospitable is not nearly accurate enough. Current meteorological records show a massive 7mm of rain in a good year and temperatures which never fall below 24C in winter (as we head south, it is 42C).

SS Turbo







The steamship Turbo was torpedoed in 1941 when in the Mediterranean. In summary, although it had been damaged beyond repair and its remaining cargo had been unloaded at Port Said and Suez, it was being towed south towards Aden for use as a stationary bulk fuel storage facility when it broke its back off Ras Banas. The stern sunk (the part that is dived upon) and the bow was deliberately sunk elsewhere by gunfire soon after. There is more information here and here.

The Hurricane ran a line down from its stern to a rail at the forward end of wreck so we went down the line

Turbo showing angle







to the stern of the Turbo which lies on the sea bed at an angle of 45 degrees at about 18 metres depth on the top of the starboard rail (on the left in this picture) down to 28 metres on the sea bed (on the right in this picture). It is close to the reef edge.

Engine Room Entry









Because it is seldom dived, the silt in the wreck is very easily disturbed. This is an entry into the engine room

Engine Room Exit









and this is an exit (again on the deck).










I suspect you could go down the funnel but it is not something I attempted.










Only part of the rear mast (see the ship's picture above, it is the mast in front of the funnel) remains

Stern 001









The stern is quite well preserved

Winch on deck









nearby is a deck windlass.

Deck Starboard side









and generally there is a good amount of coral life

Standard nemos









growing on the boat plus the usual fish.

At the break point in the hull, you get a good “Giannis D” type of view

Position of break









with ladders running down into the hold

In hold









and they are easy to go into with no fear of silt obstructing the view of the way out.

Whilst we were diving, the wind and seas got up and the Hurricane’s bow line (attached to a seabed anchor) snapped to the Hurricane untied and moved further out to sea.

Hanging on the line












So when we had finished hanging on the line at around 5 metres (although the sea state varied this depth considerably)


Rib Return









So we had an unexpected rib pickup in rather choppy seas close to the reef - the wreck is directly under the rib in this picture.

This is an interesting wreck which is good to dive. It does demand careful finning and its position close to the reef might make some dive boat captains wary of tying off too it.

Dive 11 - Sha’Ab Claudia

This is a nice place to dive with lots of nice swim throughs

Inside Cave









where the light shines down through holes in the ceiling,

Carpet Anenome









and Comic Fish live in large chunks of Carpet Anemones,

Cleaner Wrasse









Cleaner Wrasse do their thing despite resistance from their hosts










and the famous Napoleon is still resident just below where dive boats moor in the hope of begging a 

Dive 12- Abu Gota Soroya

This was the usual dive with access to the central lagoon which is showing a lot of weather damage and its much visited wreck.










From the dive boat, the reef shows some of its inlets and channels.

Wreck Appears









The wreck is still there and its appearance is not much different to that of earlier years










 although perhaps it is a little more encrusted

Wreck 001









and a coral garden is gradually taking over.

The Toilet









although the toilet looks a bit smaller - maybe it has lost its base.

Very Large Titan

There was one of the largest Titans I have seen eating coral, despite its preoccupation with the coral, it is best to give Titans a wide birth.

Comic 001









Comic Fish were resident in a different type of anemone to the usual.

Coral Garden

The coral gardens were beautiful but perhaps a little battered from last time.

Coral Block

Their beauty however is inarguable - they simply are wonderful.

Dive 13 - Siyal Island - off Hamata

When then headed north again and anchored off Hamata for a night dive off Siyal Island. This was very much a waste of time,

Crown of Thorns









there were a few Crown of Thorns (which sow up Red at night with my camera and a flash) but nothing else and the coral was unspectacular with little fish life. Not a place to be recommended !

Dive 14 - Sha’ab Sharm

An easy morning drift dive, not a lot to see but some nice coral

Coral Fans












on the reef wall










and then a Turtle which was grazing on some Broccoli Anenome

Turtle 001

Overall, nothing special but a nice dive.

Dive 15 - Sha’ab Gadhir Soghayr

An easy dive with 

Coral Garden 001









some rather good coral pinnacles











Goat Fish









a Goat Fish

Masked Puffer Fish









and a Masked Puffer Fish amongst many others.

This was simply a place for an unchallenging dive with lots to see and to gently fin around.

Dive 16 - Sha’ab Marsa Alam

Another easy dive with some nice coral

Blue Spotted Ray









plus a nice Blue Spotted Ray










a large Moray

Liveaboard Wreck









and the wreck of a liveaboard

Liveaboard Toilets









complete with toilets!

Dive 17 - Sha’ab Marsa Alam










This was a night dive around the same coral blocks - nice but nothing special was seen tonight other than lots of starfish with one short leg - presumably regrowing.

Dive 18 - Elhphestone

This is a well dived site and like most of the sites on this trip I have been here before - it is known for white tip sharks. This time however the currents and sea state were very different to the last time I was here. The dive plan was to go off the stern with negative buoyancy onto the plateau, fin against a very light current along one side of the reef return to the plateau and do the same on the other side before surfacing. The currents however decided otherwise - they were very strong and we were confined to the plateau

Damsel Fish









where the only item of interest was being attacked by a Damsel Fish - all 6 cms of it. The sea was rough on ascending and it was only with some excellent help from the dive deck crew that we managed to get out of the sea relatively unscathed.

Dive 19 - Um Elros Marsa Alam

This dive site is just outside Marsa and hence is a favourite not only with day boats but also with the Port Ghalib Yellow Submarine which takes tourists out to a reef so that they can see the fish (and divers). Hence one has to be careful when surfacing in case a boat is heading straight for you. The sea bed was surprisingly clean, often there is a lot of rubbish drop by day boats and I have been on dive trips where our sole purpose was to pick up dropped rubbish from the seabed.

Two Blue Spotted Rays

I saw a number of blue spotted rays - here two chasing each other. I do not know if the difference in colour indicates different sexes or subtypes of ray.
Fast Moving Blue Spotted Ray
The chasing ray moved past me very fast
Ray under Coral
and then took refuge under some coral.
Two Coloured Coral
Some of the coral was two different colours even though it was the same type of coral. I think the white coral is dead coral.
Towards the end there were lots of Pipe Fish around
Pipe Fish
From experience I know they like to swim in the air bubbles created by divers
Pipe Fish Close
and sometimes come very close.
And I finished this last dive just as a multicoloured example of the beautiful fish to be found in the Red Sea went by.

The last day was spent ashore at a hotel in Port Ghalib - rather a boring day but necessary in order to allow the boat to be cleaned and re-provisioned for its next trip and also to allow us to degas over 24 hours before flying.

In summary, St John’s is still worth visiting and almost as beautiful as it was 8 years ago when I first visited it but parts of it are beginning to look a bit worn.