Friday, September 10, 2010

Southern Egypt Safari - Last day

I didn't sleep well during the night. I kept turning over in my sleep and seeing blurry stars and feeling the wind. My stomach was annoyed (later I learned that almost all of us had stomach trouble, and we mostly blamed it on the farewell cake). I woke to see the sunrise over the Sinai mountains, and took the last set of pictures of sunset for this trip.

Our first dive was to the Thistlegrom again. This time Piet led the dive. Unlike Boaz who gave us free leash to explore, Piet took us on a guided tour that covered the whole length of the boat. This was a nice change because he showed various things that otherwise would be missed.

We started with some ammunition from the explosion site.

We then passed below the anti-aircraft guns to the huge propellor at the back of the ship.

Throughout the dive we saw amazing amount of sea life. Very large batfish, schools of blue fishes, and in the closed rooms also schools of glass fishes going around in circles. 

We reached the forward port of the ship, where we saw some train carriages. 

We then entered the room where the anchor chains were stored and came up to the tip of the bow. Here there was a strong current that we had to fight not to get carried off into the void.

We started going back toward mid ship. At some point I saw two very large box fishes swimming one after the other, a great photo-op that was missed due to the lack of flash. Going through the command tower we passed the remains of the captain's chambers, which included a large bathtub, apparently for his own private use.

We started going up when Avi and I had 50bar. Going up the rope we started encountering very strong current. It felt like we were pieces of laundry left to dry on a fierce wind. This was not a very pleasant experience, especially since I was trying to keep the camera from banging into things.

Dive #25: Thistlegrom, 200-20, 39:40min, max 30.8m, avg 18.6m.

After breakfast the captain got us moving toward Sha'arem. On the way we had to pass Ras Muhammad, the southernmost tip of Sinai. This is a large nature reserve (both on land and in the sea) and has some of the best diving sites of the Red Sea. Our farewell dive as at the very tip in an site called Yolanda Reef. It is supposed to have crazy current. The prediction was that the current would be from north-east to south-west, but after watching the water Piet had a hunch that it was reversed at the time. He went with the zodiac to check and reported this was the case. And so we did the dive in the opposite direction to the intended plan.
We jumped directly off the back of the boat while the captain killed the engine (without mooring) and started down.

The reef was shallow and nice where we started. Suddenly a strong current hit us and took us with it for several minutes. When we reached a corner we went close to the reef and the current left us. This is where the Yolanda sunk. It carried sanitary supplies, which are spread all over the area. The remains of the ship were moved since then by the sea and fell into the deep.

Piet found another stonefish. This one was purple and plain to see, once you realized that it is a fish and not a rock.
We continued along the reef until we got to a steep wall. Here there was a lot of life and a bit of current running against us (but very weakly). Piet had an unexpected meeting with an acquaintance.

At the end we moved off the lip of the reef and went up for the zodiac to pick us up.

Dive #26: Yolanda Reef, 200-30, 48:00min, max 26.2m, avg 14.3m.

After Ras Muhammad, we continued toward Sha'arem. It was a very short trip, and mostly over by time I packed my stuff and diving gear. At the port, which is protected from the wind, we suddenly felt how warm it is. We had lunch, and waited inside until our bus showed up. We quickly dismounted, packed the bus, and went on it. 

Unlike the trip from Taba to Shaarem that was at night, the trip back was during day, and we got some views of Sinai mountains and the shore from Dahab to Taba. The closer we got to Taba the resorts and huts looked more and more deserted and unused. I guess the lack of Israeli tourism hit this area the hardest.

We reached the border at about 6pm. The border crossing was mostly deserted, but getting through the Egyptian passport control and then the Israeli security checks took a long while. We aggregated outside the border station on the Israeli side. Said our goodbyes, and then started the long drive home.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Southern Egypt Safari - Sixth day

I woke up late, the sun was already up and I could see it over the rail of the upper deck. I turn around and went back to sleep another half-hour. 

About the time I woke up and went downstairs to brush my teeth, Piet went around making wakeup calls. We assembled on the deck and prepared to dive.

We took the zodiac to the second wreck on the other side of the reef. This time we went down to the Carnatic, an old wooden ship that sank almost 140 years ago. This was one of the earliest wrecks here, simply because it sank soon after the opening of the Suetz channel and the establishment of this route as a main route from Europe to the East.

The ship was broken in half after beaching on the reef, and the two halfs are sitting along the side of the reef. Much of the wood remained more or less intact and is totally covered in corals, giving the ship a very special atmosphere. Although most of the deck is gone, much of the frame of the ship is there, and can be navigated freely. 

The cargo of the Carnatic was people, mail, and supplies. There were many bottles of wine on board, and remains of many of them are found around here.

The bow of the ship had a series of halls to hold part of the forward mast. This served as an ideal photo op spot.

We then returned back along the ship's hull, and run into Boaz's group going the other direction.

We said goodbye to the ship and moved off to the blue to get picked up by the zodiac.

Dive #21: Carnatic, 200-50, 48:50min, max 24.1m, avg 16.5m.

After the dive we had breakfast, and then the captain took off, and we started crossing the Gubal straits. Although the sea looked calm in the morning, the actual crossing was very windy and rocky. I sat on the deck trying to relax, and at some point realized that my regular glasses are not in the pocket of my shirt (I keep one pair on and the other in the pocket so can switch when going inside/outside). We searched the deck for a place where they might have fallen out, but didn't find them. For the rest of the trip I worse sunglasses, even at night (to the surprise and joy of the crew).

During the trip I tried to fix the flash optic cable that was causing me problems in the last few dives, and felt that I successfully solved the problem.

After two hours of rough crossing we reached a reef on the other side. It is one of the outer barrier-like reef along south western Sinai. The reef called Shag Rock. The tide was extremely low and the whole top of the reef was exposed. We even saw someone who was walking on the reef, apparently collecting sea food.

We took a long zodiac ride to the north side of the reef. There lays the wreck of the Kingston, an old cargo ship. The whole group was on the zodiac, and so we were crowded and heavy on the water. I tried to take a picture and realized that the flash was not firing again. 

We explored the ship a bit, going forward. During that time I got my scissors out, shortend the flash cable and reinstalled it, with the hope of fixing the problem, but alas it did not. 

We had to fight our way to get to the rear of the ship, where we saw a large moray eel (which I could not photograph due to faulty flash).

Once we started going along the reef, we immediately hit a very strong current, and started drifting along. This was our first serious drift dive in the safari, and we all tumbled along with the current, enjoying the scenery flashing by. At some point Boaz held to a rock to check that everyone is ok, and it was amazing how hard it was for him to stay in that one place and how fast he passed by.

And so we hang back, and let the current do the work.

When we came around to the other side of the reef the current slowed and we got to watch the various creatures along the reef.

Toward the end we stayed a bit to take in the magnificent view. But the end we started to feel cold. This was also the last dive where I wore only lycra shirt. 

Dive #22: Shag Rock 200-30, 65:30min, max 18m, avg 9.1m.

After the dive we lifted anchor and sailed to the Thistlegrom. This is a british military cargo ship that was sank by german bomber during WW2. It is considered one of the best wreck dives in the world. It sits in on a boating lane without reef around it, and so the current can be strong. It is a popular destination and so one of the problems is the large number of divers on it. We thought that arriving in the afternoon will let us dive after the daily boat operators will leave and then again in the morning before they return. 

When we got to the Thistlegrom there were two boats moored above it. Piet had to dive three times to tie us to the actual wreck. We had lunch and then rested a bit before diving. At that point two additional boats arrived and we watched them moore as well. It was clear that we are not going to be alone there during the night.

Since Piet did a crazy dive to tie the boat, we went down as one big loosely organized group with Boaz. The descent is by following the rope from the boat rear all the way the down. The visibility was quite poor and there was a bit of current. Again, the flash did not work once I was in the water. Once we were down, Boaz collected all of us and started going into the cargo halls. 

The ship was loaded with military supplies for the British campaign in Africa, and many of the halls were packed with trucks and on them various supplies. The first truck we saw was carrying rubber boots. The next one had three BSA motercycles, so were the next two trucks. Then we saw a truck with motorcycle side-cars. Some of the cargo was hard to recognize after it was rusted and built a large layers of corals. We saw stuff that looked like engine parts, guns, and cables.

We got to the front of the ship we turned and returned along the deck. There were big train cars on the deck. Some were totally intact, and other smashed in the explosion that sank the ship. We reached the rope and made our way slowly up. Since this was a long and deep dive, we took extra care to make short "deep stops" on the way up (you can see the nice the ladder on the end of the dive profile).

Dive #23: Thistlegrom, 200-10, 50:00min, max 27.4m, avg 19.2m.

After the dive we went for a rest. I did a thorough diagnosis of the optic cable, which showed that the problem was on the camera end of things. I secured that part in place and double checked that now everything is ready to work again. 

There was doubt as to whether it was wise to go for a night dive. The worry was that the current was stronger now, and if we get carried away no one will notice us. We decided to go for the dive but take it safely. We went Ayelet, Avi, Ilan (the photographer) and me. We went down the rope from the boat's rear onto the middle part of the wreck. The current was strong, but not too strong. We then explored the decks and some of the cargo halls. At one point we saw a group from one of the other boats. They were going through the lower floor and had flashing sticklights and big torches. The effect was a total discotek. 

My flash didn't work again, so I resigned to hold my camera tight and just explore. We saw a blue spotted ray, and many fish. We reached the front of the wreck and at the anchor point found a rope that also led to our boat. We started going up and immediately were hit by a strong current. The water was teaming with fish that all were facing like us against the current. We slowly went up and this we got to the bow of our boat. There there was a rope that connected with the rear. We "walked" along this rope hand after a hand against the current. This stage was the toughest, but we made it without problems and back on the boat.

Dive #24: Thistlegrom, 200-50, 39:00min, max 24.4m, avg 14.9m.

After dinner we convened on the deck and the chef brought a cake to celebrate the end of the safari. I was dead-tire and did not stay for the ensuing short party.