Deep South on Voyager
Ian and I had decided to take an early season (pre-Easter) diving trip. We had waited until the very last minute to book on this South Red Sea liveaboard called Ghazala Voyager, hoping for the price to go down and it did eventually. So we happily signed up and eventually 'D' day came.
I had got up very early that morning, had bought the croissants and rushed to the airport to catch my flight to Gatwick, dragging my new and very bulky diving bag behind me and knocking everything and everyone on the way. After an eventful journey (problems with my e-ticket and a 2 hour delayed flight), I eventually landed in sweet England and met Ian.
Checked in on the flight to Hurghada (Ian had to repack his hand-luggage and load his pockets with stuff, ending up with a jacket that must have weighed tonnes - but hand-luggage that met the 5kg limit) and went for a coffee to go with the croissants. After queuing for a good 20 minute for the coffee (as always, I had picked the wrong queue!), we left without one as our flight was boarding: the whole day started rather poorly!
We only started to relax once on board the plane; I was sitting next to a very well travelled chap who had been on Voyager before and told us mouth-watering stories.
We met the rest of the party (another 8) at Hurghada where we were picked up by a minibus and taken to the head office to do some photocopies. There was a long wait (yes, this was Egypt) during which the "boys" got totally drunk to my disgust; horrified, I really wondered what I had signed up for (Note: the 'boys' calmed down a bit after the excesses of the first night - but still maintained the principles of 'enjoying a beer or five' after the day's diving was finished. Ian J)
We eventually boarded the bus again and drove for about 4 ½ hours to Marsa Alam, south of Safagga that we reached around midnight. We were dropped in what we thought was the middle of nowhere, i.e. a small jetty on a beach where Mick, the boat manager, welcomed us and ferried us by zodiac to the boat. There, Sarah, Mick's other half and second boat manager, gave us our cabins; as we were so few, we virtually all ended up with individual cabins, all en-suite and clad with light colour oak: great! Aswe were having a very late dinner, Sarah explained to us the programme of the week: If the weather was good, we'd try to reach St John's reef, 1½ hour north of the Sudanese border, which can only be dived about 5 times a year as it is quite away from the coast line and is not sheltered. But at that time of the day, the only thing we were interested in was a good night of sleep.
The next day, although the engines started around 6 a.m., we had a late start, i.e. we jumped in the water around 9 a.m. for our "shake down" dive, around 2 ergs where we saw our first blue spotted ray. On our second dive, we were welcomed by a huge Napoleon wrasse as we got in and a cloud of jellyfish as we got out, and saw a grazing turtle down below. On the night dive that day, I saw my first (and only) 'Spanish Dancer': that made up for the fact that we got lost and had quite a long swim back to the boat under a sky full of stars.
The facilities on board were very good, all soft drinks were free and there was an ' honour bar' for alcoholic drinks (not that I used it but I think Ian sampled a few beers!). The food was wholesome and plentiful and after dinner you could watch videos or go out on deck and enjoy the night air. The crew were very attentive - down to the level of or preparing special meals if you had 'odd' dietary requirements, or even putting your fins on for you when you were preparing to jump off the back of the boat!
The boat managers had decided we'd try to go to St John's reef, so we sailed all night and jumped in before breakfast, just above a white tip, my first shark ever! The reef has many black coral heads and is known for the presence of humphead parrot fish. We also saw white tips on the subsequent dives we did in the area, plus the usual array of tropical fish.
We had started to get into a regular routine of: Up early (if not too bright!) when we started to travel to the first dive site, briefing, dive, breakfast, rest, briefing, dive, lunch, rest, briefing, dive, rest, briefing, night dive (if you wanted to) and dinner - it was a tough life!
Day 3 was the furthest South we got, but as we were only a few miles from the Sudanese border that was far enough! The day started with sightings of dolphins, playing around the boat as we made out way to the dive site.
We jumped in for our 1st dive into a very strong current, saw large sharks (silkies?) and shoals of pelagic fish, barracudas, snappers and trevallies. On our 2nd dive on the day, we were greeted by a manta ray that flew above us for a while. Lots of Napoleon wrasse live there as well. The 3rd dive of the day started by the exploration of a lovely coral garden, beautifully lit by the afternoon sun, and finished above the drop off and its table corals and huge sea fans. But the highlight of the day was the "historic" discovery we made on our night dive, at around 8 meters depth: a black and white banded sea snake, a discovery that, according to Sarah, would change the list of species known in the Red Sea! (Apologies for the picture quality - but this was one I wasn't going to get close to! IanJ)
Day 4 and we were making our way North again. We started with the exploration of the "unknown wreck" at about 30 meters depth, that is the home to very colourful clams, spiky lionfish, a shoal of batfish and a great looking Titan triggerfish. We also had great fun on the next dive with the very close encounter with a sleeping white tip in a cave and a porcupine fish that almost nibbled my fingers.
One of my favourite dives of the week was the little tug boat "Tienstin" that we dived next. Angled at 50-60°, its deck is covered in beautiful coral heads, including stag corals that are home to tiny green fish that just look like peppermint boiled sweets. On the night dive that day, we were escorted by a friendly masked puffer during most of the dive until our attention got diverted by this very strange, spiky sea cucumber.
The next day was the real South Red Sea experience*: strong wind and very, very rough sea. I'd never been that sick in my life (yes, I can be even more sick) and just wanted to jump from the boat. And when I did, what a relief, especially since this first dive was a lot a fun: the Al Malahi reef has many swim-throughs, tunnels, caves that we all explored; the dive carried on with a great looking coral garden that looks like petrified fountains, and a forest of huge pinnacles in which we got lost (needless to say I was leading!).
*(Note: It was not that typical, this was a Southerly and the Red Sea normally has Northerlies, but this was also quite strong - strong enough to sink 4 livaboards which were anchored in Sharm Harbour! IanJ).
We followed Sarah for our next dive, and she took us through another astonishing, vast and very atmospheric coral garden where we were closely looked at by a patrolling white tip.
I passed on the afternoon and night dives.
(Both dives were very enjoyable with Moray eels, and all the 'normal' fish. The highlight of the night dive to me was finding an octopus who was no doubt alarmed by the torches shining at him at least had the decency to pose whilst I took a couple of snaps of him. IanJ)
On our last day of diving, on Shaab Sharm drift, we attempted twice to see hammerheads: in vain; so we headed towards Dolphin Reef to swim amongst dolphins since they come every day in the lagoon; .every day except that day!
We sailed along the coast, looking at the sun going down behind the high mountains of Egypt and reached Marsa Alam in the evening for our last night on board. The next day, the same minibus drove us back to Hurghada where had a few hours to kill. The "boys" decided to have their hair cut and their facial hair plucked (it seems to be the thing to do out there) and came back lobster red but smooth, Ian and I ventured into town and the others laid by the pool.
This trip by Tony Backhurst has been good value for money: comfortable boat, very well looked after (not a single cockroach!), excellent boat managers and crew, good food, carefully chosen dive sites and excellent briefings. To be recommended to all!
(Comments and snaps by Ian Jennings)
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