AFTER THE CASUAL check-out dive at Abu Dabab, we sailed overnight to the St John’s system of around a dozen reefs and shoals. Over the course of two weekly charters, we dived Habili Ali, Gota Soraya, Dangerous, Gota Kebir, Umm Aruk, Abu Basala, Paradise and St John’s Caves. All were first-class and diverse, including reef tables and vertical walls, with sandy plateaus usually with multiple huge vertical coral pillars and table corals.
Spinner dolphins at Sataya reef, Fury Shoal.
Where the current hit the reef, there was also a chance to see big stuff: mantas, oceanic whitetip, grey reef and resident whitetip sharks, shoaling barracuda, tuna, snapper and trevally.
The soft corals hung bright and beautiful from the hard coral walls, and you couldn’t avoid that Red Sea trademark, the humming layer of bright red anthias, millions of them.
The plateaus were filled with blue-spotted rays, scorpionfish, moray eels, lionfish, clownfish and anemones, Picasso triggerfish, sweetlips and bannerfish.
St John’s Cave was a beaut! Guided in single file, watching our buoyancy and fins, we slipped through a 60-minute dive in awe of the labyrinth that weaved its way through the reef table to the lagoon and back again.
Glassfish, sweepers and exquisitely coloured small hard-coral branches and cup corals packed the deep corners and roofs of the caves.
It was time for Zabargad and Rocky Island, my ultimate mission, 20 miles from the Sudan border and pretty much slap on the Tropic of Cancer.
We dived at Rocky Island first, with its huge cathedral-like walls, stunning light and clear blue waters.
A pod of some 50 dolphins greeted us as we moored up. We took the RIB before breakfast to the northerly point and dropped to 40m in superb all-round vis.
It was that definitively awesome, neutrally buoyant underwater experience, though no hammerheads this time, only glimpses of grey reef sharks.
We drifted back towards the boat in the current, passing through huge gorgonians and black and whip corals, with an abundance of healthy soft corals and marine life. It felt wonderful to be back.
After a second dive we headed to Zabargad, similar to the north’s Tiran Island in size but far more remote and less visited. Only one other boat was present.
An excellent drift-dive out to the easterly point revealed beautiful table corals in the shallows. Blue-spotted rays and moray eels seemed to litter the reef.
Finally it was time to head north. Passing close to Ras Banas point, we could see the military posts and Bedouin camps dotted along the peninsula. We dived our way through Fury Shoal again, then sailed overnight to Elphinstone Reef, which I had last visited some 20 years before.
Elphinstone has become highly rated among divers, with its oceanic whitetip and other big shark sightings and gorgeous reef. I was struck by the number of day-boats moored on the reef, even RIBS from local dive-centres, which surely must be an exhausting, bumpy ride out for divers to endure. SMBs are essential.
Nevertheless, Elphinstone worked its magic and served up two excellent dives along the north and south plateaus, drifting along the sunlit easterly wall. Again, we had only glimpses of sharks, although towards the end, low on air, a lone oceanic whitetip circled in the blue.
Back onboard the newer divers, some with GoPros, excitedly compared their first close encounter with a real shark, laughing about how they were down to 50 bar and trying to get back onboard as it had circled closer and closer, and they had realised they were in the hunting zone of a big predator! Hany and Amr had, of course, steered them back to safety.