Having dived both Elphinstone (my favourite site) and Daedalus following that four-year hiatus, I found no discernible difference in the reef environment.
This was evidenced by the still-remarkable old-growth coral coverage near the reef crowns, the prolific soft-coral formations along the outer walls, and the shoals of colourful reef fish.
Any site regularly bathed by strong currents, a key factor in maintaining healthy corals, appeared unchanged.
I find this remarkable considering the diver traffic these sites experience throughout the year.
The popularity of the Red Sea as a dive-destination appears to offer the advantage to a shooter that marine subjects become accustomed to the constant presence of divers, and so are less shy.
Many of the reefs along the RSAII routes offer the possibility of encounters with large animals such as Napoleon wrasse, turtles, mantas, marine mammals and even sharks, which Chris and
I experienced as having a higher tolerance for our presence than in more remote places we’ve visited.
Daedalus is typically the first major venture after the requisite afternoon checkout dives just outside Port Ghalib. It’s a six-and-a-half-hour steam to Daedalus, accomplished overnight.
The anemone wall can be dived year-round, and the warm, summer water-column attracts scalloped hammerhead sharks, which school off Daedalus’s south-eastern flank, 50m or more off the wall.
The dive is essentially made in blue water, typically out of the visibility of the reef wall and deeper than 20m.
The sharks are curious and often come in for at least a drive-by, if not staying
to mingle with the divers for several minutes. Each dive we made specifically for the sharks delivered.
Whether shooting anemonefish or sharks, the dives are planned to drift divers back toward the boat moored in the lee of the prevailing current.
Along the way, you can often find turtles, Napoleons, the occasional manta and other reef critters, some endemic to the Red Sea.
While the hammerheads vacate Daedalus in winter, oceanic whitetip sharks appreciate the cooler water and are occasional visitors to the offshore reefs during the winter months. But while Chris and I scored with the hammerheads, the oceanics we had hoped to see on our winter visit were missing in action.
The Brothers was our next stop, a pair of undersea mounts rising from the depths to breach the surface about eight hours north-west of Port Ghalib. With the diversity of diving offered around the twin peaks, the RSAII generally allows two days to explore.
Big Brother hosts all manner of diving opportunities, from slopes to vertical walls to wrecks and plateaus.
Two of the more popular dives are a pair of wrecks on the northern reef, where strong currents dominate, but if the crew can plan accordingly, the dives can be made on slack tides. During our summer visit the team planned it perfectly, and we were able to dive both wrecks.
The Aida, a 75m transport supply ship that crashed into the reef in 1957, is the easier but also the deeper of the two wrecks to dive along the northern reef slope. It begins at 30m, where the bow rests, and falls away to 60m.
We had stellar visibility, making it that much more difficult to leave the wreck when our bottom-time expired.
The Numidia is a more formidable wreck in shallower water, large enough to penetrate if you are appropriately trained. It begins at 8m and falls down the steep slope to 80m.
Again, we timed the tides beautifully and were able to dive not only the exterior but to penetrate one of the holds before time and currents chased us back to the surface.
Teardrop-shaped Little Brother sits 500m south of its sibling and offers divers vertical walls and a gentle slope on the northern flank.
The slope is famous for its silvertip sharks, but I suspect the number of divers we experienced on the slope from other vessels kept them deeper than we could dive. However, a very curious and quite large Napoleon wrasse seemed indifferent to the crowds and delighted our group by flying wingman with us for most of the dive.
On the southern itinerary, the St John’s Reef complex follows diving at Daedalus, a 10-hour steam south.
Left: Diver Bill Paskert inside the Numidia wreck at Big Brother.
Straddling the Tropic of Cancer, this is as far as the Red Sea Aggressor II sails. It is characterised by shallow plateaus with large caverns and tunnels in the reef structure, giving the sites a cathedral-like experience.
Coral bommies are abundant, many towering up from 20m to the surface, layered horizontally with great slabs of tabling hard corals. Here too, the ubiquitous and fearless Napoleon wrasse accompanied our divers at most sites.
In mid-week the Red Sea Aggressor II turns back north and visits a number of unique sites.
Most memorable was a morning spent snorkelling with a large pod of spinner dolphins at remote offshore seamount plateau Fury Shoals, which levels off at 10m to an expanse of white-sand bottom behind a protective shallow reef.
Like the other large denizens of the Red Sea, these mammals have had significant interactions with humans, turning them “snorkeller-friendly” and perfect subjects for wide-angle, available-light shooting if they’re in playful mood.
Luckily for us, they were. Kitted up with wetsuits and snorkels (weights to attain neutral buoyancy are not allowed), we swam with the pod for the better part of two hours until our legs gave out from fin fatigue.
The iconic Elphinstone Reef will be your final destination, and in my opinion it’s the best way to cap a week’s Red Sea diving.
This cigar-shaped seamount runs north-south for 400m near Marsa Alam, just off the coast. It was named after a British naval commander who served in Egypt during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s.
I had found Elphinstone spectacular in 2015, with perhaps the best visibility I’ve witnessed. I vividly recall my first dive, dropping to 40m at the southern end of the reef and shooting up the slope to a small group of divers seemingly just below the surface.
So clear was the water that backscatter in my images was non-existent, and the sharpness of distant subjects remarkable.
As I ascended the slope and then drifted along the wall, moving up gradually on my computer’s advice, I was awestruck by the brilliance of the soft corals and then the stony plating corals just beneath the surface.
Chris and I lingered for as long as our gas-mix allowed on that final dive, as I had hoped to repeat that experience on our winter journey. Alas, colder water brings more nutrients and reduced visibility.
Still, at nearly 30m the water clarity remained impressive, and the legions of anthias hovering above magnificent old-growth tabling corals near the surface seemed to enjoy the nutrient-rich water more than I remembered from that summer’s dive.
With the opposite tide cycle, we were able to explore the plateau on the northern end of the reef, which had not been possible on our summer trip.
The plateau proved epic, with a dense forest of soft corals at 30m and a flourish of the Red Sea-endemic Anthias taeniatus.