Marine-science TV presenter MAYA PLASS has largely concentrated on diving in British waters, so her first liveaboard trip to dive with sharks and rays in the Red Sea was a big departure – and not without its teething troubles
YOU MIGHT DIE! That was a genuine response from a friend when I excitedly told her that I was going on my first trip to the Red Sea on a shark-diving liveaboard holiday. I’m not sure what aspect of my trip made her react like this, but I was going to prove to her that I was, in fact, going to live.
I did feel completely green, however. I had never dived from a liveaboard, with sharks or on coral reefs! I asked friends what to expect, to take and what to look forward to.
As we took off I thought of some of the varyingly helpful advice I had been given: “strong currents… take a bottle of rum… amazing food… beautiful coral reefs… sharks that barely take notice of you…” and so on. I soon forgot much of their advice in pursuit of my own experience and personal perspective. Although I did take the rum.
I was taken aback when I saw the boat – blue Melody was huge, a far cry from the meagre Humber club RIBs from which I was accustomed to dive.
Stepping inside felt like a scene from a James Bond film. The boat was sparkling, and the interior of the lounge area better than any hotel I had stayed at.
I went on to discover that even the shower water in our cabin was warm – all the time! It wasn’t just a dribble, either.
I hadn’t expected that from a liveaboard.
My only complaint about the boat would be that the food was too delicious and there was too much of it. Laid out buffet-style, trying a little of everything proved to be a temptation impossible to resist – until it became a lot.
The external decks would soon become a favourite chilling spot, where we’d sleep in the hot sun, then dive, eat, sleep, repeat cycle, or have a cool beer in the evenings and hear unprintable stories from the other divers. The boat quickly became our comfortable home for the week, and the crew our helpful buddies.
A Red Sea trip feels like a rite of passage for those in the diving community. I had needed to see what the hype was about and whether it was for someone like me with UK diving under my belt but limited experience overseas.
OUR FIRST DIVE WAS ON a gentle shallow reef at Abu Dhabab, a shake-down to allow everyone to adjust their kit and settle in. I saw all I needed just from this one dive to be bowled over.
The corals were statuesque, diverse, beautiful and the reefs packed with life, including blue-spotted rays in sandy patches beneath the arches. Yet Abu Dhabab was apparently “not the best” reef – that, I was told, was still to come.
We travelled on to the dive reefs of Elphinstone and the Brothers. Here I had my first experiences of sheer reef-walls. This was all so new to me, so exciting and there was so much to see with so many corals and fish that I struggled to still my mind and absorb the whole experience.
I’ll skip ahead through all this wonder to the Daedalus reefs on days four and five. The wind had picked up, and we arrived overnight on rough seas.
I peered out of my cabin’s porthole to see the blue horizon rise and fall, with white horses galloping over the sea’s surface. I swayed up to the top deck for an early-morning scout of the horizon.
The Daedalus lighthouse sits on top of a reef with a long jetty stretching out over the deep inky sea. It must have been some feat of engineering to build such a huge structure on an isolated reef in the middle of the Red Sea.
A handful of other large dive-boats had anchored in the lee of the reef. A few dwarfed RIBs skimmed and bounced over the lumpy seas, checking for hazards and currents before divers were dropped in to explore the waters.
I had felt inexperienced compared to all the globetrotters so far on the trip. Watching the RIBs, which were at times almost vertical in the water, I felt a sense of apprehension and voices whispering “strong currents, lost divers…”. I tried to keep those voices to a whisper.
DIVE GUIDES ELKE and Chrissie clearly explained the dive-plan, using beautifully illustrated diagrams of the site and covering pertinent risks.
My apprehensive mind focused on the warnings. From the corner of my eye I could see a RIB heading off, skirting the reef where tumbling waves spilled over the fringe in surfable barrels.
The whispering voices got louder, and the self-doubt started to creep in: “You’re inexperienced, you don’t know these waters – are you capable of this?”
My mind was at war with itself. “I want to see the sharks” was battling with “Don’t go in!”
“Don’t go in!” won. I was feeling too anxious to be safe, and didn't want to ruin my buddy’s dive. I dejectedly watched divers head out in the RIB, part-relieved and part-annoyed with myself.
I distracted myself by chatting to the captain, learning some Arabic numbers and greetings.
We had breakfast, and the divers took the deserved mick out of me in the way in which us Brits are so good. Hearing about the others’ incredible tales of hammerheads and mantas, I resolved to join the second dive of the day.
At the briefing the guides, aware of my earlier bail-out, had thoughtfully offered a second dive option. It was an easy dive to skirt the southern edge of the reef, and I jumped in with no worries, and felt all my fears float away into the blue waters.
A large Napoleon wrasse arrived to remind me of how chilled being in the big blue was.
By the third dive the offer of an easy option was still there, but there was no chance of that. I was off to join the rest of the divers! The RIBs bounced along with ease, and I swear that the lumpy sea had got smaller.
We dropped next to the vertical reef wall, with coral shapes and textures beyond description. Within minutes two hammerhead sharks were swimming alongside the reef. They were nonchalant, uninterested in us and intensely striking and mesmerising to watch.
The experience of drifting in the blue is an almost religious one. I became a speck in a sea of blue. My breathing slowed and I felt supported by the vast interconnected seas and oceans. Was this the ocean of infinite consciousness of which yogis talk?
My mind and body was drifting when a diver pointed towards the surface. That brought me back to the moment, because up there I could see the unmistakable shape of a manta ray.
The wings flew in perfect symmetry as it glided towards me into deeper waters. It’s hard for your jaw to drop when you have a mouthpiece clamped between your teeth, so I let out a muffled sigh instead.
My camera had broken on day three, when I foolishly dropped it on the upper deck. And now I was grateful not to be watching the manta through the eye of my camera, because I wanted to drink in every detail of it. The two remoras hitching a ride on the pale belly of the ray were having a hitch-hiking experience to beat them all.
I wanted to take a closer look at the ray. The cephalic fins almost look coiled as they draw food to the mouth, which is forward-facing unlike that of other rays. My heart was beating faster as I tried to absorb my first-ever dive with a manta. This is why we dive.
So I discovered that I loved diving on and from a liveaboard. I had these incredible experiences thanks to thoughtful dive-guides, skilled boat-crew, my supportive dive-buddy Emma and a little bit of self-determination.
There is no shame in having a diver’s wobble and you should get all the support you need to get back in the saddle and dive again. In retrospect, I’m glad that I missed that dive. It gave me the chance to regain composure, not to have an off-putting bad dive and learn some Arabic!
I ASSUME THAT MY FRIEND’S foreboding statement about the trip had stemmed from the fact I was diving with sharks. My liveaboard experience underlined what I already knew to be true, that sharks have far more to fear from us than we have from them.
It had been a treat to see the hammerheads, even though the sighting had been limited to those individuals perhaps 5m away. I was still bowled over. There wasn’t a diver on our trip who didn’t have an exciting encounter with a shark, but it was quite early in the season, and we were told that the later summer months were likely to be more successful.
As we left Daedalus a sizeable oceanic whitetip did circle our boat, and I had spotted reef sharks 10m or so below me – a whale shark would have been good but I was just becoming greedy!
As the Red Sea borders several different countries with varying legislation on shark-fishing, its sharks are under threat. Sharks are slow to produce offspring and susceptible to human pressures from fishing and finning, but I hope that with demand for shark-fin soup dropping and conservation campaigns increasing, perhaps these beautiful creatures will be around for all to see for years to come. That’s more likely if they are seen as helping to support the economies of Red Sea-facing countries through diver tourism.
THIS PROJECT SHARK TRIP certainly benefited from the presence of Dr Elke Bojanowski, founder and director of the Red Sea Sharks charity. Her talks were always well attended, and these relaxed presentations were packed with information on how to identify sharks and behave with them in the water – crucial for this shark trip.
Elke also imparted many facts not only about shark adaptations and evolution but also concerning their sad demise as a result mainly of shark-finning.
I think every diver leaving the boat had renewed respect, admiration and understanding of these wonderful apex predators, reinforced by the wonder of seeing them in the water but also by Elke’s informative talks.
It seems such an obviously good idea to learn more about our marine environment while we’re on liveaboard trips. With a little extra understanding we can go on to be passionate custodians of our marine environment.
I left the Red Sea feeling confident of my diving abilities, better educated, more inspired and desperate to book my next trip. Until then, I will happily go back to the Devon coast and diving our British seas, finning through kelp forests and colourful seaweeds.
I’ll practise my dive skills and daydream about the next time I see a manta fly past me, or a hammerhead shark snake beneath me in azure seas.
GETTING THERE: Fly to Hurghada from London Gatwick – embarkation is from Port Ghalib.
LIVEABOARD: The 38m timber motor yacht blue Melody, the third vessel in the blue o two fleet, was updated in 2016. It can carry 26 guests in 10 twin and three double cabins, all en suite with air-conditioning and personal entertainment systems. Equipped for nitrox fills, the vessel is also technical and rebreather-friendly.
WHEN TO GO: blue Melody sails year-round, with a Project Shark trip to Daedalus & St Johns set for next July, but there are also Project Shark “Simply the Best” trips in August and November this year and May, July, September & October 2018.
PRICES: Project Shark trips start from £1099 depending on dates, though you might have to book well ahead. Prices include return flights, seven nights’ full board and six days’ diving. Group deals also apply, blue o two Website
VISITOR Information: Egypt Travel