WHEN PLANNING A RED SEA liveaboard trip, top billing always goes to the southern routes: “Daedalus and St Johns”, “Brothers and Daedalus”, “Simply the Best” and so on. So how does a northern route measure up? I joined blue o two’s blue Melody for a “Strait of Tiran and North” trip to find out.
Boarding in Hurghada, the route heads across to Ras Mohammed and Tiran before looping up the Gulf of Suez to the Dunraven and Thistlegorm wrecks, then back to Hurghada via the Ulysses at Small Gubal island and Dolphin House at Sha’ab el Erg.
All these sites are accessible by day-boat from one or more of Sharm el Sheikh, El Gouna or Hurghada, but not all on the same trip. You couldn’t say the same for the southern itineraries. Resorts and desert camps are spotted all the way south to Ras Banas, but the south still has sites out of day-boat range.
I’m not usually a great night-dive fan, so it’s somewhat perverse that the diving gets good for me on the first such dive of the trip, at the Alternatives.
The day had started on the Hurghada side of the Red Sea with a warm-up at Poseidon Reef – pleasant enough, nothing challenging, nothing amazing.
It was the sort of dive that could be made on any reef rising from a flat seabed where no-one could get it that wrong, a typical warm-up site at the start of any liveaboard itinerary.
With a warning of possibly rough conditions, blue Melody crossed from Hurghada and the captain picked an Alternative at which to moor up for the afternoon and night. The Alternatives are a line of seven coral pinnacles just along the Gulf of Suez from Ras Mohammed, and I still don’t know to what they are an alternative.
I wouldn’t class them as alternatives to Ras Mohammed, but perhaps they are just alternatives to each other. I’m not certain but think we were on the pinnacles closest to the RasMo end.
We just had time for a late-afternoon dive to get familiar with the site. Afternoon cakes filled the gap nicely before darkness had settled with the usual rapidity of desert areas, and now it’s time to kit up again.
NIGHT-DIVES CAN BE excellent opportunities for seeing the small and weird. Our attention is focused on a beam of light as we hope that small critters that hide during daylight will venture out.
I am rewarded on the first patch of soft coral we reach. A two-spine crab the size of a 20p coin is perched on a branch without a care in the world. A few branches later, a decorator spider crab is doing the same thing. Its body is much smaller, but overall the crab is bigger with its long spindly legs.
Coral-guard crabs are out from between the branches of hard corals, but they shy away from light and I need to find, focus and snap quickly before they retreat.
Among the fire coral I find shrimps and another two-spine crab, but it’s only once home processing RAW files on a big screen that I will notice the tiny squat lobster just above it…
Now blue Melody heads up the Gulf of Aqaba to the Tiran reefs. Our morning dive at Jackfish Alley will allow less-experienced divers to build up to the more adventurous diving to come.
It’s the school summer holidays, and the mix of divers on board is even more diverse than usual. There are two families with a total of five teenage boys; several couples, including honeymooners from Finland and a pair from Romania who proudly declare that they are from Transylvania; a few individual men and women, ranging from students to pensioners with diving experience from recently qualified to instructor.
Three divers are signed up for an Advanced Open Water Diver course and one for a Deep speciality.
WE DIVE WOODHOUSE, Gordon, Jackson and Thomas reefs in that order, all majestically big and colourful and each with its own character. It has been a while since I have dived them,
and never did so back to back over a couple of days, so this is a chance to refresh my memory.
A drift along the east side of Woodhouse and into the channel separating it from Jackson takes us past the remains of a day-boat, the concrete floor of the bathroom and a few scraps of metal all that remains among a recovering scar in the coral.
An eagle ray swoops past in the distance, then loops back closer, though never close enough for pictures. We surface in a current bubbling towards the open side of the reef for a RIB pick-up.
Gordon is the southernmost reef, marked by the skeleton of the Louilla on the far side and a beacon to the south.
Off the wall of gorgonians, a whitetip reef shark has been taking lessons from eagle rays about teasing divers. In the shallows, the location is distinguished by scattered barrels from Louilla’s cargo.
I expected few day-boats about from Sharm el Sheikh, and we certainly don’t have to share the water with other divers, but by mid-afternoon a sizeable armada has gathered and a fleet of boats departs for Na’ama Bay.
Early morning at Jackson, the northernmost reef, provides an opportunity to hang out looking for hammerhead sharks. We make a negative entry on the leading edge of the reef, beneath the skeleton of the Lara, another navigational casualty. Last time here I was on a technical trip, diving the lower part of the ship at 70m.
With hammerheads, it’s hit or miss.
A quick poll suggests a 25% chance of a distant glimpse, and considerably less for a close encounter. With only half of our liveaboard team out in the blue, perhaps our chances are better today?
Twenty minutes later and the conclusion is – obviously not. I head into the wall and back towards the mothership. But it’s not a wasted dive, because a drifting safety stop becomes one of the prettiest shallow dives of the trip as a brisk current picks up over alternating stripes of fire and soft coral, with a pair of very tolerant turtles grazing just off the top of the reef.
THOMAS IS THE SMALLEST of the four reefs, always reminding me of the “lost wife, saw barracuda” incident at the turn of the millennium. Nothing untoward happens today as we drift with the current past banks of gorgonians.
Looking out across the sand at 30m, I imagine I can see the top of the canyon in the distance, a technical dive just off the reef that winds its way down to 90m, or perhaps it’s just my eyes playing tricks.
If you’re curious about “lost wife, saw barracuda”, by the way, look out John Kean’s book of that name.
The Tiran reefs page of our checklist complete, blue Melody heads back to Ras Mohammed. This time it’s the classic Shark and Yolanda reef drift, the real RasMo dive round the tip of Sinai, past the two detached patches of reef, with the bottomless wall, swirling currents, shoals of fish and bathroom fittings.
Some of the toilet bowls are sporting a quite impressive covering of coral, particularly fire coral. Perhaps it’s enough to create positive feedback; anyone posing on a toilet bowl gets a burning shock, and the fire coral grows some more.
To complete the best day yet, afternoon cakes are replaced with pizza. With a history of pitta bread that can be readily adapted as a base, and a ready supply of spices, my experience is that Egyptian chefs are reliably capable of making a tasty pizza.
Now halfway through the cruise, the balance shifts towards wrecks with the Dunraven and Thistlegorm.
In 1876 the Dunraven was returning to Britain from Bombay with a cargo of cotton. Heading for the Suez Canal, she caught fire and drifted onto Sha’ab Mahmud near the beacon at the reef’s southern end.
Dive-guides usually recommend entering the upturned hull at the stern, then swimming towards the bow inside the wreck, past the boilers and out through a break in the forward hull. Photographically, I prefer to do it in the opposite direction. That way I can swim ahead of my buddy and turn to take pictures looking up towards the bow.
I also like to be last in, so that I can spend as long as I like without blocking the way for others. Today it works like a charm, especially as those preceding me have been kind enough not to stir up the silt.
A FEW MILES FURTHER along Sha’ab Mahmud, the next stop is Small Crack. From a RIB drop outside the crack, a whip coral provides me with a cute cowrie as a macro target before the current provides a spectacular whoosh through the reef and back to the boat.
Two dives on the Thistlegorm couldn’t have been more different. On the afternoon of our arrival we descend into murky visibility, a strong current towards the stern and a not-unexpected diver soup in the forward holds.
There are seven other liveaboards above the wreck, so potentially 160 divers could be in the water if everyone is down at the same time. I invert the dive-plan and head for the stern, slowly working back to the holds where, fortunately, the diver soup has now used its air and left the cargo relatively uncrowded.
This is my first visit to the wreck since reading Alex Mustard’s marvellous report on the trucks and motorbikes (I-SPY the Thistlegorm in a Whole New Light, October 2014). I look and wonder, and wish I had all the information he imparted to hand on a slate.
Next morning the wake-up call is early “to beat the rush”. Kitting up on the dive-deck, I can see that the guides on other boats have had a similar idea. Next door they’re already entering the water.
I had skipped a night-dive on the wreck. Those who went had enjoyed it, but to my mind it was for the thrill and to get another dive in rather than to see anything different. Low visibility and pitch black – I can get that on a bad day in the English Channel, though without the confusion of all the other divers night-diving in a limited space.
Now the current is less and visibility a sparkling Red Sea normal. The other boats all seem to be doing a stern-first route, so I head straight into the holds, then up into the superstructure before returning to our line at the bow.
I cross paths with a few other divers, but not many considering the number in the water.
Returning to the Hurghada side of the Gulf of Suez, the steamer Ulysses and a barge on opposite edges of Gubal Seghir are wrecks I haven’t dived since 1987, on the centenary year of Ulysses striking the reef.
Divers from another liveaboard are just finishing, and our group is split into waves by the RIB journey to the wreck, so while Ulysses is a small wreck, it isn’t busy.
The bath-tub at the stern is considerably older than those on the Thistlegorm but, unlike ships, bath-tub design has hardly changed.
The even-smaller barge is a bit crowded until divers from several liveaboards spread themselves out a little. Anticipating a busy site, I’m back on macro, and it turns out to be the right choice. Fish on the barge and surrounding reef are so used to divers that even the normally skittish are easy targets, including a Picasso triggerfish, a photogenic species that lives up to its name but, unlike its namesake, is usually media-shy.
How can such a varied trip end on a high? At Sha’ab El Erg, better known as Dolphin House North, the dolphins are as used to divers as the fish are on the barge.
It takes 10 minutes or so for them to get round to saying hello, but soon they home in for a good 45 minutes of dolphin fun, with repeated close passes and smug dolphin smiles.
A final dive at Umm Gamar, with wall, pinnacles and caves would also have been a fitting climax, if it were not for the dolphins before.
SO IS A “TIRAN AND NORTH” route from Hurghada a liveaboard itinerary to rival the southern routes that achieve higher billing? It’s decompression day ashore, and divers from many liveaboards, south and north, are waiting out the heat at the Marriott.
The southern boats have seen oceanic whitetips and hammerheads. We missed the latter but had a really good dolphin encounter. As for the reefs, the southern reefs can be on a par with Tiran or Ras Mohammed, but I wouldn’t like to say that one was better than the other. I think we had the better wrecks.
Could our “Tiran and North” route have been bettered? It’s down to personal preference. I’d have liked another dive at the tip of Ras Mohammed instead of Jackfish Alley, or to have dived there straight after crossing from Hurghada.
I would have fitted in the wreck of the Rosalie Moller, though I have no idea how that could have been achieved.
For a warm-up dive I would have liked to jump in at Giftun or one of the Abu Nuhas wrecks, but that wouldn’t have been a site suitable for a warm-up. So overall, I’d say that a budget “Tiran and North” route compares pretty favourably to anything further south.