Sunday, September 10, 2017

Red Sea liveaboard diving: Simply over-hyped?

Logged dives #1564-1579

Bobbi and I joined our good friend Nicki Blower on a dive trip she has repeated often in the Red Sea. The trip is billed as "Simply the Best" and has been recommended to us by other friends as well as something we should do at least once in our lives. It covers stops at Brothers, Daedalus, and Elphinstone reefs in Egypt's Red Sea, sites noted for pelagic sharks and particularly hammerheads. Our experience was more sanguine. We saw a couple of thresher sharks, three or four grey or perhaps white-tip oceanic reef sharks, and a few more easily identifyable and in-your-face longimanus oceanic white tip sharks. Some people from our boat sighted hammerheads on two or three of the dives, though only one or two at a time, and not nearby. Nicki said she saw one at a distance. She also saw this "Carcharhinus Longimanus rushing over at a vast rate of knots! "

It doesn't matter that our expectations of seeing schools of hammerhead sharks were not met. This happened with us also on Lyang Lyang where we had gone to see hammerheads, but that trip was remarkable for what we saw besides on the reefs of the atoll, teeming with other kinds of sharks and memorable fish-life, so despite the scarcity of hammerheads at that time of year, we were in no way disappointed with the trip as a whole, blogged here:

I've dived in the Red Sea many times since the 1970s and I've always found the reef fish life to be extraordinary. 
From the videos at my post on Layang Layang you can see what we were expecting the Red Sea to be like. If you compare with those below you could say that Layang Layang would be a strong competitor for "Simply the Best."

But others might find a much different experience. This blog post is meant to simply record what Bobbi and I found when we went there.

First day out, Sunday Sept 3, Ras Toromi

We arrived in Port Galeib on Saturday Sept 2, 2017, in time to board the Okeanos Xplorer and settle in for the night. The boat departed early a.m. and took us to Ras Toromi where we did two check-out dives anchored at the same spot on a shallow reef on our way to the two Brothers islands another 6 hours distant. As often happens in Egypt, even with shore-based diving, several boats will anchor at about the same spot on the part of the reef most sheltered from weather and seas. Diving is done either by jumping from the boat or from zodiacs (each boat carries two on deck).

On our first dive, first day, we did the easiest possible entry, jumping from the boat, and guided by the divemaster we'd be with the rest of the trip, we went down current (too easy) but then had to beat our way back against it, plus pass the test we had been given for the end of the dive -- EVERYone had to deploy their surface marker buoy, also known as SMB or simply the sausage. These are tricky to deploy in the best of circumstances. I sent mine up and then helped Bobbi with hers. We were trying to hold our place against the stiff current and also to keep our lines from getting tangled. When we surfaced we found ourselves in a spider web of mooring lines from numerous boats with both our SMBs needing delicate management to avoid entanglement with the ropes let alone from each other (normally we'd just put one up per buddy pair; this was an unusual complication). We managed to keep our lines free and make some progress against the current (our boat was the last one down, wouldn't you know), but my snorkel snagged when I tried to duck under a mooring line and got turned down into the water, causing me to suck salt. I tried to free it with one hand while grasping my reel and lines with the other but the mouthpiece came away from the tube and disappeared. I felt a bit clumsy, and  meanwhile a zodiac appeared to collect us. Bobbi handed up her tank and was hauled aboard, and I put my sausage on the dinghy, and freed of that, it was easier for me to just fin myself to the back of our boat and climb the ladder. Not the most auspicious of starts, though.

The next dive was done from the zodiac. The main idea was to get people accustomed to that means of entry in relatively benign conditions. I don't remember much from the dive, and the videos of what I thought noteworthy from both are captured in the video above.

Second day out, Monday Sept 4, Little Brother

The video shows
A parade of distant oceanic reef sharks and several barracuda, seen over the course of three dives on Little Brother, September 4, 2017

We spent the first part of some of our dives on the Brothers islands and Daedalus swimming into the blue in hopes of seeing hammerheads. On one or two of our three dives on Little Brother reef we saw white tip or gray reef sharks swimming in the blue which nevertheless made digital impressions visible to my GoPro. Apart from that I didn't find much of note to take pictures of, except for the barracuda that hovered high up off the reef. They didn't appear in schools here, just a few at a time. At some point a lion fish on the coral wall caught my eye and I photographed that.

Third day out, Tuesday Sept 5, Big Brother

On our first dive of the day we went out in zodiacs and put in just short enough of the wreck we expected to visit at 30 meters that we had to fin hard against an opposing current to reach it. This was seriously hard work and I lost 50 bar doing that, and once we turned and went with the current, there was not much to see on the way going back to the boat at anchor. After that I decided to pay 30 Euros for use of a 15 liter cylinder for the rest of the trip, money well-spent as it kept me on even par with Bobbi’s air consumption, given her smaller lungs.

We conducted our second dive from the boat, which remained at anchor in the same spot during our three dives on Little Brother that day.  This was one of the better dives of the trip for sharks. A longimanus oceanic white tip swam up to the boat as we were descending from it, as you can see in the video taken from below. We were heading into the current again, the same direction we had finning to the wreck earlier that morning, but we were closer in to the reef so it was more doable, but still it was a slog to reach the point where the thresher sharks were. I saw one quite clearly and got a shot of it, though it is more difficult to distinguish against the coral it was swimming against as it reached blue water and the limits of visibility.  As we had to work up current to get there, and we were now at 30 meters, we couldn't stay long, so we drifted back to boat where we found a humphead wrasse and another longimanus that swam amongst us as we were approaching the boat near the surface.

For the third dive we were given two options. The dive leader suggested we take the zodiacs to the point opposite the one where the threshers were, drop in on another smaller wreck at 30 meters, and swim (again upcurrent) back to the boat. When I asked why we were always having to work into the current I was told the currents were mild and it wouldn’t be a problem, despite what we had experienced on the two dives earlier that day. Others wanted to repeat the first dive, which meant they would jump from the boat, and go again against the current.

A third option would have been to drop on the farthest upcurrent point where we had seen threshers earlier and easy swim back to the boat with the current, and work our way back up to the surface there with chance of seeing longimanus, but this option was not on the table.

In the end our group decided to go to the wreck and swim up a new part of the reef. The current was perhaps diminished, but it was enough to keep us pumping the whole way back to the boat. We didn’t go onto the wreck because of our deco situation third dive of the day and as we moved along the reef, we saw little of interest until I notice a thresher shark moving about 20 meters down and dropped in on it. Again I saw it clearly and thought I got a nice video up close as it passed beneath me but the fish eye GoPro makes it look further. That was pretty much it for that dive. I managed to pump my way back to the boats just as I got down to 50 bar, Bobbi right behind, but complaining about having to keep up with me, while the others in our group were strewn behind.

Fourth day out, Wednesday Sept 6, Daedalus

After diving on Daedalus some from our boat visited the lighthouse where they encountered divers from other boats. From this we had reports from one of the other boats that technical divers using tri-mix (and one who told our informant he had used air) found a school of a dozen hammerheads at below 70 meters off Deadalus. It makes sense that they were present, but at depth, because hammerheads stay below the thermocline and avoid the warm shallower water. Temperatures at the depths we were diving were no less than 26 (degrees centigrade) at Brothers and 28 at Daedalus (where the hammerheads were seen at 70 meters).

We went looking for hammerheads the first of our three dives there, but not much was happening for us diving to 40 on Daedalus reef, September 6, 2017. We saw only a few barracudas in the course of three dives on the reef, all to or from, or from and to, the boat at anchor. 

Our last dive on Deadalus was oddly planned and executed. It was a jump from the boat and planned as a swim from the boat at anchor to Anenome City. The dive leader said in the briefing that many people start from zodiacs on Anenome City and work their way back to the boats, but he preferred we go from the boat at anchor and arrive at the destination where the zodiac would pick us up. He mentioned that it should take us 55 minutes to reach Anenome city, and that is exactly what it took Bobbi and I.

We were the only ones in our group who made it that far, and on the way we encountered many groups of divers coming the other way, having been dropped at Anenome City by zodiac, and hoping to end up back at or near the boats at anchor.

When I say that Bobbi and I reached Anenome City, I mean we reached the approximate location, but did not know what we were looking for, so we did not round the corner where we would have found it. This is because the dive leader had mispronounced the destination during the briefing, saying it was an-en-ohm, making us think he was saying animal city. We didn't find out till later our destination was anenomes (an-en-ohm-eeez). He also did not brief us on one other important clue, which is that Anenome City was just around the corner of the wall we had been on for 55 minutes of the dive.

I discovered this when I mentioned it to the dive leader back on the boat after the dive, and he said, oh, you were there! Had we known what to look for in advance we would have rounded that corner, but at the part of the dive where we saw the wall end we were right at the time we should start our ascent, so thinking we were looking for an animal city, and we might have passed it for all we knew, we commenced our safety stop. We were no longer with our guide, he had been surfacing the other divers for the past 20 minutes, and they were all on the zodiac when it came to collect us, an hour after we'd started our dive.

It was a little disappointing to have been so near and yet so far, and I feel that the experience would have been much improved if we had been dropped at the destination. However, I've since been on YouTube and found other people's videos of Anenome City. It appears to be a beautiful spot but anenomes and the clown and other reef fishes they attract are something you can see on many reefs in the world. Still I think we all would have appreciated better attention to customer experience in how this dive was carried out.

Other divers' views of Anenome City, Daedalus:

Fifth day out, morning of Thursday Sept 7, 35 minutes at Elphinstone

We had been very much looking forward to finally reaching Elphinstone reef after three days of swimming at depth hunting hammerheads on the two Brothers and Daedalus. Elphinstone is reputed to be productive for sharks and mantas. Divezone has this description of it, from
“Elphinstone Reef is also famous for being one of the few places on Earth where you can dive with the Oceanic Whitetip Shark as well as Harmmerhead Sharks. The best chances to spot an Oceanic Whitetip Shark (also called longimanus) are from October to December. Manta Rays (mainly from May to August), Dolphins and Tiger Sharks can also sometimes be spotted. In addition to these giants, there are also plenty of pelagic fishes like trevallies, Barracudas and Tunas. The reef life is teeming with myriads of fishes all around Elphinstone.”

The next paragraph mentions that
“The best place to dive Elphinstone Reef is from Marsa Alam on a day trip. Many liveaboards also go there”

This is good advice. We saw speedboats full of divers coming from shore-based operations, making their way through the welter of liveaboards at anchor. One surprise on waking up on a liveaboard at Elphinstone is that you can see the shore clearly, an easy boat distance away. Speedboats can be flexible, drop in on any favorable location on the reef, and not be constrained to getting divers on and off pitching platforms in rough seas via zodiacs.

This was the problem this morning at Elphinstone. The wind was up, the boat had been rolling all night, and now we found ourselves in a welter of 9 other big boats, which meant, with ours, 20 zodiacs buzzing about in the water, complicating the logistics of getting divers in and out safely.

This led to disappointing diving due to controls designed to prevent any incident in waves. We were admonished to stay in our groups and with the guide, and we were in the group with the heavy breather who had to start his safety stop after only half an hour in the water. We barely had time to photograph a turtle surrounded by other divers photographing each other photographing the turtle on top of the plateau, and that was at 30 meters so when our guide signalled we should go deeper where the sharks were, Bobbi and I were down to our last minute of no-deco time and had to ascend, as the rest in our group were already doing. A big fish appeared suddenly as we were coming up, but we couldn’t investigate since our group was going to the safety stop. Nicki and I at least found the Elphinstone memorial before having to come up, see it close up here,

And it’s in the video.

But that 30 minute dive comprised our Elphinstone reef experience on this cruise. Our boat pulled anchor and retreated to the shelter of Abu Dabab where the cooks could at least work in the kitchen without spilling boiling water, and although we didn’t find the high powered diving we were expecting, there was much to entertain us in the calmer water there.

After moving the boat, afternoon of Thursday Sept 7,  2 hour-long dives on Abu Dabab

First the pinnacles

In lieu of Elphinstone, we move to Abu Dabab, where we see blue spotted rays feeding in the sand, a turtle, titan triggers and reef other fish amid some lovely shallow underwater pinnacles

Then the Wreck

Afternoon dive on Abu Dabab at the wreck, where we see a crocodile fish, a school of barracudas, green morays, batfish, and a cameleon scorpion fish at the end of the dive.

Sixth day out, Friday Sept 8
Thursday Night dive on Abu Sail, a day dive there the next morning, and snorkeling at Marsa Shouna

The last video above is a compilation of two dives on Abu Sail and of a snorkel experience at Marsa Shouna. We cruised to Abu Sail in the afternoon after wrapping up operations at Abu Dabab. It was a short trip, and we arrived before nightfall and anchored near the rock sticking up above the gentle shore break near the newly developed resort. The rock was spelled Abu Sail on the dive site charts that the crew produced, and pronounced Abu Sayeel. The dive would normally be done as a shore dive.

Nicki and I dived it that evening. We found some small creatures but not as much as we sometimes see on night dives, except that there was a turtle we could follow around in the dark.

After dinner on the boat and a good night's sleep, we rose early to dive it again in the morning. There were no sharks or adrenaline inducing creatures, but we found a turtle and some large green moray eels. Bobbi, Nicki, and I were accompanied on the dive by one of the French divers from our boat. Different approaches to photography are evident in the videos. Finding a turtle in a crevice, I ease myself over the rocks and use my reef hook to carefully support myself against my own momentum on a rock, avoiding the living coral. I use breathing to adjust my buoyancy to ease down on the turtle, get a good closeup picture, and then breathe in to rise away from it, leaving it undisturbed. Then the French diver, whom we dubbed Pierre de la lumiere, comes along with his bright lights which immediately cause the turtle to turn. He grasps the coral with his hands to get his apparatus into the crevice where the turtle was resting and lights it up like fire. He lays his body on the coral to wedge himself into position to film the turtle as it takes fright and makes its escape. Later, as I pass over a bommie to get a glimpse of a green moray there for my GoPro, the French diver again grasps the coral with his hand to better position himself for a bright-light shot of the moray at whatever cost to the ecosystem.

Bobbi and I ended our diving with a parting shot of a blue spotted ray and an ascent to the Okeanos Xplorer anchored peacefully opposite Abu Sail. Our diving was over because we would be flying next morning from Hurghada to Cairo and on to Abu Dhabi. The boat would be going next to Marsa Shouna where there was a patch of sea grass and a chance we might see a dugong, we were told.

Marsa Shouna was a huge bay with green water. Some of the dozens of boats anchored there were serving as platforms for diving schools. It was shallow and not inviting for diving from the boat. The dive leader gamely led a dive anyway for those not flying the next morning. The rest of us donned snorkels and puttered about the rocks and tried to find the patch of sea grass. There were no dugongs but we did find a turtle which I freedived down to and took pictures of similarly to if I'd been diving.

In retrospect

So, what was different about this Red Sea trip? Relatively sparse fish life for one thing, coral perhaps damaged by increasing water temperatures in the Red Sea? Is this true?

This July 16, 2010 report from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found:

"In a pioneering use of computed tomography (CT) scans, scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have discovered that carbon dioxide (CO2)-induced global warming is in the process of killing off a major coral species in the Red Sea."
and a KAUST study published in 2011 reveals
"The Red Sea has experienced a sharp warming in its waters since the mid-1990s faster than the global averages, according to a recent study published in Geophysical Research Letters."
On the other hand recent studies suggest that northern Red Sea corals have been shown in a 6-week lab experiment to not only survive but thrive in water temperatures 2 degrees warmer than found at present
There are many other factors to affect what you will see on your dives in the Red Sea. Bobbi and I are in our late 60s and despite our frequent dive activities, as can be seen from this blog, we tend to be grouped with the weaker and less experienced divers. As mentioned earlier, one of those divers was not able to monitor and regulate his air consumption and often hung above us where the dive guide would have to go to him and deploy his marker buoy, effectively cutting short the diving for the rest of us. The stronger divers will group around the more experienced dive guide and will be better positioned to get to the animals first and stay down longer, and it is axiomatic with animal viewing that success correlates with time spent where the animals are. Weather as we saw was not conducive to diving on Elphinstone, at least in the judgement of our boat crew. We were between seasons for many of the animals we had come to see. Global warming might be disputed by some, but anyone with a thermometer can detect an increase in water temperatures in oceans throughout the world, driving the pelagic fish to find cooler water deeper, and causing coral to decline with consequences to the health of the reef as a whole.

So whereas we enjoyed our trip, as we always do diving, our expectations ran ahead of what we experienced, and you can consider this when planning your trip, but also consider the factors involved and whether you can do something about them to improve your chances.