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"Trip Report: MV Miss Nouran, St John’s Reef & Fury Shoal.

19 -26 September 2003

My wife Sue and I booked this trip with Dive Tours of Chester who gave us an excellent late deal of £600pp.

Our carrier was Air 2000. The outbound flight was Friday 1240hrs Gatwick-Hurghada. The flight was OK (except for usual gripes about limited legroom and nannyish cabin crew) and was on time(ish) both legs.

We were met by a Sea Serpent Fleet rep at Hurghada who informed us that, rather than picking up Miss Nouran at Port Galeb (nr Marsa Alam airport) as informed by our tour operator, the transfer was an extra 3hrs to Hamata. At first we were less than pleased, but gradually computed than the extra road transfer translated into more diving time and less uncomfortable cruising in what turned out to be a sometimes lumpy sea.

We arrived at Hamata, a rickety jetty just north of Ras Banas at 3.30 in the morning. A stiff breeze was blowing and we loaded our gear onto a rib in almost complete darkness and bucked across the chop trying to avoid being garrotted by the numerous mooring lines of other liveaboards. Miss Nouran was a cheering sight, waiting for us lit up like a Christmas window display at Harvey Nicks.

This was our first liveaboard trip and, as we are both softee-stylee divers we were a little apprehensive about the standard of equipment, accommodation and furnishings. There was no need to worry. Miss Nouran is just dandy; comfortable, well maintained, good food, pleasing on the eye and with a great crew. And there were only nine of us on a boat designed to sleep twelve guests! The nine comprised a good mix of couples, singles, ages (from 26 to 47) and experience. John our South African youngster was only a year qualified, but we celebrated George’s (from Northern Ireland, tall, lean, spiffy camera gear, works for Divex) 1000th dive with a few beers and by asking dumb questions about his rebreather.

The Egyptian dive-guide Hany Naglub was a star throughout. As you’ll see from the highlights below he certainly conjured the marine-life from the fickle sea at the appropriate moments.

Water temperature was a constant 29C and being a fat lad I dived in a skin throughout. Some members of our party used 5mm full length and all seemed very happy. Some of the long cruises caused mild nausea in some, but there seemed to be no full-blown seasickness. I personally had to avoid reading and close-work tasks sometimes otherwise the stomach would begin to churn. Apparently the previous week the wind had been stiffer and the sea lumpier and there had been a few casualties amongst those who omitted to dose themselves up. The sunshine was constant and needed to be treated with respect, as the Force 4 breeze easily deceived you into thinking it was cooler than it actually was. It was 34C at sea and 40C on land.

Dolphins – both spinner and bottlenose - joined our boat at least every other day as we cruised. And on one dive at Big Habili in St John’s they came and joined us briefly at 25metres. On other dives we suffered the frustration of being able to hear them all around without them making themselves visible. Turtles surfaced for air at many of the reefs while we were moored, and diving on the south side of Fury Shoal’s Gota Ayman we met the most obliging and amorous hawksbill who insisted on kissing almost every member of our party, and presented the underside of his shell to be caressed.

Forgive the following purple prose, but the coral formations at St John’s Reef and Fury Shoal are simply stunning, with rich variation in species, size and topography. On many dives, we wouldn’t have minded if there had been no fish at all, such was the magnificence of the huge helmet-like porites mounds, pristine elkhorn tables, imposing brains, towering stands of organ pipes, luscious salads and broccoli soft corals and a wealth of encrusting species, undamaged whips and fans. This was a veritable underwater fairyland, whose strange alien beauty stilled the mind as the light shimmied and swooped among the coral heads, sponges and giant clams.

For coral alone I would recommend Gota Um Aruk (“St John’s Wood Reef”) at Fury Shoal. This is a system of pinnacles rising from 25m, so densely packed that it resembles an underwater woodland. Each pinnacle is cloaked in a thick soup of reef fish of all species and sizes, and both juvenile and adult Napoleons are commonplace. (I saw more Napoleons on this one dive than I had in my previous forty coral reef dives)

At St John’s Reef the two outstanding dives for coral were Heavens Reef and Small Abu Galawa. The first of these presented a superb playground of ergs erupting with a multitude of corals. Here we encountered the most impressively sized giant clam in my experience. In fact there were so many giant clams on this site that they were in danger of being investigated by social services (mollusc & bivalve division) for overcrowding. I counted five or six in one square metre of reef. Heaven’s Reef is crisscrossed with small canyons and swim-throughs, and makes a superb wind-down dive after five days chasing the big stuff at the point of the current. We followed this with another superb dive into the natural underwater coral amphitheatre at Small Abu Galawa. Another highpoint at this site is a wrecked 17m steel yacht lying bows north on its starboard side at a depth of 18m. It is filled with clouds of glassfish and a couple of lurking grouper. We found some particularly colourful nudibranchs on the stern section.

Most of the coral stuff was done out of the current on the southern sides of the reefs. To seek out the big wild stuff we had to head for the current point which is usually on the opposite side of the reef as a result of the prevailing northerly winds. This made for a few mildly hair-raising RIB rides from south to north and some negative entries into the surf. All nine of us even did one negative entry from the dive deck of the boat as it crabbed across the surf at a particularly wave-swept reef – awesome! We all had to be off and down in about 15 seconds.

Hany’s commitment to give us an unforgettable time and his well-honed divemaster instincts combined to give us all the experience of the holiday at "Big Habili” in St John’s. He had consistently refused to promise us anything at the pre-dive briefings, but simply said to follow his instructions - and we might be lucky and “see some marine life”. Until Big Habili we had been relatively short on shark action – a couple of whitetip sightings only. Each early morning dive he had taken us to the current split point and then led us away northwards from the reef into the blue. Here we would bounce briefly down to about 40m. The first few days there had been nothing out there, although we weren’t complaining because there was plenty of fish action when we got back to the reef, including huge unicorns, Napoleons, morays and many types of jacks and some tuna.

That morning at Big Habili we did something slightly different. Assuring us that we would make the rest of the dive profile gentle and that our subsequent dives that day would be shallow, he suggested that we should be prepared to drop down to 45m when we got to the outermost point of our foray into the blue. Despite having done deep speciality training this was beyond Sue’s and my previous maximum, so we exchanged nervous glances. But we forgot all this as we kitted-up and made our way to the entry point in the RIB, baling as we went because we were shipping water due to the peaky waves, all nine of us squeezed in, and a certain fat lad providing superfluous ballast.

I emptied my lungs as I rolled over the edge, turned around to locate and OK with Sue and followed Hany as he finned against the current - descending steadily at the same time. I saw him half turn and look back. Eight small, staccato nods told us he was counting off all his brood. Within a few moments the sloping reef plateau below had disappeared despite the 50m visibility, and behind us the reef wall was fading into the merest hint of an indigo stain on an ultramarine backdrop. I wondered how much air I’d have left when we returned to the reef, and hoped I wouldn’t have to find my own way back as I hadn’t looked at my compass to take a reciprocal bearing.

Was it narcosis? As I looked at my computer and read the depth at 44m, it occurred to me that I didn’t even care if we saw anything. As I wasn’t sure exactly what we were supposed to see anyway, I wasn’t that bothered if it decided not to turn up. I was totally blue-blissed out; cocooned in a silky warm ocean, taking steady drafts of cool treacly air, accompanied by my wonderful wife and dive-buddy Sue, and surrounded a happy gang who over the last three days had become my excellent divemates. I glanced over my right shoulder and caught Sue’s eye about a metre above and two metres behind me. Could she tell I was grinning I wondered?

I gazed at Hany a couple of metres ahead of me and pondered on what a
totally excellent dude he was. It was funny, but a lot of things were becoming most excellent all at once, and some of them were becoming even more excellent than that.

My dive computer, for instance. was really-very-quite-most-excellent. I was no longer sure what it was saying in terms of depth, time and air consumption, but the plastic housing was the most excellent quality and was exactly the right shade of blue. It occurred to me that I had made an excellent choice when buying it, and, although it had been the most expensive model in the shop, that my probably unsurpassably excellent negotiating skills had secured a very excellent deal. I wondered how I could communicate all this excellence to Sue at 45m and descending, and with a regulator in my mouth. Perhaps I could devise an excellent means of variable bubble patterns to replace divers’ hand signals? Like Indian smoke signals, but of course more sophisticated. Let’s see, one short exhalation for yes, and ….

For a moment I wondered if I was narked, but quickly concluded that if I thought I was, then I probably wasn’t. George had told me the converse was true: nitrogen narcosis was deceptive - that if you thought you weren’t narked you probably were. And he should know, with his 1000 plus dives and his asteroid-sized, three degree brain. And I hadn’t initially thought I wasn’t narked. I’d thought I was. So that must mean I wasn’t.

Satisfied with my excellent unnarked powers of submarine Aristotelian reasoning,I noticed Hany was doing something peculiar. He had his right arm crooked behind him and was reaching up and scraping his aluminium tank with his yellow dive guides’ shaky-thing. At just the moment when I was thinking that I couldn’t see anything at all excellent about that – after all it was a shaky-thing, not a scrapy thing – a shape about 10m below and in front me caught my attention. A shark shape. The shark-shape was a lighter shade of blue than the infinite blue below, and it seemed to be spiralling upwards. At this very second I heard Hany shake his yellow diveguide shaky-thing. At first it looked to me like a grey reef shark. Looking down it seemed
about that size - a little over two metres, and I realised a fraction of a second later it was accompanied by a dozen similar shapes all lazily rising in a circle. A fractional moment later the darker colour of a hammer-shaped head revealed itself from the deeper blue background. The sound of nine divers rasping air through their regulators ceased for a millisecond, and I was sure I could hear eight hearts beating in a tattoo with mine.

My thumb instinctively squeezed the deflate button. I descended to meet the
hammers as they ascended. This was a first for me and all the rest of our party bar one. But not I suspect for the sharks. They met us at about 50m until the uppermost two or three were on a level with the lowest of us. They circled us twice keeping a distance of 3 or 4 metres but seemed to see nothing that really interested them. It was over in less than a minute. They drifted back down as silently as silently as they had come up, and we were left straining at the blue opacity beneath to savour a last
glimpse of these unfeasible-looking creatures.

Hany shook his shaky-thing. We all jerked around, eager for the next wonder, but he angled a stiff forearm and fingers at 45 degrees and pointed with the other arm back the way we had come. In unison we checked our gauges. As the current eased us toward to the reef and we finned gently upwards, I hoped George had got it all on his spiffy digital video camera, and dreamed about impressing my godchildren with the true tale of how we had swum with the fearsome hammerheads.

Further highlights were sighting the same lone manta on consecutive dives at the one reef, and close encounters with bumphead parrotfish on a night dive.

Most of the time at St Johns we were out of sight of land during the day, but mooring in the evening the saw-tooth profile of the mountains on land to the west were back-lit by sunsets glowing through dusty skies. Rounding the forlorn tip of Ras Banas with its lonely outposts and solitary camel was another memorable episode. We weren’t always alone on all the reefs, but some days we didn’t see another boat at all.

The whole trip was a peak experience for both of us. Sue had wondered if so much diving would mean no time to relax or sunbathe. She returned home totally chilled and toasty brown.

The last evening was spent at the Marriott in Hurghada where we paid a small
supplement to stay in our rooms on the final day before the airport transfer at 1700hrs.No complaints. We spent the day by the pool and had a quick lookat the MV Sea Serpent which was berthed at the hotel jetty having returned from the Brothers. Some of our party were given a guided tour and were very impressed.

Here’s to Red Sea liveaboards in general and our next one.

Happy diving

Steve & Sue McGowan October 2003"

Steve's email is:

[email protected]
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