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Report on a 6-day trip on MV Excel to Elphinstone Reef, Daedalus Reef, Rocky Island/Zabargad, St John’s Reef and Fury shoal 28/5 - 4/6 2003
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Some of you may remember that we were supposed to be going on the Tiger Lily to Brother Islands, Elphinstone and Daedalus. Well we didn’t! I’ll explain later.
Let’s begin from the beginning. Our journey started with Ryanair’s cheap flight from Gothenburg to Stansted on the evening of 27th May. All went well except that all four of us had to pay 60 kronor (about £4.60) per kilo excess baggage charge (Ryanair’s limit is only 15 kilo), which in my case meant 660 kr (£50). Not a good start to our journey! From Stansted we took the train to Liverpool St, then the underground to Victoria and the Gatwick Express to Gatwick, where we spent the night at ”The Lawns”, a pleasant guesthouse about a kilometre from the airport. After a good breakfast and a sightseeing walk in Horley, our host drove us to the airport, where we checked in for the 5-hour flight with Astreus to the new airport at Marsa Alam. Although we all had more than the permitted 20 kilos, none of us had to pay excess this time. We found to our surprise that the plane was barely half-full. The war and SARS have devastated the Egyptian tourist industry once again. After passing through immigration and customs in Marsa Alam and getting our visas, we were met by the tour operator’s representative, who informed us that the Tiger Lily was not sailing that week and we had been transferred to the Excel, which was to do the so-called Deep South itinerary. We of course protested that that was not the trip we had booked but soon realised that the Excel was the only boat leaving Marsa Alam that week, so we had no choice but to accept. I phoned David, at Red Sea Divers, in Scotland, with whom we had booked the trip, who explained that he had only heard about this earlier the same day, had no idea why the Tiger Lily was not sailing, but had come back from the same trip on the Excel a week earlier and assured me that the boat and diving was first class. He recommended that we accept the situation and make the best of it as we had no other options, and we would talk about it when we came home. After a short bus ride, we arrived at the new marina just north of Marsa Alam and could immediately see that the Excel was indeed a fine boat. By now it was very late, so, after a brief presentation of the boat and plan for the week, we retired for the night.
Thursday 29/5. Wake-up call at 07.20, briefing and then into the water at 08.00 for a check dive at Abu Dabab III. A long (64 min), shallow (max 16 m), rather mediocre dive in which the most interesting feature was close contact with a friendly octopus. Thereafter a good breakfast and then departure for our second dive, at Elphinstone Reef, where we spent most of the dive on the northern plateau (30 m), where there is almost always a strong current and there are good chances of seeing sharks. I saw several grey reef sharks, a school of barracudas, several Napoleon wrasse, big trevallies etc etc. My maximum depth on this relatively short dive was 39 m. Fortunately, we had paid 30 dollars extra to rent 15-litre tanks for the whole week. The third dive of the day was on the same reef but a drift dive on the beautiful wall on the west side. After that, we departed for Daedalus Reef, which is the Egyptian reef that lies furthest from land (about 10 nautical miles).
Friday 30/5. Wake-up call at 06.00 to dive at 07.00. All three dives that day were on Daedalus and we saw whitetips, grey reef and hammerhead sharks (only single specimens, no schools). Immediately after the third dive we started sailing south towards St John’s Reef.
Saturday 31/5. Woke up at Rocky Island, where we made 2 dives and saw both whitetip and grey reef sharks, as well as big tuna and lots of jacks. Most of our group (but not my buddy and I) were lucky enough to suddenly find themselves in the middle of a pod of 20 or so dolphins, circling a hammerhead, half way through the second dive. They were intent on playing with each other and teasing the hammerhead and ignored the divers completely. My buddy and I could hear them ”talking” to each other but never saw them. Oh well, you can’t always be lucky!
The third dive that day was on the south side of Gota Saghira, in the huge St John’s Reef area, and the fourth (a night dive) at Gota Gibli. These two dives were not among the best of the trip but we did see a white tip, several giant morays and a turtle.
Sunday 1/6. Three dives at St John’s Reef, the first at Habili Ali, where several of the group (but not my buddy and I – we seem to have an uncanny knack of NOT being in the right place at the right time) saw several hammerheads, the second at Habili Gafaar and the third at Shaab El Wasta Fogani, which was a beautiful dive in a complicated cavern and lagoon system. We also did a nice night dive at Sataya South (Fury Shoal).
Monday 2/6. The first dive, at Shaab Mahsour (southern plateau) was nothing special but the second, at Shaab Claude (aka Shaab Malahi), was another beautiful dive in a nice cavern system. The third dive of the day started at a small sailing boat wreck (lots of glassfish in the wreck and two nice nudibranchs under it), after which we swam into a nice lagoon with several entry and exit points. Unfortunately, the visibility was not at its best – we had become spoilt by 30 metres vis up until now – and the sky was overcast, but I can well imagine that this could be a very beautiful dive with sunbeams playing on the corals.
Tuesday 3/6. Back to Elphinstone, where the current over the northern plateau was now even stronger than at our first visit. I lost my buddy and the rest of the group after only a couple of minutes, so this turned out to be a solo dive as far as I was concerned. I sorely missed not having my pony bottle! Anyway, I drifted slowly all the way from the northern end of the reef to the southern tip, enjoying the good vis, enormous schools of snappers, fusiliers etc and the early morning sunbeams dappling the reef. I must admit, though, that I didn’t enjoy hearing the others babbling on about all the sharks they’d seen when I got back on board the boat. The second dive was at Shouna North, a shallow reef which slopes gently to a sandy bottom. Just before we jumped in from the RIB, we saw a dugong (sea cow), which, sad to say, is a rare animal in the Red Sea these days (threatened with extinction). We heard later than one of our friends, who had been unable to dive because of sinus problems, had snorkelled and managed to photograph it at close quarters and the ship’s resident videographer, Grant Searancke, had managed to capture it on film for the trip’s official videotape (which everybody bought, of course). I saw several interesting things during that dive (a very photogenic octopus, who willingly posed for me, a devil scorpionfish, 3 blue-spotted stingrays, 3 large trunkfish, a lionfish and a large crocodile fish) and took lots of pictures, so I was very satisfied with the dive, but others (my buddy) didn’t think it was very interesting. It always surprises me how two divers can have completely opposite opinions about the same dive.
The next dive was in more or less the same area. We started by exploring the extensive seagrass beds in the hope of seeing the dugong, but we didn’t, of course.
The diving was thereby over for this time. We did 20 fine dives altogether, a few of them sensational. We returned to the marina and spent the last night on board. After breakfast the next morning, we were bussed to quite a luxurious hotel (Kahramana) south of Marsa Alam, where we given a dayroom per 4 divers in which to relax until our flight (at 23.30) back to London. We landed at Gatwick almost on time, took a taxi to Stansted and checked in in good time for Ryanair’s morning flight to Gothenburg. Fortunately, we were not charged for excess baggage this time. We arrived home at about 11 am on the 5th of June tired after travelling all night but with many happy memories of an excellent trip, although we were naturally disappointed at not having got to the Brother Islands. For me, personally, this was the third failed attempt. The Brothers seem to be jinxed as far as I’m concerned.
Here are my very personal ratings on a scale of 1 - 5:
Boat 4
Crew 4
Dive guide (Sonia Goggel) and briefing 5
Food 3-4
Diving 4
The UK agent for the Excel is Tony Backhurst http://www.scuba.co.uk
 

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Just not enough dive time.
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Nice report John, glad you had a good time albeit not diving where you booked to.
Any chance you might get a refund/compensation for that?

Matt
 

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Hi John,

You didn't mention, did you spread yourself out on a sheet.

Andrew
 

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[b said:
Quote[/b] (MATTBIN @ June 06 2003,12:15)]Any chance you might get a refund/compensation for that?
<font color='#0000FF'>Hi John

Glad you had a good one, although I would have prefered the Brothers aswell.  A couple of years ago I booked a trip and a couple of things went wrong, Although not TB's fault little things like I ordered Nitrox cylinders and I only got half of them, and the showers were cold, before anyone says you softy it was New Year.  We got £100 some people got cash I got a discount for my next trip as it had already been booked.  I say go for it, complain they can always say no.
 

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Hey Gulli,

Nice report mate. I can see the sense in doing the Southern Itinerary as I've still yet to see a shark (even at Ras Mo & Tiran Straits) in the Northern Red Sea.

Hopefully that might change; Fiona and I are off to Sharm with Oonas Divers on the 15th June for a week's land-based gig - I'm taking Fi on her 1st Ras Mo, Thistlegorm, Dunraven visits, so a pleasant week me thinks.

In a way I'm glad about the lack of visitors to the Red Sea (I think it might slightly busier in Sharm than Marsa though) in that the Thistlegorm can be like 'diver-soup' with 40+ boats going nuts.....and the Italians and Russian divers trying desperately to hack bits off her! So a chance to dive her again when it's reasonably quite is something to look forward to.

Glad you're back safe mate.
 

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[b said:
Quote[/b] (MATTBIN @ June 06 2003,13:15)]Any chance you might get a refund/compensation for that?
I'm working on that. We paid £1029 for the Tiger Lily trip whereas the Excel trip was advertised on the Internet for £895. Also, we were to have had half-board at the hotel on the last day but had to pay for our meals now. I've e-mailed to Red Sea Divers saying that I assume he will arrange a refund (I believe Goldenjoy are the tour operators and David just acts as their agent) but have had no reply as yet.
 

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[b said:
Quote[/b] (andyp @ June 06 2003,13:42)]Hi John,

You didn't mention, did you spread yourself out on a sheet.

Andrew
Sorry to be dense, Andrew, but you've lost me there.
 

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Oh heavens

Excel,,,,,,,,,Spreadsheet

A bad joke I know, I work on quantity not quality

Andrew
 

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No, not bad at all. Just too witty for me.
 

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<font color='#000080'>Glad you had a good time John,  will post my report on my trip to the Brothers very shortly.

Agree 100% on your appraisal of Sonia,  top lass, she was guiding on the Greta a couple of years ago.  I did wonder where she had moved onto.

Daz
 

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[b said:
Quote[/b] ]I can see the sense in doing the Southern Itinerary as I've still yet to see a shark (even at Ras Mo & Tiran Straits) in the Northern Red Sea.
Team bunny saw 3 whitetips in April on the Cyclone Bren. One off the wreck of the Kingston in a nice drift  
and two at Ras Mohammed  
so there's hope yet.

Great report John, as you know I'm going on the Excel in 5 weeks time and I'm really looking forward to it. I was talking to Tony (Backhurst) yesterday when I booked it who told me that it was going to be upped to £1000+ per week next year. It is on at £850 this year 'cos of Sars, the war in Iraq, threat of global terrorism...

When we returned from the trip on the Cyclone there were some money off vouchers waiting for us on the doorstep 'cos we'd complained to the rep about Excel airlines changing the flight times back and forth two days before we departed and they did it again when we left Sharm causing us to wait for 5 hours before we could check in for the flight home which was beyond Tony and his staff's control but they bent over backward to help.

Cheers and dive safe all,

Noel "puppy" Johnson
 
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