Travel

Ocean First in Egypt & Jordan

By OceanFirst on 9/17/15

There are places in the world that people just don't expect divers to travel to. Everyone knows that the Caribbean and South Pacific have great diving. But Egypt? If I had a dollar for every time I heard, "You're going to Egypt to dive? Really?" I might just be able to afford a really spectacular pair of shoes. Yes, really. The Red Sea has some of the most incredible diving in the world and most Americans have no idea. Well.. not this group of intrepid adventurers. This group said "sign us up.. we're ready!".

So it was that 11 of us set off to Hurghada, Egypt. We had a second group joining us in Port Ghalib, Egypt for the diving adventure. The first group of 11 traveled across the desert to Luxor to explore the ancient ruins of Egypt's first capital city (formerly Thebes). We stayed at a fabulous resort right on the Nile that had an amazing infinity pool.. very welcome in the 115F "dry" heat... We started early and visited the east bank of the Nile, Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple. Our senses were overloaded, thanks to our fabulous guide, Manar. Her knowledge and appreciation of her country's history was impressive, to say the least. That evening we sailed the Nile at sunset, enjoying cocktails and snacks. Dinner was served riverside and was a true Egyptian feast fit for royalty! The next morning we rose at 3:45am to take a hot air balloon ride over the Nile valley, watching the sunrise and the locals start their day. Seeing the Nile valley from the air really gives you an appreciation for the starkness of this land. The desert starts as soon as the life-giving waters from the river end. It was breathtaking! We continued to Valley of the Kings and Queen Hatshepsut's Temple, wrapping up our tour at the Statues of Memnon. Our afternoons were spent at the pool... much appreciated after a full morning!

Everyone was ready to start diving. Before we picked up the rest of our group we needed to drive 3hrs to the pick up point. There really isn't much between Luxor and the Red Sea other than mountains and desert. Tourism is down to 10% of normal and the country is suffering. This was quite obvious as we traveled through the countryside; unfinished buildings were rampant.

We picked up the rest of our group in Safaga and there was much rejoicing as we finally had our full group! Another 2hrs and we arrived in Port Ghalib. We boarded our home for the next 10 days, the Red Sea Aggressor. Everyone settled in, grabbed a Sakhara beer, and listened to the orientation briefing from the crew. We spent the night in port and, after clearing customs and retrieving one lost bag (delivered at 6am), we were off! The first couple of dives were all about getting acclimated and getting our weights sorted out. We had many new dive buddy pairings and there were quite a few discussions occurring on the dive deck as new buddies reviewed gear configuration and communication. That evening we proceeded to Brothers Islands and then the action really picked up! Big and Little Brother are classic Red Sea wall dives. These remote islands have sheer drop off walls that are alive with orange and magenta anthias.. they literally fill the water column, dancing in and out of the reef. We were truly blessed by the appearance of very curious and comfortable oceanic white tip sharks.. two at Little Brother and one at Big Brother. These majestic sharks are always accompanied by escort pilot fish.. and these big sharks had no less than 10 escorts per shark. Cruising around at 15ft, right under the boat, everyone had an opportunity to get a great view of the stunning Carcharhinus longimanus. Yours truly had a particularly close encounter.. something I've been dreaming of since my first trip to Egypt in 2012! We were also given a rare sighting of a Thresher shark..one of the coolest sharks around. These sharks are quite shy and prefer cold, deep water making them difficult to spot. The group also enjoyed the wreck of the Aida, an impressive wreck that sits at a steep angle and is mostly in tact. The wreck is so overgrown with coral it can be difficult to see!

After Brothers we continued to Daedalus reef, the largest reef in the Red Sea. This pinnacle is huge and known for large pelagic encounters. The visibility was compromised, unfortunately, so we did not see much. There was a quick fly by of 5 hammerhead sharks, but other than that the group was satisfied with casual, spectacular wall diving.
Onward to Rocky Island and Zabargad, the southern most reach of our adventure. These barren islands boast some of the Red Sea's finest dive sites. In fact, as we were relaxing in between dives, a huge manta ray lept clear out of the water right next to the boat! It had so much fun on the first jump it did it again! This was a truly incredible event and everyone was really excited to get back in the water. Needless to say, we didn't see any mantas on our next dive. We explored the beach on Zabargad and saw the tracks of green turtles that use the island as a nesting area. After an interesting visit with the local militia, we headed back to our yacht and made tracks for St. John's Reef, towards the Sudan border.

St. John's. My friends, this place is pure magic. Imagine a labyrinth of open tunnels leading to huge, sunlit rooms filled with reef fish. It is as if you have walked into a dream, or perhaps down a rabbit hole. The reef system is shallow and it is a playground for divers. You cannot get lost, nor can you get stuck anywhere. Divers can wander around, finding their own path, interlacing with the group here and there, joining up and then wandering off again. As you surface you look back, wondering if it was real or was it just a dream? St. John's has that effect on you. There are little reef systems like this all over the St. John's reef system. On one particularly trippy dive we received specific instructions from our guide to locate the enormous plate coral & level off at 15ft (no deeper or you'll miss it). You will see the entrance.. follow it and you'll find yourself in a large opening. We followed the directions and yes, we found ourselves in wonderland. A huge green turtle greeted us and we were surrounded by mushroom coral that was begging for a shisha-smoking caterpillar. Unreal. Our dive group of 4 looked at each other and gave ourselves the "are you f***ing kidding me" signal.. you know the one I'm talking about. A blessing indeed.

Sadly we had to leave and moved onto Shaab Sataya, the spinner dolphin lagoon. This large, protected lagoon is the resting place for a resident pod of up to about 75 - 100 spinner dolphin. This is snorkeling only and our expert skiff drivers knew exactly how to position us for a great interaction. As these are wild animals, you never are really sure if you're going to see the pod or not. This was our lucky day and the pod was located about 20ft off the stern of the Aggressor. Excitement was building and off we went! Now, about dolphins. These dolphins are resting, as in not swimming very fast for a dolphin. Once we are in position our driver says "GO" and in we go. These "resting" dolphins are hauling ass and everyone is exhausted after 2 minutes of swimming with them. Score one for the cetaceans, score zero for homo sapiens. Every so often they give you a chance, however. One person in particular was adopted into their pod.. karma payback. Scott was taken in and treated as one of their own. He had close encounters with a baby dolphin and was literally accepted into the pod. It was incredible! There is nothing better than receiving a gift like this. Baby dolphins? Yes. Two, in fact.

After an exhausting 45 minutes we were back on board and headed for Elphinstone. Elphinstone Reef is one of the most famous dive sites in Egypt. Located close to shore, this is a popular day trip for land-based operators. Oceanic white tips frequent this reef so snorkeling is not allowed for safety reasons. We did two dives at Elphinstone; one where we searched the blue for big pelagics and one current swept dive that literally woke up the reef! The surface of Elphinstone is beautiful.. crashing waves that you can see breaking from your safety stop. It epitomizes the power and majesty of the ocean.

Our last night in port was filled with shopping and a most excellent cocktail party hosted by the crew of the Aggressor. We had such a great group of people. One brand new OW diver (yeah, Casey!), one diver who achieved 100 dives on this trip (yeah, Melinda!), along with many personal milestones as far as travel and new experiences go. The group got along great and lasting friendships have been made. Ocean First treated the group to dinner and shisha that evening.. it was a great way to wrap up the diving part of the trip. We said goodbye to 6 of our group who headed back to Denver the next day. .the rest continued to Jordan for 4 days of exploring.

After saying goodbye, 10 of us headed to Amman, Jordan for the last segment of our adventure. We departed for Madaba and Petra early the next day. Jordan is steeped in history with ties to Greek, Roman, Nabatean and Ottoman civilizations. Our tour guide, Waleed, was a fountain of knowledge on his country’s history. We stopped in Madaba to visit St. George’s church, which contains the Map of Madaba mosaic. After visiting the church we continued to Mt. Nebo, where Moses first set eyes on the promised land. We enjoyed a splendid feast of traditional Jordanian cuisine for lunch, as well as what easily passed as the most refreshing beer of the trip. Our final stop that day was in Petra.

An early start to hike into Petra guaranteed us a relatively cool (and quiet!) start to the day. Petra must be seen to be believed. After walking through a stunning canyon lined with aquaducts, we get our first view of the Treasury. Tourism in Jordan is down to 20% of normal and we wound up having the Treasury all to ourselves. This would have been unheard of back in the heyday of Petra tourism. We took a few pictures and everyone really enjoyed the camels decked out in their finery! Onto the entrance to the Monastery we went.. hiking all the way up to see this incredible carving! The hike was a bit strenuous but didn’t stop this athletic and determined group. Most of the group continued onto the very top of the mountain where the “Best View” was.. it was even advertised that way and was quite a lovely view indeed. Upon our descent and return to the entrance we were in desperate search of a beer. This is not an easy quest in Jordan, especially during Ramadan. Fear not, we found ice cold beers and everyone was happy.

Next stop was the famed Dead Sea. Our hotel was beautiful and we immediately made our way down to the sea for a sunset soak. The Dead Sea is known for healing minerals so of course we all had to find a nice mud pit to cover ourselves. Once we were all “mudded up” we had to have a group picture. Our skin felt great and we felt rejuvenated despite the 100+ temperature at 8pm.

Our final stop was Amman, a city that is full of Roman history. Our excellent guide encouraged us to take a few hours to explore the ancient ruins in the heart of Amman. It was an excellent suggestion and we enjoyed every minute of the tour.

After 3 weeks in the Middle East it was time to head home. These long trips can be tiresome and a bit tricky to be with the same people for so long. This was such a great group, we really got lucky. Everyone got along great and enjoyed each other’s company. All excellent divers and patient, open-minded travelers. This is a beautiful part of the world and is unfortunately suffering from events in the surrounding countries. I encourage Americans to travel to Jordan and Egypt. Choosing the right tour operators is imperative, however. Our group had a memorable, life-changing experience and will never forget this 3 week adventure.

Shukran,
Ami

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