Into the unknown: Egypt's southern extreme
When divers discuss the southern Egyptian coastline, they generally mean the range of reefs that are found between Elphinstone and St John's Reef. Recently, however, I decided to join an exploratory expedition starting at St John's and heading further south to the Sudanese border. This is the true, deep south and is virgin territory. The charts are fairly inaccurate and many non-marked reefs suddenly appear out of nowhere, making navigation particularly hazardous. Conversely, we found that many reefs clearly shown on the chart simply weren't there.
Report by Charles Hood
When making a trip of this nature, nothing is guaranteed. We were travelling on the Sherazade or Elegante or Royal Evolution liveaboards. Most of the reefs just break the surface by less than metre or so. However, unlike St John's Reef to the north, they tended to be relatively shallow, bottoming out at around 25m. Anthias were prolific on most sites, providing the stunning orange and purple contrast to the blue backdrop that has become synonymous with the Red Sea. However, unfamiliar species did begin to appear.
The first immediately noticeable fish were the huge bumphead parrotfish. More than a metre long, their physical ugliness contrasted with the obvious grace with which they moved through the water. They tended to patrol at shallow depths against a backdrop of hard coral, which is utterly pristine in this area. When I discussed this with Yasser - the owner of the Royal Emperor - we surmised that as very few boats have dived the area, little anchor damage had taken place.
Among these hard corals was a profusion of brightly coloured chromis and damselfish. Every now and then a huge expanse of hard coral would be broken by clumps of red-footed anemones and the attendant clownfish. In deeper water there was the usual Red Sea life, with nothing particularly different. A noticeable exception, however, was the sea bed, where cone shells appeared to be thriving - could this be because there was no one to collect them?
This part of the Red Sea is relatively unexplored, so don't expect the dive sites to be well known. Indeed, the only way we could name many of the reefs was to take an educated guess by looking at the chart. For me, this is part of the trip's eccentric charm, but it can also prove frustrating. For instance, we spent nearly a whole day looking for a clearly charted wreck, to no avail. Also, getting to the deep south is a long journey. Even though the airport at Marsa Alam is now open, direct flights from the UK are not expected before summer 2003. At present it is a five-hour bus ride from Hurghada before you get on the boat. The main dive sites are then about a day's steam away. The season should be virtually all year round, but the challenge lies in persuading a like-minded group to join you on a trip with so few certainties.
Exploratory diving is great fun. The sense of adventure and the unknown is what gives this part of the Red Sea its appeal. If you like the exploratory side of diving, then I reckon you have between 12 and 18 months of it here before it all changes, so go now before it's too late! The vessels also make many scheduled trips to well-known sites in the north and south Red Sea throughout the year. Virtually guaranteed Pristine hard coral, notably cone coral (Merulinidae) and yellow waver coral (Dendrophylliidae). Red anemones in large aggregations, tuna and bumphead parrotfish.
Look out for Practically anything! I certainly wouldn't discount the shark potential of this region. We came across a large mako shark, caught and dying on a longline. It was a potent reminder of how mankind has made inroads into even this wilderness. Equally, it shows that this unexplored region still has a few surprises in store for divers.
* Charles Hood travelled with Diving World (020 7407 0019) and was a guest of the Royal Emperor liveaboard.
DEEP SOUTH ITINERARY (14 Nights) - DISCOVERY & EXPLORATION
Day 1: Port GHALEB (embarkation) .
Day 2: Sailing to ABU DABBAB for 1st dive (check dive),then sailing to SAMADAI for afternoon dives & WADI EL GIMAL for night dive & overnight .
Day 3: Sailing to FURY SHOEL for morning dives, afternoon dives at SHEEB MAKSUR & overnight .
Day 4: Sailing to SAINT JOHNS REEF for morning, afternoon dives & overnight .
Day 5: Sailing to SHEEB ABU FENDERA for afternoon dives & overnight .
Day 6: Discovering & Exploration SHEEB ABU FENDERA and beyond !!
Day 7: Discovering & Exploration DEEP SOUTH !!
Day 8: Discovering & Exploration DEEP SOUTH !!
Day 9: Sailing to SAINT JOHNS REEF for the full day & overnight .
Day 10: Sailing to WHITE ROCK for morning & afternoon dives, overnight at MIKAUWA ISLAND .
Day 11: Sailing to FURY SHOEL, dive the full day at CLAUDIA REEF, SATAYA (DOLPHIN REEF) & overnight .
Day 12: Sailing to QULAN ISLAND for morning dives, then sailing to WADI GEMAL for afternoon dives & overnight .
Day 13: Sailing to SHAB SHARM for morning dives, then sailing to MARSA ALAM, Overnight at SAMADAI.
Day 14: Sailing to ELPHINSTONE for the full day, then sailing to MARSA GHALEB for Disembarkation.