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Words from a Red Sea Dweller

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Emperor Divers Regional Area Manager, Luke Atkinson, spells out the reality of safety in the Red Sea

I’m an ex-pat, which is a posh way to say immigrant, and have been for the past seven years. I like the quiet life, so as soon as I set eyes upon Port Ghalib on the south of Egypt’s Red Sea coast, I knew it was where I wanted to call ‘home’. It has a small community, a smattering of bars and restaurants and a very simple landscape of vast yellow desert and even vaster blue sea. It is such a sleepy place, that in my seven years the most threatening thing to have happened was a brief dust up between a few dive guides and a couple of amateur boxers in (the once popular but now closed) TGI Fridays. And a donkey once gave me a peculiar look. Frightening stuff.

You’ll know Port Ghalib if you’ve been on one of the many liveaboards that depart from here, often going to Brothers Islands or Daedalus and occasionally further south. Or, you’re one of the relatively few divers that have been this far south on a land-based trip. For those that don’t know, it is a small private, modern development right next to Marsa Alam airport (RMF), almost exactly 200km South of Hurghada (HRG). It has never been inundated with holidaymakers, mainly because the airport does not receive many flights (only one per week from the UK) but divers have usually been savvy enough to find a way down via Hurghada. Those that come are rewarded with exceptional coral reefs, regular sightings of the rare dugong, and pelagic encounters on famous reefs like Elphinstone.

I came to Egypt in early 2009 to begin my career as a Dive Instructor having cut my teeth part time in the UK as a Divemaster (playing dead in the corners of Stony Cove, waiting an age for the next Rescue Diver student to locate me and inevitably flood my drysuit with icy water while they grappled me to the surface). The full time job paid the bills but the diving was what I lived for and so the opportunity to combine the pleasure with the pay was too much to resist – quit boring job, rent out apartment, store possessions, pack bags, go. Oh, and bring the missus.

Since 2009, I have seen three major news items hit the TV about this country, each one rocking the tourism industry; the Arab Spring of 2011, the ouster of the Islamist presidency of summer 2013 and most recently the plane incident on Sinai in October 2015. I’m not even going to include that recent (January 2016) nonsense in Hurghada that should have barely made national news, let alone front page international “news” (I’m being kind to the Daily Mail there). Thankfully for the latter incident, the Foreign Office and credible news outlets waited for the facts to come out before splashing their opinions all over the place, and rightly ignored it as the scuffle it was. So back to the three major incidents, and how I viewed them as a resident and insider. Not surprisingly, I saw events unfold in the exact same way most Brits would have, namely clutching a cold beer and watching the TV. Probably the only difference being I was wearing flip flops and shorts.

Dugong feeding in Marsa Alam HR copyright _ description (Medium)

Cairo is a long, long way away from the Red Sea, the closest resort being Hurghada at a mere 280 miles or so, Marsa more like 400. I know this, as I recently had to travel there to go and see Star Wars: The Force Awakens (hey, I was born in 1978 and I’m called Luke – what choice do I have?). My options were either a seven-hour car journey or a one-hour flight, hardly next door. So to be worried about whether events in Cairo would spill over, while sitting in a bar in a Red Sea resort, would be like someone in Seahouses (if you’ve not been there, you haven’t done some of the best UK diving on offer!) worried about the London rioters knocking on their door in August 2011. For those who worked in the Egyptian diving industry during these events, the worry was never safety. I never saw a thing firsthand that would have told me anything was amiss in Cairo. The worry was, and still is today, what will be the impact on the number of divers coming out?

The latest incident regarding the plane downing in Sinai late last year caused a response by the Foreign Office to put flights into and out of Sharm on hold, while the cause was investigated alongside a review of Egyptian airport security. The effect on Sharm has been colossal with many hotels and some dive centres closed at least temporarily whilst some have packed up for good. It’s a little bit difficult to watch and this well written article in the Gulf news by a British journalist makes some very good points about the scale of the reaction to that incident and even has a poll at the end (you have to pick an answer to see the result), which shows to me that most people really do have their heads screwed on right.

It’s difficult for those who have never been to the Red Sea before to visualise the Egyptian Red Sea as a peaceful and welcoming place since the media has inevitably tarred the whole of Egypt with a very large brush. I’m sure those that have been before know, when they stop to think, that a trip to Sharm, Hurghada or Marsa Alam would be safe but are still maybe hesitating. We are very good at focusing on ourselves and our own (sometimes inaccurate or misled) intuitions instead of facts; it’s for that reason for example that people often find it difficult to intuit that in any 23 random people, there is a greater than 50% chance that two share the same birthday. It’s true, look it up. And so it is, if you find yourself hesitating about an upcoming Red Sea dive trip, it’s the misleading part of your intuition at work.

Schooling snapper at Ras Mohamed Sharm El Sheikh HR copyright_description (Medium)

The facts about the Red Sea are clear. It is the closest warm water coral reef diving to the UK at five hours by plane. It is one of the best value diving destinations available to Brits. There are world class events to be seen such as the fish schooling of Ras Mohamed, as well as possible encounters with sharks, mantas, dolphins, dugong and turtles to name but a few. The visibility is usually a spectacular 30m+ and the water temperature ranges from 22C to 30C. There are wrecks of every shape and size to suit divers of all ability. There is a phenomenal tourism infrastructure, hotels of every class, liveaboard vessels, dive boats and transportation on hand everywhere. The diving is regulated and safe, with professional licensed outfits available in all the main resorts as well as a large network of hyperbaric chambers should one need. The local people are always hospitable and are especially welcoming to British nationals who traditionally have supported Egypt at times when other nationalities have not. And, most pertinently, it is safe to holiday here. As I said, I am sure most of you believe this deep down anyway but for those who don’t, just look at the Foreign Office advice. Hurghada – green. Sharm El Sheikh – green. Marsa Alam – green. Even Cairo – green (which suited my cinema ambitions). They quote “Over 900,000 British nationals visit Egypt every year. Most visits are trouble-free. The same is true for all the major European advices; Germany, France, Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy etc. I’m no mug; I wouldn’t live here if I doubted my safety.

Unsurprisingly the national response has not been covered in the international press as widely as the incidents themselves. Boring news does not sell papers. Egypt needs tourism; it is a huge and vital part of the country’s revenue. And so while I think you would have to go a long way to find someone in the Egyptian government who considers the sudden drop in tourism fair or justified, they have been forced to react positively. I bashed the Daily Mail earlier, so it’s only fair to include an article they ran somewhere in their back pages recently. As well as an investment in resort security, there has been work behind the scenes on airport security. British government representatives have recently been over to Egypt and have voiced their approval at the decision to use an international private company, Control Risks, to audit and strengthen security at airports, although you have to dig very deep for this news.

Since Egypt also recently finalised their democratic government with the first session of parliament for three years, another British government delegation which was there to see the inaugural session, “affirmed they would recommend the resumption of British air flights to Sharm El Sheikh upon their return to the UK”, which again was hardly reported.

Thresher shark at Little Brother HR copyright_description (Large)For you, the savvy diver, this is all good news indeed, albeit news you probably would not have seen.  So, Egypt is safe as the FCO advises, yet it is spending significantly to further secure its resorts. Egypt has also shown a quick and welcomed response to improving airport security to eradicate the one ban that does currently apply at Sharm airport. Diving in Egypt in the past few years has just got better and better; 2015 must go down as one of the best ever, certainly in the past 10 years. Ras Mohamed had fish schools of epic proportion, Brothers, Daedalus and Elphinstone had near ever present shark sightings (hammerhead, whale shark, grey reef, thresher and oceanic whitetip to name a few) from May to December and even Rocky Island in the far south had tiger sharks for two months. It could be asserted that perhaps there were too many divers in the years leading up to 2011 with reports of overcrowding on popular reefs and wrecks and nowhere near as many pelagic sightings as we have had recently. Since the masses will be hesitating about coming to the Red Sea, there is an opportunity for savvy divers in 2016 to experience the resorts and diving like never before. Reefs should be uncrowded, deals should be plentiful, and the diving spectacular. You can book for Marsa or Hurghada right now and expect the Sharm airport situation to be resolved in time to allow summer (which is the prime time for the Ras Mo fish schooling) trips there.

There are no guarantees in life, but if you look at the facts rather than the tabloid tales they chose to sell papers and decide rationally rather than intuitively, then you will see that rather than thinking to give the Red Sea a miss for the time being, it is exactly the time to come and dive here. If you do, I’d love to share a cold beer with you. Bring your own shorts and flip flops.

Emperor logo Divers choice for use on white backgroundsLuke is Area Manager of Emperor Divers in Marsa Alam and Hamata. For more information about Emperor Divers visit www.emperordivers.com.

Luke has worked in the British diving industry, teaching and guiding, since 2005 and moved to Marsa Alam in 2009 to make his passion his full time job. He's a PADI Master Instructor and still likes to teach, but his preference is guiding at his favourite dive sites in Marsa Alam. He loves the corals of Ras El Torfa, the life in Marsa Shouna and of course the excitement of diving Elphinstone. Luke is Area Manager of Emperor Marsa Alam and Hamata and stops at nothing to make sure his guests receive the best possible service.

Marine Life & Conservation Blogs

The world’s 12 best places to snorkel with whales

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Whales have captivated our imagination for centuries and snorkeling with whales is one of life’s best experiences. Whether you want to meet them in the tropics or under the Arctic sun, there is a whale adventure for you. Here is our guide to the world’s best places to snorkel with whales.

HUMPBACK WHALES

Humpback whales are found at destinations worldwide, making them easy to spend time with. These huge whales are known for their spectacular breaches and complex song and are just as rewarding whether you watch them from a boat or get in the water.

  1. Tonga

If you want to snorkel in clear blue waters with humpback mothers and their calves, visit Tonga. It is one of the most popular places to swim with humpbacks, where you can choose from day safaris or longer trips. Just make sure you book early so you don’t miss out.

When to go: July to September.

  1. Moorea, French Polynesia

French Polynesia is the perfect place to combine a luxurious getaway with a humpback whale swim safari and world-class snorkeling. There are endless snorkeling spots, beautiful beachside resorts and numerous whales. If you want to try scuba diving for the first time, the diving in Moorea is ideal for beginners. The reefs are pristine, the waters are sheltered, and you can swim with Moorea’s famously friendly stingrays whilst you’re there.

When to go: July to November.

  1. Silver Bank, Dominican Republic

The Silver Bank marine reserve provides a safe winter haven for the North Atlantic humpback whale population whilst they gather to mate, calve and raise their young. There are various liveaboard operators that offer multi-day safaris dedicated solely to learning about and swimming with these charming whales. This is a great option if you want to immerse yourself fully in the world of whales.

When to go: January to April.

4. Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

UNESCO-listed Ningaloo Reef hosts tens of thousands of humpback whales each year and is also a migratory route for dolphins, dugongs and manta rays. Lacking the crowds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, it is the most peaceful place to swim with humpback whales in Australia.

When to go: July to November.

  1. Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Hervey Bay – the world’s first World Whale Heritage Site – has been called the whale watching capital of the world, thanks to its abundant humpbacks. This conservation-focused destination is just a 3.5-hour drive north of Brisbane and offers day trips to swim with the whales.

Time your trip right and you can also enjoy the annual Hervey Bay Whale Festival and Paddle Out for Whales.

When to go: July to November.

  1. Reunion Island

Réunion lies 550 km east of Madagascar and is a lesser-known humpback whale hotspot. With only a handful of people allowed in the water at any one time, it is a great destination for more intimate whale encounters.

When to go: August to September.

  1. Iceland

Iceland’s rich waters are a prime feeding ground for humpbacks and offer a unique whale swim experience. Wearing a cozy dry suit, you can spend hours admiring these whales in Iceland’s incredible gin-clear waters.

When to go: June to August.

 DWARF MINKE WHALES

These pint-sized whales grow up to 8 meters long and were only discovered in the 1980s. They might be relatively new to the whale watching scene, but they are wonderful to swim with.

  1. Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Known for being exceptionally friendly, dwarf minke whales create truly memorable encounters as they swim around you, under you and sometimes even between your fins.

Hop on a minke whale safari at Cairns and enjoy. Go snorkeling or try Great Barrier Reef diving whilst you’re there to experience the incredible wonders of this enormous reef system.

When to go: June to July.

SPERM WHALES

Weighing up to 50 tons and reaching 15 – 20 meters long, sperm whales are one of the most sought-after and impressive whale species to swim with.

  1. Dominica

The sheer drop-offs and deep sheltered bays around Dominica are perfect for sperm whales, and the females and calves stay there all year. After just a short boat ride from the coast, you will be swimming with these amazing animals in calm azure waters.

When to go: Year-round, though November to March is peak season.

BLUE WHALES

Weighing up to a staggering 200 tonnes, blue whales are enormous, and there are two great places you can swim with them.

  1. Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is one of the only places where you can swim with blue whales, watch them from a boat, or go whale spotting in small airplanes – which is arguably the best way to get an idea of their sheer size.

When to go: March to April.

  1. San Diego, California

Baja California hosts the largest population of blue whales in the world every summer and there are a small number of operators that offer blue whale swimming safaris from San Diego. With small group sizes and week-long programs, they are perfect for maximizing your time with these huge whales.

When to go: June to October.

BELUGA WHALES

Beluga whales are easy to recognize thanks to their bright white coloring and rounded heads. These highly social animals are one of the most vocal whales and gather in large groups in Canada.

  1. Churchill, Canada

Tens of thousands of beluga whales gather each year in Hudson Bay and the small town of Churchill offers unique trips to swim with them. You can enjoy close-up encounters with hundreds of belugas in the water, plus spot polar bears, moose, Arctic foxes and more whilst you’re there.

When to go: June to September.

If you can’t get enough of whales, read the SSI guide to diving with whales to discover even more destinations where you can meet these giants of the ocean.


Kathryn Curzon, a shark conservationist and dive travel writer for Scuba Schools International (SSI), wrote this article.

 

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Gear Reviews

Tried & Tested: Typhoon International’s Totland Dog Vest

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Typhoon say about their pet flotation aid: “Our Totland Dog Vest is bound to be a hit with canine crew members whose safety is just as important as that of the rest of the family.  The Totland Dog Vest offers the all-important buoyancy in an easy-to-spot bright orange tough coated nylon. 

It is easy to buckle up and has a handy haul out handle and lead loop attachment point, making it easy to help your dog on and off the boat.”

Test Conditions

  • Location: Trefor, UK
  • Temperature: 20 degrees C
  • No of Swims: 4
  • Equipment Used: Gucci the Golden Retriever
  • Test Equipment: Typhoon Totland Dog Vest
  • RRP: £20.95

Review

The Totland Dog Vest is available in four sizes, and having consulted the size chart we went for the XL to fit our big Golden Retriever, Gucci. He is a good swimmer, so for a day at the beach does not need an aid to help him stay afloat whilst chasing his favourite ball, but if we were taking him on a boat we would certainly be using one.

The vest was easy to fit and the neck fitting was padded and looked really comfortable. Gucci certainly put up no complaints at wearing it and was happy to charge up and down the beach with it on. It did not impede his movement (both running and swimming) at all. The handle is really useful for close control, as well as being essential if we were to have to assist him back onto a boat or river bank. There is an attachment for a lead too, so for those who are training their dogs to swim or worry about their recall, a long lead can be attached to let them swim and have fun and still be able to get them back!

The bright orange colour is great to being able to keep track of your dog if they swim further away from you than you would like too. The float kept Gucci nice and high in the water and he was keen to try it out over and over again! It is a tough vest with secure clips giving you confidence that your best buddy would be safe if caught out in a current. We will certainly be using this to give our nervous puppy some confidence as he ventures into the water in the future.

Visit www.typhoon-int.co.uk to see the full range and to find details of your nearest stockist.

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Competitions

Explore the amazing triangle of Red Sea Reefs - The Brothers, Daedalus and Elphinstone on board the brand new liveaboard Big Blue.  With an option to add on a week at Roots Red Sea before or after. 

Strong currents and deep blue water are the catalysts that bring the pelagic species flocking to these reefs. The reefs themselves provide exquisite homes for a multitude of marine life.  The wafting soft corals are adorned with thousands of colourful fish. The gorgonian fans and hard corals provide magnificent back drops, all being patrolled by the reef’s predatory species.

£1475 per person based on double occupancy.  Soft all inclusive board basis, buffet meals with snacks, tea and coffee always available.  Add a week on at Roots Red Sea Resort before or after the liveaboard for just £725pp.  Flights and transfers are included.  See our brochure linked above for the full itinerary.

This trip will be hosted by The Scuba Place.  Come Dive with Us!

Call 020 3515 9955 or email john@thescubaplace.co.uk

www.thescubaplace.co.uk

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