As a diversion from my artistic interests in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, staying at the Sofitel Hotels (www.sofitel.com) all the while, I chose to dive in the Red Sea off Hurghada. Hotels there and dayboard diving are not only more affordable than living aboard a dive boat, but they also allow for flexible schedules. Resorts such as the Hilton Hurghada (www.hilton.com) offer good packages, and dive operations such as the five-star facility, Aquarius Diving Club (www.aquariusredsea.com) offer good value for the money. Aquarius Diving Club has comfortable, big boats, which are moored at docks within easy access to the hotels. The dive sites they visit are pristine due to the Hurghada Environmental Protective and Conservation Association (HEPCA), a twelve-year old agency that installed and services mooring buoys on all the dive sites and offshore islands. Aquarius also sponsors “Dive Free,” an international day of cleaning detritus from the ocean floor, four times a year. The programs seem to work, as I didn’t see any damage or trash on the reefs.
I started my dive at the site, Abu Ramada South, a shallow site off the Hurghada coast. Here, three pinnacles rise from a 50-foot sandy bottom, where I found a patch of elusive skinny garden eels squiggling out of their holes to feed on plankton. A much bigger eel caught my eye. It was a black moray in a coral head blanketed with colorful soft coral. A swarm of cardinalfish, the ubiquitous jewelfish of the Red Sea, swam above another picture-perfect formation. A blue spotted stingray churned up the sand and fled at my approach. The water is almost always 78 degrees, necessitating a seven-mil wetsuit. Since there was no rushing the dives, I spent a comfortably warm hour at various sites.
If several divers aboard request three dives in a day, the boat is equipped to accommodate them, and Giftun Island has several sites on which to moor. The south end of the island has an intense concentration of marine life and bushes of brilliantly colored soft corals along the wall. One diver spotted a Napoleon wrasse, one of the largest of the wrasse family in the world. The critter can grow up to six feet in length. They’re known to be curious and even friendly to divers if they’re approached slowly. One diver chased it, causing it to fin into the deep. I sank down slowly to 65 feet to a shallow overhang and was delighted to find one looking straight at me. The wrasse hung around just long enough for me to snap a shot. I waited for it to return without luck.
At the next dive at Small Giftun, I found several black moray eels, a member of a diverse family of fish found around the world in tropical and subtropical waters. I’ve heard the darker the color, the older the fish and if that’s true, these guys were great grandparents. I traced the length of one, whose body was snaked in and around a carved out coral head and estimated the giant to be almost a couple of feet longer than I’m tall. They too are curious creatures, and very photogenic. I shot several angles and soon became interested in the formations of the black and white clown fish swimming in the hard coral above my model.
An unexpected treasure was finding a perfectly camouflaged, two-foot crocodile fish, a bottom dweller commonly known as a flathead. Ranging in size, these fish can grow to 40 inches in length. Similar to a stonefish and related to a lionfish, its bulging eyes are located on the upper surface of the head. The fish waits on the bottom of the reef and snaps up smaller fish and crustaceans that come within range. For the rest of the dive I followed Moorish idols and then focused on an accommodating diver swimming calmly above the coral.
There was hardly any current at Sha’ab Sabina, a huge coral head located east of Hurghada. This dive suits every level of diver, but since we were all experienced we were able to cascade down a sloping coral wall that looked like a Japanese garden. Easy to spot was a school of red snappers hovering over the reef. I found a nudibranch (a sea slug) that can have up to six breathing appendages. Ranging from brightly to singularly colored, and growing as big as a foot long, my “nudi” was about four inches with only one breathing appendage visible. Still, it was a lovely find.
Once back on land, I walked among protesters in Tahrir Square, and I strolled the busy markets in Cairo and throughout the country without incident. Although a cruise down the Nile is an option, your clients shouldn’t hesitate to leave its confines. The Sofitel el Gezirah in Cairo, the Sofitel Winter Palace in Luxor and the Sofitel Cataract in Aswan (www.Sofitel.com) are luxurious, gracious options with excellent services and restaurants, and the drives from Aswan to Luxor and Hurghada allow your clients to see a countryside, sites and villages that are memorable and rewarding.
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