Friday, 4 January 2013

BLUE O TWO NORTHERN WRECKS & REEFS


Photo courtesy of Mick Stewart of
Blue Diamond Divers
From 14-21 December 2012 I was lucky enough to go on a diving expedition to Egypt  with Blue O Two on their award winning flagship vessel M/Y Blue Horizon.  The trip consisted of 26 personnel, 9 of which were instructors and of the remainder 9 had only completed their BSAC Ocean Diver (OD) a month prior with an additional 2 personnel who had only completed their OD pool and theory work.  The primary aim of the week was to get all newly qualified personnel trained to BSAC Sports Diver (SD) with the remaining personnel working towards their next diver grade.

So why Egypt?
Located between Africa and Asia, the warm waters of the Red Sea are home to more than 1100 species of fish, 200 species of hard and soft corals and 44 species of shark which makes it some of the most spectacular diving in the world.  Additionally due to its fierce storms, or navigational error around the chains of reefs and submerged islands, the Red Sea is littered with shipwrecks.

So why Blue O Two?
Blue O Two sail weekly from Hurghada, Port Ghalib and Marsa Alam to various destinations in the Red Sea and unlike other operators who rent boats; Blue O Two operate their own vessels and have their own dedicated employees so you can guarantee the service you will receive.  The itinerary was chosen as (in my opinion) it offered the best all round experience for Red Sea virgins and
the vessel, M/Y Blue Horizon was the obvious choice. 


Photo courtesy of Blue O Two
Built in 2006, award winning M/Y Blue Horizon is Blue O Two's flagship vessel and has won 'Liveaboard of the Year' by DIVE and DIVER magazine in their recent industry awards.  M/Y Blue Horizon boasts a large dining area, separate lounge with TV, DVD and stereo system, shaded deck area and sun deck.  Cabins are available in twin and double benefit from air conditioning, en-suite, mini refrigerators and TV/DVD players.  The boat is equipped with a Nitrox compressor and is also ideal for technical divers.  Finally M/Y Blue Horizon has 2 RHIBS for transporting divers to and from dive sites if required.  The downside?  It’s not cheap however in addition to above you also get:
·                3 meals a day plus unlimited snacks and soft drinks.  The website says “highest quality fresh food is prepared onboard daily by our outstanding chefs and all ingredients are sourced from local suppliers” and I can confirm this is true; the food is outstanding.
·                Towelling robe, towels and a separate beach towel for the sun deck are provided.
·                Experienced dive guides.
·                Return flights to and from your chosen destination.
·                Unlimited diving (4 dives per day).
·                Cylinders (12l) and weights.
·                Blue O Two can also provide diving equipment and instruction if required.

So with the ‘sell’ out of the way, here’s a brief run-down of the week.

Day 1, Friday 14 December 2012
Around half of us left Birmingham at 0330, the fog and cold could not dampen our spirits as we enthusiastically loaded our kit into the vehicles.  We were very grateful to our duty drivers who braved the freezing conditions and took us to London Gatwick at these sparrow fart hours.  Everyone else mustered at the airport on time and surprisingly no-one forgot their passport.  Unlike my previous trips with Blue O Two, the group were booked onto two separate flights (Easy Jet and Thomas Cook), at two separate terminals so after a bit of kit swapping to make the most of the luggage allowance we checked in and headed through to the departures lounge. 

Easy (Sleazy) Jet lived up to its reputation with the distinct lack of a complimentary meal, non-reclining seats, turbulent take-off and landing however we arrived relatively pain free in Hurghada to be met by organized chaos.  Amongst the crowd we found the Blue O Two visa stand and swiftly proceeded through customs to our luggage and onto our coach (minibus). 

Our boat M/Y Blue Horizon was a welcoming sight after our long journey and there began the repertoire of briefs from the guides (Blue O Two), our group leader, our team doctor and our diving supervisors.  Our diving documentation was checked, our passports were handed in and finally we got to eat dinner!  Fortunately for some, time was getting on so I decided not to deliver any lectures that evening so a sensible amount of alcohol was consumed and an early night was taken as most had been up for nearly 24 hours.

Day 2, Saturday 15 December 2012
The morning after a very long day, we had the first of only 2 lie-ins of the week; 0730!  M/Y Blue Horizon slipped her moorings during breakfast and motored north from Hurghada (Marriot Hotel Marina) to arrive at the first dive site of the trip; Poseidon Reef.  After a comprehensive briefing from our dive guide Becky and our own diving supervisor, we headed into the water for our shake out dive.   Mask clearing, DV retrievals, OOG drills, rescues and for those qualified, DSMBs were practiced and if we had time a small look at the reef.  All dives were ended with a weight check (although for some this wasn’t to be the last).  There was barely time to dry off before the theory training continued for the SD trainees. 

The second dive was at Siyul with a slightly stronger current and some pretty red soft corals inhabited by a family of Clown Fish.  Because of the current it was an ideal training site to teach SMB which all groups coped with well; well nearly!  One of Blue O Two's other boats; M/Y Blue Melody was also moored here which did confuse one navigationally challenged group.  Darkness had already arrived as we assembled for the night dive briefing at Umgosh before slipping into the inky waters that revealed a brightly coloured cuttlefish.

Day 3, Sunday 16 December 2012

Photo courtesy of Andy Reid of Jurassic Shark Photography
The day started off with a 0530 wakeup call; none of us were used to this but I assure you, we were by the end of the week.  Our first dive was Gubal Island and we were in for a treat.  Dolphins, yes Dolphins; there must have been at least 10 in total and extremely inquisitive.  

The day progressed very smoothly and successfully with yet more vital SD lectures and training including; controlled buoyancy lift, rescue and tow, line laying, navigation skills and dive leading which will enable the more novice divers to build their experience and to qualify as SDs.  All this was covered on 2 dives at Gubal Island; Bluff Point and The Barge.  During the last dive a different pod of dolphins accompanied the final wave during their dive but this time in excess of 25, including babies. To everyone’s delight, and more so the dive guides, everyone got to see the dolphins, which really put everyone’s morale on a high as the evenings dive was cancelled to enable yours truly to deliver more SD lectures, both before AND after dinner.  All in all it was an amazingly enjoyable and successful day of diving in all aspects.
 
Day 4, Monday 17 December 2012
Having qualified our 2 new ODs the day before today was to be an exciting day for the SD students who were due to finish their qualification; needing only two more lectures and a dive or two.  M/Y Blue Horizon had magically repositioned herself next to a beautiful reef, home to the SS Kingston wreck, a large but mostly decomposed sailer/steamer.  This was to be a first wreck dive for some and the conditions were perfect.  By now our SDs were buddying up as pairs and the instructors were taking more of a back seat.  The coral garden surrounding this wreck was stunning and brimming with life and there were smiles all ‘round in the Zodiacs on the way back to the mothership.

The first dive of the afternoon was getting everyone excited as we were now heading toward the wreck of the SS Thistlegorm, (probably) the most famous wreck in the Red Sea.  We learnt all about the history of this amazing ship and her cargo in another excellent brief and the first wave of divers kitted up.  It was to be an eventful dive as the current running along the wreck was a lot stronger than anticipated and the visibility was poor (by Red Sea standards).  Most buddy pairs had to abandon their dive plan and only saw a fraction of what they might have hoped.  Thankfully all made it back to the shot line, but by now the current was very strong and a mildly comical five-minute safety stop ensued with multiple divers hanging onto the line like shirts on a washing line in a strong breeze.

Sadly for some of the second wave divers the decision was made to cancel further diving after the strength of the current became apparent to the dive marshals.  Their decision might have been based on the rapid appearance of my wife who lost contact with the shot line on the first few metres of the descent and surfaced.  My buddy and I checked she was ok & collected by the RHIB before descending down the shotline.  Why waste a dive!  The domestic that followed could give Eastenders a run for its money however.

After the gruelling first dive on the Thistlegorm there were some anxious faces as we kitted up for a night dive on the very same wreck (nil penetration).  Thankfully a beautiful, eerie and fascinating wreck awaited us, with none of the dreaded current and all buddy pairs ‘dived the plan’ without incident, a testament to how far the newest divers have come already.

Day 5, Tuesday 18 December 2012
Another early start led to the final dive on the Thistlegorm.  This was a very exhilarating dive especially for those who had never experienced penetrating a wreck before.  We were able to see intact military trucks, motorbikes, some with sidecars, a whole lot of thigh high rubber boots along with weapons and munitions.  One lucky buddy pair was greeted at the exit of their dive by the resident turtle; much to everyone’s envy.  Conditions for this dive were excellent with minimal current; a very large difference from the dive the previous day.

We departed the famous wreck to head to our second dive of the day; Small Crack.  The ODs became the leaders to add to their progression to SDs.  We started the dives in good spirits – heightened by the sight of five blue spotted Stingrays.  Unfortunately this sight was brief due one of the divers coming along with his un-necessarily large camera including search lighting and steam rolled over the over two buddy teams to get his perfect shot; with his two buddies following in tow in dismay.  It was quite humorous to watch said diver continuously chase these rays like children playing kiss chase in the school grounds.  A strong current appeared when we reached the entrance of the larger channel of small crack, some buddies decided to head back in the direction they came – others were determined to fight the current to experience the Finding Nemo view we were promised in the brief.  Unfortunately due to exhaustion and concentration of not being drifted away back to the entrance these buddy groups missed more of the reef than those who turned back.

The third dive of the day was Beacon Rock.  The majority of our ODs were now fully qualified SDs and were ‘let loose’ on their own in their buddy groups without any instructor presence.  Navigation was found wanting during the dive; one buddy pair managed to dive the inner reef instead of the outer reef as briefed. 

Day 6, Wednesday 19 December 2012
We had yet another 0530 start today, but a brilliant line up of wreck dives ensured everybody was raring to go. The Dunraven, which sunk in the 1870’s and is now an upside down wreck, allowed all the newly qualified SDs to obtain some of their depth progression.  I was buddied with the remaining 2 ODs; fingers crossed by the end of the day they would also be SDs.

The second dive was the beautiful Carnatic where most divers managed to explore spines of the wreck.  For my pair however there was still more lessons to be done; compass work (surface), line laying and DSMBs.  Full credit to both my students, they were great buddies however even they admitted, a little bit of task loading (it’s only a spool) soon messes up your buoyancy and breathing! 

Between dives the more experienced divers received training towards their Dive Leader and Advanced Diver qualifications, whilst the others relaxed on the deck.  Our third and last dive of the day was to Ghiannis D.  As the wreck lays on her side many of the divers felt disorientated throughout the dive, however my buddy pair were fine as they were on their qualifying SD dive; the dive lead.  Apart from a fin strap mishap they both did fine and completed their training.  A substantial amount of sea life was witnessed during this dive; Crocodile fish, parrot fish, scorpion fish, puffer fish, napoleon wrasse and pipe fish to name a few…still no nudibranchs, something all divers have been on the lookout for ALL WEEK (Becky……).

Day 7, Thursday 20 December 2012
The final diving day of this ‘arduous’ expedition commenced with El Sharm Erg; a dive requiring navigation from the lagoon to a small exit, out and round a coral outcrop.  A hardy few managed the complete navigation and returned to the boat against a considerable current; however all were overtime.  

Final dive of the trip was on the El Miniya; an ex Russian minesweeper sank during the Arab–Israeli war of 1970.  All newly qualified SDs managed to obtain their 30m depth progression however a number of divers were clearly narked as there were claims to have seen the mythical aquatic beast, the ‘nudibranch’ being thrown around after the dive

The remainder of the day was spent washing and drying our dive kit, sunbathing and generally relaxing as we headed back to the Marriot Hotel Marina.  Our final night was spent down town; music was sang, drinks were drunk, and taxi drivers were stealing our money (literally).

Day 8, Friday 21 December 2012
The morning after the night before.  This however didn’t mean a lie in as at 0700 we all got out wakeup call breakfast was served at 0715.  At 0800 we said our good byes to M/Y Blue Horizon before everyone spent the day doing various activities ranging from quad biking, a spa day or relaxing by the beach.  The time soon disappeared as before we knew it the transfers had arrived to take us (and all Blue O Two's customers) to the airport.  As before we were booked on 2 separate flights and headed back to (sunny!) England.  Finally at Gatwick everyone said their goodbyes before splitting to the four winds; again around half of us heading back to Birmingham.

Overall
The week was busy; we had lots of divers to train and lots of lessons to do.  Overall, 17 dives were completed; on average 2-3 per day.  Blue O Two offer up to 4 dives per day but we decided not to do this; firstly due to the supervisors regulations and conducting each dive in waves, and secondly we had lots of theory lessons to complete.

We are all very proud to have qualified 11 Sports Divers, 1 Nitrox Diver (outside those trained in the Sports Diver syllabus), 2 Advanced Divers and conducted additional Advanced Diver and Dive Leader training in this short trip; thanks to the hard work from both students and instructors.
 
Both guides; Becky & Ahmed were very helpful and knowledgeable, and the remainder of the crew were superb.  They could not have done any more for us.  The only downside of the trip was the separate flights but hey ho.  This is my second trip with Blue O Two on M/Y Blue Horizon and it certainly won’t be my last.
 
 
A link to just a few of the pictures taken can be found here.

NOTE:  I have deliberately left out much of the history and description of the dive sites as much of it can be found on the web but if you do have any questions please feel free to ask.

The boring bit!
All opinions expressed in my articles are my own and may differ to other instructor’s and agency guidelines; by no means are they wrong and I would not wish to disrepute any of them.  This article is for information only and should not replace proper training.

Safe diving!
 
Timothy Gort
BSAC, PADI & SDI/TDI diver training
l Mob: 07968148261 l Email: tim@rectotec.co.uk l