The Red Sea is one of those near mythical destinations for divers — abundant marine life, healthy corals, world-class wrecks, cracking visibility and an almost unmatched diversity in dive sites.
For our inaugural diving sojourn to the Middle East, my dive buddy Kat and I wrestled with what to do and where. The most popular option among advanced divers is a seven day (or longer!) liveaboard in the Southern Red Sea, but this being our first trip to Egypt we were antsy to explore on land, too.
So when PADI Travel invited us to try their three night mini-liveaboards, the King Snefro 5, exploring the Northern Red Sea out of Sharm El Sheikh, it felt like dive-in intervention. (Get it? Divine intervention? Dive-in intervention? No? Nobody? Mkay, I’ll just get back to business then.)
The itinerary left us plenty of time to combine it with a few days of shore diving in Dahab, and make a pinky promise that this would be the first of many, many gorgeous dive trips to Egypt.
Kat and I spent the day buzzing with excitement about her first and my second liveaboard. As with many such trips, we boarded the evening before a very early morning departure and slept in port. This gave us time to leisurely set up gear, fill out paperwork, listen to the planet’s Longest And Most Thorough Ever Boat Briefing, and get settled before the trip really kicked off.
The sweet little King Snefro 5 has five cabins with a capacity for ten guests, but for this sailing there were just six of us, plus five crew — the captain, the chef, two deckhands, and our lovely host and dive guide, Ahmed. The guests were a diverse bunch, with Kat coming from South Africa by way of the UK, a young couple hailing from Switzerland, a solo Greek girl, an American girl by way of Cameroon (who we realized was a long time blog reader — how fun is that!), and lil ‘ol me, an American by way of Thailand.
I’ll give a full tour of our tiny home-at-sea in that future post, but suffice to say after a delicious dinner and getting to know our fellow divers, we fell asleep snug as can be in our teeny cabin, dreaming of the adventures we had ahead.
Days on the King Snefro start early, so I set my alarm with enough time to grab a piece of fruit and some tea before setting up my gear — breakfast was very reasonably timed between the first and second dives, but this girl can’t descend on an empty stomach!
Our very first site, Temple, was a shallow and easy one, within view of shore and where we we’d pulled out of the harbor. While it might not feel exciting to visit a dive site on a liveaboard that could easily be visited on a day boat, an easy check-out dive is standard for the kick off of a liveaboard. Understandably, Ahmed wanted to suss out the experience and comfort level of our group before heading out to deep sea.
He assured us that while this was a basic reef dive, we’d be blown away by the massive sea fans and the colorful coral below.
He was right.
This was my first “real” dive out with my strobe since taking the PADI Digital Underwater Photographer course you all voted to send me on, and I felt equal parts child-like excitement and Hulk-like rage at the fun and frustration of learning a new piece of photography equipment.
Read more about my underwater photography equipment here…
Next up, after breakfast and a long sail, we finally felt like we were out there. Since the Red Sea looks tiny on a map compared to, say, the Atlantic, I kind of had this mental picture of it as like, a pond. Ha. So I loved looking around and seeing nothing but sea meeting sky in every direction.
Our next dive was Stingray Station, named for the many blue spotted stingrays that can often be found hiding under coral formations.
This dive kicked off entries from the dinghy, which I have to admit gave me some pause. I recently mentioned this to one of the guests on my inaugural Wander Women retreat, and I couldn’t believe how shocked she was to hear that I still sometimes get psyched out before a dive. Guys, if I have presented myself as some kind of fearless gutsy superhero, forgive me, because that is inaccurate. I get intimidated all the time, in and out of the water. But I think the real beauty is in doing it anyway.
Back to the dinghy dives. As much as I loved that sea-to-sky visual, the combination of having no shoreline to be mentally grounded by, bouncing around a little inflatable boat in choppy seas, and the organized chaos of backwards rolling off the edge with a motor running an arm’s length away in staggered order was definitely filed under “intimidating.” Obviously, in any situation, you’ve got to always listen to your gut and see when it’s sending you a true red flag. But more often than not, upon examination I realize my anxiety is rooted in comfort, not safety.
When I start to feel overwhelmed when it comes to diving, I circle back to two thoughts: training and trust. First of all, I remind myself, I’ve got this. I’ve gotten it over and over again. Every course I’ve taken has been an investment in my dive safety and knowledge. My extensive dive training has taught me how to stay calm under pressure, a lesson I’ve applied below and above the surface time and time again.
Second, you’ve got to trust your dive guide. We’d literally done but one dive together, yet I could already tell that Ahmed was one of the most standards-adhering and safety-oriented dive guides I’d ever had, anywhere in the world. Originally from Alexandria, he’d been studying law when he, as he put it, “broke his parents’ hearts” by becoming a dive instructor, and now claimed to feel more at home at sea than on land. We adored him and trusted him, and I knew he would never ask me to do something I wasn’t completely capable of.
So backward roll off the dinghy I did, and soon I was back in my comfort zone — floating peacefully below the surface of the sea.
We didn’t spot any stingrays at Stingray Station, but we found plenty of other fishy friends, including an eagle ray who elegantly drifted by us. I didn’t get a great photo, but I did get a great memory.
After dive two, it was time for lunch and a snooze in the sun. Dive, eat, dive, eat, nap — I could get used to this!
For our third dive, Ahmed asked us if we’d be willing to do something a little different — a clean up dive. He tried to play it cool as totally optional, but as Kat pointed out, his enthusiasm was so overwhelming and sincere, we’d have been cruel not to take him up on it! Luckily I never met a conservation activity I didn’t like, so I was gung-ho from the get-go.
We’d docked at Shaab Ali, an area that would provide easy access to our wreck dives the next morning. It was also, sadly, in the shipping lanes for cargo boats heading to and from Hurghada, as Ahmed explained, often dumping huge amounts of trash overboard en route. In preparation we watched a video on marine debris, and Ahmed did a thorough briefing on how to carry out a safe and organized clean up dive.
I’d joined an Earth Day cleanup snorkel before, but this was to be my first ever official clean up dive. I was pumped, but didn’t expect to find too much trash. I’ve been on hundreds of dives, and while I always pick up plastic bottles or packaging I find on the ocean floor, there generally isn’t enough to fill a full trash bag.
Unfortunately, I was in for a shock as we descended below the boat to find a veritable underwater trash dump. We found plastic bottles galore, perfume, fishing nets, broken glasses and dishes, and, inexplicably, a pair of jeans. Sadly, the abundance of trash that astounded me in Cairo and beyond extended to underwater. Egypt has a serious trash problem, but I was heartened by Ahmed’s enthusiasm for spreading an environmental message on all his sailings. I took the opportunity to brainstorm with him about ways that I thought the King Snefro could cut down on waste as well, and start to get to the root of the problem.
Want more conservation content? Read on, here!
Our final dive of the day was a highly anticipated one… a sunset dive with dolphins! But can I make a confession? I was also kind of dreading it! (I know. I know.) First of all, four dives in a day is a lot, and dragging my ass around mainland Egypt had left me borderline sick and very worn out.
Two, I had not packed properly for this liveaboard. While, as one of my retreat guests put it, I have a lot of exposure protection (a polite way of saying I’m a wetsuit addict), none of it is really cut out for cold water diving. The water temperature was about 74-75 degrees at the end of April, and my little 3/4mm was not cutting it. I so cursed myself for not buying the Bare Evoke 5mm wetsuit in preparation for this trip! I tried one on in Florida last year and the heating technology is so incredible, I probably would have been happy even in the 3mm version.
Three, there was that whole dinghy thing. And four, I know this sounds like, literally completely insane, but since I’m in the confessional mood, I get very skittish sometimes when I know I’m heading in for a big animal encounter dive. Reef sharks, belugas, whale sharks, dolphins — all are harmless to humans, but until I see them, I feel like I’m on the edge of my seat at a scary movie waiting for something to jump out at me. I’m not scared, I’m just jumpy!
So anyway, I was all, ugh, fine, I’ll go on this dive because I’ll hate myself if I don’t. On the dinghy, while Ahmed was doing his scarily accurate dolphin calls, I even had a nano-moment of feeling relief that we weren’t finding them and weren’t going to get in the water! I KNOW! I hate me too.
Luckily it was just a passing flash of insanity, because a moment later Ahmed was yelling for us to roll backwards into the dark waters below.
Needless to say if you just watched the video above, it was magical.
I barely even tried to capture the experience properly on camera — it was one of those moments that was so overwhelming, I just had to live in it. I’ve been lucky enough to see and swim with wild dolphins before, but never like this. They were so curious, so energetic, so interactive. They spent a full fifteen minutes playing with us before they finally clicked off to another adventure.
Skeptical as I’d been about this whole “dusk dive” situation, we surfaced to a sunset so gorgeous it felt like the universe had sent it there as a reward for facing my fears.
The next morning was the big one — the dive that essentially sells this liveaboard. I’m talking, of course, about the Thistlegorm, the most famous wreck dive in the Red Sea and a top contender worldwide.
The weird thing about wreck diving is that unless you dive an intentionally sunk boat intended to create an artificial reef or create a new dive site, you’re often swimming around in a watery grave. Frankly, this can feel kinda icky.
And so I truly appreciated Ahmed’s handling of the entire situation. He showed us a video about the history of how the Thistlegorm, a World War II ship, ended up on the ocean floor after being bombed by German war planes, and how it was later re-discovered by Jacques Cousteau in 1955, who essentially robbed the thing blind before peace-ing out of Egypt (kinda not cool, Jacques.) The wreck gained worldwide notoriety in the 90’s after local fisherman started bringing travelers there again, and divers have been making pilgrimages here ever since.
Ahmed then gave his usual thorough, precise dive briefing before ending with a firm explanation that this wreck is a memorial to the nine sailors who lost their lives onboard, and our dive would be in honor of their memory. No funny pictures driving the tanks in the cargo hold here. I really respected that.
The Thistlegorm is so large, intact and diverse it takes a minimum of two dives to get a grasp on it. The first dive is an orientation of the exterior of the ship, reaching a maximum depth of thirty meters. The second dive, we’d enter the wreck and explore the cargo hold.
The Thistlegorm is an advanced dive site that requires a minimum of twenty dives and a PADI Advanced Open Water certification, both to reach 30m and for wreck penetration. I’d also highly recommend doing your PADI Enriched Air certification in order to do these dives on Nitrox, like we did. A couple of the guests actually did their Advanced Open Water while onboard, which the crew celebrated with a cute little cake.
Read my review of the PADI Enriched Air nitrox course here…
As we descended down the line onto the dive site, I marveled at the number of divers! We’d essentially slept on top of the dive site and woken before dawn to try to beat the crowds, but still, we far from had the place to ourselves. Luckily there’s more than enough room for everyone, but Kat and I joked that after we’d walked around the ghost town of Sharm El Sheikh asking, “where is everybody?,” now we knew the answer — they were diving the Thistlegorm.
The first dive I was feeling pretty neutral on until the last few minutes, when we peered into a corner of the hold blown open by explosives, now absolutely swarming with life. I counted upwards of nine lionfish, which despite being one of the world’s top threats to biodiversity since being introduced to the Caribbean are in fact native to the Red Sea and thus can be admired there completely guilt-free. It was one of those magical underwater moments where I really felt completely swept away in the beauty of it all.
On the way up, the current was ripping, and as I dangled almost completely perpendicular to the line doing my safety stop, I noted that yup, those pre-requisites for this site certainly did seem appropriate.
The second dive, on the other hand, blew my mind from start to finish. The Thistlegorm was packed with cargo when it met its fateful end, and as you swim through the endless chambers you see war tanks, motorcycles, and even rubber boots lining the floors like they just got left behind yesterday. It was an eerie and sobering reminder of the gravity and scale of war, and made history feel very tangible. This is truly an underwater museum in a way no other wreck I’ve ever dove is.
This was the dive that made me fall in love with the Thistlegorm. Underwater enthusiasts, you simply have to go.
Feeling victorious from a fabulous morning of wreck diving, we settled in for lunch and a sail to our next dive site, Small Passage.
Little did we know our incredible day was about to get even better — this simple little reef dive was to be Kat and I’s favorite site of the entire trip.
Small Passage is a dive site where two channels cut into the reef system of Sha’ab Mahmoud and connect the sheltered lagoon to the open sea. I have to confess (dang, this post is just bursting with confessions), sometimes when I look at my photos after a dive I think, erm, that kind of makes the dive site look a bit healthier or more vibrant than it actually was.
But this dive was the opposite — there’s no way my little camera could even come close to capturing the life, color, and magic of this dive site. Nine years and hundreds of dives under my weight belt, and this one is easily in the top ten.
Literally everywhere we turned, there was some exciting new fish friend to signal to each other, all framed by thriving coral and suspended in perfect visibility water. I felt like I’d gone back in a time machine and was diving reefs of fifty years ago.
I never wanted this dive to end!
I was playing around with my strobe, snapping my favorite photo of the trip of a perfectly framed eel, when a coral rock shifted in my periphery, catching my attention.
Except it wasn’t coral — it was an octopus.
And not just any octopus. This was hands down the most interactive octopus I’ve ever had the pleasure of hanging out with. Let me put it this way — if I was a calamari eater to begin with, I wouldn’t be after this encounter. Not that it should be much of a surprise — did you know cephalopods are thought to be the most intelligent invertebrates on earth, and are often referenced in studies of cognitive evolution in animals?
Kat and I essentially just paused our dive to watch as the octopus curiously checked us out, even startling me by false charging at my camera.
Finally, he’d had enough of us, and radiating with color changes, he emerged from his hiding spot, revealing the most exciting surprise ever — another octopus! Kat and I were practically screaming into our regulators.
Our new friend was a bit more shy, meanwhile the OG octo was now a few feet back standing at full height on all tentacles, a behavior I’d never seen before but easily interpreted as a show of aggression to us.
Though we were calmly peering from our original position, we were concerned we were causing stress to our little buddy, plus, we’d been away from the group for quite a while at this point (we knew that Ahmed would understand) and so we reluctantly decided to swim away.
While we were making our exit, the octo darted between me and Kat long enough for me to snap this photo — while it’s not the quality of photo I would normally post, it shows the scale of this incredible animal so wonderfully I had to share it!
As we were freaking out to each other, trying to catch up with the group, Ahmed appeared, having circled back to find out what had happened to his instructor and divemaster guest (he gave us a lot of leeway thanks to our experience level.) When we excitedly signaled back that we’d seen TWO octopi, he gave us the underwater shrug and nod that said, “ah, yes, I get it.”
Later, Ahmed took two of the guests for a night dive that Kat and I skipped in favor of sundowners on the deck. I’m not the biggest night dive fan and after such an A+ day of diving, I was happy to end on a high note.
The next morning, we woke up surprised to remember we were headed back to land already! But we still had quite a bit of compressed air to breathe first.
We were back to wreck diving at the Dunraven, a Victorian wooden ship that once carried spices, cotton and timber from India, and now serves as home to endless healthy schools of fish. The legend goes that the ship hit a reef and caught on fire while the captain was distracted be an argument with his wife in 1876. And you thought it was awkward when you bickered with your main squeeze in public!
Given its material and age, it’s no surprise that the Dunraven is in nowhere near as good condition as the Thistlegorm. In fact, we started towards the back of the wreck, and in the first few moments I signaled to Kat, “where is the boat?,” not realizing we were on top of it, ha!
As we reached the hull, things definitely started to feel more ship-like.
Still, I wasn’t really sold on the Dunraven until we went inside and felt transported to another century. The schooling fish inside were incredible, and in size, construction, and condition, it ended up proving to be a perfect contrast to the Thistlegorm.
After breakfast, we waved goodbye to the wreck dives of the straights and sailed back into Ras Mohammed National Park. When Kat and I were first daydreaming about this trip, we’d flirted with the idea of camping in Ras Mohammed and doing shore dives from the beach. From what I peeped of this pristine tip of the Sinai Peninsula from the deck, that is top of my bucket list for my next Egypt trip.
Our next dive site was Shark and Yolanda Reef, and I broke a cardinal rule of underwater photography before this dive and paid dearly for it: don’t rush. I was trying to get a head start on packing up our cabin, and ended up totally flustered when it came time to gear up for the dive. I quickly changed the batteries on my strobe, and jumped in. Facepalm.
Cue me trying to flash my strobe underwater and seeing something no photographer ever wants to see — a big ‘ol air bubble coming out of the battery compartment. Womp womp. So, while I did manage to snag a pretty cool strobe-free shot of a turtle, I don’t have much to report from this dive other than I was super bummed out and annoyed at myself!
Back on the surface, I threw myself a brief pity party and then launched into a little pep talk, reminding myself that I’d bought a very affordable used strobe so it hadn’t been a very expensive lesson, and that I couldn’t let it ruin the rest of my trip. It was a huge, huge bummer that I wouldn’t have it moving forward (there was definitely no way to replace it in the Middle East) but crying about it wasn’t going to build a time machine.
Our final dive of the trip was Ras Um Sid, right next to Temple, where we’d begun this journey. While I was still smarting a bit from not being able to play with my strobe, I reverted back to my old black and white days, and perked right up when a giant bumphead parrotfish swam by to wish us safe travels.
It was with heavy hearts that we disembarked. I’d have happily done one more night at sea, however, I was looking forward to getting to Dahab and exploring a bit more of Egypt by land as well as sea.
I think we’d nailed it — the King Snefro 5 mini-liveaboard was the perfect way to get a taste of the hardcore Red Sea dive experience, while still leaving us time and energy to experience a bit of Sinai, too. We returned to land buzzing with energy, and eager to start daydreaming about our next boat-based PADI Travel adventure.
Fear not (I know, I know, you were quaking), my liveaboard coverage isn’t over. I’ll be back at you soon with a thorough review and budget breakdown of King Snefro and PADI Travel, as well as a collection of my top tips for liveaboards. Any burning questions? Be sure to leave them in the comments, and I’ll add them to my next post!
Are you a liveaboard kinda diver? Would you dip your toe in with a three nighter?
This post was brought to you by PADI Travel.