My experience in the Red Sea
By: Florence Bienvenu, high school alumna High School Dive + Sail , Scuba Diving
After a whole, long year of waiting since my last Broadreach trip, I finally was on the plane from Montreal to Paris. I tried to watch the action movie or to speak to the people next to me, but all I could think about was the far away country that I would soon discover. I flipped through a travel book on Egypt and landed on a picture of a colorful coral reef in the Red Sea. In a few hours, I thought, staring at the breathtaking marine life on the page, that’s where I’ll be.
In Paris, I met up with my group our instructors, Tucker and Kurt. As we waited to board our flight, we introduced ourselves and it was obvious that I was about to make great friends. After our flight to Cairo, we recovered our luggage and dragged ourselves onto a bus that would take us to Marsa Alam, far down the eastern coast of Egypt. With interfering stray limbs and back-packs, we tried to put our tired bodies to sleep but some of us couldn’t resist chatting away with what would be our family for the next three weeks.
When we walked off the bus at a roadside hotel to call our parents, we stumbled into a typical Egyptian wedding procession! The bride and groom paraded through the lobby, followed by men, women and children dressed in brightly colored traditional robes along with dozens of musicians playing loud, joyful music. Welcome to Egypt, Broadreachers!
Ten hours later, as morning broke, fourteen sleepy but eager pairs of eyes watched as Egyptians bicycled to work over the sand dunes as the sun rose. We had finally arrived at the Deep South eco-lodge – a handful of seaside huts along the coast of the Red Sea: an ideal setting for the week of diving that awaited us. After a tour of the area with the hospitable staff, we had the privilege of playing a game of soccer with some local children who taught us our first words of Arabic. After the match we all said ‘shokran!’ (thank you!) and that we’d play tomorrow. ‘Enshaallah!’, screamed the children, ‘if God is willing!’ Then at last, we unpacked our regulators and wetsuits and set off on our first dive in the Red Sea. This first dive was short, but such a sweet introduction to the huge Red Sea we would be discovering during our Sinai experience.
That night, while we began daily rituals, I remembered why glums, glows, the squeeze and the toast had been some favourite aspects of my previous Broadreach trip. We discussed and reviewed the day’s events and set goals for the trip. Under the starry sky, despite exhaustion and jetlag, we spoke and laughed until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. Although we had only spent one day together, the group of RS11 had already grown very close. As I fell asleep in my sleeping bag on an Egyptian rug laid over the dirt floor with the sound of the wind in my ears, I knew we had fallen under the Broadreach spell.
The next seven days were a week out of heaven for any scuba diver. While half the group worked on their Emergency First Responder and Rescue Diver certification, the rest of us focused on making the best of the breathtaking dives that were offered to us. As we twirled and flipped underwater, I identified some of the worlds most impressive and beautiful sea creatures. It was common for us to come across lion fish, schools of barracuda, giant stingray, nudibranch, rockfish and Spanish dancer fish, most of which I had only seen on television or in pictures. Often, we would spot a couple four-foot sea turtles, out for an afternoon swim and we were even lucky enough to swim with a huge manatee that was about four times my size! What never ceased to blow me away, every time I poked my head out of the water after a dive, was the contrast between the endless turquoise water and the giant sand dunes as far as the eye could see.
Everyday, each of us had to attempt, sometimes through sign language, to learn from locals about an aspect of Egyptian culture and then teach the rest of us, so that we all became somewhat knowledgeable about local festivities, holidays, religious beliefs and expressions. But even after the first 48 hours, I had already fallen in love with everything around me, on land and underwater.
Despite our busy schedule, we were pleased to do a couple hours of community service. We all shared a sense of pride as we contributed to keeping this amazing place a cleaner environment by doing simple things such as ridding the beaches of empty plastic containers and dirty cans. Our days started early and ended late, and I was never bored: at the Deep South eco-lodge, there was always another site to dive, another local to meet, new food to discover or another game of beach volleyball to win.
As if it wasn’t hard enough to just leave the lodge, we had to say our last goodbyes to the fabulous staff who had taken such good care of us during the past week, at 1:30 am! But as sad as I was to leave, I was excited to embark upon the second part of the trip: the Sinai desert.
A bus, a ferry ride and a few hours of sleep later, we were already preparing to hike Mount Sinai ‘ just as Moses once did, centuries ago. The hike up was long and strenuous but we later agreed that witnessing the day begin in silence, as the sun rose from behind the surrounding rocky mountains, was awe-inspiring. After hiking down alongside camels and tourists, we visited the famous St. Catherine’s monastery. We were taken through the library which holds one of the most important collections of books and manuscripts in the world. And, of course, we also got to see the famous ‘Burning Bush’, which to my surprise was more of a tree than a bush – and with no fire extinguisher in sight!
As we climbed into our ‘desert-mobiles’ (two super jeeps), we were all eager for the long-awaited camel trek. During the bumpy jeep ride over the sandy desert’s high dunes, we were anxious to meet and name our camels. Among the RS11 camels were Hercules, Rufus, Gladys and Egor. Riding Hercules with my Bedouin scarf on my head was a highlight of the trip and, needless to say, our destination was too: a beautiful oasis in the middle of the Sinai desert was our dining area for the day. We were greeted by Bedouins who graciously served us a scrumptious meal of rice, fruit and vegetables.
Well nourished, we climbed back into our desert mobiles and drove into the mountains until we came upon the perfect sand dune. We then barrelled out of the jeeps and ran up to the summit of the dune. Linking arms, we looked up to the sun and prepared ourselves for the thrill: ‘one, two three, go!’ and we tumbled down the mound of sand at record speed, filling the barren landscape with contagious laughter.
For the next few days, we lived Bedouin-style in remote spots of the Sinai Peninsula, drinking desert tea, eating desert food and hiking under the desert sun. I was taken aback by the Colour Canyon, where red, orange, yellow and brown sand stripe the canyon walls due to silt erosion throughout centuries. While we hiked through the famous canyon, I felt as though I was an ant in a massive block of sand, squeezing through narrow holes and jumping over sandy obstacles. Hiking skills, however, were not all I acquired as we explored the desert: we all got a chance to work on our haggling skills in a nearby town where many of us purchased traditional rugs and trinkets to bring back to the world we had left behind.
On the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula, we slept soundly on the beach of Nuweiba under bright constellations. The next morning we prepared for yet another long jeep ride all the way down the coast of the Golf of Aqaba to the very tip of Sinai, to Sharm el-Skeikh. But a long ride huddled in the back of a jeep only meant more jokes, laughs and quality time spent with close friends and time to discover more of this beautiful country.
When we finally arrived at the docks in Sharm el-Sheikh, we were overjoyed at the sight of the Enigma, the yacht we would be living on for the next week. In comparison with the modest lifestyle we’d gotten used to in the desert, the live-aboard was extremely lavish, with air-conditioning, three floors, and a friendly crew of five. The sumptuous platters of juicy fruit they had prepared to welcome us seemed at first like a mirage.
Although it was already late and the sun was setting on the beach, I simply could not wait until the morning for what I had heard was the best diving on the planet. And I wasn’t alone! So we dropped our desert sandals and brimmed hats into bins, unpacked our dive gear and slipped into our wetsuits. The smell of the salty water reminded us all of the treat that would follow. I wasn’t frightened of the pitch black water thanks to the many glow sticks and flashlights we had clipped all over our bodies, but the dark, calm water was deliciously eerie and mysterious. Under the stars, 70 feet below sea level, lion fish were hunting their dinner, Spanish dancer fish were twirling their colourful skirts of red and orange. Without a doubt, this was one of the most exciting dives on which I had ever been.
Throughout the next week, diving as much as four times a day and led by Catherine, our awesome dive master, we toured the Big Red in our multicoloured wetsuits. Among my favourite dives were the wreck dives to the SS Dunraven, a sunken ship filled with decades of history, and to the SS Thislegorm, a sunken military ship carrying motorcycles, military trucks, Wellington boots and rifles. While diving these and other impressive wrecks, I couldn’t decide what was more impressive: the gigantic structures of rusty steel, mounds of toilets and war ammunition 80 feet below, or the diversity of the marine life that had made all these man-made items their homes.
It seemed I was pushing my luck to hope I would see a shark in the Red Sea, but sure enough, after waiting and searching, the group spotted one and I met eyes with my first hammerhead! Watching the shark bolt in our direction was a moment I’ll never forget – but as you see, I have lived to tell the tale!
During surface intervals, the Enigma was a place of constant joy and fun, where our group tightened its bonds. We always discussed whatever was on our minds, whether it was joking nonsense while dancing to music, or exchanging political views or learning about our backgrounds. All 16 of us, including our stupendous instructors, got along beautifully and I know that as a group, each of us was able to get the most out of every day we spent in Egypt.
As our week on the Enigma came to its end, we filled the last day with crazy tubing, wakeboarding behind speedy motorboats and a very last dive. The current was so strong that I felt like superman, speeding through the blue without even using my fins. Once we stopped moving, we spotted an octopus in a crevice, its tentacles waving goodbye to us! Though satisfied with our last dive in the Red Sea, we reluctantly rose to the surface, and our masks glistened as the hot sun welcomed us back. We slowly packed away our dive gear and wetsuits, all covered with the familiar smell of salty water and bade farewell to the Enigma and the secrets it let us discover.
That night, before dragging our tanned bodies back into the charter bus, we reminisced about all we had experienced. We will always remember watching the sun rise over the mountains from the summit of Mount Sinai, and riding camels through the desert with Bedouin scarves shielding our heads from the hot sun. We’ll remember how much fun we had practicing rescue scenarios underwater or in the sand with our amazing instructors who made the trip all it could be. We’ll never forget the hammerhead we finally saw after waiting and waiting, or watching glow worms mate three days after the full moon. I’ll forever treasure these memories, from witnessing the joy of an Egyptian bride and our first nights bonding under the stars, all the way to our very last drift dive.
We have since gone our separate ways and are all back to school and our bustling urban schedules, but the friendships we made on our Sinai trip and all we experienced there will stay with us forever. Needless to say, those three weeks were among the best of my life. We lived the Sinai experience – the experience of a lifetime.