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CRUISING RED SEA ABOARD "FELICIDAD II"

Nowadays, on land, along the once deserted coast, human presence has become more and more suffocated by hotels, sunshades, discotheques, bars, etc. However, as soon as we reach the sea, the beauty and the richness of the seabed repeatedly amazes us

Article and photographs by Luca Sonnino Sorisio

Nautica Magazine 428, December 1997

Hurgada - Mar Rosso


BACK TO HURGADA

Hurgada - Red Sea Sixteen years have passed since for the first time I left the mooring berth in Hurgada to explore the islands and the seabed of the archipelago that lays in the northern part of the Egyptian coast in the Red Sea. The most striking difference is in the landscape that we leave behind our boat's transom. What before was a strip of desert, interrupted by the minaret and by the low dwellings surrounding the harbor, today is an uninterrupted sequence of hotels, bungalows, organized beaches with sunshades and deckchairs, flags, discotheques and bars that blind our sight. At the time, when Egypt had just ended the long war with Israel all this was unthinkable by the few of us who enjoyed the Red Sea. Nowadays, with the government's financial aid, the coast became a very capacious holiday resort. The airport was renovated and charter and regular airline flights from all over Europe land one after the other, carrying hordes of swimmers and divers in search of sunny days and beautiful sea at low cost.

Hurgada - Red Sea During this rapid and enormous hotel expansion, Egyptians did not succeed in safeguarding the landscape that is now disfigured by buildings of all sorts. Miles and miles of coast only have organized beaches, crowded with sunbathers and full of equipment of any kind, lined by towering hotels or holiday resorts. A continuous flow of cars, vans and buses drive to and fro along the coastline.

Hurgada - Red Sea The center of Hurgada, where before there was the food market, is now invaded by throngs of tourists looking for T- shirts and souvenirs. All this suggests hell and not paradise - I want to escape quickly! Yet, with the bow set out toward the open sea, we again find the silence and the heaven-like sea bed of the Red Sea. Moving away from the crowd - avoiding even the nearest and the best-connected islands - we sail through a fantastic archipelago, among the famous coral reefs teeming with life.

Hurgada - Red Sea The "Felicidad II" sails north, leaving Giftun El Kebir and Giftun El Saghir behind to port. On our way back, we will stop here to dive in the most beautiful sites. The "Felicidad II" proudly sails among these dangerous reefs. In 1991, this boat was born as a fisherman's boat, in 1995 Aurora Branciamore updated her turning the boat into a cruising boat for diving trips. She is 100-ft long and 21-ft wide, and can comfortably carry 14 persons. Aurora, a real cruise expert in this sea, worked for several years on the coasts of Sudan (see Nautica 250, February 1983 issue and Nautica 261, January 1984 issue), before moving to the northern part of the Red Sea.

Hurgada - Red Sea In the meanwhile, she waits for some of the logistical problems connected to the airlines that operate in Sudan to be solved. Her son Marcantonio, who has always lived on boats and "among sharks and coral reefs", is the young captain, second to no one as far as experience is concerned and a real diving expert. The captain and his crew do their best to make the passengers happy and the cruise pleasant. Even the chef can't do any better: not only does he prepare local dishes but is also good in cooking Italian specialties which everyone seems to appreciate. Spaghetti and pizza are often on the table and they are excellent. The boat has an ample salon and a very comfortable aft deck, where the diving equipment is prepared before going onboard of one of the two inflatables that take us to the diving sites. The coachroof is very spacious. It is an excellent area for sunbathing and for dining under the starred sky at night cooled by the fresh evening breeze.

Hurgada - Red Sea After a two-hour sail, we arrive at Careless Reef where we start our dive near the beautiful vertical wall to windward - in this region the wind almost invariably comes from the north. The impact with the Red Sea is always exciting. Whenever we dive, we discover anew how many colors can mix and shine, how many coral shapes struggle for some rays of light, like the leafy branches of big rainforest trees. Many different fish swim here and there, undisturbed by our presence. Clouds of small and beautifully colored fish surround the corals and thousands of small transparent "glassy fish" swim between the crevices of the coral reef. Sometimes, we feel a quiver and a group of maigers or small tunas passes by, grazing, trying to catch by surprise some distracted prey. At Careless, we find various enormous morey eels, accustomed to eating food from man's hands. As a matter of fact, when we pass by, they fearlessly stick their head out and come impudently close to the lens of our cameras.

Hurgada - Red Sea We keep wandering about: Umm Gamar, Shaab El Erg, Siyul Kebir, Shaab Umm Usk, these names all remind us of beautiful dives. At Shaab Abu Nuhas we dive among a group of ships, wrecked on one of the most treacherous barrier reefs of the Gobal Strait. As a matter of fact, all ships and commercial traffic that go through the Suez Canal also pass through this area and Shaab Abu Nuhas is north of the island of Shadwan. When gale wind blows from the north, the island looks like the perfect shelter and this coral reef is dreadfully located on the route that takes to the sheltering island. Moreover, the Arab name of the island Nuhas means "copper" because a cargo ship containing copper wrecked here approximately twenty years ago. Yet, it was not the first one: in 1869 "Carnatic", a 292-foot English sailing steamer with two masts, hit the reef on his route to Bombay. Today, we can only see her bow and stern, her deckhouse, the rudder and the enormous propeller, the central part of the hull being completely destroyed.

Hurgada - Red Sea

Beautifully colored barnacles cover the superstructures. In the darkness of the forward holds we can still find bottles of wine which were part of the cargo destined to the Indies and some of them still have the cork on. Some hundred feet to southeast there is the shape of another ghost: a modern merchant ship that sank in the Seventies, broken up into four parts. "Dana", "Markos D." or "Ghiannis D.", each one of these names identifies the same wreck on different texts. Most probably, they are the different names of the same ship that were assigned during her life.

On the surrounding seabed we can still see a cargo ship full of bags of lentils and another one full of tiles. It is a real cemetery of ships. Weren't it for the marine life that envelops everything turning it into a beautiful scene, it would be sad to see these submerged carcasses. Nevertheless, we are fascinated by the history of each ship: it is extremely interesting to explore a ship that is almost a hundred and thirty years old. It takes our mind back to the old route to the Indies and the times of the powerful English colonialism.

Hurgada - Red Sea Turning point of our cruise is the island of the archipelago that gives the name to the strait. It is located along the western side of the strait of Gobal and only seven miles separate the tip of the lighthouse of Gobal Saghir from the Sinai Peninsula. We drop the anchor in the beautiful bay formed by the two islands of Gobal, Saghir - small - and Kebir - big. "Felicidad II" floats on a sea tinted with fascinating tones of light blue. White sandy beaches contour the two islands that are connected by a small isthmus. Bluff Point, the tip of the island where the lighthouse stands, forms a heaven-like lagoon thus sheltering us from the wind. The dive on the eastern side of Point Bluff, exposed to the open sea, is equally breathtaking. We have seen enormous sea turtles wandering just above the seabed, between a forest of giant Gorgonias and branches of black coral. The large number of existing beaches where the turtles can lay their eggs must attract them to this area.

Hurgada - Red Sea There are many groupers and some sharks as well. Marcantonio tells us that sometimes dolphins can be seen - a school lives permanently in the surroundings of the island. From here, we start our way back to Hurgada. We roam from one reef to the next and we do our last dive in Giftun El Saghir and Abu Ramada before entering the harbor. Even if these sites are very crowded because of the daily tours departing from Hurgada, it is worth visiting them for the beauty of their walls and their caves, as well as for the pelagic fish that may be found here.

Felicidad II Our cruise on board the "Felicidad II" has come to an end after having lived in close contact with a sea rich in life. I feel as if we left the harbor yesterday: time flies when cruising on the Red Sea! An extra week would be enough to be sure not to have left anything out. We are anxiously waiting for the first flight that will connect Sudan in order to sail again onboard "Felicidad II" to explore those uncontaminated seas.

USEFUL TIPS

The trip: Cruises depart weekly. Airline flights connect Hurgada and Rome every Saturday and on the same day, at night you can jump onboard. Dives are from Sunday through Friday. Friday night the boat returns to the harbor and on Saturday morning you can fly back from Hurgada to Rome. Depending on seat availability on the flight and onboard the boat, extensions of a few days or a week or even a stop in Cairo to visit the city are possible.

For further information and bookings, contact: Iride Viaggi, via Oderisi da Gubbio 235, 00146 Rome, Tel. +39-6-5580634 or +39-6-5579307, Fax +39-6-5574394 or Aurora Branciamore, Tel. +39-6-5090585, mobile phone +39-336-868882.