The Curious Case of the Red Sea Penguin

By Phil Wood

Red Sea, Blue Melody

A penguin, in August, in the Red Sea is not something you expect to come across, but it did happen, albeit at the end of a week of diving the reefs and wrecks of the Northern Red Sea.

New Horizons divers enjoyed a safari on board Blue Melody, one of the Blue O2 fleet based in Hurghada.  The itinerary was to travel North, taking in the reefs around Umm Gamar, Ras Mohammed, Gubal Island and Tiran Straits, whilst also visiting some of the most famous and evocative wrecks in the Red Sea (Dunraven, Thistlegorm, Barge and Ghianis D).

The week started at Poseidon reef followed by 2 dives at The Alternatives.  A tour of pinnacle formations at The Alternatives is beautiful, with Moray Eels hiding in the formations and Bat Fish hanging out in the mild current.  There was also a big thermocline in the water, although temperatures of 28 degrees C is nothing to complain about.  Maybe a little too warm for penguins though!

Diving on the reef system of Shark and Yolanda should be the highlight on any dive trip to Ras Mohammed and we were not disappointed as we had 2 opportunities, the second one in a strong current.  Shark reef is a spectacular wall which disappears into deep blue water some 800m below.  The wall is covered in hard and soft coral but the real highlight is what is going on out in the blue. Clouds of Snapper, Bat Fish, Tuna and Barracuda all hanging out looking for a meal.  A diver can get mesmerised by the swirling flashes of silver.  The dive continues to Yolanda reef with its coral formations and remnants of the Yolanda wreck, toilets and bathtubs.  In this sheltered area of the lagoon Turtles, Leopard Rays and Stingrays were spotted, but no penguins. 

Moving to the Straits of Tiran the group had opportunities to dive at some of the most famous names in the Red Sea.  Named after 4 British cartographers, Gordon, Jackson, Woodhouse and Thomas reefs provide reasonably sheltered drift diving along the walls and wonderful marine life.  There was always the possibility of seeing Hammerheads in this area but alas it was not to be on this occasion. 

Moving back to the South it was time to start thinking about some heavy metal.  This was interrupted however by another stop at Shark/Yolanda and Stingray station.  We had Dolphins accompanying the boat en-route and also in the water around us when we stopped at Stingray.  This provided the first opportunity for many to swim with these graceful creatures. 

The Dunraven at Beacon rock has been underwater since 1873 but it is still recognisable, sitting upside down on the seabed.  The visibility on this dive was not fantastic and indeed two of our Divemasters, let’s call them John and Rebecca, almost missed the wreck and were spotted enjoying a tour of the reef.  The wreck itself is easy to explore and allows the opportunity to get inside.  Clouds of Glass fish hang around inside and reflect the torchlight from divers.

The Thistlegorm is the best known wreck in the Red Sea and probably one of the most famous anywhere in the world.  It was sunk in 1941 after being bombed whilst at anchor and sank into 30m of water, complete with its cargo of military hardware and the loss of 9 lives.  We completed 2 dives on the Thistlegorm, the first in a strong current which meant care was needed on the descent/ascent, hanging out on the mooring line like washing on a windy day.  The second dive, only 3 hours later, could not have been more different.  The lack of current allowed groups to explore both the exterior of the wreck, plenty of Crocodile and Stone fish here, and penetrate into the holds to see the remains of the wartime cargo.  A memorable day, particularly for those who had not dived the Thistlegorm previously.

Continuing the journey South we stayed overnight at The Barge off Gubal Island.  Again Dolphins arrived before nightfall, allowing some to snorkel with them just off the back of the boat.  We had a night dive and early morning dive at the Barge which sits on a sandy plateau at about 14 m.  Lots of Stone fish here and also a sighting of a White Tip, a large pregnant female.

The last move before returning to Hurghada was to Siyul Kebir, The Ghianis D at Abu Nuhas and The Dophinhouse.  Siyul Kebir provided a fantastic drift dive with schools of Trevally and Jacks darting in and out of the millions of bait fish. 

Ghianis D is the wreck of a Greek freighter that collided with Abu Nuhas reef in 1969 and now lies at 45 degrees on the reef slope.  We dived this wreck in a strong surge which made the hull creek and almost sway as the surge moved across the superstructure. Penetrating the wreck was possible although care was needed as the 45 degree angle could be disorientating.  Dolphinhouse, as its name suggests, is the home for a resident pod of Dolphins.  They are known to cruise up the channel between two reef outcrops and a number of our divers spent 10 or more minutes watching and playing with them.  Others however were not so lucky, maybe next time.

So what about some notable events and of course that elusive Red Sea penguin.  Well, a number of divers clocked up milestones in their diving career.  Vicky and David Cornwell completed 75 and 100 dives respectively in addition to gaining their Wreck Specialty. Well Done.  David Lee completed 200 dives and Adrienne Noble 600.  Two other guests on board who joined this NHDC trip completed 400 and 900 dives so congratulations to Rikke and Sarah.

For 2 of the group it was an endless list of ‘Firsts’.  For Rose Fricker and Rose Darlington it was their first liveaboard, first time to the Red Sea, first night dives, first heavy metal etc etc, the list goes on.  Well done to you both and hope to see you again on the next trip and thanks for the enthusiasm.

Ah yes, that penguin.  The last dive of the trip was at Umm Gumar and here we had our fancy dress dive.  Bradley Wiggins, 118118 man, Tigers, Fairies, Pirates, Egyptian Dancing girls and Surgeons all made appearances but the outstanding costume was a full on penguin outfit modelled by Sarah.  Diving below a group of snorkelers from a day boat must surely have given them a surprise.  Who expects to see a penguin in the Red Sea?  I told you it could happen.  Did I tell you about the mysterious Duck Fish ?  That’s for next time……