Safaga Part Two

Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, March 21
The Third Day
Snorkeling in Paradise

The third day of snorkeling began early on March 21. This time our "gang," all seven of us regular partying friends from the Ocean Explorer days-- had decided to head for reputedly the greatest snorkeling in the world, the protected preserve of Ras Mohammed National Park, about 40 kilometers away from Sharm el Sheikh, still in Egypt.

This day, David and Donna, Vi, Jackie and I were joined by Roy and Nancy, the other two members of our gang. For the past month on the R2 we had gathered together somewhere on the ship almost every day for breakfast, lunch, dinner or sometimes to party in David and Donna's quarters before dinner. They had the owner's suite on the R2-a gorgeous double suite with double balcony, living room, master bedroom, two bathrooms and all the other amenities a shipboard owner would expect of his suite.  David and Donna had graciously invited us there many times to swap stories of the day, have a drink or two, and decide how we wanted to approach the next port.

In this case, to get seven bodies to Ras Mohammed with all the attendant snorkeling gear required at least a seven- person van. So, off to the port gate we adjourned at 8:30 a.m., once more with passports in hand, to pass by the armed guards and begin to haggle for a taxi.

Running the gauntlet of aggressive taxi drivers in Egypt was never easy; this day proved no exception! We finally worked out a deal for $20 for the taxi (and later found out we each had to pay $5 to get into the national park-and $5 for the car. Perhaps a little bribery of the guards to the park, we decided.)

Sharm el Sheikh is located at the southern tip of the Sinai Desert and is much more beautiful, they tell me, than the surrounding western desert. I believe them!

This day was exceedingly hot, and the seven of us had to squirm our way into a taxi meant for four at the most. It wasn't easy, especially with three jammed into the back seat uncomfortably. But as we drove through the Sinai, we saw rugged, pink rocky terrain, with sand dunes reaching right
down to the sea.  This was perhaps the most desolate place I had ever encountered, barren but beautiful in contrast to the brilliant silvery jade sea.

Guided by the Egyptian driver who terrorized us at every bend with his recklessness at the wheel, we wound our way further and further into the desolate desert. He seemed to delight in hitting every pothole and rock jutting out from the paved and later dirt road. Where was he taking us, we wondered, as we rounded every bend-most often on the wrong side of the two-lane road. Finally, when we decided we had been taken and thought we'd never reach the sea, we careened around yet another bend and there it was before us--- a fine sandy beach in a  beautiful rocky cove. However, it wasn't isolated at all---there were five busses filled with Italian tourists parked there.

Even more distressing, there wasn't a boat in sight! We were stuck on a brilliantly sunny beach with an energetic crowd of young Italians, and at first were bitterly disappointed.  David, in fact, was beginning to argue that we wanted our money back. But in a few minutes we recognized that the driver (was his name Mohammed?)  had taken us to the most extraordinary snorkeling site in the world.

Ras Mohammed was declared a National Park and a protected area in 1983, and as soon as we entered the water, we could appreciate why. This spot is known as the best snorkeling site in the world--- by the end of that day, we couldn't have agreed more! The water was brilliantly clear, and on this our third day of snorkeling, I felt very comfortable heading out into the water on my own, following guide posts positioned in the sea along the rocky cliff to lead snorkelers out to the best reefs while protecting the other reefs nearby.

Lying on my back and kicking my way out to the reef, I felt confident that I would be able to snorkel as I pleased this day---and I was right. The coral reefs of Ras Mohammed harbor the most extraordinary sea life in the world. I found myself swimming among  brilliantly colored foot-long fish of so many colors and varieties and shapes that I daydreamed I was floating in some National Geographic TV special, yellow and black, translucent white with spotted snouts,  every shade of periwinkle, purple, blue imaginable, tan, green and black, tiny schools of orange fish, spotted, stripped, solid-but each one distinctive in its own unique way.

Most remarkable for me, I swam out to the very edge of this beautiful complex world of live coral and saw a sight that I will remember forever-the reef was full of holes, darkened caves, and protrusions into which the fish would dart and disappear, only to reappear out of another hole.  Most remarkably, the jagged walls of the reef suddenly dropped down precipitously, like a darkened canyon of coral with a sudden ending.  Peering far below into the endless emerald chasm, I could see nothing but dimly lit blue water down, down, down for what seemed like hundreds of feet, with an orange hued school of fish swimming far below. I don't know how long I swam along the edge of the coral before I boldly set out to swim above the deep  mysterious chasm beyond the reefs. And there in the deep water, I lingered until I lost track of time. It was an experience I'll never forget.

This was a perfect day. I was completely in control of my snorkeling. The water was unbelievably beautiful, and the tropical fish so incredibly fascinating that I felt I was swimming in a rare underwater paradise.

Ras Mohammed is exactly that. If I never snorkel again, I will have experienced the best in the world!