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Christmas Under the Red Sea

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So, my half a year stint in the National Library of Finland drew to close in the end of the year. I would have had the chance to continue there, but the information about it reached me rather late and I already had something else cooking. Continuing in the academia would have been fun, the work environment was comfortable and I learned a lot of new things from the assignments. The problem was that facing a half a year contract and very scattered assignments it was a bit hard to truly commit to the work.

Nevertheless, the turn of the decade is really something else and I really can’t complain that life would be boring right now. First of all, instead of the customary Christmas foods and family visits we did something quite different, which was to fly into Egypt / Hurghada on 24th of December to spend the holidays diving. This coincided with Älymystö’s new release being out right in time for the Christmas Eve.

Secondly, in the beginning of January I will start in my new job, as the publicist and making of -producer of the movie Iron Sky. So, in the last couple of years I’ve wandered from press and on-line media to TV business, done a stint in academia and now into the fabulous movie biz. I do suspect however that the Iron Sky gig will not be that much about snorting coke from the thighs of prostitutes than watching Timo and Samuli work in their underwear. Nevertheless, I’m really enthusiastic about the assignment – I’ve been very interested to be a part of the Iron Sky production, but it just hasn’t been a practical option for the last couple of years. Now I get to jump in right at the most interesting time, the start of the actual production.

Thirdly, after only a couple of days of work I’ll get to take my first holiday, since Älymystö is going on tour after far far too long a pause. We will be stopping in Tampere, Helsinki, Tallinn and Riga, where we’ll play the new songs from the fresh album. If you happen to be in town, come and see us!

But let’s start from the beginning, our week in the Red Sea.

THE CHRISTMAS EVE

Our Christmas ever started at six in the morning, when we dragged ourselves up from our warm beds and headed off to the airport. Outside the weather was uncharacteristically wintery for Helsinki, a regular winter wonderland. The flight and the arrival to Hurghada and our hotel Magawish went without any problems, a relief with all the airport strikes and whatnot that have been plaguing travelers lately. There was a bit of a hassle with our diving gear, which we had planned on taking to the dive center in the evening so that they would be ready right in the morning. We didn’t take in account that the dive center was completely closed the whole evening and we didn’t really know at what time we should be at there in the morning. A little bit of digging around got us the facts and all was good.

(See the full Flickr photoset)

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It was a nice surprise that the price of the trip inluded a Christmas party at the hotel. It was held in the main conference area, whose walls were lined with a massive Christmas buffet. We got a table with a Finnish mother and her daughter and a Swedish family, who were a nice bunch to chat with. The food was great and this must have been the first Christmas dinner where I recognized only half of the foodstuffs. There was also Christmas programme which was entertaining enough. There was a long dance and a music show, which… well, it wasn’t the brightest star of musical theatre ever created, but the performers seemed to have fun on the stage and their spirit was very infectious.

We ended up turning in rather early, anticipating the following day’s dives, with bellies full and minds setting into a holiday mood.

THE FIRST DAY’S DIVES

The first day’s dives are always a bit of a hassle for us, especially if we’ve had a bit of a pause. We took a daily boat to South Point and Aquarium East, where we got reacquainted what it was like to dive when a bad visibility is 30 meters instead of the three meters we’ve used to, and everything under the water is extremely pretty, but potentially deadly.

I had impulsively bought a new mask in the morning, one with a wide field of vision and clear sides, which I tried out in the first dive. It was an extremely good purchase, a bit like changing your old 30 inch TV to a brand new 42 inch LCD widescreen model. Susi had a bit of trouble with her dry suit, specifically the sleeve valve that is used in venting air out from the dry suit. It tended to not function unless you pressed it, which had a potential to cause problems later when it got actually clogged with salt.

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The dives themselves were pretty much ok. We got a bit of drift diving, saw a positively ginormous napoleon fish, some brain corals and moray eels. Nothing mind blowing, but definitely a nice start for the holiday and a good day of diving to get ready for the safari.

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When I got up, I noticed that the leg of my dry suit was still leaking a bit. I had been suffering from the damn leak for over a year, the seams of the suit had been gone over several times but nothing had seemed to help. With the help of Gunnar, our diving pal and guide we originally met in February in Egypt, we turned the suit inside out, filled it with water and started going over it. In the end Susi spotted a really small pearl of water growing on the opposite side of the pant leg from the seam. There was a pinprick sized hole there, virtually impossible to see with naked eye, but enough to start leaking in high pressure when the suit was creased just so. Some emergency patching ensued in the hotel room and lo and behold, it seemed to solve the leaking problem – fucking finally! Now I’ll just have to find out the asshole who has punched a hole into my suit.

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Finding the leak on the dry suit.

HOW TO FIND THISTLEGORM WITH IPHONE AND LIVE TUNA

On the next morning we got up at around five and dragged our asses to the pier where our liveaboard dive boat was ready to leave for the three day safari. Three days living in the boat, doing 3-4 dives per day and spending the time in between eating, napping, chatting and reading books. Can’t get much more relaxing than that. Our guide for the safari was Amir, a local guy who’d been our guide in the first dives we did in our February trip.

The first dive of the morning was in Siyul Kebir, which was a pretty enough reef dive. After that we were supposed to go to Thistlegorm, which made Susi and I go all boing boing. Thistlegorm is the most famous wreck in the Red Sea, made so by the old Cousteau documentaries. According to some estimates it brings more money to Egypt than the Pyramids. Last time around the window weather had kept us from going there, but now the winds were uncharacteristically calm for the season.

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To our surprise the location of Thistlegorm was completely empty of other boats, which was a lucky thing – usually there could be as many as 15 boats in there, each carrying about ten divers or so. The deal was that we were supposed to kit up and wait for Amir to go out and take down a rope to the wreck. We ended up sitting half a hour or so in our gear and watching the zodiac zoom over the waves and the bubble trail of Amir go here and there. Finally he got up, doing the “cancel the dive” signal. Apparently there was no GPS in the boat and the wreck just could not be found. It looks like the wreck is usually found using the hive mind of other boats – just go where the biggest throng is.

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A tank on the bottom of the sea.

One member of our group was an Austrian physics student called Angel – a friendly geeky guy Susi and I had been chatting with. When I realised that I have an iPhone with a GPS, he had already jumped up holding up his. What ensued was a furious conversion of co-ordinates from one system to another, after which Amir was back in the water, Angel was zooming around in the zodiac trying to get a fix on the location and the safari boat following the two. We got closer to the wreck, but there was nothing to be found in the exact coordinates either. This is when Amir showed his mad skillzs in scuba guide business. He spotted a stream of tuna swimming purposefully towards a certain direction and started following them – there’s very little marine life around Thistlegorm, but the wreck is teeming with fish who use it as a shelter.

And this is a story how Thistlegorm was found using an iPhone and some live tuna.

DIVING IN THISTLEGORM & EQUIPMENT TROUBLE

We couldn’t believe our luck and neither apparently did our guide Amir. We ended up having Thistlegorm all to ourselves for four whole dives, three in the first day and one in the following morning. According to Amir this had happened to him only once. I got to say that the solitude at the wreck made the diving experience even more atmospheric and great than it would have been otherwise. Whenever I dive at wrecks where members of the crew have died, I consider a certain melancholy reverence to be in order. Having the place swarm with divers doesn’t really help in that.

So, a Thistlegorm was a cargo ship fitted for wartime use with some deck guns. It was transporting a cargo of trucks loaded with motorcycles, steam locomotives, tanks and other wartime gear when it got hit by german bombers. A direct hit to a cargo hold made trains and other equipment fly away from the ship, which then sunk down. Nowadays a big part of the cargo is still intact and you can even find a steam locomotive standing right side up in the bottom of the sea.

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The steam locomotive cabin is gone, but the boiler, wheels and other details remain.

On our first dive we did an overview of the wreck and some light swimthroughs of structures. When we got up, Susi declared that her dry suit could disintegrate, she could get the tourist flu and the Red Sea could boil over with storms and the trip would still have been worth the money at that point. Universe of course heard this boast and what do you know, when suiting up for the next trip Susi’s dry suit’s neck seal tore completely through. Torn neck seal carries a high probability of the whole suit flooding, which is a baaaad thing especially when you are in a wreck. Here a special thanks is in order for our guide Amir, the crew of the ship Francesca and our group member Anu: in a matter of 10 minutes they scrounged together a wet suit, boots that fit Susi’s monstrously large feet and a spare hood, after which we were on our way and the rest of the safari was saved for Susi.

INSIDE THE WRECK

On the second dive we got to go in to the cargo holds. There’s always something really cool about swimming to a part of the wreck that looks like it’s impenetrable debris, slipping into a shadow under a hanging sheet of iron and ending up in a low passageway that leads deeper into the structure of the ship.

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The hype about the wreck isn’t exaggerated – it was rather easy but very interesting to dive, the trucks, tanks, motorcycles and deck guns provided more than enough to see, not to mention all the marine life that took shelter in the wreck. It was clear that the heavy diving was taking its toll on the wreck. The air bubbles get trapped in the holds, rusting and corroding the metal, and accidental bumps as well as intentional vandalism is breaking up the wreck. I’m happy to have had the chance to dive inside Thistlegorm before it will be forbidden, which seems inevitable at some point.

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The third dive was a night dive. Amir had been up and down in the sea for god knows how long when he was looking for the wreck and after that with us, so he decided to skip this dive to get some security margin. This was more than reasonable since he had already gone through a half an hour decompression to keep his dive computer happy (and, presumably, to keep nitrogen bubbles out of his brain and capillaries). It turned out that Susi and I got to take the point in the next dive, which made the night dive triply as cool for us.

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After the dive, when others had already gone up, we spent some time hanging on the rope at five meters, watching the schools of fish the boat lights attract around the dive deck. The sight is incredibly beautiful, but unfortunately very hard to photograph. There was a school of mackerel-like sleek fish with yellow tails, a school of palm sided fish that glittered in several metallic colours and in between them few bigger fish the other fish tried to avoid. Above there was the ship lights glimmering on the churning surface, below there was a deep indigo depth.

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In the morning we bid farewell to the wreck by checking out the locomotive outside and doing another penetration. This time the water inside was clear as air, all the silt and rust flakes having settled during the night.

WRECKS, REEFS AND CHRISTMAS TREES

After Thistlegorm we went to dive in the skeletal remains of the wooden sail/steam ship Ulysses and had a couple of nice dives around the Gubal Island and the wreck of a barge that had been sent to help the sinking ship. Ulysses was a beautiful wreck with the sunlight shining through the beams that used to hold up the deck, and all the glassfish glittering inside, but the barge was more of a biodive than a wreck dive – there was a lot of marine life taking shelter in, around and under its scattered remains.

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I hadn’t realized that according to Amir about 90% of the safari boat crews can dive and they apparently sometimes jump into the water when we are away. Now they did a really nice surprise for us – when we circled back to the barge after doing a sweep of the corals, we found a small inflatable Christmas tree fastened to the bow of the wreck. This was a really nice feelgood thing from them and a fun surprise.

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All in all the atmosphere on our safari boat was nice. Our group included a friendly Finnish couple with whom we talked about diving in Finland and some previous trips, a friendly and perky Finnish woman called Anu, the Austrian guy Angel, with whom we talked about astronomy, physics and all kinds of geekery, and then again a Danish guy who turned out to be a bit of a sourpuss. In the beginning he was nice enough, maybe a bit standoffish but nice to talk with nevertheless. As the safari progressed, he turned more and more sour, apparently because he wasn’t that interested in wrecks, which are mostly what the north Red Sea safaris are about. I tried to engage him in conversation for some time, but in the end decided that if he has decided to not have fun, it’s his business.

MORE WRECKS, LUSH ISLANDS AND ORGANIC MACHINERY

Our trip continued to Ghiannis D, which was a bit problematic for us in the last time. In our previous dive in February Susi’s bottle slipped almost off and my mask was leaking wildly, which made the dive a challenge on our 30 dive experience. This time around the dive was far easier and very enjoyable. Ghiannis D is a large cargo ship, heavily listed on one side, and it has a lot of indoor spaces to dive in. It’s a nice challenge to get into the wreck in its low part, then rise up through corridors full of pipes, walkways and pillars. Looking up when diving is difficult and you have to watch your buoyancy when ascending. If you don’t let out air from your suit or vest, you start going up faster and faster, which is generally a bad thing when diving indoors. This was also the first site of the safari where we faced other divers.

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Going almost straight up.

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Anthea-fish playing in the bridge of the ship.

We also dived around Shabruhr Umm Gammar and Umm Gammar, visiting a beautiful coral cave in a depth of about 20-30 meters, and going to see a shipwreck that consisted mostly of the ships engines and drive shafts lying on a steep incline. I love wall dives and inclines that vanish somewhere below in the blue, maybe down to R’lyeh for all I know. The ship engine was slowly being overtaken by corals, making it a friendlier version of Giger’s biomechanic horrors. I loved it the last time I saw it and now even more, since I could concentrate more on the scenery and less in the diving.

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In one afternoon we took a small walking trip in a nearby island. You can’t really describe it as lush or verdant, but in its desert like desolation it was very beautiful – especially with the rusty debris, sun bleached seashells and remains of the corals all around. It felt good to get to stretch my legs after spending time in the boat.

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DAILY DIVES AND A MENACE TO CORALS

After the safari we had two days for daily diving, which meant hitting the boat in the morning, doing a couple of dives and returning to shore in the evening. After the lazy pace of the previous days and the good chemistry of the safari boat the first daily dive felt a bit hectic. Both of the dives were drift dives, which technically meant that we could mostly just jump in the water and let the wonders of the marine life slide past us. The first dive of the day was my hundredth dive, which I started by promptly flooding my camera. I noticed in 10 meters that the camera case was taking in water, managed to signal our guide Christina about the problem and then get up to give the camera to the boat crew. Not surprisingly the thing didn’t work even after I did my best to dry its insides afterwards.

The dive was in between two locations, Erg Somaya and Gorgonia Garden. We saw a tortoise feeding on the corals, large gorgonias and other beautiful coral structures, which provided plenty of targets for rubbernecking. On the second dive we ran into a strong current that forced us to turn back from our intended route. We did an U-turn, going over a small ridge in between two coral pinnacles. There we had to swim against a current strong enough that it made my dry suit pant legs flap. I settled into a nice rhythm and managed to keep my breathing steady, but for a moment I thought Susi wouldn’t make it across. In the end of the dive we got within a touching distance of a tortoise, which was really neat! The fact that there was a bunch of people clicking their cameras around it didn’t seem to bother the animal much, although it paid a few suspicious glances on the crowds.

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One thing about the dive made me a bit angry. In most divesites you can see broken corals and in certain places large areas of them are completely dead and crushed, and now I saw one reason for that. There was a diver in our group who had a camera, a lot of enthusiasm and zero body awareness – or zero interest to pay attention to his surroundings. He kept pointing stuff like single fish to me and others, darted here and there, bumped into me five times in one dive, and kept kicking fist sized clumps off of corals. In the end of the dive I felt like grabbing his tank valve and punching him in the back of the head. I mean, everybody brushes against the corals now and then, but its far cry from going through them like your flippers were the blades of a lawn mower.

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“You in there! Yes, motherfucker, you, I’m talking to you! Stop kicking the corals! Don’t make me come over there!”

BIOTECH, THEOLOGY AND A NIGHT DIVE AT HARBOUR

On the boat we had one of these chance encounters with really interesting people and had a very nice chat. One of the divers was this older guy who turned out to run a biotech company that’s creating a new kind of treatment that’s supposed to bite on all kinds of flu viruses. We had a nice chat about immunology, after which it turned out that the guy is doing some astro-archaeologic studies as a hobby, researching pyramids all over the world, measuring them and finding deeper meanings in their measurements, their relationships to neurology and plasma physics and so on. From there the discussion took a tangent to the neuropsychology of religious experiences, trancendence, relativism, Discordianism and theology. Now I kind of regret that I didn’t get the guy’s name or contact info, because the discussion was far less new agey than it sounds. Oh, he was also out to do some kite surfing and off road biking. Definitely an interesting case, that one.

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Susi and I had signed in for a night dive, but unfortunately nobody else had, so we didn’t get a boat. Gunnar did a personal favour for us and took us out to the Colona “home reef”. In practice we kitted up and walked to the sea in front of the dive center. This doesn’t sound that special, but we were in for a surprise. We did a round around the shore and under the pier where the diving boats are moored. There was a pick up truck, a lot of trash, distressing wads of toilet paper – and a shitload of marine life. We saw two squids, a scuttlefish, a ton of cornetfish, several lionfish, a weird thing that looked like a translucent intestine, those weird sea star like things that look like half plants, small scuttling crabs and small white baby morays. And listing these I’m sure I’m forgetting something.

After the dives we got decent and went for some thai food with Gunnar and Christina – a very enjoyable night with some interesting chat about how goddamn cool it is to work as a dive guide and why we should consider doing it ourselves.

THE LAST DIVES, FEATURING SOLO WRECK PENETRATION

Our last dive day Gunnar was our guide and not surprisingly the day consisted of wrecks. I also got a camera, since the friendly couple that was on safari with us had the same exact model I had and they were kind enough to loan theirs to me for the day.

We headed off to El Miniya, a Russian built mine sweeper that was sunk on the harbour during one of the Egypt-Israel wars. Since they have had a seven day war, three days war, half a hour war and a nice afternoon war with snacks, I have really no idea with one it was. The mine sweeper is close to the wreck of a fishing ship, so it’s a nice two-for-one location for wreck divers. This time we went down at El Miniya and made our way to the Fishing Boat. The last time we were there I was far less experienced, the dive was a bit scary because of the long swim (or what then felt like a long swim!) underwater and I surfaced with 15 bars in the tank (an equivalent of getting home with two liters of gas in your car gas tank). This time it was nice and leisurely. The wood eating worms had been busy in the fishing boat and it was fast coming apart. We had good time peeking into hatches and doing a slow circuit of the wreck.

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There were some tech divers with us on the boat and we heard them talking about a moray eel one of them had banged with his tank on El Miniya. In our second dive around the wreck we bumped into the animal. There’s a hole in the side of the wreck, which I wouldn’t have dreamed of exploring the last time, but now decided to check out. When we got there I saw the moray eel, which indeed looked rather peeved. I gave it wide berth and descended into the tear in the hull. I peered in to some of the corridors, which were rather narrow and had cabling and such all around them. We weren’t equipped to go in and it was definitely out of my skill level to go any further. Later I heard that me and Gunnar were the only ones who actually noticed the moray eel. Susi tried to feed it her ankle and an Italian diver we had with us almost gave the animal some finger food.

Our last location was the remains of a diving safari boat Balena that had caught on fire and sunken on shallow waters. We had to fly on the following day, so it was the perfect site for our last dive. Flying after diving is a bad idea, as most of House MD fans maybe know. The wreck was a pleasant dive, there was a lot of debris on the bottom to examine – including dive equipment like dive bottles and pieces of inflator hose, which was a bit disquieting.

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We did some rounds in the upper decks, and our plan was to go inside to the first indoor deck to do a round inside. There we had a bit of a communication breakdown. Gunnar went down the hatch, but I Susi, a girl called Paulina and this Italian guy we were diving with lagged a bit behind. I waited for them, Gunnar came to see what’s the hold up and I followed him down a hatch. Gunnar went into a corridor, I realised that nobody was following me and  returned to the hole to see where everybody else was. Susi signed me that everything is ok, I mistook this as a sign that she’ll be following and started down the corridor, where Gunnar had gone to – although I didn’t see him anymore.

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Soon I realised I’m in the other end of the wreck, inside it and I don’t see anybody else, and considered it to be one of those situations where turning back is the best option. Later it turned out that Gunnar had seen me the whole time from where he was, there was plenty of light coming in through the windows and a couple of boltholes back to open water, so there was no real danger there. Also, apparently the Italian guy wasn’t much for keeping contact with his dive buddy, doing his own thing around the wreck instead, and the girls had decided not to split the group further by following us.

All in all it was a really fun day of diving, well worth being the final one for this really excellent trip!

THE NIGHT OUT & BACK HOME TO PARTY

Gunnar and Christina had invited us for a night out in Hurghada, not in a party mode but just to go chill out. We kicked off the evening by sitting in a local coffee shop, smoking hookah and sipping coffee – all in all a great way to wind down. After that we went to their place to chat for a moment, followed by an excellent dinner and some ice cream out in the town.

Afterwards, when Susi and I were sitting in a local taxi, blasting through Hurgada downtown towards our hotel, I felt profoundly content. The smells of incense, dung and sea were wafting in through the cab windows, my stomach was full and my mind was at rest after a week of wonderful vistas of nature, great people and relaxing exercise. Certainly one of the best holidays I’ve ever had and as a bonus, all kinds of great stuff to wait for me back at home.

On the next day we made it through the chaos of Hurghada’s abysmally inadequate airport and inefficient air control and got on our way back home. According to the pilot we were an hour behind the schedule, thanks to the tardiness of the air controls and a 200 km/h headwind we were experiencing. When we were over Helsinki, it was half past nine in the evening. The earliest fireworks were already going off and it was great to see them from the height of 800 meters.

Kalle and Hanna were hosting a new year’s party which we had planned on attending. For a while we thought that we might be too tired to go there, but in the taxi I started thinking about finishing the holidays with a boring evening at home. I suggested to Susi that we should just plonk down all the luggage, not touch any of them or turn on the computers, just do a quick change of shirts and emergency showers and take off – which is what we did. Hacking off the 20 cm of really hard snow from the top of the car took some time, but we ended up in Kalle’s place just in time to get a short stint in sauna and go see the fireworks. The rest of the night went to chatting with pals, eating more good food, visiting Jori’s sisters who were living in our previous commune house and generally having fun with people.

All in all, the holidays were so great that I’m getting suspicious again. Perhaps this is balancing out the sucky 90’s, or then I’m looking at a bill of a face cancer and a career as an accountant. Be it as it may, fun was had. Life is good. Peace out.

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(See the full Flickr photoset)

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