Corsica, France

“Are you going to blog about your trip?”

“You never blog anymore.”

“You’ve been home a month and a half!”

“The blog is dead. It needs your contribution on account of I have nothing.”

….maybe I should write a blog post about my trip to Corsica?


I spent the entire month of June on an island in the Mediterranean Sea! Believe it or not, this was a work trip; a fieldwork to trip to be more precise. Not a bad place to work, huh? For all it’s frustrations, science can be pretty cool sometimes.

Perhaps I should explain how this came to be. Last year, I interviewed for a postdoc position in Tübingen, Germany. Ultimately, this position did not pan out, but it did lead to further discussions of potential collaboration. Simply put: this is science lingo for saying “write your own project and come do it here”. As an aspiring academic researcher, this exactly the exciting/scary/adventurous/bold opportunity I was looking for. To survive in academia, you have to 1) develop your own, independent line of research and 2) fund that work through grants. If this is to be my chosen career path, then why not start now?! So, since finishing my PhD, this has been my focus: I have written and submitted my own grant applications, in hopes of continuing my research career in Tübingen.

As part of this process, I have been in continual contact with my potential postdoc host. In one such conversation, I was offered an opportunity to join the group on their upcoming fieldwork trip. Naturally, I accepted. The fact that this trip would be to Corsica, France was an obvious plus, but more relevant was what it would mean for my research experience. For both my Master’s and PhD, I completed fieldwork very early in the project. These experiences proved invaluable to my later work – in evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology, it’s important to place your work in a larger context and to remember that these are natural systems, with real implications. Fieldwork definitely drives this point home. For all those non-science nerds out there, it’s also really freaking cool to spend a month diving in the Mediterranean!

Getting to (and from) Corsica was an adventure in itself; not because Corsica is so remote, but more so due to the logistics of scientific research. Any fieldwork trip, by necessity, requires lots of gear. As you can imagine, transporting all this gear to and from the field comes at a great expense. Scientists would much rather spend their hard earned grant money on actual research, so if a cheaper transport opportunity presents itself, you take it. Case in point for getting to Corsica: drive. For me, this meant the following travel schedule:

Day 1:
Groningen -> Amsterdam (2 hour train ride)
Amsterdam -> Stuttgart, Germany (1.5 hour flight)
Stuttgart -> Tübingen, Germany (~1 bus ride)
Overnight in Tübingen

 

Day 2:
Tübingen -> Savona, Italy (~9 hour drive)
Savona -> Bastia, France (overnight ferry)

 

Day 3:
Bastia -> Calvi, France / Stareso (~3 hour drive)

Station de Recherche Océanographiques et sous-marines or Stareso, for short, is a marine biology research station, located just outside of Calvi, in northern Corsica. Originally built in the 1970’s, Stareso has been the annual fieldwork destination of the Tübingen visual ecology group for the past 10 years. There are, of course, many other research groups that also make use of the station, many of which also have a long history of coming to Stareso.

I’m not going to go into much detail of our work at Stareso, as it’s not my research to share. However, I will give a quick rundown of what we did. In short, we conducted a large-scale behavior experiment using a small fish that naturally occurs in the Mediterranean Sea. This is particularly relevant for me, as this is one of the fish species I want to study (should I get funding).

Can you spot the fish?
A triplefin blenny – in the aquarium

For this trip, we had an array of experimental tanks anchored in a seagrass bed at ~10m (~33 ft) depth.

Each day, we’d work in small teams of 2-3 divers to transport fish to the tanks and then run a behavior trial for ~1.5 hours. A second team would then return to the tanks to collect the fish and GoPro’s used to record the trials. Meanwhile, there was the continual task of collecting wild fish for use in the next day’s trials, as well as the general upkeep and maintenance of the tanks themselves. As you can see from this list, we spent a lot of time under water. I logged a lot of dives on this trip!

Again, I won’t go into any details of the experiment or the results, but I can say that it was a very successful trip! All-in-all, the experiment worked well, we had no diving- or fish-related issues, the weather was great, and to top it off, the food at Stareso was phenomenal! This was certainly a much different field experience than when I worked on Lake Victoria.


In other news, we have been pretty low-key lately. Whitney has been busy working, while I am writing funding applications. Thus far, I’ve submitted one proposal and will soon submit a second. These processes are annoyingly slow; it will be November, at the earliest, before I hear any result. In the meantime, I’ll keep myself occupied with a few remaining publications for my PhD work and also enjoying life with little responsibility. After 5 years of intense PhD research, it’s nice to relax.

Stay tuned for blog-life to return to normal, as Whitney will be posting about our upcoming trip to France (in September).

Until next time,
Shane

Koh Rong, Cambodia

Well friends, we’ve made it to our final stop in Cambodia; the beautiful island of Koh Rong!

After two nights at Eden Eco Village just outside of Kampot, we caught another bus to the beach town of Sihanoukville. From here, you can catch a speed ferry and in 45 min you’re on the island!

Now the time has finally come for me to publicly complain about the bus service that was Champa Mekong. Up to this point, all of our domestic travel (excluding the overnight bus) had been with Mekong Express, and despite having a few unforeseen problems which were out of their control, we had a great experience. Because of the time we needed to catch the ferry, we had to forego our beloved Mekong Express for the-bus-company-who-will-not-be-named-twice.

We arrived at the bus station and checked in for our VIP van – which we pre-booked and selected seats – without issue. It’s getting closer and closer to departure time, and we notice that there’s no 12 passenger van anywhere in sight. Only this bigger, maybe 20 person bus which is parked out front. 5 minutes before departure another even larger bus shows up and a whole crew of people pile out and head straight for the person yelling “Sihanoukville! Sihanoukville!” standing directly in front of that 20 person bus.

Can you see where this is going?

There was no VIP van. There was only that damn bus.

And despite our protests – this isn’t what we paid for! – we were told that that was the only bus going and we could either get on or rebook. AND to top it off, because we were fighting for what we purchased, we were the last on the bus. Sis, Terry & Shane ended up in the jumper seats in the aisle for the next 3 hours and I was shoved in the very back seat with a girl who didn’t give two sh*ts about personal space.

Needless to say, we were all ready to get off that bus. Lesson learned -Mekong Express or bust!

Anyway, back to Koh Rong. We had 4 glorious days in a (basically) beachside bungalow.

View from the bungalow.

If those aren’t the faces of two happy campers then I don’t know what is.

We did two main things while in Koh Rong: take a $10 boat tour around the island and dive. Let’s start with the $10 boat tour, which started out sketchy but ended up being a lot of fun!

First off, it took way more effort than expected to find these elusive $10 boat tours. I had read about them online from other blogs but none seemed to give any indication on how you actually go about booking one. The secret? You just walk up to any of the stands in the main area and ask about the $10 boat tour. You will instantly be bombarded with people trying to sell it to you.

When we purchased the tour the night before we were told there would be a max of 15 people, stops for snorkeling, fishing, time at 4k beach (a white sand beach on the other side of the island), swimming with the bioluminescent plankton after dark, dancing (YES – dancing) AND dinner + 2 beers and a whiskey & coke (lol) included.

We ended up on the “Three Brothers” boat tour, and what we got was a max of 25 people, snorkeling with kid-sized masks, one beer, fishing while drinking our whiskey & coke, time at 4k beach, dinner INCLUDING the fish we caught (didn’t see that coming), swimming with the bioluminescent plankton and dancing (it happened!).

Why was the boat so crowded? Turns out, another company sold tickets the night before and then at the last minute decided not to go, so they transferred those people to the Three Brothers tour. Guess who those people were…

Ya – we (along with a few others) were the reason for the overcrowding.

*shrugs*

Once the boat got on its way we could spread out a little and it didn’t feel so cramped.

So, we were off to a different start, but as I mentioned before if you expect about 50% less than what you imagine then Cambodia will never disappoint you. From that point on, we just went with the flow and ended up having a great time. There were a few other small issues along the way, but we just soaked them up as part of the day!

Back on the boat after snorkeling.
Sis attempting to catch a fish while drinking her whiskey & coke.
Terry caught 4 fish!
(Poor) Little Mermaid reenactment on 4k beach.

I like to call this next series “Hold me like those girls on Instagram”.

Very freshly caught fish for dinner. Oddly enough, Terry wasn’t a fan.

Not pictured is the bioluminescence on account of it being – ya know – pitch black water. Which, I would like to give a little shout out to Shane here because he loves to dive but he has an irrational fear of open water, or should I say open water in which he can’t see what’s around. But, with a little peer pressure and #YOBO (you only ‘Bode’ once) chanting, he jumped in, long enough to see the plankton and call it a day.

Also not pictured were the two adorable brothers who were the co-captains to their dad and grandpa that day and were THRILLED when we gave them a pack of Oreos and a can of Pringles as a “tip” for helping out.

Sissys at 4k beach.

Next up, for Shane & I at least, diving!

We had planned to dive two days, but since Shane was recovering from his Kampot sickness, we were only able to go once. We haven’t been in over a year, so we had a one-day refresher course which made for a nice, relaxing day of diving, but man – what a tease! Diving is just the greatest.

Awkward family photo?

I will say, Shane did push his limits a little here with his recovery time. For those non-divers, you really shouldn’t dive if you’ve had respiratory or sinus problems because it makes it hard or even impossible to equalize pressure as you go under. Shane felt good again, but you know how it is after a cold, things are still just a little bit off. All was OK until after the 2nd dive when he about gave the guide a heart attack. He must have popped a blood vessel in his nose because it started bleeding and was collecting in the bottom of his mask. That, mixed with a little water, and he looked like Carrie when he took his mask off at the surface.

So, uh – lesson learned.

Other than that, our time in Koh Rong was spent playing on the beach and

OH!

We almost adopted a cat.

The first morning, we picked a random, cheap place for breakfast, and a cat and her kitten came up to the table. This wasn’t really anything new because there are (sadly) strays everywhere. This lil’ missy though, hopped right up into Shane’s lap, and where mama went – baby followed.

Naturally, our kitty loving heart-strings were pulled. Shane ate breakfast with both of them in his lap (because how to do you even say no?). By day 2, she was named Xena (after the warrior princess) and by day 3 we were Googling how to get her out of Cambodia and back to the Netherlands. Turns out, since Cambodia is a “high-risk” country for rabies it’s a 3-month process. Had it only been a 1-month wait (like it was for Meatball) I’m pretty sure Shane and Xena would have had an Airbnb in Phnom Penh until she could fly. Alas, we left our warrior princess in Koh Rong, but during our short time with her, she got all the breakfast snuggles and hotdog pieces a kitty could want.

Waiting not so patiently for her hotdog.

Koh Rong was the type of place that just grew on you. Despite this island being my idea, I was a little bit nervous about coming because I had started to read about how it was a “backpackers paradise”, but not in a good way. Yes, there was a party every night on the main beach, but we stayed far enough down that it wasn’t really an issue. And you could very easily find parts of the island where there was no trace of the party mentality. The longer we stayed, the less I wanted to leave and, to be honest, the more I wish we had stayed on some of the other, even more remote beaches. All in all, I’d say Koh Rong has something for everyone.

And, if you ever find yourself in Koh Rong, you should wander down one of the alleys to find Sigi and his delicious authentic Thai food! He’s a delightfully sarcastic one-man show, cooking staples from his home-county while he sings to Shania Twain. We went there twice.

And you should definitely follow up any meal with a $1 shake. Blended fruit + milk (or not) makes for the most delicious treat.

Koh Rong felt like a relaxing retreat after the (fun) but hectic first 10 days of the trip. It was nice to dive & spend some time in the sun.

Especially since the 36 hours after leaving Koh Rong would be spent traveling to our next destination…

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Egypt: Giza, Marsa Shagra, & Cairo

I’ve never actually sat down and made a ‘lifetime bucket list’, but if I had the Pyramids at Giza would have been on it.

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But not anymore! 🙂

And they don’t call them ‘great’ for nothin!

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We had three nights total in Cario which bookended our trip to Marsa Shagra for diving. The beginning of the trip was dedicated to the pyramids, starting with the amazing view from our hotel, aptly named, Best View Pyramids Hotel!

If you ever find yourself planning at trip to the pyramids we can’t recommend this hotel enough! The Australian owner, Grace, is beyond accommodating and the view is really the best! And to top it off, the hotel is perfectly primed for viewing the pyramids nightly ‘sound and light show’. That’s a savings of about $30! *wink!*

We planned a full day tour with a private guide & transportation to the Giza Pyramids, Sphinx, the ancient capital of Memphis, and Saqqara (the step pyramid).

Having the guide was great for multiple reasons: someone else drives you through the madhouse that is Cairo traffic, you don’t get hassled if you’re with a local, and you actually learn about what you’re looking at.

Having a guide was also great, because he insisted on being our photographer and knew all the classic typical tourist poses.

Quick recap on pyramid facts.

The Giza pyramids are actually the last of a series of pyramids that act as tombs for various pharaohs (kings) during the time of the Old Kingdom. Essentially, earlier pharaohs perfected the pyramid, so by the time King Khufu was ready to build his tomb he was able to go big or go home with the Great Pyramid. And contrary to popular belief, the Great Pyramid is the first in the series of three. The 2nd pyramid, built by Khufu’s son – Kahfre, didn’t want to outshine his dad so his pyamid was smaller out of respect. It only looks larger because the plateau on which it’s built is higher. (Strategic planning maybe?) The third and samllest pyramid belongs to Menkaure, the grandson of Khufu.

Unfortunately, the Great Pyramid (Khufu) was closed on the day we were there. We were able to go inside the third pyramid, though, which may have actually been a blessing in disguise. The tomb of the third pyramid is in the bottom. The tomb of the great pyramid is in the top; aka: we didn’t have to climb up 300+ stairs to see an empty room (all the tombs have been raided).

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Next up, the Sphinx!

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The second half of the day was spent at the ancient capital of Memphis and Saqqara which was the necropolis for the capital. Saqqara is home to the Djoser step pyramid (named after King Djoser) which was the first pyramid and considered highly innovative. Saqqara itself is a large complex, and we were able to go in a few other well preserved tombs.

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After Giza, we headed south for a little R&R and diving at Red Sea Diving Safari- Marsa Shagra. This was the same place that we visited in 2015 when we completed our open water course. We decided to come back because we didn’t feel like we were able to really take advantange of all the diving this place has to offer. We were newly certified and still timid, and needed a repeat!

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I’ll try not to rave too much and skip straight to the pictures, but I can’t say enough good things about this place. Our days went a little something like this….

wake up with the sun – dive #1 – breakfast – dive # 2 – lunch – dive #3 – beer – dinner – bed- repeat.

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Breakfast view.

Any place that revolves around food & diving is my kind of place!

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Just for you, mom. 😉

Of course, the resort itself is beautiful. We choose this particular company becuase they work hard to preserve the reef by treating their properties as marine protected areas, having designated days for ‘reef clean-up’, they offer conservation courses, and have an overall focus on ‘earth friendly’ practices. For example, each person who comes is given one water bottle (if you don’t bring your own) and you’re asked to refill at various water stations placed around the property.

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The main area: dive shade and relaxing shade.

What makes this place particularly special though, is the attitude. The staff are beyond friendly and helpful. The dive instructors go out of their way to get to know the guests, and the boat drivers may not know your name but they know your face and they know your dive preferences. “North reef zodiac-zodiac?” – yes please.

Here, your unlimited dive package allows you to dive as much as you want in their house reef, which in itself has 6 different options and, according to the instructors, is “one of the best in the Red Sea”. Everything is completely relaxed and at your own pace. You just write on the boards where you’re going, what time you leave, and your expected return time and off you go!

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“The Board” (North side)

When we arrived I would say we were relativley inexperienced even though we have our advanced certificate. But this trip, we literally doubled the number of dives in our lifetime and used the time to practice some important skills.

Such as…

Flipping off a zodiac.

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Getting back on a zodiac.

It’s really unfortunate that I don’t have a picture or video of this because let’s be real. No one is graceful getting back in a zodiac. Just imagine a fish out of water… 1-2-3 heave! … and you’re flopped head first over the side of the boat with your fins flappin’ in the air trying to wiggle all the way in.

Descending in open water.

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Ascending in open water, and deploying our surface marker bouey (SMB).

Jumping off a big boat for a dive. 

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Underwater selfie skills. 

Clearly the most important of them all.

We started and ended the week with beautiful weather. The middle of the week (you may want to sit down for this) it RAINED. Yup. I call it the curse of The Netherlands. I mean, it didn’t’ rain for three days straight or anything, but on three afternoons there was high winds and a passing storm which, as you can imagine, drastically changed the visibility.

Same spot, different day.

Overall though, we can’t complain. Now, here are just a bunch of diving pictures.

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I call the next series “The Shwits with Jellies”.

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And our favorite dive: Long Canyon

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I think you can understand why we didn’t want to leave, but we had to.

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Back to Cairo for one night. Main goal: The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, which (no lie) every Egyptian person we spoke to asked “Have you been to the museum?”. Egyptian people are very proud of their museum, as they should be, becuase it’s quite literally jam packed with cool things. And yes, we were able to see King Tut’s mask (his mummy is in Luxor). No photos allowed though. It is amazing how well preserved it is.

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The Nile River

And that was our trip! The only thing we could have asked for is more time. There is so much to see in Cairo, and we weren’t able to make it to Luxor as we orignally hoped. But that’s ok, because we are already daydreaming of our next trip.

As for safety, because we’ve had a lot of peole ask, never once did we feel unsafe, even in the wake of the attack in Alexandria. Every Egyptian person we met bent over backwards with kindness and was THRILLED to meet two Americans who were not afraid to come to their country. For example, as we were leaving the Egyptian Museum a man just struck up a conversation with us (“I’m  not a taxi driver, I’m an English teacher!”) and proceeded to tell us about Tahrir square, the oldest street in Cairo, the festival that was happening that evening for Easter, and where to find “food that is OK for American stomachs”.  And perhaps this is just an illusion of security, because I realize that the government isn’t held in the highest regard by locals these days, but we experienced more security checks at varioius points in our journey than in any other country we’ve been to so far.

I think the key to Egypt, as with any country, is to be aware of your surroundings, know the basics of the local culture, and be respectful of it. For instance, I wore pants and shirts that covered my shoulders despite the warm weather and I wasn’t offended when people addressed only Shane for any decision making (even our tour guide).

Long story short, don’t be afraid. Egyptians are friendly and welcoming people and the extremists who commit terror acts do not represent them. So if you have a chance, GO TO EGYPT!

endrant.

Shane is working on a video compilation of the trip, so keep a lookout!

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Tot ziens,

Whitney

Duiken in het Nederland

…and I’m back! Apparently I like to plan all my major activities close together.

This weekend Shane and I drove to the village Scharendijke in Zeeland, which is a province in the south of the Netherlands. Here, we completed our PADI Advanced Open Water certification!

The drive down was only 3 hours and 15 min, or as a co-worker put it… “You’re driving ALL THE WAY there tonight?!” I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective. So we hopped in our snazzy rental car and hit the road!

We stayed in a bed & breakfast that I found online which ended up being (as expected) an elderly couple who rent out three rooms in their house, I would assume, mainly to divers. They were actually completely full when we were there. We weren’t quite sure what to expect as neither one of us have every really stayed in a bed and breakfast type of place before, but after the initial awkward arrival (we couldn’t find the house) it couldn’t have been better. The house was only a 2 min. drive from the dive center, we had our own large room with a sink (shower and toilet were shared), cable/wifi, and breakfast included! The best part, only 80 euro for the whole weekend.

I did have to laugh though because breakfast was SO Dutch. I’m not sure if we’ve mentioned hagelslag before. Hagelslag = sprinkles. Like ice cream sprinkles. And a typical Dutch breakfast (usually for children) will consist of bread with hagelslag. Our breakfast options include 18 DIFFERENT KINDS of hagelslag! I was so impressed. So, naturally, I had to do as the Dutch do. Hagelslag for breakfast it is!

Really though, this place was fantastic and if we dive in Zeeland again we know where we’re staying.

Ok, Ok, enough with the sprinkles and on to the diving!

The course was 5 adventure dives over 2 days. We were required to complete a navigation dive and a deep dive (below 20m/65ft) and the other three are left up to you. We ended up doing peak performance buoyancy, wreck diving, and Nitrox (increased oxygen).

As you might imagine, diving in The Netherlands is much different than diving in Egypt.

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First, visibility was, at best, 3-4 meters versus the 7-10 meters in Egypt. Honestly, visibility, especially when we were above 10 meters (33 feet), was a lot better than I anticipated. A lot of people warned us about low visibility, and I think because of that I was expecting a lot worse.

Second, you had to walk a lot further to the dive site! You have to go up and over the current dyke to get to the dock so you can dive over the old dyke, at this particular location at least. There were also way more divers than I ever anticipated! The whole parking lot was full of people diving, or hanging out and watching their friends and family dive. Diving also seems to be one of those activities where everyone is instantly friends with everyone. It was a really fun to be in the middle of it.

The first two dives of the day were the peak buoyancy, which I was happy to have since I felt like I struggled with that before, and navigation. Aka: using a compass underwater. Aka: teach Whitney how to use a damn compass. I mean for real DAD (I blame you!) where was this life lesson when I was little?! Ok, so in all reality he probably did teach me how to use a compass but I forgot. After a 15 min explanation about getting my “boat back into the harbor then swim straight” (the simplest way Shane and the instructor could explain it) I did manage to successfully swim a straight line navigating on my own, and Shane and I together managed to navigate a full square! My friends, I call that a win!

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Shane being a good little navigator!

I must say though, Shane and I have very different natural instincts. We had to do an initial navigation test where we had to attempt to swim a straight line underwater without a compass. I veered us towards land. Shane went towards the sea. Here I am trying to get us to land…to AIR!… and Shane is trying to go swim with the big fish. In the future, if we are compass-less, we’re going with my instincts.

The afternoon dive on day 1 was our deep dive. For this to count we had to go below 20 meters, and we made it to 23 (75ft)! Really there wasn’t much point in going deeper. After about 10 meters you couldn’t see anything unless your flashlight was pointing directly at it. It was definitely an eerie experience, and not one I wanted to repeat this weekend. I will definitely do it again, but hopefully somewhere with better visibility. Our instructor did get a few pictures on the way down. I think these only amplified Shane’s lust for a GoPro.

The deep dive was the last of the day, so Shane and I had a little time to explore Scharendijke.

The view from the dyke
The view from the dyke.

Day 2 was our wreck dive and our Nitrox dive. All the “hard” stuff was over so these two dives were basically just guided fun dives. Our wreck dive ended up being kind of a bust. We went to the Scharendijke port where there are two man-made wrecks at about 10 meters, plus some man-made reef balls. These are actually pretty cool. They are large, half sphere balls with large holes in them. They were placed all around and then just let nature take over! They now house lobsters & crabs and sea squirts and other fun things. I digress. The wreck dive was a bust because the visibility was so bad you could barely see your hand stretched out in front of you. Shane took this picture as an example.

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Needless to say, we didn’t stay at this particular site long. We ended up moving closer to to the reef balls where it was shallower & we could see more cool things… like starfish! They were everywhere!

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The last dive of the day was actually on our own. This dive we planned together with our instructor, and he sent his baby fish on their way into the water to dive alone! We were back at the original dive site from day 1, so we were diving over the old dyke. We learned that in 1953 this dyke broke, Zeeland flooded, and thousands of people died. You can dive over the old dyke which is now home to a ton of sea creatures. Shane and I spent this dive just creepin over the dyke (and some more reef balls). It’s really amazing the things you see when you go slowly and just watch.

So! Long story short we are now certified advanced divers! A big thank you to our main instructor Teun, and to Wil who took us on our deep dive and sent the pictures.

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Tot Ziens,

Whitney

The Shwits Go to Egypt: Part 2

That’s right! As Whitney alluded to in Part 1, we are officially scuba certified! This is basically the whole reason we went to Egypt in the first place. And to make it even better, this was technically for the sake of my work and future career. A slight deviation to explain: As I have mentioned in a number of previous posts, I study fish. In fact, I have now worked in fish-related research for about 6 years.  For those of you not so familiar with fish – they live in water.  We as humans are not so good in water, especially when trying to stay under it for long periods of time.  Therefore, not being scuba certified has always been a bit of a hold up in my research (especially when working on Lake Victoria). So, following my field work last year, I decided that it was time for me to certify.  Of course when I informed Whitney, she decided that she would not be left out and would join in the fun.  Thus, we went to Egypt! Now I know what most of you are probably thinking: why go all the way to Egypt to do the open water certification course? Isn’t it much easier/safer/cheaper to do it locally? To this I simply say: Yes, you are right. But where is the fun in that? Practicing diving in a swimming pool is useful, but it’s nothing like this:

Or this:

So I think it’s safe to see why we went all the way to Egypt.

For those of you not so familiar with the PADI Open Water course, allow me to briefly explain.  The course consists of both knowledge and skill based instruction that takes you from (in our case) having never dove before to competent and able to dive freely without the aid of an instructor.  This comes in the way of video and text study, combined with quizzes and a final written exam, while also completing a series of confined and open water dives with your instructor. We completed this over the course of 4 days (would have been 3 had Whitney not gotten a little too carried away with the “all-you-can-eat” portion of the stay). Day one was pretty laid back with some videos, text study, and swim tests. Day two, however, had us literally in over our heads: we quickly went from trying out breathing with the regulator underwater to diving at depths of 8-10m (sorry, we are officially on the metric system. I’ll try to convert for those of you not as versed in metric: ~30 feet). While in hindsight, it makes sense that the course should move this quickly, it was definitely a surprise for us at the time. Nonetheless, we survived!

From here, things progressed in both complexity and duration.  I had heard about all the various skills and tests of the open water course before the trip, but I don’t think it ever really occurred to me that I would actually be doing them. The idea of removing my mask (I wear contact lens and am blind without them) or taking off my entire scuba kit at depth seems ridiculous, but there we were doing them. While there were certainly some moments of hilarity for both of us, we passed all them with relative ease. So, that was it. We had officially passed. And with that, we were set free to dive alone. Before moving on to our diving adventures, I have to first mention our instructor: Mahdi.  He was fantastic! We couldn’t have asked for a better instructor. Not only was he extremely patient in letting us figure things out, but his overall excitement and enthusiasm was unbelievable.  And he was extremely smart.  From talking with him, we learned that he is actually a lawyer and spent time as a professor of law at an Egyptian university (in his early 20’s!). He had been diving since he was a teenager and worked as an instructor for the past eight years.  You could tell he just really loved what he did. I’m sure a majority of the instructors are just a good but Mahdi definitely made it an enjoyable experience. Thanks again Mahdi! So that was it, we were free to dive.  And dive we did! Aside from the guided dives that we did as part of the course, we were able to do 3 dives on our last day (we had to stop diving on Monday since we flew on Tuesday – pressure differences between diving and flying are not kind to the body, you have to give it time).

The resort that we were at was not like your typical tropical vacation spots.  It wasn’t a place you go to lounge on the beach with a drink in your hand or party the night away at a local club or bar.  It was a diving resort and that is what everyone was there to do.  Of course you were free to drink as much as you would like or sleep the day away in the sun, but no one did that.  Everyone was there for the diving and the desert sun is really hot….

The picture above is from the ‘diving shade’ – essentially the staging area for all diving activity.  From this point, everyone prepared for their upcoming dives. Diving options consisted of the North or South Reef and you could choose whether you entered/returned from shore or by boat (as can be see below).  You would simply write your name on a whiteboard, check where you wanted to go, and then go.  If you chose to go by boat, there was always one available at anytime of day.  It was an extremely simple, yet extremely efficient system. 

Being that Whitney and I were very new to diving, we stuck to shore entry and exit. To give you a bit of an idea of what this looked like, the following series of pictures tracks one of our dives from beginning to end.  You will see that we began at a rope that leads out past the dock for boat loading. From here, you chose either the North or South side of the reef (this dive is the North), swam out until you hit your desired time/air usage, and then swam back to same rope leading back to shore. The scenery along the way requires no explanation, the pictures speak for themselves.

I wish I could say that this was one of our better dives, that it wasn’t always this breathtakingly beautiful but I can’t.  Whether we went North or South on the reef, this is what we got.  As Whitney says: “it was real-life National Geographic; real life Finding Nemo”. As she’s right.  It was truly amazing.  I think it’s safe to say that we have found ourselves a new hobby. Future trips and adventures will most certainly be planned as diving excursions. Why did we wait so long to try this?! By the way, for those of you interested: all of these pictures, both above and below water, were taken with a Nikon Coolpix AW120. I highly recommended this camera if you are in the market for an easy to use, durable camera. We took this camera down to 18m (60ft) and it worked perfectly!

Until next time,

Shane

The Shwits Go to Egypt: Part 1

I know… its a shock. It’s been months since we’ve posted anything, but for good reason! We’ve been laying low and patiently waiting.

…for this

We went on our first vacation! To Marsa Shagra, Egypt to learn how dive to be exact. It’s beautiful right? It’s still kind of hard to believe we just spent a week there.

Marsa Shagra is a small village in the south of Egypt. It’s about four hours south of Luxor, and sits right on the coast of the Red Sea. We flew into Marsa Alam airport, and then it was about a 30 min car ride to the resort. Egypt is literally a desert. Hah, I know that sounds so ridiculous because of course its a desert, but it’s really made apparent when you’re driving on the only road through a sea of dirt and sand.

We stayed in the Marsa Shagra Village which is one of three owned by Red Sea Diving Safari. They aren’t your typical resort as they advertise themselves as “The Eco-diving Adventure”, and this ended up being exactly what we were looking for. For starters, most people stay in “tents”.

There are two types, regular and royal. We opted for the royal tent, and completely lucked out because ours was front row on the Red Sea! They did have electricity so we had 2 small lamps and a mini-fridge. Most importantly, the royal tent came with bean bag chairs.

You could also opt to stay in a one room hut, or a two room chalet. The tents and huts used communal bathrooms around the property, but the chalets had their own. The communal bathrooms really weren’t an issue. Each one had 3 toilets and 3 showers, and were cleaned multiple times per day. The only downfall is having to pee in the middle of the night…

The huts.

We spent a lot of our down time sitting on our “porch” reading and watching. The great part about this place was if you were at your tent then you really felt like you were away from it all. And at night (when the moon wasn’t too bright) you could just stare at the stars. I was pretty excited by this since we don’t see many stars in the city. In my opinion, it was beach camping at it’s finest.

If you compare the two pictures below, the one on the right is the view of our resort, and the one on the left is the neighboring. We walked down the beach and through it one day. Everything becomes artificially green, and the music is going, and people are drinking and dancing. None of this is a bad thing, it just wasn’t the experience we wanted.

If we wanted to have a little social interaction then we spent time either hanging out at the Cafeteria, or at the Bawadi Bedouin Lounge. The cafeteria made for some excellent people watching. This was situated right by the diving area so and was scattered with chairs, tables, and beanbags. It was great, because you could get a little sun, sip on your beer (or all inclusive coffee/Fanta/Sprite/Coke), and watch divers come and go.

The Bawadi Bedouin Lounge was on the property but not run by the resort itself. It was run by people from the local Bedouin tribe in the area. They had beer, coffee, hookas and you could have dinner there on request. Mostly we just stopped by for a beer on our way ‘home’ for the night after a day in the sun.

As I mentioned before, your basic drinks were all inclusive as were meals. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were included and served in the Restaurant which had an outdoor seating area overlooking the sea and the diving area. The panoramic picture in the beginning was our view from breakfast. I think one of my favorite parts of the whole trip was waking up with the sun, going to breakfast, and having coffee with that view!

The food was incredible! Breakfast was usually the same, but lunch and dinner were always changing. Each night supposedly had a nation theme, but we were never entirely sure what nation. Hah. The only one we were ever sure of was Egyptian night because they labeled the traditional Egyptian dishes as such. And the dessert table! Oh sweet glorious dessert table. So much cake! and little cookies! and one night these chocolate cookie dough type balls! We were living the desert dessert dream!

Note to self with all inclusive… you can, and I did, eat myself sick. Literally. Not sure if it was dehydration, food I wasn’t used to, or the diving, but we lost half a day about mid-week to stomach issues. You know you’ve found a keeper when he cleans up your puke in the middle of the desert. #truelove

Other than the one incident, the trip was absolutely fantastic! Shane’s boss recommended this place to us, and it certainly did not disappoint! Everyone should go to the Red Sea!

The main dock where divers would come and go by boat.

Had to have the feet pictures. Just for you, Mom. 🙂

Well, I think that’s all! Now, on to the best part and the purpose of the whole trip…

SCUBA!

Ok, so we’re snorkeling here but that’s not the point.

Check out Part 2!

Tot ziens!

Whitney