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hspace=4 WARNING SHOT
by Gavin Parsons

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ON 26 DECEMBER, 2004, the world learned what a tsunami really was, after an undersea megathrust off Sumatra sent a massive amount of energy around the Indian Ocean that devastated communities.
Standing in its way was the Maldives, and a week after the natural disaster.
I was in Colombo airport, Sri Lanka waiting for a flight there. Colombo was crammed with hordes of people wearing humanitarian NGO logos - a sombre reminder that lives were ruined.
I boarded the Male-bound flight, but I wasnt looking forward to seeing the Maldives. The empty plane seats showed how much impact the tsunami had had on travellers. Male is normally a bustling place, with divers and honeymooners coming and going, but there were more resort workers than tourists at the airport.
I found the Fathima rep easily enough. He seemed to be the only person expecting anyone. The boat was going out with the bare minimum of guests, and I wasnt expecting much because the tsunami had passed right over the island nation, and I was dreading the state of the corals, reefs and islands.
Fathima slipped her anchorage and headed out towards the South Male Atoll, past Indian and English warships there to provide humanitarian support.
We headed for the South Male liveaboard route, and into the real diving. Had the tsunami done to the reefs what it had done on land elsewhere

THE ANSWER, THANKFULLY, WAS NO. There was some damage, but on the whole the corals were looking healthy, and the reefs teeming with fish.
Whats more, because of the lack of tourists, we had the waters pretty much to ourselves. There were only a handful of boats out that week, and normally busy sites were empty and all the better for it.
I hadnt been to the Maldives in a few years, and the previous time was just after the El Niño event of 1998, which did kill the hard corals. This time the Maldives shrugged off the elements, and provided a dive trip to remember.
So 26/12 may have been the Indian Oceans 9/11, but for this traveller, it was a relief to see that the tsunami had left a warning rather than a disaster.

hspace=4 INSTANT BOND
by Louise Trewavas

hspace=4 UNFORTUNATELY, WE WONT have a cabin for you. Uh-oh. These were not the words I wanted
to hear, just days before a Northern Red Sea wrecks liveaboard trip! Mind you, I was booking at the very last minute, and knew this might happen.
So, should I forget about a diving Christmas Or take the offered discount and sacrifice my privacy - and possibly my dignity - by kipping in the saloon and sharing a washroom with the entire crew
No problem! I instantly replied. At last, my legendary ability to fall asleep while slumped at a table with my head resting in a half-empty plate of curry was going to serve good purpose.
But my cheerful optimism soon received further knock-backs. The departure of Juliet was delayed when four passengers got stuck in the Czech Republic while changing planes.
hspace=4 The Egyptian guide gave a briefing that included mention of Egypts glorious victory in the Six-Day War (!)
And the obligatory couple from hell declared themselves within five minutes of boarding, with a bitter tirade about their cabin smelling damp. They proceeded to sulk and moan. All week.
Yet... I had the best of times! The couple from hell caused everybody to bond instantly. Miserable behaviour of comically epic proportions seemed to put the rest of us into a positive frame of mind.
A posse of younger divers added some non-stop energy. They frolicked, entertained and charmed; by the end of the trip, I found myself coaxed into performing an underwater dance routine for YouTube. To this day, I cant watch it without laughing like a drain.
The more experienced divers took control of the diving. Most of us had dived the sites before, so in between the classic wrecks we insisted on diving some of the more off-beat reefs, like Mushroom Stump, selected purely because of its cute name!
On this occasion it was the lucky combination of people, place and opportunity rather than the diving that really made the experience, greatly assisted by a delightful boat crew, who worked their socks off and partied hard. I should also mention Terry, the dive-god instructor who took charge of the newer divers and filmed the YouTube video.
By the by, this trip was some years ago - Im told that, among other enhancements, sleeping in Juliets saloon is no longer an option!

hspace=4 CREAKING LADY
by John Bantin

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SITTING ON THE SHORE with Bruce, the owner of Blackbeards Cruises, I was newly arrived on Grand Bahama and admiring his fleet of three 20m-long sailing sloops, one of which, Pirates Lady, was due to be my home for the coming week. Thats when I noticed the inordinate number of tanks stacked along the aft deck.
How many people do you take on each vessel I innocently enquired.
I had been on similar sailing liveaboards before, and was expecting the answer to be along the lines of six
or eight. I was stunned when Bruce, without pause for thought, replied:
At least 20, plus six crew.

ALARM BELLS WERE ALREADY RINGING, and grew much louder as my fellow-passengers began to arrive. It was a cheap cruise, more camping at sea than unadulterated luxury, but I hadnt counted on quite how cheap some of the passengers were going to be.
They tucked into the buffet lunch provided at Bruces house, and loaded up with rum that seemed cheaper than soda, with the inevitable consequences visited upon us all later that night.
Once under way, I soon retreated to the privacy of my bunk. It was the privacy afforded by a curtain. My bunk, like others, was in the main saloon.
This area was shared with the galley; with a cupboard so small I was unable to sit down on the marine toilet provided within it, because my knees would not allow the door to close; with the shower that could be used by each passenger only for a maximum of 30 seconds per day; and, of course, with the 26 or more souls on board who queued for their meals three times a day.
It allowed for multi-tasking. Later, I found that I could lie in my bunk and exchange anecdotes (and probably pathogens) with those waiting to load up with food, together with the one lucky passenger trying to off-load
in privacy.
It was lucky that everyone got on so well, and we had some of the most memorable diving I have ever done in the Bahamas, with visits to some remote wrecks as well as some more familiar ones, and the reefs of Cay Sal Bank, Bimini, the Berry Islands, North Andros and the Gingerbread Grounds. Id certainly go again!

hspace=4 GETTING HORIZONTAL
by Beth & Shaun Tierney

hspace=4 IT WAS A TRULY AWFUL JOURNEY. We nearly missed the Heathrow departure due to a traffic snarl on the M4; we ate something odd along the way and arrived in Papua New Guinea feeling like we were going to die.
Things got worse when we found that our internal flight to New Britain wasnt even on the departure board, and when we finally arrived we discovered that the famous Alan Raabe, captain of mv Febrina, had had an accident.
The whole trip seemed doomed to go wrong but all we could think about was getting completely and utterly horizontal, hoping desperately that it would all look better in the morning.
And it did...
20 hours of solid sleep later, Alan hobbled towards us, regaling us with the soap opera that was his fall from grace (aka the top deck) and then hustled us onto the boat.
A few hours from shore, we were suited and booted and horizontal once more, and actually enjoying ourselves. Floating over Kimbe Bays pristine sea-mounds, looking in any direction was like glancing through gin.
The ocean was such a desperately perfect blue that descending to 30m wasnt like descending at all. As the sun illuminated brilliant magenta and cerise whip corals, it became all too easy to forget the past dramas.
hspace=4 We soon got into the swing of things, and in our usual cheeky fashion would put the divemasters to the test. None of those oh, we saw one last week excuses would do for us.
We challenged our divemasters to hunt for boxer crabs. Down on the reef, a grey reef shark came alongside, snooping around to see what we were up to. Josie, PNGs first lady divemaster, had risen to the challenge, and a miniature and very unhappy little crab was shaking his boxing gloves angrily at us.
The grey shark seemed a bit miffed too, gave up being ignored and disappeared with a wiggle of its powerful tail.
Day by day, and usually five times a day, wed slide into the water and wait for those incredible New Britain reefs to obliterate the drama of our arrival day. Helped along by magnificent food, icy Aussie wines and the daily entertainment provided by Captain Al, the trip ended as one of our most memorable.

hspace=4 OILY SANDWICHES
by John Boyle

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AFTER TWO HOURS WITH all our baggage on the public jetty at Kota Kinabalu, dehydrating in the relentless sun, several crew wearing the boats T-shirts arrived on a RIB.
Ignoring us, they scattered into the crowd and left us sweating for another hour before returning. Muttering among themselves in Malay, they ushered us on board without explanation.
A very delayed lunch was waiting - cheese sandwiches, some with oily thumb-prints, and a bag of crisps.
And we gathered that on the last trip the cook had fallen in love with his new cabin-boy, and when they went ashore to stock up for our trip the happy couple had run away with the boats shopping money to build a new life together. The engineer would be doubling as cook for the trip - hence the oily butties!
Shown to our cabins, we had another surprise. The boat was swarming with Filipino labourers, sleeping in the corridors, cooking on deck, doing laundry in the showers.
The captain was doing a favour for a mate who was running a construction site on an island. We would drop them off there, before heading to our dive area among the Spratly Islands.
Many of them hadnt been on a boat before, and when sunshine was replaced by a violent storm, the bathrooms were blocked by vomiting hordes. Rebellion was simmering among the paying guests.
Late the following afternoon, we anchored at their destination, a flat island with a short runway and a cluster of squat concrete military buildings. Rats were scavenging on a rubbish heap by the quay.
When the skipper announced that we would overnight there, I led the mutiny - if we must stay, then at the very least we should get in for a dive.
Begrudgingly, he agreed - where do you want to go, he asked, pointing out that he had never been there before. How about off that point I suggested.
The squall had passed, and the late afternoon sun gave a mysterious blue light as we descended. My first impression was of incredible visibility, except for what looked like a distant cloud.

hspace=4 IT WAS A CLOUD of hundreds of scalloped hammerheads. For 40 minutes they schooled above, below and around us. Mystical, magical, awesome, mesmerising - no words could describe this unexpected experience.
The other divers disappeared behind a solid screen of primaeval shark, and I was totally alone, drifting among them. The shark shoaled and swirled around me, always one stalk-eye seeing me but ignoring me, till beeping computer and deep-into-the-red pressure gauge broke the dream, and drove me back to a now flat-calm sunset ocean surface.
Over 20 years, I have long forgotten the name of the liveaboard. She went out of business the following season. But Ive never forgotten the thrill of that dive.
And Ive never forgotten the name of the island.
The hammerheads are still there - the building crew were part of a team converting a derelict naval base into what was to become a world-famous dive destination: Layang Layang.

hspace=4 Coral Dreams
by John Bantin

hspace=4 WE OFTEN CARRY OUT our deep-water regulator tests at Taba, just across the border from Eilat in Israel. The water of the Gulf of Aqaba is deep close to the shore, and the guys at the Aqua-Sport dive centre are very accommodating.
Last year, Craig, the Canadian owner, invited me to go on a three-day liveaboard trip that made its way down the coast as far as Dahab.
Coral Dreams is not a big vessel as Egyptian liveaboards go, but it carries only 14 passengers, so you get as much space as usual, including en suite cabins. All the other passengers were Israeli, and were motoring down to join us from Tel Aviv.
I went to bed before they arrived, but I had joked with Craigs wife that I didnt mind sharing a cabin, as long as it was with a beautiful girl.
I awoke the next morning to find myself lying next to the naked sleeping body of a beautiful young Israeli woman. I crept out of the cabin.
hspace=4 Now this isnt the Red Sea proper, its merely a northern backwater.
My expectations of the diving were pretty low.
However, I discovered that because steep mountains abutted the dive sites we visited without access from the land, there was no diver pollution, and the corals were in perfect condition.
There were no big animal encounters to speak of, but it reminded me very much of the diving I had done in the Red Sea 30 years before.
We dived at Ras Mamlak, Abu Galum, Gabr el Bint and Shugairat before turning back after a crack-of-dawn dive at Bells Blue Hole in Dahab. We saw mating octopus, frogfish, turtles, cuttlefish, scorpionfish and all the underwater life you might expect, including flourishing coral.
What we didnt see were divers from other boats. In fact, we didnt see another dive vessel once we had passed south of Nuweiba.
The Egyptian crew enjoyed my banter with my co-passengers, the Israelis. I taught them all to say please
and thank you (in Hebrew) and they appeared to enjoy the lessons.
And what of the young lady with whom I shared a cabin Later, on the first evening, she caressed my arm and told me that I reminded her very much of a person dear to her heart - her grandfather.

hspace=4 CONFESSIONS OF A LIVEABOARD VIRGIN
by Howard Sawyer

hspace=4 I ALWAYS SAID ID NEVER GO BACK. Not to Egypt - not if you paid me. Egypt was Package Holiday Hell. Snobbish attitude maybe, but I hated it. From the Philippines east, that was my stamping ground. Perhaps I got to dive only once a year, but what dives!
The Red Sea Riviera was a quick, cheap winter fling, and about as satisfying.
But then I saw Ken Sutherlands portfolio of Egyptian wrecks, and his Oh my God! portrait of the Giannis D. I had to shoot that wreck.
So I was going to eat my words and go back. Worse still, to access these wrecks, I was going to have to overcome my neurosis, and take a liveaboard for the first time.
The thought of being trapped on a boat for a week with a large group of no doubt hard-core, seen-it-done-it divers, 24/7, was intimidating.
And Id heard stories of single divers being picked on by groups on liveaboards. A heady cocktail of machismo, testosterone, nitrox and neoprene, and that was just the women.
British divers in Egypt seemed to spend their spare time driving motorbikes too fast. Join 20-plus sharks as they feed Ave it!
Join 20-plus divers on a boat for a week Do I look insane
So despite all the recommendations, I wasnt entirely convinced that Id have that wonderful time aboard Hurricane for the Brothers Wreck Special.
Preparation had to be meticulous if I was to blend in. Dive T-shirts from long-haul destinations - check. Street-design T-shirts - check. Dont want to look like youre trying too hard to underline your diving credibility.

hspace=4 ITS A FULL BOAT, of course. Twenty-two divers. Brits from the Shetlands to the Home Counties, four lads from Ireland, plus Mats, a friendly bear of a Swede with a honey-pot smile and impeccable English.
It transpires that Mats was worried that the boat would be full of Germans.
He cant speak German. I appreciate once again how fortunate we are that the rest of the world speaks our lingo.
I share with Kevin from Wakefield. Its his first liveaboard too. Full marks to Tony Backhurst, who has paired
off single divers of similar experience and interests.
Kevin is keen to try out his underwater compact, recently acquired from eBay. Hes also the nicest bloke you could wish to share with. Hes been to the Isle of Man TT (as a spectator), reads Bear Grylls, and doesnt appear to want to shoot anything other than photos.
I apologise to him in advance for my snoring.
Fact is, all the people on Hurricane are great, including captain, crew and guides. The relaxed atmosphere aboard sets the tone.
True, everyone is going to get on better with certain people than with others, thats only to be expected.
But there's a healthy hubbub when we eat, and always space when you need a bit of quiet time.
The lads from Ireland get me sucked into Band of Brothers on DVD in the evenings. The pod of dolphins that ride the bow as we head from the Brothers gives us all a special shared moment.
The dives and the wrecks If you havent, I suggest you go to see for yourself. Don't worry, you won't end up sharing with a neurotic from Essex, I'm never going back. Probably.