Appeared in DIVER January 2007

Beyond the blue horizon
An
An oceanic whitetip shark at the Elphinstone.

Some divers are so keen to dive the southern Egyptian Red Sea that theyll take a voluntary plunge even during a free-flow! John Bantin views the always-diverting scene from a very comfortable liveaboard
ALEX AND TAMARA DOUBLE were running a British-flagged liveaboard dive boat in the Red Sea long before any Egyptians thought of the idea. It was a very remote place then. Supplies were difficult to get, and willing passengers carried out essential boat parts to Egypt in their luggage. You rarely saw a diver from another dive boat.
Having returned to the UK at the beginning of the 1990s, the Doubles went back to the area for a diving holiday for the first time early last year.
I expected Tamara to be appalled at the changes. The Egyptian diving industry is now unique in the volume of divers catered for, and I expected her to tell me it was not as good as it was.
But she didnt. In fact, she thought it might be even better! Of course, she admitted to seeing hundreds of other divers, but the animals are still there, just as they were in the past, and she was very enthusiastic about a dive site she had never visited before - the shallow waters of the bay at Abu Dabab.
With that in mind, I set off on yet another trip to the Egyptian Red Sea. Its now no longer a hardship posting.
Setting off from Hurghada for a trip to St Johns reefs in southern Egyptian waters would be rather tiresome if the mv Blue Horizon cruised at anything less than 13 knots.
Its one of that new breed of Egyptian liveaboards, built in Alexandria in 2006 and lying in the water at a mighty 41m long. Its twin Caterpillar 3412 engines really bowl it along and our first real dive was south at the Elphinstone.
This reef was named after Lord Elphinstone, then Viceroy of India, by Commander Moresby during his survey of the Red Sea. It is a long shallow reef with a plateau at each end, and its steep walls are surrounded by very deep water.
Its a good place to see pelagics and lots of other divers. Both can provide endless entertainment.
I retreated from the plateau back towards the shallows when I noticed a number of oceanic whitetip sharks cruising among the moored dive boats, though getting there was like trying to ascend a down escalator in the rush-hour at Piccadilly Circus tube station.
At 25m I noticed that one member of a group had blown an O-ring on her tank. The noise must have been deafening for her and the gushing bubbles made a spectacular sight, but there she was with her group, still descending.
I stopped her and sent her back up, but once near the surface she clearly decided that she would rather be with her mates than at the surface with a stranger.
She turned and descended for a second time. Well, I guess the bubbling would have stopped eventually!

DRAY VAN BEECK, A GUIDE from Blue Horizon, was following me and drew her to the attention of her own dive-guide. Presumably she is still alive.
I stayed at 6m and enjoyed some very close passes from the hungry sharks that are used to picking up the kitchen waste thrown overboard from freighters. They are easily recognised by their long pectoral fins and rounded dorsal fin.
They are not particularly big as sharks go but they are pretty fearless, closely checking out all the unsuspecting divers who make a big splash when they first jump into the water. Dray and I enjoyed seeing two other divers engage in synchronised weightbelt-dropping. Thankfully they were nowhere near the reef where unsuspecting divers were waiting below. Where do these divers come from
Blue Horizon has nine twin cabins, plus four suites for the more romantically inclined. What luxury!
None of the 22 passengers on board during my trip got in each others way, apart from in the foredeck Jacuzzi, with its limited space, and that was hogged by the members of Norwich Sub-Aqua Club.
I had no complaints. My cabin was spacious and equipped with a flat-screen monitor and DVD player, plus a fridge. I wasnt tempted to sit alone watching a movie and drinking cold beer, but if you really hated the other passengers that would be an option.
The bathroom had more than enough space in which to swing a cat, though no such punishments were handed out during my cruise.
Copious hot water was available for a shower after every dive. As on nearly all Red Sea liveaboards, the only thing missing was a spacious camera table, quite a common feature elsewhere in the world.
The diving was excellent as usual. We made our way down to St Johns and back up to Fury Shoal. At Shab Maksur (the spelling varies according to dive-guide) I saw many oceanic triggerfish, sometimes called large-scale triggerfish, building their nests.
I had never seen these animals so far north, although the open water in the southern Red Sea has an almost permanent curtain of the fish, schooling ghostlike and almost impossible to photograph because of their silvery bodies and soft rubbery appearance.
This was an exciting opportunity for me because after years of failed attempts to get good images, here they were posing in an arena of white sand especially dug out for each ones nest, and forming a perfect soft reflector for my lights.

DRAY PARTNERED ME FOR THE WEEK. He had a camera and, taking advantage of the fact that none of the passenger divers needed to be supervised, got on with taking pictures for himself. He even modelled for me from time to time.
Being in front of my camera requires a degree of patience not normally demonstrated by those set on enjoying a diving holiday.
Its useful being with the dive guide. In a whole week we had to be picked up by one of Blue Horizons two RIBs only once.
On every other occasion we simply returned to the main vessel once we had finished diving. Even on that one occasion I wanted to continue to swim back but I reckon it would have cut into 20 minutes of breakfast-eating time.
The Egyptian crew were exceptionally helpful, as has become customary. Egyptians have a tradition of helping foreigners and over the years they have learned what is needed of a boat crew in all its different forms.
A good number are proficient English speakers, too. Several of the aft-deck crew are also accomplished divers and one asked me how I would read my pressure gauge, tucked away as it was. He hadnt noticed my integrated computer.
It is extremely easy diving in this part of the Red Sea. It may often be windy, causing a bit of rock n roll during passage between different sites, and RIB rides may be a bit choppy, but once under water, it can give a very false impression of what warmwater diving is about, because it takes so little effort.
Big brown morays barked silently from their holes. Little peppered morays did likewise. Lionfish turned their backs to cameras that came too close, offering a close-up of those poisonous spines.
Anemonefish busied themselves around an especially pretty pink host anemone. Bigeyes hung around thinking they were invisible in their bright orange garb. Anthias fluttered around the hard coral as usual. Squirrelfish loitered under table corals. Hawkfish sat on the gorgonia.
Cave Reef gave us a break from the repetition of hard coral reefs, with many tunnels and passages to explore. The unpredictable flow of water through these cavities leads to current hotspots where enormous and colourful denronephthya soft corals flourish.
On the last day of our charter we returned to the Elphinstone to see some more sharks and watch some more diver shenanigans.
Finally we had the usual encounters with the several huge green turtles that browse the Posedonia sea grass in the shallow water at Marsa Abu Dabab. It makes a refreshing change to look at animals in this green weedy environment after a week of looking at hard and soft corals.
There are other animals too. Guitarfish and lots of spiny puffers live here, and once back on Blue Horizon, one of our number stole the first prize in the weekly photo contest with a close-up of a mimic octopus. These are not supposed to be found far outside Indonesian waters, so could this be the start of muck diving in the Red Sea

Divernet
Anemonefish
Anemonefish
An
An oceanic triggerfish, not usually seen as far north as Fury Shoal.
Exploring
Exploring the passages at Cave Reef.
Green
Green turtle at Marsa Abu Dabab
Preparing
Preparing for another underwater sortie from Blue Horizon

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Fly to Hurghada and embark there or at Port Ghalib. A visa, included in the cost of the holiday, is supplied on arrival.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Blue Horizon is operated by blue o two, www.blueotwo.com, 01752 480 808. Depth limit is 40m, and nitrox and 15 litre tanks can be hired.
WHEN TO GO: Any time. In winter wear a 7mm wetsuit in two layers and a hood, though in summer a 3mm full-length suit may suffice. On board you can wear T-shirts and shorts without shoes - in winter take a sweater.
MONEY: US dollars, euros, sterling, Egyptian pounds. Visa and Mastercard.
PRICES: The Deep South Safari, as experienced by John Bantin, will cost between 849 and 1099 in 2007, including flights, transfers, eight days accommodation, meals and diving. The only extra cost is for beer.