ARRIVE AT THE ZABARGAD RESORT just south of Hamata late in the afternoon. You may think Marsa Alam is well south in the Egyptian Red Sea, but Hamata is a fair bit further, all the way down on the Zabargad peninsula by the Fury Shoals.
After a few hours on the road, I am itching to get diving.
The dive-boats have returned from the day trips, but this has nothing to do with any late diving from the Orca Dive Club. The resort has a house reef.
A steel-framed pier leads out across the back reef, then hangs out over the reef crest to deep water.
The dive-centre staff do take a bit of convincing; not that I want to go diving, they are well sorted out with that, but that I need to go diving now.
Eventually I catch on. They think I want to go night diving, and are moving at an appropriate speed to get me in the water after the sun has set, but I want to catch the last rays of daylight for some wide-angle photographs.
With that confusion resolved, a pick-up truck runs everything I need 100m or so down to the pier, and I am soon leaping from the end into the deep, dark blue. The sun is still just about showing over the mountains of the Eastern Desert. I expect I will be missing a gourmet sunset while under water.
The timing is perfect. Like any jetty, the pier to the house reef provides shelter for shoals of fish and structure on which hard and soft corals can grow.
In this case the fish are mostly double-bar bream, with a selection of snapper, rabbitfish and others filling in the gaps.
My briefing had been to head north along the reef, but I am having so much fun under the pier that it is 20 minutes into my dive before I venture further.
I follow the wall down as it drops to 20m. Below the hard corals, a sandy slope disappears into the shadows with small heads of coral breaking the plain.
A gentle current comes with the waves from the north, nicely lining up the clouds of anthias that shroud most outcrops and corners.

IF IT WERE FULL DAYLIGHT or a night dive, I would stay on the deeper part of the reef. At dusk, I return to the shallows and all the fish lurking above the reef where the waves begin to break.
Still just about light, but without the overwhelming sunlight of earlier in the day, this is too good a chance to miss with a wide-angle lens.
Considering the size of the waves, exiting the water is remarkably easy and trouble-free. A dangling line with clip on the end is hanging ready to receive my camera. The steps go far enough below the surface that I can remove my fins, grip the railings and plant my feet firmly to walk up as the waves slosh about me.
An osprey keeps watch from his perch on top of a lamp-post, one of a pair nesting on top of the thatched cabana that provides a patch of shade for divers during the day.

FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER wanting to experiment with various lenses and techniques, the house reef at the dive centre is an ideal location in terms both of convenience and photo opportunities.
Nevertheless, next morning finds me boarding the dive centres truck for the five-minute drive to the stone boat jetty at downtown Hamata.
Its the sort of one-camel town in the desert where a spaghetti western would have Clint Eastwood riding lazily in as chickens and dogs scatter in the streets. Have I conceived a new movie genre, the shisha western
During World War Two, Hamata was the location of a southerly British outpost. A cluster of rusting car wrecks half-buried in the sand look as if they could have come from that era.
The Thien Sin tug was dispatched from the stone jetty here to assist a ship further out in the Red Sea, then ran aground at Abu Galawa, the location of our morning boat dive.
This intact steam tug perched against the edge of the reef is a popular stop for liveaboards on their way further south, and is a site I have dived several times before, but to which I always enjoy returning. A big mushroom of hard coral has grown to the extent that entering the engine-room is getting tight. I manoeuvre carefully to avoid touching it.
We follow up with some caves through the leading edge of Abu Galawa, but these are only a taster for the much bigger network of caves and canyons we later dive at Shaab Claudio, another favourite with passing liveaboards.
I never tire of the game of picking a complicated route through the caves that circles and crosses its own path, so that I pop out on the other side of the reef before entering another hole to repeat the process.
To cap it all, a friendly Napoleon wrasse follows us back to the boat. He may have been fed by others, but shows no interest in a piece of rubble one of our divers holds up to try to get his attention. He is much more interested in his reflection in my camera lens.

ANOTHER SITE I HAVE PREVIOUSLY VISITED is Shaab Sataya, a big curving reef that shelters a lagoon that is home to a pod of spinner dolphins, though none are evident as we pass through.
Here we dive on the wall at the southern end of the reef, looking out into the blue in the hope of seeing something big. Water washing over the reef and through the lagoon reduces the visibility somewhat.
The lack of pelagic fish passing by is more than made up for by the many reef fish, and a particularly cute octopus.
The bar at the dive centre is a gathering place for divers as the truck returns us from the boats. More than a few kit up for a night dive on the house reef, which is open from 6am to 11pm.
If you really are a complete diving maniac, you could get a dive in before the boats depart, then more after they return, clocking up more dives a day than a liveaboard would give.
I used to think I was that committed a diver. Now, after a day at sea, I prefer to unwind with a beer.
I ask some of the divers why they are here. Some just like the location. Some are here to do the maximum amount of diving. More than a few want to experience the southern reefs but with more luxurious accommodation than even the best liveaboard could provide.
In some cases they are not born sailors, and admit that they wouldnt be comfortable on a boat 24 hours a day.

ALL GOOD REASONS, but it is the final one that interests me. The liveaboards heading south and back just sample the Fury Shoals. For an in-depth experience, you need to be based in their midst.
This is underlined by my next dive, at Shaab Mohamed. It may be on the route of some liveaboards, but never one on which I have been.
Its a reef just small enough to circumnavigate without rushing. The dive briefing includes waypoints on the circumnavigation that are mostly marked by detached pillars of coral. When a certain pillar is passed, any diver below 120 bar is advised to turn back rather than continue with the circuit.
A reef that can be circumnavigated is always interesting. I love to watch the way coral changes from the overhanging walls on the sheltered side of the reef to the valleys separated by buttresses of hard coral on the leading edge, evolved to disperse and use the energy of the waves. Even so, it is the detached pillars that are the gems of the dive.
Big pillars provide a focused concentration of fish, restricted to their pillar home, so nice and easy to stalk.
I spend so long on the first few pillars that I have to think hard about how much time I have left to finish the circuit. I have more than enough air at the turn point, but I am already 45 minutes into the dive. Is the overall distance bigger than I expected, or am I just swimming rather slowly
I speed up a bit and stay shallow over the hard corals on the leading edge of the reef, stalking groups of bigeye emperor and solitary masked pufferfish that seem to enjoy this part of all the local reefs.
Bohar Kebeir is another reef that could be circumnavigated, but here we restrict our dive to a series of detached pinnacles off its eastern corner.
It was named by fishermen for the large number of bohar snapper that live here, though for me the highlight is a pair of maiden gobies, a fish I have not photographed before.
It is the last dive for some of the divers, and a nice easy wind-down - plenty to see without any stress or effort.
But it isnt my last dive. I have another day to go, and we continue with the nearby reef of Bohar Saghair.
My buddy is Anders, a liveaboard guide and instantly recognisable in his Batman wetsuit. He is visiting Hamata to collect information for a guide-book, and is enthusiastic because Bohar Saghair is a new site even to him.
This is a much smaller reef and easy to circumnavigate, though again the highlights are on the detached pillars that rise from a 25m seabed to just a few metres below the surface. Between a nested pair of table corals I find a pair of lemon gobies, a fish I have never even seen before, let alone photographed.
They have an interesting pattern of stripes and a false eye that makes a single lemon goby look like two resting side by side. I have to look hard to work out that there really are two of them, rather than my eyes playing tricks.

CIRCUMNAVIGATION IS AGAIN THE PLAN at Shaab Haman, but not for me. This reef is separated from its neighbour by a narrow valley of hard corals ending in a big arch. I reason that by starting late and in the opposite direction I can catch everyone else as they swim through it.
Between ambushing other divers, I amuse myself with a pair of blue-spotted rays that rest on the sand beneath the arch, enjoying the gentle current that flows across their gills.
With a longer break in the flow of divers coming the other way, I head upcurrent into the valley. A narrow blind valley off to the side is filled with sweepers. Guarding the entrance is a big boulder of coral covered in soft corals and teeming with anthias and chocolate-dipped chromis.
It is shallow and spectacular, though the confines of the valley and the current require a fair degree of control to navigate without harming the reef.
I ambush another group of divers as they enter the main valley, then race back to the arch to catch them again as they swim through it. I never get far enough to make the circumnavigation. Up and down the valley and through the arch is more than enough fun to keep me busy for well over an hour.
Back on the boat, Anders is sketching. This is another reef new to him and will no doubt find its way into his book.
Yesterdays departing divers finished with a chill-out dive. Today, my finishing dive has a bit more adrenalin.
I have expanded my experience of the Fury Shoals, but Orca has more than 30 reefs on its list of regular dive sites there, and thats without counting variations on each reef, or the house reef.
Its a stretch of Red Sea that qualifies as a destination in its own right - a lot more than just some nice diving on the way to St Johns.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Thomson flies from London Gatwick and Thomas Cook from Manchester to Marsa Alam on Wednesday.
DIVING: Orca Dive Club, www.orca-diveclub-hamata.com
ACCOMMODATION: Zabargad Diving Resort, www.zabargad.net
PRICES: A seven-day package booked through Divetours including flights, transfers and seven nights half board at the Zabargad Resort starts from £465, and a five-day boat-dive package is £164, 01244 401177, www.divetours.co.uk. Nitrox is free to those with qualifications.