WHAT MAKES A LIVEABOARD TRIP a success Is it the boat The diving The crew The food The guides The flights and transfers The company on the boat
These thoughts are all going through my mind after a couple of days on board Contessa Mia. She is not a new boat, but she is a new addition to the Sea Serpent fleet. Before becoming a regular offering for UK tour operator Scuba Travel in 2010, we are out on a shakedown cruise for photographers, journalists, dive-centre owners and regular customers.
The Red Sea route is one of the longest on offer, from Marsa Alam to Daedalus, south to Rocky Island and Zargabad, then back via Fury Shoals.
Certainly it was an experienced bunch of divers, and the diving was off to a good start. A check dive at Gota Marsa Alam benefited from other boats leaving as we arrived. The decaying wreck of a wooden day-boat was left to us.
I may be perverse in this way, but I often find check-out dive-sites rewarding, as long as I dont dive them too often. Our frustration at the slowness of the one official at Marsa Alam getting round to checking our passports and permits was forgotten, as we realised that being last to leave the marina was now to our advantage.
Elphinstone had been mentioned as a second dive, but a strong wind from the north meant that the easier journey to Shaab Sharm was substituted.
Again, being the last boat there worked to our advantage. We had the reef to ourselves and left the water at dusk, so the marine life was nice and busy, and photographers had the bonus of the dappled lighting for shallow shots that occurs only when the sun is low.

AFTER A LATE CROSSING WITH A LOT of rock and roll, the first day at Daedalus had been well up to the standard expected of a reef isolated in the middle of the Red Sea.
In addition to the usual walls and reef scenery, we had an encounter with a friendly turtle, and then oceanic whitetip sharks beneath the moorings.
Hammerheads had been sighted in the depths, but everyone had enough experience to realise that chasing them deeper would be fruitless.
The crew worked together as a well-organised team to set the moorings and get us to and from the dive-sites in the tenders. Ahmed, the chief dive-guide, had given first-class briefings well-tuned to the level of experience on board.
The second dive guide added little value, but as an experienced group no one was bothered about diving with the guides anyway. She would no doubt have served well leading less-experienced divers.
The trouble was that after two nights, we couldnt face another in our cabin. Diesel fumes built up inside the boat through the air-conditioning, from the generator while the boat was stationary and from the main engines when the boat was under way.
Divers berthed in below-deck cabins survived by closing air-con vents and opening portholes. The fume-level in the cabins was unpleasant, but survivable.
At the end of the line, in one of the main-deck cabins, enough fumes pushed though our vent to make it uninhabitable. Closing the vent made no difference. Opening the window just allowed the air-conditioning to blow even more fumes in.
After two mornings of waking with headaches, we spent the rest of the trip sleeping in the upper deck lounge and dining-room.

A BEAUTIFULLY CALM second day at Daedalus turns out to be even better than the first. By now we are experts at playing musical chairs on the crowded dive-deck. Kitting up and transfer to the RIBs proceeds like a well-oiled machine.
Diving is pretty much the same level of excellence, and far more enjoyable without the headaches. Another turtle is wonderfully co-operative, sufficiently relaxed and happy to continue tucking into a lunch of soft corals while boxed in by photographers. Ready for a breath of air, he pops to the surface, then descends back among us for dessert.
The oceanic whitetips co-operate again for some of the other photographers, but not for me. I dont mind, because I had a good encounter the day before.
Last to leave the water on the last dive of the day, I am on the RIB tender when the driver points out an oceanic whitetip below us. I hastily put my kit back on and grab my camera, while others line up on the swim platform shouting: Go John, go!.
Its only as I tip backwards past the point of no return that I hear Ahmed shouting Dont get in!, and realise that the other divers had been shouting No! rather than Go!.
I at least have the sense not to roll in right on top of the shark. I note its position before making a hasty exit.
Apparently the shark had been getting boisterous, and had chased the previous pair of divers out of the water. Yesterdays tasteless joke about using our second guide as bait suddenly doesnt seem so funny.
As for the warning, something always taught on boat-handling courses is to avoid using the word no when divers are expecting go. Stop or dont are much better. Ahmed knew that.
Even on a flat-calm sea, the journey south to Rocky Island lasts into the small hours of the morning. A few other divers have moved out of their cabins to sleep, some returning after the main engines are shut down.
The wall we dive on Rocky Island does not plummet to the depths as the wall on Daedalus did. By 20m it is a steep slope, but this makes it interesting; the same hard corals form different shapes, and the top few metres are punctuated by cuts, caves and tunnels.
After breakfast were off again for the short journey to Zargabad. Contessa Mias captain and crew skilfully manoeuvre the boat into a tight spot among a minefield of habilis to gain a sheltered mooring.
Last time I was here was when Zargabad was a restricted military zone, so the diving is all new to me. Particularly welcome is a trawler wreck.
Some have claimed that it was a spy ship, but having dived it, I prefer the simpler explanation that it was just a supply-ship for the military outpost.
I do all the usual fun wreck things, like exploring the cabins inside, and getting to the bottom of the engine-room. Nevertheless, the highlight of my dive is a pillar of coral just off the port side. It is almost barren, yet close to the top a dazzlingly white anemone with attendant anemonefish is in just the right place for me to position the wreck and divers in the background while I snap Nemos cousins from close up.
One more dive on a garden of shallow corals, and we are heading north on the long journey home. With the diesel fumes below deck now a recognised problem, our captain plans to reach our next overnight mooring in the Fury Shoals before bedtime.
One diver almost doesnt make it.
The en-suite bathrooms are usable despite the fumes and everyone has showers. But one of the little maintenance quirks of the boat is that none of the doors fit properly. Some spring open at the slightest opportunity. Others stick shut. To compound the problem, many of the door-handles are poorly attached.
Our poor victim had been stuck in his cabin for more than an hour before another showering diver hears his cries for help. The crew perform major surgery on the lock and door to get him out. Fortunately he isnt too stressed.
While on the subject of unfortunate divers, two slipped on the stairs and gained minor injuries.
Looking back, slips on shiny floors and stairs are a regular occurrence on Red Sea liveaboards. I know that perfectly varnished and polished wooden floors are the norm on most boats, but that is no justification for such a common safety hazard, especially when divers have to walk on them with damp feet.
Mind you, they dont always have to walk on them with wet feet, and accidents too often happen when they step into designated dry areas without drying off first.

AS WE CONTINUE NORTH, a day on the Fury Shoals almost flashes by, with memorable dives among the caves at Shaab Claudio and the wreck of a yacht at Abu Galawa Soraya, the inside almost solid with glassfish.
Now away from the offshore marine parks, night dives are allowed. We get the chance beneath our overnight mooring at Darla Wadi el Gamel.
The site is more one of convenience than excellence, but I have fun spotlighting fusiliers with my tight-beam light as a lionfish hunts them from the dark. A few fusiliers later I decide that Parsley is getting fat, and now have the problem of shaking off a lionfish that follows me about like a drooling puppy.
The cruise ends as it began, with winding-down dives at Shaab Sharm and Gota Marsa Alam. Gota Marsa Alam is hectic with other boats, so Ahmed wisely directs us to some isolated habilis off the tip of the main reef to get us away from the crowds.
The liveaboard part of the trip may be over, but there is still more than a day to go. In daylight, the Marsa Alam marina looks more like a rubbish tip, with gravel spread across the top for the coach to drive on. Divers and bags come ashore piled on the RIB tenders without getting wet.
Decompression day is spent at Port Ghalib, an hour north of town and convenient for the airport. The marina here is a smart and expensive starting point for liveaboards, but considerably further from the dive sites to the south.
The Marina Lodge hotel is just as I remember from previous visits - very comfortable and well set-up, but with bar and particularly lunch service that is appallingly slow.
On the other hand, the porters are almost annoyingly fast. Perhaps they should be redeployed to the bar, with the bar staff working as porters!
So all that remains is to answer the original retrospective question: what makes a liveaboard trip a success
Despite spending most nights sleeping in the dining room, the diving was excellent and I came home with plenty of photographs.
Being British, I tend to look back on adversity with the fondness of having overcome it. Otherwise, if I was a paying guest, even on a shakedown trip that was heavily discounted, I might be less tolerant.

SO WOULD I RECOMMEND this liveaboard Guardedly, yes.
Bearing in mind that Contessa Mia is a mid-range boat and does not compete with the 5* luxury end of the market, it can fulfill the role.
Scuba Travel assures me that all problems with the air conditioning and diesel fumes have been solved. The doors will be fixed, and non-slip strips added to the stairs.
Other minor nuisances such as having to crawl under the bar to get a soft drink from the fridge, or there not being enough room to get past the dining tables to easily access the buffet meals, can be regarded as amusing quirks of the boat - though again, Scuba Travel has commented that this will be improved.
A shakedown cruise is there to highlight problems, and its good to know that those found are being sorted out.
Food on Contessa Mia was tasty and well varied in the main dish, even if side dishes became a little monotonous.
Would I recommend the route I am undecided. Two days at Daedalus was certainly worthwhile. While the rest of the route was all good diving, was it worth the time and fuel spent motoring between sites On a one-week trip, it felt a bit rushed.
After Daedalus, the route is more for those who want to sample what is available than those who want to dive any part of the route in detail.
The price reflects marine-park fees and the fuel consumed travelling longer-than-average distances.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Thomson flies from Gatwick and Manchester to Marsa Alam every Wednesday.
DIVING: Contessa Mia is operated by the Sea Serpent Fleet. Book through Scuba Travel, 01483 271 765, www.scuba.co.uk.
PRICE: A one-week trip to Daedalus and Rocky Island with six days diving costs £1175 in September, less at other times.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Diving in Egypt is regulated by the Chamber of Watersports & Diving, www.cdws.travel