HOW OFTEN WOULD I GET the chance to sample a new Red Sea liveaboard and be the only guest aboard Yes, thats right, the only guest!
Joe Graham, Golden Dolphins dive guide and bookings manager for the British market, explained that the boat had been chartered for a Northern Wreck Safari, but that the group had bailed out at the last minute.
This left a fully paid-up dive-boat stocked with food and beer at my disposal. Does life get any better
Joe could only promise me a mini-safari, but the itinerary would include a bevy of dives on the Thistlegorm.
I had to think long and hard about his offer (about 5 milliseconds) before saying: Yes, please, lets do it!
It was gone midnight when I arrived at Hurghada International Marina.
The 37m Golden Dolphin III was moored alongside a long row of super-yachts, and it actually fitted in quite nicely. Its a classy-looking vessel, no run-of-the-mill liveaboard.
Joe told me that the Egyptian-owned boat was slightly unconventional in design in that all the cabins were located above decks. Instead of small portholes, you get big full-length windows.
Air-conditioning has always played havoc with my sinuses, and tends to fog up my camera ports too, so it was a treat to have a lot of fresh air blowing though the eaves.
Guests can go straight from the dive deck into their cabins without worrying about a slippery flight of steps, said Joe.
Other significant benefits included the absence of noisy generators, or diesel fumes wafting from the engines. The only downside I could see was that in choppy conditions the cabins were more susceptible to rocking and rolling, which is not so good for seasickness-sufferers.

STRONG WINDS HAD BEEN HAMPERING Hurghadas day-boat operations all week, and more cancellations had been reported in 2010 than at any other time in the past decade.
We finally received a good to go at 3.30am, and Golden Dolphin III, the flagship of the fleet, slipped her moorings and set sail for Shaab Ali, home of the Thistlegorm.
The boat carries a maximum of 20 divers when fully occupied. All cabins have air-con, mini-bars and en suites, though, strangely, no DVD players or TVs. I could choose between eight two-bunk cabins or two suites, so why not travel in style
I opted for the master suite, complete with glossy teak finish and stripy blue and white bedding.
And I really did test out the rocking and rolling theory. Batteries, silicon grease and expensive lenses were flying all over my cabin - these were definitely not ideal conditions for preparing cameras.
Our heading was steering us smack-bang into a group of safari boats, a sure sign that we were closing in on our destination. I wondered idly how many divers had visited ss Thistlegorm since its discovery by Jacques Yves Cousteau back in the early 1950s.
The old WW2 supply freighter is the most famous wreck in the Red Sea, and even though it has taken a severe battering from divers since being rediscovered in the 1990s, it remains an amazing underwater time capsule.
Joe had the foresight to plan our first dive while the other boats were serving breakfast. I really didnt want to bump into 4000 other divers.
We followed the mooring-line down towards the two decks-guns located near the stern. There was the usual thick weave of lines tied all over the place.
In some cases they were tied dangerously to movable objects.
Hadnt HEPCA placed 32 concrete blocks and lines so that boats wouldnt damage the wreck It was nice to see these too being used.
Joe personally guides all the UK-booked Golden Dolphin safaris. I want to focus on the personal touch and provide quality and service, he had told me. I dont hold hands. If divers prove that they can act responsibly, I let them go diving.
Joe has been diving for around 25 years and is now based in Dahab. The boat operates year-round and offers the usual portfolio of tours, from classic wreck safaris to deep-south St Johns expeditions.
I followed Joe over the Bren-gun carrier and out towards the steam locomotive, sitting upright in the sand about 20m from the main wreck, on the port side. The rolling chassis and smoke-box are all thats left; theres no sign of the boilers or cab.
A 10mm lens would have been best suited - I could have fitted both buffers and the smoke-box into the frame - but alas, I had to make do with my trusty 16mm. The early-morning sun was shining behind, so I managed to get a reasonably nice shot with a diver in the foreground.
On 6 October, 1941, the 127m Thistlegorm received a direct hit from a passing Heinkel HE-111 bomber.
The aft hold, stacked high with ammunition, was blown apart, and Joe pointed out cases of shells lying in the mass of twisted carnage. There were small Bren-gun 303 rounds right up to huge 15in armour-piercing shells.
Some crazy diver had scraped away the corrosion from a pack of four shells. I could even read the writing on the rear casing: 1940 - Lot 49. XV and XVII GUNS FIXED. They looked almost new. A crocodilefish was trying hard to look inconspicuous, but its camouflaged shape stood out among the smooth ordnance.
We finished our dive by the two deck-guns. Although Thistlegorm was classed as an armed freighter, her guns were archaic and not much use. The 4.7in gun pointed down towards the sandy bottom, and made a good subject for a silhouette photograph.
I reboarded the liveaboard. Golden Dolphin III has the biggest dive-platform Ive seen on a safari boat. It can easily hold 20 divers at once, and there is even a table in the middle for masks, fins, cameras and torches. It was certainly big enough for me.
Having the whole crew waiting on me hand and foot was starting to get a bit embarrassing. I was treated like a king, with food and drink literally forced on me. Tea, coffee, soft drinks, biscuits and nibbles were on tap, and after every dive I would raid the Twinkie bars. They were lethal, probably full of unhealthy Es but more-ish. Had I stayed on the boat much longer I would have ended up looking like a Twinkie.

AS USUAL, THE BIG BOYS - Emperor, blue o two and the Tornado fleet - were all on the scene. Every now and again there would be a mad 15-minute scramble of rope-throwing, throttle-blipping and RIB activity, signifying another boat arriving.
Luckily, we were out of sync with the other eight or so boats and continued to miss the crowds. The current had really picked up, so on the next dive we sought protection inside popular number 2 hold, though I couldnt distinguish between the BSAs and the Nortons.
In the 1950s the wreck must have looked like an Aladdins Cave. Handlebars, pedals, dials and badges have long gone, but the sight of so many motorbikes stacked neatly together still looks impressive.
Even the Bedford trucks have been pillaged, with steering wheels and gear levers missing. And the consignment of Wellington boots has shrunk dramatically. How many divers must have Thistlegorm trophies on their mantelpieces, or just stored away to gather dust in their garages
We had a quick look at the toilet inside Captain William Elliss bathroom and then flagged our way up the mooring-line. A shoal of batfish taunted us as we held on for dear life.
I managed to grab some light afternoon tiffin (more Twinkies), followed by a quick snooze.
Its a shame I wasnt using a rebreather. As the wreck is only 30m deep to the prop, I could have spent a lot longer exploring the cargo holds.
But I cut short my next dive, which I can only describe as Piccadilly Circus on a Monday morning. I politely stopped to allow a group to pass by me - 20 divers later, I was able carry on!
Joe guided me to the bow section, and we entered a doorway.
A water-tank balanced precariously over the port side, so we kept away from this area. Ambient light poured in from an open hatchway above. Coupled with a shoal of cave-sweepers, this made a nice atmospheric scene.
We waved goodbye to the day-boat brigade, and sat waiting for sunset. There would be no beers or supper until our final night dive was over.
The Thistlegorm is a very different wreck at night. Focusing on a small area illuminated by a torch-beam not only accentuated the colours but also brought out details I would normally overlook.
I can now understand why CSI detectives never turn on the lights when they enter a murder scene.
The current had subsided, so we took our time moseying around the locomotive on deck and the bridge area.
Joe found a huge scorpionfish hiding among some purple tube sponges. I had passed right over it without noticing.
We even bumped into a turtle coming out of number 1 hold.
Just to round off my evening, the crew had put together a barbecue feast. They had even laid out rugs and cushions under the stars. This is normally done twice a week, but this was just for me.
Later, I declined the offer of shishas and expressos, preferring the company of my soft pillow. It had been a long day.

I CONCLUDED MY MINI-SAFARI with a couple of insignificant reef dives. Not much compares to the Thistlegorm. It has the lot, a top-rate historical wreck with bags to see inside and out, as well attracting a huge range of marine life, from nudibranchs to dolphins.
Ive done hundreds of dives on the wreck, but theres always something new to see, said Joe.
I made the most of my decadent few days on board Golden Dolphin III (Joe needed to buy in a new stock of Twinkies). I doubt that I will get such an opportunity again.
There are five Golden Dolphin boats, and GD III was built in 2008 to the personal specification of the owner, Safwat Aziz. Last year it was available only on the German market. The boat oozed quality and so far, Im told, has drawn zero complaints. So if its good enough for the Germans...


The Scuba Place offers packages aboard Golden Dolphin Fleet liveaboards. A one-week Northern Safari Wrecks trip on Golden Dolphin III costs from £1049 (from £989 on GD I and £1019 on GD II), including flights and transfers. Nitrox is free, and discounts and free places are available for groups. Call 0207 644 8252 or visit www.thescubaplace.co.uk