IT HAD ALL THE MAKINGS OF A REALITY TELEVISION SHOW. Ten winners of a Divernet Xtra online competition, none of them with any previous connection with each other beyond perhaps some postings on the Divernet forum, taken out to sea on a boat for a weeks diving in and around the reefs of Egypts southern Red Sea. I joined them to get the story. John Bantin travelled to Egypt courtesy of Kuoni Travel (www.kuoni. co.uk). The southern itinerary diving safari was provided by Divers Heaven Fleet (www.diversheaven.com). Heaven Majesty is now Emperor Majesty (www.emperordivers.com)
It turned out to be the sort of typical cross-section of divers one might find on any such trip. There were professional people and tradesmen, secretaries and sales executives, four women and six men. Some were well-travelled and two had even worked outside the UK, while others had never been abroad before, let alone on a diving safari on a liveaboard.
None of them could believe it when they were notified that they had won one of the prize places. One even confided to me that he had a contingency plan to stay at Marsa Alam should the promised prize safari turn out to be bogus.
What they all had in common was that they regularly entered competitions on Xtra, the Divernet newsletter. If you dont enter, youll never win!
There was a basic requirement that each diver had logged at least 50 dives to comply with Red Sea Marine Park regulations, but levels of diving experience ranged widely.
One woman had been a dive-guide herself on a safari boat, One diver was intent on visiting all the most famous dive spots in the world, and another had only ever dived in the UK with members of her diving club. It probably reflected a typical cross-section of DIVER readers.
The Divers Heaven fleet had donated the prize of a one-week safari to the St Johns area of southern Egypt. The company accommodated us in luxurious style aboard Heaven Majesty, a 130ft motor yacht and one of several identical sister-ships.
If the fleet hasnt come to your attention before, thats because it has been marketed mainly to German and other continental divers. Equipped to carry 20 passengers looked after by a crew of 10, we rattled around in her somewhat, and many were lucky enough to enjoy the luxury of a spacious twin-bed cabin to themselves.
Onboard water-making equipment providing copious supplies and, combined with efficient electric-flush toilets, meant that we could really enjoy the en-suite bathrooms!
Heaven Majesty is constructed entirely of timber but her great size, width-of-beam and length makes her a stable platform and transport. Only one passenger ever felt seasick, and that was during a particularly rough passage.
The boat is beautifully fitted out, with extensive veneer-work throughout providing a feeling of rich opulence.
One eventful morning, we took onboard the unfortunate passengers from another safari boat, Coral Queen, after she dramatically sank following a collision. There was so much space that, though the passenger list had been temporarily doubled, we were all able to gather for breakfast in comfort,
However, I hope the fleet manager forgives me if I tell you that Heaven Majesty is not the perfect dive platform. She desperately needs a suitable fresh-water camera rinse-tank and photographers table, especially with the recent upsurge in the popularity of underwater photography. And while the dive deck is very spacious, the kitting-up area would be quite cramped for a full passenger list. Better access to the upper sun-deck is needed, too.
The sheer size of such a vessel can sometimes be disadvantageous. It was a very long walk from my own cabin deep in the hull at the front, up a flight of stairs and through the dining saloon, the main saloon, onto the dive deck and then forward again along an outer companionway to a set of steps by the crews quarters to reach the sundeck, where I was able to work on maintaining my underwater camera.
It was disappointing if I found that Id forgotten something and had to go back. Passing through the upper crews sleeping quarters when still wet from a dive doesnt seem fair, either.
Although used to German-speaking passengers, the shore manager had thoughtfully employed the services of English-speaking Divers Heaven fleet dive-guide Olaf, who had learned about the English sense of humour from Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and from working previously with Emperor Divers! He was aided and abetted by Dray, from Holland, always good for a laugh.
Also onboard was Kai, the general manager of NRC Egypt and recently relocated from the Maldives. He was able to offer try-dives with three Dräger semi-closed-circuit rebreathers for those bold enough to give it a go, and, of course, the NRC speciality, Nitrox For Free. Everyone dived nitrox 32, supplied on-tap via a membrane system.
I was there to note any shenanigans, but sadly there were none, unless you count the Irish contingent from County Kerry. He was very believable with his hilarious Irish turn of phrase and leprechaun-green fishing hat, until we discovered he was actually Swedish!
A Geordie ex-submariner now living in Glasgow, a West Country lass and a Frenchman working in London enriched us with other accents. Probably the most perfect English was spoken by the legal secretary from Oxford, who was born ethnic Chinese in Singapore.
One of our number who worked in the oil industry had spent time in the Middle East and was able to engage in Arabic conversations with the elderly Egyptian skipper. The skipper seemed familiar - I found that his brother was a captain in the arch-rival Tornado fleet.
A young woman who had evidently modelled herself on the Vicar of Dibley provided romance. She was invited by one of the two pick-up boat drivers to go home and meet his parents once we got back to Port Galeb!
I hasten to add that she was safely returned to Heaven Majesty after a less ambitious trip to a nearby coffee-shop.
Its a small world. One of the winning names to come out of the hat happened to be that of Sarah Woodford who, some years ago, had been featured in DIVER accompanying me on our first and groundbreaking side-by-side computer comparison. She had also been a tester on one of our famous deepwater side-by-side regulator tests.
Since then, she and her husband had been key crew on liveaboard Ghazala Voyager, and her knowledge and experience of Red Sea dive sites proved invaluable on the trip, though she has now retired to live in Sharm el Sheikh.
The popularity of southern itineraries and the number of liveaboards now embarking passengers at Port Galeb near Marsa Alam means that this area is no longer the remote and seldom-visited place that it was.
The dive sites even here can get quite crowded, with up to 100 divers from various boats poised to enter the water at any moment. It requires sensitive route-planning if vessels are not simply to trail one behind another to each reef.
Olaf decided to plan the route of the cruise in an unconventional way, starting at Elphinstone and then making our way to St Johns. The idea was that we would visit the sites in reverse order to avoid cruising in step with other vessels on southern itineraries. This left the dive sites less crowded with divers.
The Elphinstone is probably the most challenging site among a number of fairly easy ones, so is usually left until the passengers are all well-practised. Olaf reasoned that all our passengers were sufficiently accomplished divers to ignore this conventional wisdom.
It was fortunate for the passengers and crew of Coral Queen that we did this, or they might have been very much alone when disaster struck. Heaven Majestys errand of mercy to take those passengers ashore at Hamata gave us less time in the south, but a second chance to dive the now more crowded Elphinstone at the end of the week.
Its a big deepwater reef named by Commander Moresby after Lord Elphinstone, then Viceroy of India, during the original British Admiralty survey of the Red Sea. Its Arab name is Abu Hamra.
The Elphinstone has steep walls at both its eastern and western sides, with a stepped series of shelving reef platforms at the northern and southern ends over which a current usually pushes.
These are places where one often gets glimpses of scalloped hammerhead sharks at depth and oceanic whitetips near the surface.
Even if you see neither, you always get a good dive, with vibrant growth of both hard and colourful soft corals, and masses of territorial fish. This includes coral-browsers such as lemon butterflyfish, ambush predators such as scorpionfish, trumpetfish that hit their prey in a sudden moment of dart-like activity, hard-working jacks and evil-looking moray eels, which writhe their way among the cracks and holes in the reef.
Each end of the reef has its own family of humphead (aka Napoleon) wrasse, including a rather grand and solitary super-male.
I was lucky enough to be allowed a close-up photograph of a normally difficult-to-approach Red Sea grouper, magnificent in his temporary garb of bright red, enjoying the attentions of a few smaller fish at a cleaning station.
St Johns is an area of inshore reefs that clutters the water between the headland of Ras Banas near the Queen of Shebas Port Berenice, and the offshore island of Zabargad.
It forms the most southerly part of Egyptian territorial waters before you reach the Sudanese border, and is an area that demonstrates spectacular hard-coral growth with many cathedral-like structures. It was less likely that we would have encounters with the more dramatic examples of marine life there.
That could not be said for one reef we visited on route. Sarah told me it was one of her favourite reefs in the whole Egyptian Red Sea, and hardly visited by divers. It is very small and barely had room to accommodate a dozen divers at once.
While I was concentrating on getting a close-up photograph of a big-eye emperorfish under a rock, everyone else marvelled at the ballet provided by an enormous manta ray. It was the second seen by passengers during the trip, but with my eye glued firmly to my camera, I missed both.
The round reef takes less than half an hour to circumnavigate at its deepest point, and comes to within 7m of the surface, though a strong flow of water normally passes over it, making a stop here call for some quite energetic finning. Its a very pretty reef, small yet perfectly formed.
Gota Kebir, Cave Reef, Shaab Sataia, Abu Galawa, Shaab Maksour; the other reefs and habilis (growing reefs) of this area are becoming as well-known to British divers as those of Lyme Bay or St Abbs. The marine life may be less spectacular or in-your-face than in some other parts of the Red Sea, but the diving is never going to be easier than it is in summer in this area Ð and its always nice to enjoy a bit of luxury when you surface.