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M.V. Tiger Lily
Northern Red Sea, Nov 2002.

Early morning, Gatwick, cramped flight, Hurghada, night. Embark Tiger Lily to be greeted by the owners themselves. The boat is capacity 20 - and a big boat for that number - but this week there are only 10 passengers on board. This means even greater luxury - individual cabins for everyone, and we can't lift a finger to put gear on all week. The crew do everything short of carry us to the water, one could definitely get used to this!

For only 10 pax, it is likely the trip would have been cancelled, but two of the 10 are Mark and Penny, editor of Sport Diver and better half respectively. Article due in the Feb issue... Ahmed and Hassan, the dive guides - locals, a relative rarity in the Red Sea - treat us as responsible divers, add in good diving conditions and excellent food, and lets go...

Dive 1: El Erg
Max depth 14.0m, time 52min. Nitrox 32, viz 20m
Dive 2: Siyal Island
Max depth 20.4m, time 56min. Nitrox 32, viz 15m
Dive 3: Sha'ab Abu Nuhas
Max depth 12.8m, time 39min. Nitrox 32, night

This week is billed as a northern wreck safari, taking in all the well known wrecks scattered round the Straits of Gubal. The first day, though is a day of gentle warmup dives. Winter is not the time to see pelagics, and in general there is little big stuff around, but it's good to be back in the Red Sea - to compensate all of the usual reef fish are around in profusion. A small yellow-and-white nudibranch (the only slug of the week) sits on a small outcrop, and hiding in a hole, a Comet Longfin.

Di is a little underweighted for the first dive, and with an emptying tank pops up towards the end. All credit, Tiger Lily's RIB is right there, though a little too quickly for my personal comfort, as it revs right over the top of me just as I've got to within a couple of metres of the surface. Dive dive dive...

Dive 4: Chrisola K
Max depth 26.6m, time 40min. Nitrox 32, viz 30m

Sha'ab Abu Nuhas forms one of the gateposts of the straits of Gubal - and four wrecks line up along the northern side of the reef where ships have failed to make it through the gap. Dive boats anchor in the shelter of the southern side, and ferry divers through the waves piling on to the north in RIB's.

(All small images taken from the trip video shot by Ahmed & Hassan)

Chrisola K was a large freighter, her capacious holds still full of her last cargo of tiles. There are some interesting looking dark holes, one very tempting passage passes all the way underneath the superstructure, the exit a glowing deep blue square at the furthest limit of visibility - but the wreck is becoming increasingly unstable (the hull booms and creaks, and can be seen flexing as waves pass overhead) so reluctantly we stay more or less on the outside.

Dive 5: Carnatic
Max depth 25.2m, time 38min. Nitrox 32, viz 30m

The Carnatic, a mail and passenger ship plying the Suez to India routes in the days before the Suez canal, was three days into a clear, calm crossing to Bombay when she hit the reef and stuck fast. After a moments panic, the Empire's stiff upper lip reasserted itself, and popular lore has it that the passengers were just sitting down to dinner - formal wear, of course - when (damned inconvenient!) the hull snapped in half.

The two halves came to rest lying on their sides almost together, and a hundred-odd years of coral growth have blurred the distinction between wreck and reef. The wooden decking is long gone apart from rows of teeth on the beams, and the bow and stern are an open grid down to the keel. A huge solitary Yellowspotted Burrfish pokes it's comical face from a space right inside the bow, and the darkest levels are filled with Glassfish.

The crushed midsection has a couple of cute swimthroughs, the octagonal step of the mast still visible among the pieces inside, and large branches of black coral drape from the frames of the stern. In the 'V' between the curve of the hull and the reef, the surge has formed little vortices of trapped small bubbles and is rolling them over and over.

Dive 6: Giannis D
Max depth 21.5m, time 49min. Nitrox 32, viz 30m

Giannis D was another large modern freighter, sunk about 20 years ago in (like so many recent Red Sea wrecks) a suspected insurance scam. The holds have collapsed, and the intact high stern bridge ends abruptly in a cliff of metal. We spend the first half of the dive inside, working right down to the engine room in the dark bowels of the ship, the space up to the skylights several levels above boiling full of Glassfish. Tilted 45 degrees from horizontal, it is mildly surreal swimming sideways along stairs that should be going up and down, and looking up to see sinks fastened to the ceiling.

Outside we cruise among the huge features and fittings in the surge - the funnel marked with a giant 'D' on each side, the king posts nearly reaching the surface, trailing a chain 20m to the seabed. I'm posing for the video camera, swimming along upside down, and nearly manage to swim straight into the wreck - which would not have looked cool.

The following crossing of the Straits of Gubal is moderately unpleasant - even the crew are having difficulties, and Tiger Lily is a big boat, lord knows what it must be like in a small one - at one point even the Captain chickens out as we crest a wave, and cuts the engines to soften the landing. But I've got a comfy spot in the lounge to lie flat, watch the sunbeams swing from floor to ceiling, and ride it out.

Dive 7: Small Passage
Max depth 17.6m, time 50min. Nitrox 32, viz 20m

The first couple of minutes of this dive follow a classic Red Sea 'drift' dive pattern, i.e. 'We said we were going to drift this way, and we're damn well going to swim this way even though the current is going in completely the opposite direction'.

Well, I've fallen foul of this trick before, and after a couple of minutes thrashing along in Hassan's wake without really going anywhere, I catch Rich's eye, show him my DSMB, we bang it up to the surface - and set off for a relaxed float with the current. The other RIB-load come into view a couple of minutes later, also making little headway, take a look and join in. Hassan realises we aren't still behind him and catches up about 10 minutes later.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend this trick if you don't have confidence in the alertness of your RIB handler...

Dive 8: Thistlegorm
Max depth 21.3m, time 41min. Nitrox 32, viz 15m

Tiger Lily bellies up to the Thistlegorm site in midafternoon as the dayboats are leaving. This site is so famous (certainly needs no introduction here) that the start of even the relatively quiet overnight shift sees seven liveaboards jostling for mooring position over the wreck.

Di and I want to try and avoid the worst of the crowds so we opt for a single dive at dusk. This is a good plan - it is possibly a little less crowded, and the dim light of dusk gives the heroic bulk of the wreck a magnificent, portentious atmosphere. We are tied up to a walkway rail on the starboard side of the front half, close to the gaping space that was number four hold. The hull, in grey and brown, appears massive and heavy, and the plates opened by the bomb blast have an awful grandeur.

Inside the captains cabin in the semi dark, his private bath is filled with silt and tube worms. Rolling stock lines the deck either side of the forward two holds, winches and chain are still laid out around the fo'castle, the line of the bow dropping away to the sand below. We climb back up the line surrounded by Batfish as the last light fades.

The rest of the group do a night dive, and witness the comedy moment of the trip - a boatload of italian divers arriving in a light-cannoning, strobe flashing, elbow jamming, fin-flailing crowd.

For Justin's birthday the crew put on a party, and quickly get everyone up and dancing. All the crew join in the music, in particular the cook plays at least three instruments and leads much of the singing. The guests are asked to sing a song in return, but no-one can think of anything that stands comparison to the sinuous arabic rythms that we have been treated to. The crew are entirely charming, obviously, but it is humiliating how much we've lost day to day music in our culture, how music has become something sold to us rather than something we have the confidence to create ourself.

Dive 9: Thistlegorm
Max depth 31.5m, time 52min. Nitrox 32, viz 20m.

A bleary eyed early start, but even getting in the water by six isn't enough to beat the crowds (though this is more a race to get in and away before the dayboats start to arrive and it really starts to buzz...)

Down to the seabed, a railway engine was thrown from the ship by the blast, and now crumbles gently on the sand. A hundred or so Yellowtail Barracuda cruise around the caterpillar tracks of Bren gun carriers from the demolished hold and the hefty prop dug into the sand. Swimming forward, we avoid number three hold which is full of muppets (fins and elbows everywhere), but visit the motorcycles in number two and the rifles and trucks in number one.

The sun is just coming up, and the early light fills the vast, echoing space in front of the bow with sparks of orange and electric blue - Antheas and Fusilers - darting and feeding in the current. Batfish wheel and pose, further out, silver patrols of Blueeye Trevally and Spanish Mackerel.

The Thistlegorm is hugely hyped, and falls firmly into the 'of course you should have seen it X years ago before it was ruined' category, but for me it lives up to the hype. If it was ever possible to dive it without the crowds (I'm not convinced that you'd even be alone down there at three in the morning on Christmas day) it would still be a dive of a lifetime.

Dive 10: Shag Rock/Sarah H
Max depth 15.7m, time 57min. Nitrox 32, viz 20m
Dive 11: Shag Rock/Sarah H
Max depth 11.5m, time 58min. Nitrox 32, viz 20m

I may have to revisit my opinion of the amount of damage divers can do to a site - this side of Shag Rock is relatively infrequently visited, and the reef is gorgeous. The Sarah H is a very pretty and photogenic little wreck, full of coral softened frames and ribs. A frisky Arabian Surgeonfish has a go at Di, which she finds highly entertaining til I manage to draw her attention to those little razors on its tail...

Dive 12: Rosalie Moller
Max depth 36.0m, time 39min. Nitrox 32, viz 10m

*The* dive of the trip - the Rosalie Moller was almost a sister ship of the Thistlegorm, sunk two days later by returned bombers searching for the fleet that the earlier explosion had betrayed. Almost complete apart from a small blast hole near the stern on the starboard, deep (for a single tank dive), the highest point of the main superstructure is around 30, the decks at 35ish, and the sea bed at 45-50m.

The sea bed is clay, which reduces the visibility to well below the Red Sea average - we got about 10 metres, which is typical - and the site is very exposed to bad weather. Together with the depth this means that she is much less frequently dived than the other wrecks in the area: navigation on the Thistlegorm was more a question of avoiding the crowds, wheras we see no other divers on the RM.

The gloomy light levels, green rather than blue water, mean she is encrusted rather than coraled, and give the whole dive the atmosphere of an immaculate UK wreck with the water warmed up. Lines of portholes complete with glass, immaculate railings, doors still in doorways - the wreck is stunning, and simply smothered in astounding qualtities of tropical life. We constantly part thick curtains of baitfish, and the shape of the wreck pulses and shimmers as the schools swirl around.

Because of the depth, we had planned from tables a slow ascent with formal and microbubble stops of two minutes at 24m, followed by 1@18, 1@12, 2@9 and 5@6. Di and I turn the dive at 150 BAR, and start back up the line - tied close to the bow - after about 19 minutes bottom time.

My stinger is set to 'plus plus' conservative for the trip, and at the start of ascent even on Nitrox 32 has clocked up a moderate 9 minutes to surface (= 3 mins ascent time, + 3 mins deco, plus 3 mins safety stop.) However what I hadn't allowed for was how fast it was going to *clock up* deco during the deep stops... the worst case is on the way from 18 to 12, where it briefly shows a rather heart sinking 19 minutes to surface!

We complete the ascent as per the original plan, and after 5 mins at 6m it still shows 11 mins to surface. I have 60 BAR left, ample to sit at 3m and let the pooter count down, but the computer between the ears is sure I am fine to surface at this point - and coffee and cake are calling, so I tie it to the drop line to clear without me and go on up. Don't try this at home kids! And I feel great on the boat, so I must have got it right.

Unfortunately, the crew are too efficient, and haul in the line just a little too soon - the poor thing goes ballistic and locks up for the next 48 hours. No worries, I still have my D-timer and this was the last deep dive, I can just stay shallow for the last two days.

Dive 14: El Sabena
Max depth 13.5m, time 67min. Nitrox 32, viz 20m

Simply exceptional - the RIB drops us over a gently rolling and sloping garden of the healthiest coral I've ever seen - Plates, Horns, Domes and Fans; soft and hard, Cone Coral, Waver Coral, Cabbage Coral, Rasberry Coral; - and this dive is like a reef life guide, something from every page, the fish practically line up to be identified: Redmouth Grouper, Blackspotted Sweetlips, Dory Snapper, at least four kinds of Fusiler, Twobar Seabream, Circular and Yellowfin Batfish, Sling-jaw Wrasse, Red Sea Bannerfish, Steepheaded and Arabian Parrotfish, Sailfin Tang, Short-nose Unicornfish, Giant Trevally, Redtooth Triggerfish, Masked Butterflyfish, Coral Grouper, and on, and on, and on...

60-odd minutes later, we still have half full tanks and new life is still parading in front of us - but it is Ramadan, and the sun has nearly gone down, so we surface to let the crew (patiently tailing my SMB) get to their long awaited dinner.

Dive 16: Little Giftun Island
Max depth 22.8m, time 45min. Nitrox 32, viz 20m

And winding down again - unremarkable, until close to the end where we run into a small baitball, which comes to the committee decision that divers provide better cover than open water and swarms all over us, like a bonsai feeding frenzy.

All content © COPYRIGHT Huw Porter.