IF YOU WERE TO HAVE a nosey through the logbook of your average UK diver, I’d put good money on there being at least one Red Sea liveaboard trip written up inside. Furthermore, I’d bet it would be a northern itinerary, taking in the coral reefs and several shipwrecks.
Names such as Sha’ab Abu Nuhas, Thistlegorm, Jackfish Alley, Shark and Yolanda, and Small Crack will intrigue and fascinate – what do they mean? Crack in what? Who or what was Yolanda?
If you ask the logbook’s owner (who has presumably asked you to stop going through his stuff), he’ll launch into a long series of tales of atmospheric, history-rich wrecks and reefs stuffed to bursting with fish of every hue, and perhaps get misty-eyed and tell you of the dolphin pod that buzzed him on his safety stop.
Either way, you’ll find yourself thinking: “Yep, I’ll put that on my to-do list” and decide to get a trip booked.
Egypt is only a few hours away from UK airports, and once you’re there you’ll realise just why the northern itinerary has become a must for UK divers. I’d go so far as to call it a classic that every diver should do at least once. You may even find yourself hooked, and return year after year.

DIVING IN THE RED SEA for the bulk of us involves departing from an Egyptian town, usually Sharm el Sheikh or Hurghada, both tourist destinations with their own international airports.
They have all the trappings of modern mass tourism, and you can have a land-based holiday and enjoy great diving every day, but you will have to travel from shore to your dive-site and back every time.
This is great if you’re with a non-diving partner or children, but it’s not seeing the Red Sea at its best. Liveaboards mean you travel far less but in greater luxury, and get to dive at sites that the day-boats either can’t get to in a day or take hours to reach.
The route you will take vary. Some tours focus a bit more on shipwrecks and are less likely to venture into the Straits of Tiran, the narrow channel east of the Sinai Peninsula and gateway to the Gulf of Aqaba.
Some itineraries that include Tiran will explore a series of reefs named after the cartographers who mapped them: Gordon, Thomas, Woodhouse and Jackson.
While these may all sound like Thomas the Tank Engine’s chums, and a little odd amid places with less-colonial Arabic names, they are superb dives.
There are good chances of turtle and pelagic sightings, even the occasional reef or hammerhead shark. In the main, however, these reefs are about corals and fish life, with some wonderful drift-dives on offer when the currents are running.
I particularly like Jackson Reef, recognisable with the wreck of the Lara now rusting atop it and playing host to seabirds and the occasional osprey.
Wreck-focused tours will spend time on reefs, of course, but will see them as locations on which vessels have grounded and come to rest, rather than for their biology and all the pretty things swimming around them.
Even the most iron- and steel-crazed divers will however find themselves staring in awe at a shoal of barracuda spiralling in the sunlight above a wreck.

ONE OF THE BEST wreck-locations that features on every northern Red Sea liveaboard I’ve ever been on (I’ve been going for 12 years now) is the wonderfully named Sha’ab Abu Nuhas.
Literally meaning “Reef of Father of Brass”, Abu Nuhas is all about wrecks that foundered in rough seas or poor visibility, and takes its name from the copper and brass that fishermen would find and lift in their nets, originally carried as sheeting in the hold of my favourite of four easily dived wrecks on this reef, the Carnatic.
Cargoes of wine, timber, tiles and lentils have also been strewn across the reef over the decades.
Sadly the gold Carnatic was carrying when she ran aground in September 1869 was lifted shortly after her sinking, but for me this wreck is so remarkably attractive.
The wooden deck has rotted entirely away to reveal an iron superstructure bedecked with soft and hard corals. Swimming through the ship, which now rests at 45° and looks out towards the blue, parting shoals of glassfish as you go, is one of the best of wreck experiences.
You’ll usually start off at the stern, at around 25m, and slowly explore the wreck to finish at the bow. It is worth trying to get a photo of a diver looking through the hole left by the bowsprit. I enjoy the davits, which once held the ship’s lifeboats and are now entirely encrusted with life and their own little shoals of anthias.
A more recent wreck located “next door” to the Carnatic is the Giannis D. This Greek freighter ran aground in 1983 and is, as you’d expect, much more intact, although it is slowly being covered in hard corals and becoming a reef in its own right.
It sits at around 24m at the stern with its superstructure rising to just 4m below the surface. You can penetrate the engine-room and associated areas if you wish, but for me this ship is all about atmosphere and scale. Phrases like “cathedral-like” tend to creep into descriptions here, given that the wreck is so intact and a photographer’s dream in well-lit clear water.
Dives on Abu Nuhas are rarely troubled by currents, so they make excellent dives for novices or training. As a bonus, dives on the Giannis D in the early evening might include dolphins.
Don’t expect any trip to be the same every year. The Red Sea is normally fairly calm, but winds can whip up the surface, especially in the winter months, and your captain will decide which sites are the best and, importantly, the safest to dive.
You may have a fair amount of sailing on the first day or may be halfway through your trip, but it’s likely that at some point you’ll end up at Gubal Island.
Little Gubal sits to the north of a small complex of islands and reefs west of Sha’ab Abu Nuhas. Sometimes it is the first calling point after making the crossing from sites closer to Sharm.
The beacon at Bluff Point on the island’s northernmost tip can be a welcome sight for those unlucky enough to have a touch of mal de mer (I have occasionally been left a little green, though it doesn’t put me off).
This is a great site at which to moor up for several reasons. You’re within easy reach of another awesome wreck, the Ulysses, and of course the Thistlegorm
at Sha’ab Ali, but you also have access to the Barge.

THE BARGE IS A VERY BORING DIVE during the day. If it ever had a name, this little vessel in 15m is the least likely old tub to get a wreckie excited.
There is a great reef nearby with some fantastic coral gardens, and a drift-dive from Bluff Point (you get dropped in by RIB) is another regular on the itinerary.
The prevailing current brings you back along the reef and, if you’re good on gas, back to your boat.
If you have time you may well explore the Barge and wonder what the fuss is about. It’s worth noting that if you get back onto the wrong boat your friends will tease you, but better to surface on any boat safely, I always say!
If your shipmates are getting excited about the upcoming night-dive, keep an open mind, check your torches and prepare for just about the best critter-hunting, fish-parting, moray-gawping dive you’ll ever have.
I can’t bang on about this dive enough, because everywhere you look you can see thousands of snapper shoaling in your torch-beam (I start humming a light-sabre sort of theme), and under the deck-plates are huge numbers of shrimp, hermit crabs, oddly shaped lobsters and tiny Technicolor nudibranchs.
Inside the superstructure are large lion-, crocodile- and scorpionfish and the biggest moray you’ll ever see – a fish that must be the most patient on the planet, being bothered as it is by a few boatloads of divers every night of its life. On the reef, look out for octopuses and reef squid.
You are now an easy sailing distance from the Red Sea’s most famous shipwreck and one of the world’s best dives, the ss Thistlegorm. There were several boats in the Albyn Line’s Thistle fleet, though none achieved the fame of this ill-fated freighter.
Bombed in October 1941, Thistlegorm took the lives of nine men and is the subject of many detailed accounts. Recent research work by Alex Mustard published in divEr has shown us how much we thought we knew about the ship’s cargo and just how wrong we were.
It’s this cargo that make Thistlegorm such an astounding dive and contributed to its demise, when many of the munitions in the rear hold exploded and ripped the vessel apart, projecting two steam locomotives past its flanks and onto the seabed.
Inside holds one and two is a fascinating collection of wartime materiel from Lee Enfield rifles to BSA motorbikes, wellie boots to Spitfire wings. I may be less of a wreck-head these days, but I will only rarely miss a Thistlegorm dive.

NIGHT DIVES ON THIS TRAGIC SHIP are also a possibility, but if the current is running they can be a challenge. You must use the shotline to ascend or descend or you’ll be waving your torch and SMB and blowing your whistle for a RIB pick-up – and you will be carrying all these essential safety devices, right?
It’s all worth it, because the wreck comes alive with critters and is remarkably atmospheric. Fortunately penetration is quite easy, and you’ll have had the chance to familiarise yourself on the day dive.
My final highlight on this classic trip is Shark and Yolanda. Take a look at some images of Earth from space, and to the right of Africa you’ll see the Red Sea and at its top the triangular Sinai Peninsula with the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba on either side.
Shark Reef is pretty much at the southern tip of that peninsula, jutting out into water more than 800m deep, bathed in current and rich with life.
You’ll dive this deep drop-off from the boat, taking a giant stride into the blue and perhaps contributing to the layer of masks, fins, cameras and lead that will form a confusing fossil for our descendants in a few million years’ time.
Once in, if the currents allow you may see hammerheads and great shoals of unicornfish, Bohar snapper or barracuda and the golden red of the anthias, and the rich purples and crimsons of the soft corals will astound you.

AS YOU FIN WEST and find the Yolanda ‘s cargo (the wreck itself lies well below recreational limits), the sublime will become the ridiculous as you meet a reefscape of toilets that never served their intended purpose.
Around them, one of the finest coral gardens within the entire Ras Mohammed National Park is laid on for your pleasure.
If the rest of your year’s 51 weeks are spent on land, this one will make them all worthwhile, especially as you save up for another trip.

Aren’t liveaboards expensive?
It’s a fair few pounds to lay out to begin with, but a trip will buy you perhaps 20 world-class dives. Ask yourself how much it costs to drive to a quarry or the coast, buy a disappointing meal at a service station and sit in traffic on the way home.
Liveaboard pricing includes food (which is usually excellent and plentiful), soft drinks and of course air, with some even offering free nitrox. In terms of pound per dive, a Red Sea liveaboard offers some of the best-value diving you can get.

It’s not red and nor is it a sea!
There are several explanations for the Red Sea’s name. Some say it comes from blooms of red algae, others that it’s a mistranslation, while others suggest it is based on reflections from the nearby hills and mountains.
Suffice to say, it is unambiguously blue.
Nor is it a sea. The Red Sea is a huge rift between Africa and Arabia that is what it looks like – a crack in the crust between two tectonic plates that are, with geological slowness, spreading apart to create what is technically an ocean.