Miss Nouran - small as they go, but everything works well.

LIFE ON A LIVEABOARD DIVE BOAT usually consists of nothing more than diving, eating and sleeping. Non-diving friends of mine often ask what on earth I do on a small boat for a week with a bunch of people Ive never met before.
When they hear that we dont even put into pretty harbours to visit nice restaurants, they raise their eyebrows in disbelief. What if I found myself with a group of people I didnt like Well, its never really happened.
Liveaboards get bigger and bigger. Some even have more than one saloon, so its usually easy to find your own space if needs be.
What about the strangers with whom I often end up sharing a cabin I did once find myself with a gentleman who drove long-distance trucks, with the build of a man who sat still all day and lived on pies. He complained that I snored, although I believe I was nowhere near his league.
His issue was that he had paid for his trip, whereas I had not. I avoided suggesting that he let car- drivers who were not being paid to drive take precedence over his truck on the road.
I was unlucky only once before, but the less said about this Geordie wreck expert, the better. Otherwise Ive always been fortunate with my cabin-mates.
I was very lucky when it came to a trip on mv Miss Nouran. Shes an older vessel that has been well looked after, something that cannot be said
for all old Egyptian dive-boats. She has recently been refitted.
That said, it has to be admitted that she is a lot smaller than a lot of other more recently launched liveaboards.
My cabin had bunk beds, and was so small that if one occupant wanted to get dressed, the other had to make himself scarce.
On the other hand, the en-suite facilities were more spacious than is often the case on newer boats.
What made it bearable was the fact I shared a cabin with Robert, a very Scottish gentleman who, although based in Falkirk, spent his time working at locations in the Middle East. We were both experienced travellers, and knew how to avoid irritating each other.
If I was to tell you that Miss Nouran also has a quite intimate aft deck, and that I was one of a full complement of 22 divers including guides, you might think it sounded crowded. If I went on to tell you that the majority of passengers on my trip were from one dive club in Yorkshire, and that there were only four of us from elsewhere, conditions might seem untenable.
Well, youve got to know how to get on with people, and after a few days most passengers had got used to my cruel jibes, and a few days after that,
I even understood what some of them were saying! Im sorry, Scottish Robert, if I seemed to make you repeat everything six times! At least the crew seemed to understand you when you spoke to them in Arabic.
The point about dive-boats is that everyone is there for the same reason, the diving. Everyone wants everyone else to have a good time. We quickly established a good-natured way to
avoid conflicts, and no-one found themselves with a leg in another divers wetsuit while kitting up, although we were fairly closely jammed together.
There was certainly no room for separate factions, and each of three RIB-loads of divers tended to contain whoever was ready and willing to get
in and go diving at that moment, rather than the more formal set groups that dive guides like to organise.
Robert, by the way, made the perfect buddy, and was even prepared to waste some of his precious holiday diving time to pose for photographs I needed to illustrate the DIVER Tests pages.
Captain Tarek was always very helpful, too. Sometimes the requirements of my Editor mean that I need the boat operation to take a break from its normal routine. The captain was always happy to oblige me, and the other passengers never noticed any inconvenience.
We had two Egyptian dive guides. One was short, fat and funny, while the other was drop-dead gorgeous with long curly blonde hair. It was a pity they were both men, but the female passengers on board appreciated the decorative nature of the one and the jokes of the other.
When it came to trying the ENOS diver rescue and recovery system (another of my preset tasks) they were incredibly helpful, as were a number of our friends from Gods own county. Aye, lad!
Another good thing about Miss Nouran was that everything seemed to work. The water flowed from the taps, hot or cold and on demand. The nitrox supplies seemed consistent and gradually worked up to 32% O2 during the week, as the residual air from the first tank fill got diluted.
Meals turned up on time and in the volume required of a big group of mainly young men, with appetites inflated by the abnormal activity of hard finning.
Rami, the saloon steward, was always attentive, and enthusiastically concocted the different non-alcoholic cocktails that he always offered post-dive.
He even found out why the air-conditioning got turned off in the middle of the night, and took steps to rectify that matter.

WE SET OFF from Marsa Alam. There is not much of a harbour here yet, but work is in progress to develop it. At the moment, passengers are ferried out from shore to the vast fleet of boats that have been driven out of Port Ghalib by raised mooring fees and service charges.
Port Ghalib was formerly the harbour used by dive-boats in southern Egypt, but as it became more built up, it acquired the aspiration to be a posh marina for the sort of gorgeous multi-million-pound yachts seen in the Mediterranean.
Whether Egypt can supply the infrastructure required by those who own such vessels, and whether they wish to risk their boats among the Red Seas reefs remains to be seen.
At the moment, the moorings there look rather desolate and empty.
We headed south to Rocky Island and Zabargad. It was midsummer, and the weather was kind, even if it meant that the bigger animals were in short supply.
We glimpsed a few scalloped hammerheads, but there were no whale sharks. They were giving divers a thrill up north at Ras Mohammed.
When diving, we were given the option to either follow a guide or dive independently in buddy-pairs.
As the dive sites of Fury Shoals, St Johns and Daedelus have become as familiar to me over the years as my local high street, I opted to go my own way.
I got a chance to photograph familiar subjects, and revisited old friends.
Over the years, I have collected endless pictures of moray eels, blue-spotted rays, spotted sweetlips, squirrelfish and bigeyes, but its always worth looking for more. The challenge is to find a new look to a familiar subject.
The species may be common in the Red Sea, but every time you photograph a bunch of masked butterflyfish, for example, they are arranged differently.
Strangely enough, I have few pictures of ordinary common parrotfish, except for those taken at night, when they are hunkered down and building their protective bubble of mucus. In daylight hours they zoom about, propelled by their pectoral fins, and rarely stay in one place for more than a moment.
Outside the caves at St Johns, I came across a horde of sailfin tangs feeding ravenously on the eggs some other fish had laid on the coral.
As I got in among them to get my close-ups, a parrotfish joined the scrum and gave me a picture that I always felt was missing from my library.

THERE ARE ALWAYS the moments for which you cannot plan, too. They include meeting a moray free-swimming along the reef during an afternoon dive, or getting that elusive wide-angle close-up of two jacks speeding by.
These are the pictures that can only be grabbed, shooting an instant-response DSLR from the hip. By the time youve raised it to your eye, the moment has passed.
I never tire of swimming through the caves at St Johns Reefs. They are a maze of tunnels formed by the reef, and very shallow. Daylight streams through, and there is rarely any current to speak of. Its like a water park for divers.
Of course, wrecks are nearly always where you last saw them. I revisited the remains of the forlorn little sloop that lies on its side on the sand beneath the reef-top of Abu Galawa Seghir.
Back in the 1980s, I was a passenger on a British-operated diving liveaboard when we heard the SOS calls of a lone yachtsman, stranded with his vessel high and dry on a reef. It seems incredible today, when one takes into account the boat traffic around the Red Seas reefs, that we listened to him calling to no avail for a full three days before we set off to rescue him.
It was a fabulous steel yacht that the French owner had been sailing from the Far East back to Europe. If I remember rightly, he said it was Santiago-class. His steering gear and automatic pilot had failed in the middle of the night.
We found him sitting on the hull that had lain over on the reef top when it hit. He gave us his expensive Sailor VHF marine radio, and said we could help ourselves to anything else we needed, as his boat was a complete loss.

WE TOOK HIM TO the mainland and then did a couple of dives (thats what the passengers had paid for) before returning to see what else was worth recovering. In the space of that couple of days, Bedouin fishermen had stripped the vessel down to the piece of junk you see today. Even the mast had gone.
I assume that the next high tide, combined with strong winds from the north-west driving short waves, pushed the hulk off the reef, tumbling it down to the seabed where it has lain ever since.
I must have photographed the scene at least a dozen times before, but this time I had the chance to experiment, using natural light and recording a RAW digital file of which I could control the colour later on my computer.
Its not magic, but I think it worked rather well.
We also visited the Russian spy ship in murky water close to shore at Zabargad. The fact is that, during the Cold War, almost every Russian commercial ship had a political captain on board (in addition to the standard captain) and was equipped to send back messages to headquarters.
Still, we need to maintain our diving mythologies, and our Russian contacts have revealed exclusively to divErthat this wrecked vessel was in fact operated by SPECTRE. Apparently a dastardly multi-millionaire criminal planned to build a secret base on Zabargad as part of his bid to rule the world.
In the event, the conspiracy was smashed by a certain Royal Navy commander with, by coincidence, the same initials as myself.
This involved lots of DPVs, some almost magical small underwater air supplies and spectacular underwater explosions. So it still makes a novel dive - or is that a dive novel

Bluecheek or masked butterflyfish - always in new formations.
A blue-spotted ray kicks up a fuss
Parrotfish with sailfin tangs - despite their bright colouring, they tend to flit about too much to appeal to photographers.
Orange-spotted trevally.
A pair of common bigeyes.
Free-swimming moray eel.
The wreck of the sloop at Abu Galawa Seghir.
Cold War leftover: funnel of the Russian trawler wreck at Zabargad.
GETTING THERE: Fly from the UK direct to Marsa Alam.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION:The 30m Miss Nouran takes 20 guests, Tony Backhurst Scuba Travel, www.scuba.co.uk
MONEY:Pounds (Sterling and Egyptian) and US dollars are accepted on board for payment of drinks bills, ancillary diving courses, marine park fees and crew tips. Credit cards.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: Liveaboard operators usually insist that divers have done at least 30-50 dives. The Egyptian government insists on it for diving marine parks.
PRICES: A one-week safari aboard Miss Nouran costs around £950, including flights, accommodation, meals and transfers.
FURTHER INFORMATION: 020 7493 5283, www.touregypt.net