Stuart Philpott gets the star treatment during a week- long northern safari on the VIP One liveaboard out of Sharm el Sheikh
Where did the time go? I couldn’t believe my last trip to the Red Sea was five years ago. I had booked a week on VIP One liveaboard operating from Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt and was looking forward to visiting some of the popular dive sites, meeting up with some old acquaintances, and hopefully making a few new friends along the way.
The airport transfer bus pulled up outside the familiar Travco Marina (now called Landmark), where hundreds of day boats and liveaboards reside. I was no stranger to VIP One, having booked a trip in the early 2000s. VIP One owner Alain Sobol greeted me at the marina entrance. Alain is a well-respected figure in the Sharm diving community and has probably been around since the Pyramids were built! The boat had mainly been chartered by a Belgian dive club, but there were still a few vacant cabins, so I booked a space alongside Alain’s wife, Stella ‘Nails’ Sobol, and Merci Madar, visiting from Sarasota in the USA. It was good to see Hooch, VIP One’s resident instructor/dive guide. After working the ropes for more than 12 years, he can probably be classed as part of the furniture now. He led me to cabin number six, complete with en-suite near the bow. The Belgian entourage weren’t arriving until early morning, so I prepared my camera and crashed out for a few hours.
VIP One has quite a few repeater guests. Vincent, the group leader, had been on the boat several times before and had even booked another safari trip for later in the year.
The boat has to be one of the longest-running liveaboard operations in the Red Sea, topping around 1,000 safaris in its 26 years of service. The boat hadn’t changed much since my last visit. It still had the same classy-looking teak saloon and dining area, which led out onto the dive deck. Upstairs there is an outside seating area and bar, with a sundeck
on the top floor. Trips run from Sunday to Sunday. All food, soft drinks and diving is included. Alcohol is extra. Guests can bring their own spirits aboard, or there’s always a beer available in the cool box.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather conditions. Flat calm seas and a slight breeze. Hooch said the forecast was holding steady for the whole week. This early in the season sea temps hovered around 22 degrees C, so I was wearing a full 5mm suit.
We moored up at Marsa Bareika for our warm-up dive. The underwater visibility looked a little murky, maybe 15-20 metres with some sediment floating about. This didn’t bode well for my pictures. I could see hours of post-editing work coming up! Stella, complete with whale shark- patterned suit and white Fourth Element mask and fins, had kindly offered to pose for my pictures. I couldn’t help but notice Stella’s scary-looking finger nails as we made our way back up the mooring line to the surface. I made a mental note not to mess with Stella!
Early next morning, we headed out to the Dunraven wreck lying upside down on the seabed at a max depth of 30m. From a photographers’ perspective, the highlights are the prop swathed in soft corals and a huge shoal of glassfish lingering inside the hull. The visibility was still not the best, but we managed to swim back and forth through the glassfish shoal and spend some time posing at the propeller, so all-in-all a job well done.
Everybody sat around the long, stately looking dining table at breakfast time. Contemplating over heaped platefuls of pancakes and scrambled eggs, the Belgian group decided they wanted to see wrecks, and as the sea conditions were favourable, it was a unanimous decision to head for Abu Nuhas, the final resting place for the Carnatic, Marcus, Kimon M and the Giannis D. We had split into two groups. Team Karim was guiding the Belgian group on the bigger dinghy tender, and Team Hooch was looking after the stragglers, which included me, on the smaller dinghy.
One of Hooch’s many useful talents was to check out the other dive boats before we jumped in. Perfect timing meant fewer divers to negotiate at the dive site. On the
SS Carnatic, we finned through the vast cathedral-sized cargo holds adorned with beautifully coloured soft corals. The usual fish species were swimming about including butterflyfish, angelfish, scorpions, triggers and glassfish but alas we couldn’t find any wine bottles.
On the Marcus (Tile Wreck), I took some fun shots of Stella by a rope noose and then headed inside to get some pictures of the square floor tiles. I heard Stella bellowing through her regulator and then caught sight of a lone bottlenose dolphin. The dolphin stayed with us for a minute or two and then with a tail flick disappeared as another dive group jumped into the water.
Our final late afternoon dive on the Giannis D was a little murky. I did my best to get some shots of Stella hovering by the stern rail and then we went inside, swerving past a giant moral eel yawning by the doorway. On my last visit I remembered seeing a brass compass binnacle in the bridge, but this has now gone – I thought the CDWS had strict laws about removing items from wrecks?
My favourite moment of the day had to be pizza time. After our third dive the cook prepared some afternoon ‘snacks’. This was usually a pizza of some form or another and cakes, all washed down with a cold beer or two – unless, of course, I was going on the night dive.
The SS Thistlegorm has to be one of the top ten wreck dives in the world, maybe even top five? The last time I visited the site there were at least 20 other dive boats moored up with at least 16 divers per boat. This equates to a shed load of divers. I remember counting 24 divers passing through the holds in single file! When we arrived on site, I counted only four boats. Again, Hooch did his magic and we mostly had the whole wreck to ourselves for the next four dives.
The current was pumping hard as we pulled our way down to the deck. In these conditions it’s better to go inside.I could see the water carriers of the two Stanier-class 8F locomotives perched on either side of the hold entrance. One was balancing precariously on the edge. Hooch took us on a tour of the munitions, which included row upon row of trucks and BSA motorbikes. Bizarrely, he stopped briefly to point out a colourful nudibranch the size of my little finger! Most of the Wellington boots have now disappeared, but Hooch did manage to find half a boot with the sole still attached.
On dives two and three, we ventured outside, swimming over the mangled number four and five holds all the way
to the stern guns. My main goal was to try and take an Alex Mustard-inspired picture of the motorbike. The plan was to place a light source on the other side of the front wheel and take a shot with the shards of light shining through. Sounds simple but Hooch only had a couple of low-power torches, so I couldn’t quite get the effect I wanted, but it was fun
and frustrating trying! There is so much to explore on the Thistlegorm. Hooch has logged more than 1,000 dives at the wreck site and could still find something new to see Just to finish off a spectacular round of dives, we watched a number of giant trevally swooping through a shoal of fusiliers picking off the stragglers.
At the Alternatives, I gave super model Stella an official warning. The pinnacles are covered in brightly coloured soft corals, including pinks, yellows and reds, so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get some close- ups of Stella sporting her new mask surrounded by fauna. But I hadn’t noticed that her mask kept fogging up and she didn’t point this out to me until we got back on board VIP One. Foggy masked pictures are absolutely no good to anyone. I didn’t stop teasing Stella for days. Hooch’s bright idea was to remove the offending mask underwater and give it a good licking!
Shark and Yolanda Reef has always been a world- class dive site for marine life, corals and sea fans. We started off at Anemone City for some close-up Nemo pictures and then finned across the blue void towards the reef. There were literally millions of orange anthias darting in and out of the vertical wall. Predatory tuna, jacks and barracuda were swimming past us. It was still quite early in the season so the full regalia of marine life wasn’t around yet, but still, this wasn’t bad and the visibility was back to 30 metres plus! I could have stayed there all day just watching the action unfold. We explored the debris field from the Yolanda stopping to take some pictures of the toilets and bathtubs. I’m sure there used to be far more toilets? I heard a rumour that certain individuals were filling the toilets with air and sending them over the reef edge. Hooch swam over a leopard shark and managed to fire off a burst of pictures. By the time I appeared, the shark had swam off into the distance. I gave chase, but couldn’t get close.
The overall mood seemed to be a little subdued when we reached Ras Katy and Ras Um Sid. I think everybody realised our wreck and reef fest was coming to an end. We definitely ‘smashed’ some of the best dive sites the Northern Red Sea had to offer, 24 dives in all. VIP One had really delivered.