MV Princess Dalal
I had been dreaming of a Red Sea Dive trip for as long as I had been hearing about Egypt, the wonderful clear warm waters and the exotic sea-life, the turtles, the dolphins and of course the Sharks……but mostly for the shipwrecks. In my mind were the images of Thistlegorm from the Jaques Cousteau films I’d watched with my father so many years before. I had no perception then of the colour of the water nor of the vibrancy of the corals and reef fish, we had a Black and White television at the time, how could I have had, but I had diver magazine to read and had buried myself in every issue I could get hold of, whilst sat in my dreary bunk in Tidworth learning to dive with the Army. The expectation, built over the years, was of a wreck paradise, a place ships came to display their deaths in glorious technicolour, and I had wished many an hour away in my mind’s eye diving on the wrecks of Abu Nuhas and Gubal. I was determined that I would dive the Red Sea despite Ellen’s reluctance to go to Egypt “My Nan says it smells awful, and she’s been, why would I want to go there?” I knew I would not persuade Ellen to go with me, and I wasn’t sure I could persuade Ellen to let me go there either…….. but I was determined to try!
To be honest I didn’t have to try too hard, despite her reluctance for me to go at first, Ellen, bless her, relented and sanctioned the trip if I could find people to go with me from FSAC, I was elated, I knew there would be someone who wanted to go, but Stoke on Trent was not an affluent city, would the others in FSAC be able to find the cash? I knew I would be spending the last of the money left from a small Army pay-out, compensation for the leg I’d damaged in Ireland, which essentially put paid to an infantry career. The injury had finally convinced me I needed to get out of the Army, I wouldn’t be able to do what I had joined to do, and I wasn’t going to spend time trying to forge a career watching others enjoying themselves whilst I was sat behind a desk…..no way! I put my idea out to the others in the club well in advance of when I was planning the trip, I didn’t want to go in the hottest times, nor in the coolest, I reckoned October was about right from what I’d been told, it was 1996, round Christmas when I started to ask the guys in FSAC “who was up for it?” the response was encouraging and around a dozen said they were interested……..lessons learned, but more of that later! I wanted to do the best I could to reduce the price of the trip and tried everything, booking “numbers” on a scheduled trip, was there a discount for 10 or 12 divers? How about flights, surely the airlines would do a deal for a group buy on tickets? Then how much was the operator going to charge and who would do the best deal? I knew how to organise groups of people to reach objectives, the Army had taken care of that, it was the wider admin piece that was the bigger challenge, how to get the best deal you could, for the most competitive price, that was what I was about to learn, and learning came quick and painfully too!
The planning assumption was, whenever I could be reasonably sure I could get time off work and get everything sorted in good enough time. I’d figured others would need to be in the “summer Holiday” period too, otherwise the typical “Potters” holiday periods prevalent in Stoke on Trent, would mean those signing up would be under pressure from families and work too….I needn’t have bothered, despite all the preparation for this it was looking more and more likely pricing would kill interest, these were not the “idle rich” I was training at Deep Blue Diving and the members of Fenton Sub Aqua Club were like me, largely just managing to afford to get some diving in! The airlines would offer a “free seat” over every 10 divers booked, the Boats would offer “instructor free” over every 10 divers booked and the package operators would offer 1 diver free over every 10 divers booked, it seemed this was already sewn up good and proper, you had to book 10 divers and then you got to go free, or you could offer a 10% discount on a standard trip price from a magazine or agency if you booked for 11 divers…….That meant all 12 of those who had expressed an interest needed to book, and deposit, if I was going to get anything off the deal…..what were the chances, well……. nil…….. exactly zero! I knew that more than one of the divers was far more chat than action, I guessed he wouldn’t be alone in a “baker’s dozen” and so I decided to stick with the best value trip we could book and that turned out to be on the Princess Dalal, an older Hurghada live-aboard, but one that was in good enough order and looked reasonably comfortable, from the agency pictures and “happy Diver” comments ….so I booked, we had achieved 5 deposits from 12 “definites”…..I was glad I hadn’t offered a discount on the trip, simply put, I’d have been paying towards some of the trips had I done so! When it came to the actual flights we had another two drop-outs, nothing to be done, I wasn’t training sheikh’s and millionaires and one of the divers had sadly been made redundant, you couldn’t hold it against them…….. sometimes shit just happens!
I put a brave face on it (as you can see from the photo) and, after a short transfer from the airport, the taxi from the airport took us quayside at the working harbour in Hurghada and a sea of Liveaboards, first you have to find your boat, luckily finding the boats is not difficult, wander the line until the name leaps out at you, as long as it is written in English, the staff will generally help with the rest. We boarded the Princess Dalal, and settled our kit in as the dive guides and crew suggested. This was not something I had done before, nor was it something Colin Woodhall or John Keeling, (the other two divers from FSAC who joined the trip) had done before either. It was to be a learning curve for all Three of us, but we were elated just to be in Egypt, land of the Pharaohs, home of the pyramids and resting place to the best shipwrecks in the world…….
The staff gave us our assigned cabins, they were by no means luxurious, but they were cosy enough and the beds were clean and made, there was space enough for our personal kit, not that you needed much more than shorts and T shirts all week, but you needed somewhere for a bag and your wash kit and the little stuff like sun cream…..I was a Ginger even though I was practically bald even then, and being “kissed by Fire” is one thing…..it takes about half an hour to be burned to a crisp by even the gentlest Sun light…… and who the hell want’s that on your first Red Sea dive trip? We managed to stash everything away and made it up on deck for a couple of hours to have a Sakara or Two before heading down to the bunks to get some sleep and to let the crew cast off in the night and head us to our first dive site North of Hurghada…..Sha’ab-el-Erg
Sha’ab-el-Erg is a horseshoe shaped island poking out of the Sea opposite El Gouna and it has been a haven for Dolphin sightings for as long as I have been reading of the Red Sea, there are also occasional Manatee sightings too, as you might hear in another section of this blog if I ever get to tell that story…….. This would be a check-out dive, a settler into the rhythm of the rest of the week, and an opportunity for the dive guide, a lovely German Fraulein called Renate, (I hope she recognises the trip if she ever happens on these poor ramblings….) to assess who was going to be ok to be left to their own devices, and who might need closer attention in the forthcoming days under the crystal clear and beautifully warm waters of the Northern Red Sea! My log records: Red Sea-Liveaboard-“MV Princess Dalal” – Straits of Gubal- Out of Hurghada to Shab-Al-Erg Reef – Basically a check-out dive – fish life included – Pipe Fish Blue Spotted Ray – Clown Fish/Anemone – Glass Fish – Cardinals – Parrotfish – Triggerfish – Smooth Trunkfish – Yellow Tang the list is endless & incomplete by far great dive W Temp 28’ air in 210 out 110 Buddy John Keeling You can clearly see I had taken out a Red Sea Fish Identification slate, one of the submersible plastic guides common for just about every dive destination on the globe, at least those that are regularly visited by tourist divers. The slate became a reference point for any unusual fish we might want to discuss, but there truly were far too many to keep looking up whilst you dived, far better to remember the main differences and look them up once you were writing up your dive in your log!
From Sha’ab-el-Erg we slipped our moorings after lunch and made our way further North to Siyul between Gubal and Shadwan Islands, at a reef area called Siyul Kebira, another almost horseshoe like reef although smaller than Sha’ab-el-Erg. This was another reef and I was getting restless, we were on the Red Sea, we had dived….and I hadn’t seen a wreck yet….what if I died in my sleep….I had to suck it up and be patient, another lesson learned and not one I am good at even today, (despite my “trying” and lots of encouragement from Ellie!) it’s just not in my skill-set
The log book reads: “Red Sea Liveaboard Reef “Siyul – Kebira” Down to 30m Plenty to see – memorables included Lionfish, Clownfish, Grouper (small) Pipefish, Turtle (from the safety stop away at 20m ish) too much to identify W.Temp 28’ air in 210 out 130 Buddy John Keeling” I had at least seen my very first Turtle, it had been grazing below me lazily whilst I had made my last few meters towards the shallow stop, it had remained around 20m from me, undisturbed, enjoying its algae and munching unhurriedly through its day, wonderful to watch. I had also seen my first Lionfish, Majestic and untouchable, its “banners” flying in the warm current, the modern scourge of the Oceans as it proliferates from its habitual home in the Red Sea out through the world’s seas apparently unstoppable, how long, you might ask, before the first of its kind is seen under Swanage Pier?
Our next dive in the same area was that night on Sha’ab Umm Usk, although my log book calls it Shaab Ummush, which will most definitely be me having heard the name and putting my own spelling on it, rather than the dive guide cocking up the pronunciation! I never asked, so we will never know, even though the guide was, as previously noted, of German origin and therefore having a slight accent, her Arabic far better than either my Arabic (woeful to none-existent) or my German (laughable to infantile, at best) therefore entirely forgivable! My log book has the dive as: “Night Dive – Liveaboard – “Shaab Ummush” hunting coral and fish – lots to see – 2 Lionfish together very pretty – plenty of Urchins & many Shrimps just Two Red eyes gleaming – Two pretty tube worms, beautiful colour of corals W.Temp 28’ air in 210 out 170 Buddy John Keeling” I had at the time a UK400 hand lamp, it worked very well, I had taken some night dives at Stoney cove and I rated the UK400 as a good, reasonably priced light, far more affordable than those with battery canisters, and far more practical than the rechargeables when on a boat I thought. I was anticipating poor opportunities to use a charging point, with a full boat all wanting electricity at the same time, which turned out to be about right then, and sometimes even these days! But I was getting bored of reefs, even at night, I wanted wrecks, even joking with the dive guide at the next dive briefing “I swear….if you say “reef” another time I will have to murder you”…..I needn’t have worried, we were off to Abu Nuhas the next morning….and wrecks….several wonderful wrecks!
The wreck of the Giannis D is iconic, look at any 10 shipwreck photos and her stern is likely to be in at least one of them, so the shot here is deliberately different, her Stern deck winches before the bridge area and her funnel, which still carries the “D” on either side to this day. I absolutely love this wreck and those of you who have spent any time on here will know that, eventually, Giannis will get a bigger piece of her own sometime soon. This was my very first Red Sea wreck and the excitement before we fell backwards off the little RIB, tender to the Princess Dalal, was special….I literally could not wait to dive the Giannis D, the dive brief just after breakfast had been anticipated for years, I had doubted I would ever be able to afford to dive the Red Sea, to be waking to the most beautiful Blue Sky over Abu Nuhas on the third of August of 1997 was one of the most memorable days of my life!
My little Red Wreck Log describes the dive: “03/08/97 GHIANNIS D The ideal wreck, the stern leans at 50’ or so & is broken away from the bows, a Greek freighter who ran into Abu Nuhas on 19th April 1983, so she’s still in fine condition an easy penetration as light is everywhere the engine room is marvellous the huge engines stretching forward with easy access then out and round the stern, along the Port companionway & up onto the bridge area finally out along the huge gantry fabulous dive” Barely a comma to be had, as if, breathless from the dive, I had just downloaded without pausing……bar a little decompression stop on the bridge gantry, and de-kitting for lunch, that’s not far off true! I had never seen such visibility on such a modern wreck before, save for spending hours in the depths of Blue Funnel ships around their engines and generators with my father as a child, I had never seen the sheer splendour of a wreck sunk in gin clear water, with all its tragedy and its majesty, there to see if you had the kit and the inclination…….and I had both! This was the best 35 minutes I had spent, anywhere, in a very long time and I wanted more, in fact I didn’t want anything else……
And then there was the return to reality, the next planned dive was Sha’ab el Odf, now I’d had a taste of the quality of wreck in the Red Sea, to be told we were diving another bloody reef was almost unbearable….but there were more than me on the boat and the itinerary was wrecks and reefs, it’s a shame it was easier for the guides to drop some of the less experienced on more simplistic dives, than to risk them in wrecks it seemed. I’d just have to suck it up, looking at maps and charts of the area today, it isn’t possible to find any mention of a “Sha’ab el Odf”, although from the direction we were headed it is likely this was just another dive on Sha’ab Umm Usk, perhaps on a different side at least. My log records the dive at least with dignity, despite my overwhelming disappointment: “REEF DIVE (Liveaboard) SHAB EL ODF viz down due to haze but still at 10-15m notables were huge fan corals – table corals and many soft colourful Very pretty with a large Napoleon Wrasse about at start and finish of dive. Two table sized Angel Fish (Huge) & many Glass Fish & smaller. A poorer dive than other reefs tho’. W Temp 26’ air in 210 out 120 Buddy John Keeling” You can feel my frustration in every word…….
And so we made our way to Ras Mohammed, which apparently is one of the most beautiful dive sites in the world, I was gutted, the only thing there I had any interest in was the “Yolanda” wreck, famed for her abandoned toilets sat randomly on the reef, oh and the chance of seeing sharks. I liked that idea and it was rumoured that we had a chance of Tiger Sharks, at least if we got out off the reef edge a little, so our Fraulein guide advised…. Now Tiger Sharks interested me, they were big animals, clearly “striped” in a subdued fashion and known to be aggressive, seeing those in the water as a potential meal, if they were mature adults. Who knew, maybe this would be a dive that re-ignited a love of reefs, for a while at least…… “04/08/97 Reef Dive (Liveaboard) Ras Mohammad too much to see & document a beautiful wall that went on into the abyss – Tuna – Barracuda – a White Tip reef shark Many of the reef fish were larger than previous reefs – a Grey Tip reef Shark off in the Blue after Tuna and the scour site of the Yolanda – long since gone down a huge scour – only toilets & baths remain air in 210 out 50 W Temp 26’ Buddy John” So no Tiger Sharks then, but the large enough shadow of the Grey Tip, a big adult, was impressive, I’d enjoyed catching a fleeting glimpse of her steering out to seaward to avoid us!
It was the 04th August of ’97 and I awoke to the usual early morning call to breakfast and passed a couple of the crew in prayer, as I went out to see the sunrise over Beacon Rock, an experience I will never tire of. There is something of the mystical about powder Blue, shallow water, and ragged, sand yellow and buff low lying rock outcrops, risen a few bare metres from the sea. They evoke every Arabian dessert scene you ever saw in any film, from Ice Cold in Alex to Jarhead……. This was an auspicious day to awake moored off Ras Mohammed…..it was another wreck diving day! This day opened with the SS Dunraven, launched in 1872 the Dunraven, having left my home town of Liverpool in January of 1876 bound for Bombay in India, carrying a cargo of Steel and Timber (which was exchanged for a return journey carrying cotton and cloth), ended up on Beacon Rock as a result of navigational error. The captain clearly believing he was further up the Gulf of Suez and not, obviously, expecting a reef barring his path. Although attempts were made by the crew to re-float the Dunraven they were to no avail and she sank later that day. My log records: “DUNRAVEN an English steam/sail ship that ran onto Beacon Rock in March 1876 and sank very quickly (portholes still open when found). She turned turtle & is largely empty her cargo having fallen & settled into the coral sand. We dropped to her stern & prop at 30m then entered her Starboard side (Left from Stern) then made our way through twisted broken metal along her propeller shaft to her boilers encountering Lionfish & large shoals of Glass fish. Looked round the boilers on the ceiling then went for’ard to the second section to impact area where it is obvious why she foundered” It was another Red letter day in the Red sea….I loved the warm water, the amazing visibility and the wealth of historic wrecks just lying there awaiting exploration. I wasn’t by any means the first to dive the wrecks here, but every one could’ve held my attention for a dozen dives so far, I was in that special place where life is so good it just can’t last!
Could the trip get any better……..yes it could, and it did, the very next dive the next day was perhaps the wreck that started everything for me back in the 70’s sat in the front room, on the floor of the family bungalow in Ainsdale, with my father, Ian, watching Jacques Yves Cousteau find and dive on the Thistlegorm! I didn’t know it at the time, if you’d have told me then that I would dive the Thistlegorm many times I would have laughed at you, the thought of a scrote from Liverpool, off the Sinai peninsula, days out into the Red Sea, scuba diving, would have been unthinkable at the time, never mind diving on a shipwreck discovered by Jacques Cousteau…….unbelievable! Jesus, only the rich could afford holidays abroad, and most of those were in Europe, only bloody explorers like Cousteau got to places like Egypt! But here I was, and the excitement, kitting up on the back of the Princess Dalal, was unbearable, I simply couldn’t wait to get in the water, I had been reading about the Thistlegorm for as long as I could remember and I knew this dive would be unforgettable….The little Red Wreck Log records the dive: “Thistlegorm Bombed at anchor by a Heinkel HE111 She went down fairly fast after ammunition blew her apart. Sunk 06.10.1941 She was en route to North Africa to re-supply Montgomery’s Desert Rats. We dropped on to her mid-ships and made way to the stern past the bomb shattered area behind the bridge along the deck gunners quarters & along the stern companionway round the prop & over the guns then on to the bridge to the Captains bathroom then a tour to the bows over the holds Magical dive”
Thistlegorm is the jewel of the Red Sea, an iconic shipwreck with diving royalty connections in Cousteau, despite having been located by him in 1956 Thistlegorm’s location was not divulged to the wider diving community until the 70’s, since then has become perhaps the most dived shipwreck in history. The Princess Dalal spent the day over the Thistlegorm and we dived her in the afternoon of the 05th August 1997 too, again the Red Wreck Log records: “Thistlegorm this time down to the bridge & into the holds, a great root around finding the trucks and fuel tenders, dozens of pairs of boots, there’s one empty area below the bridge don’t know why, so many rifle boxes you can’t believe it but I missed the motorbikes somehow. Everything was so clear and identifiable the loco tenders on deck & the jibs and winch gear. We wandered off to the loco on the Port side & then back in via the ammo boxes & the half-track (Bren carrier) then up the bridge to watch & deco!” This was another magical dive and one I will never forget, half way down the deck run, to the shot line on the bows, John swam up and showed me his gauge, he was lower than I’d have liked for deco and, as I had plenty left, (being something of a fish on air consumption by this time), I felt it would be better to have John on my octopus, at least for the swim back to the shot and up to the 6m safety stop. All went well, John sat behind me on my 2m alternate hose and away we went, after reaching 6m John swapped back to finish off his own air down to around 20 bar and we exited the water, John leading the way up and me following
Now there are a million and one things you can see on Thistlegorm, there are so many opportunities to photograph or film on this wreck that you know where this is going by now I guess……There will be dedicated wreck section piece on Thistlegorm, despite literally dozens of articles and half a dozen books on her going into great detail, but I will cover her to the extent I have enjoyed her in the wreck section, and if you can’t wait, then go to my best ever dives and take a night dive around her with me!
I very nearly didn’t hold it against our dive guide, Renate, when we moved away from Thistlegorm to moor off Gubal Island, but the morning dive was another reef…. Now there were others to cater for on the boat and this wasn’t a “best of Wrecks” tour, so I had no real say in anything and had to, again, “suck it up” and plod round a reef. I have nothing against reef diving, I have enjoyed many reef dives however I realised a long time ago that reefs, often majestic and full of exotic marine life, were usually what ships ploughed into to become wrecks in the first place, ergo: If you dived the shipwreck first, your decompression could be in amongst the marine life and the coral brains and tables and the gently dancing soft corals and anemones…….why would you seek out a reef on its own, without a shipwreck, when there were practically hundreds of them rammed into the prettiest reefs across the worlds seas……? Anyhow, for what it’s worth the dive log records: “Reef Dive (Liveaboard) Gubal Soraya Notables were one huge Moray whose head was 12” deep, two smaller Morays living on top of each other, huge shoals of Glass fish & other small fish (Red) one tiny White Moray 12” long & very pretty soft corals air in 210 out 110 W Temp 25’ Buddy John” The huge Moray being the abiding memory of the dive but the tiny White Moray being a real high point too, odd the difference in size, but the difference in colour holding completely the same thrall in this case!
The afternoon dive was to be another wreck and I was again thrown into that “can’t wait to kit up” state….This time the Chrisoula K, for years known as “The Tile Wreck” because of her cargo of Italian floor tiles, still evident in her holds. The Chrisoula K was a German built in Lubeck, however, when she sank in August of 1981 she was owned by a Greek company and registered from Cyprus. Chrisoula K is one of the Abu Nuhas wrecks and very popular, being largely intact, the little Red Wreck book records: “CHRISOULA K The “K” was a 1954 made Greek cargo vessel carrying stone block & Lentils en-route from Italy to Jeddah when she hit Abu Nuhas at speed breaking in Two. We dropped to the stern and swam in between the blades of the prop and rudder then round to the holds, she’s on her Starboard side and is rotting heavily we swam through the main hold taking in the bronze spare prop & the stern accommodation then back in to the engine room midships and through the whole of it & out to the hull a great dive which we continued” An odd way to end a dive log entry, until you realise the dive took in Two wrecks, the “Seastar” was next and we swam from Chrisoula to “Seastar” where the next little Red Log continues recording: “SEASTAR a continuation of dive 272. Seastar was a cargo ship carrying Lentils and stone slabs when she hit Abu Nuhas in 1976. Navigation aids were removed during the Arab/Israeli war so nav-error is probable. We came across her at mid-ships and had a good look over her length from the deck area she’s over to her Starboard side but angled at about 20’ there are stone slabs all over her decks, the rigging is pretty intact off her bows she would warrant another longer look, a pretty wreck” Now how the dive guides got this so wrong at the time is beyond me, but what we all logged as the “Seastar” was almost certainly the “Kimon M”, also known for years as the “Lentil Wreck”, as the actual Seastar is a little further to the South of the Kimon M and is down at around 90m
There was a feeling of elation after this dive, not just a Red Sea wreck….but Two… I was on cloud nine, running the dives back in my mind over and over again, the engine room of the Chrisoula K, the holds of the Kimon M…… two wrecks, both navigation failures of one type or another, both dying within 50 meters of each other barely 3 years between them, the Kimon M going into the reef in December of 1978, the Red Sea, for me had truly become “shipwreck heaven”! But it wasn’t long before I came back to Earth with a bang, we were on our way back in, the week almost over and there was to be a final dive of the trip, it would be a reef dive at Careless reef which I couldn’t help thinking of as “couldn’t care-less” reef as I was finding it very hard to have to leave Abu Nuhas. Well, leave we did, and after watching the clear night sky and the stars overhead, it was breakfast, the last dive brief from Renate, and down to the reef for a fare-well to the Red Sea and all its glory, the log book reads: “Reef Dive (Liveaboard) CARELESS REEF A magnificent last dive to finish the week over two coral outcrops forming a wall. Notables were Scorpionfish, Barracuda, Four White Tip Reef Sharks, one of 5’ long the others around 4’ Very majestic, large Moray eel, bigeye, boxfish and a myriad of others a fine dive. W Temp 25’ air in 210 out 60 Buddy Renate”
And that was it….done, all that remained was to wash off the dive kit and pack before the sorry journey back to Hurghada port and then, after a night on board the boat and breakfast……. on to the airport. I knew only one thing…….I would return, no matter what I had to do to get here, I would definitely be back!