Eager to discover whether his experience diving the world-famous HMS Thistlegorm Wreck could match the praise so freely bandied around between other scuba divers, Sheldon Hey set out to explore the Red Sea's Northern Wrecks for himself on the MY Blue Planet I liveaboard. Find out whether they lived up to his expectations...
As soon as the Thistlegorm Wreck loomed into view, I was in my element and it instantly went to the top of my "best wreck diving" experiences. It is such a large ship that you could dive there numerous times without needing to explore the same passageway or hold again.
Resting at an easily accessible depth of 15m it felt like a visit to a World War II museum. The storage hold was crammed with machine guns, rifles and boxes of ammunition. There were old BSA motorbikes, armoured vehicles and trucks, all reminders of the bitter war taking place when HMS Thistlegorm was bombed in 1941.
During the 7 night "North & Wrecks" cruise we traversed a circular route from Hurghada in Egypt through a glut of diving wrecks of all shapes and sizes. Among them were the 4 well-known Abu Nuhas wrecks near Shadwan Island, the Dunraven steamship, the Kingston wreck near Shag Rock, then the famous Rosalie Moller and Gubal Barge.
Interspersed with the action-packed Red Sea wreck diving, we experienced a few reef dives where I was pleasantly surprised by many fish I had not seen before, like Arabian angelfish, Heber's trevally and yellowtail tang, all endemic to the Red Sea. There were many incredibly large morays. Another highlight of everyone's trip was diving with a pod of dolphins at Dolphin Reef and then again at Shadwan Island.
One way to tell if a liveaboard is popular is to see how many of your fellow guests are repeat customers, having enjoyed their 1st experience onboard so much they have come back for more. On day 1, I discovered this was the case on my Red Sea scuba diving trip and after this positive beginning, I soon found out why: Blue Planet has exceptional guest service that won't cost you the earth. The schedule ran so smoothly and pleasantly that it was easy for me to forget the downside of the boat being smaller and older than I was used to.
I was relieved to find the water temperature was 26-27°C which was easily countered by a hood and shortie under a long 3 mm wetsuit. No gloves of course as the Red Sea authorities have banned them at many dive sites in an effort to safeguard the reefs. It is always a good idea to check the water temperatures before planning which season to scuba dive in the Red Sea. We were favoured with warm, sunny days tempered with a brisk sea breeze and 20m visibility, which isn't bad going for November.
The diving was enhanced by our Tour Leader, Ashraf's briefings which displayed his thorough knowledge of the sites we would visit each day. MY Blue Planet I's 7m beam makes for a wide dive deck which is used for half the dives. We were taken to the more difficult sites to access on the Zodiac dinghy.
In a group of 14, the more experienced guests dive independently without a Divemaster. There isn't much macro diving so the lack of guidance is not missed too much. The less experienced guests are accompanied by the Divemaster, keeping in mind I'd recommend advanced certification and a minimum of 50 dives if you plan to join a Red Sea North & Wrecks Tour.
Although I personally would prefer 2 Divemasters and 2 dinghies servicing 14 guests, the yacht is not built to cater for this option. I'd also advise the addition of a sunset dive to the schedule for people who don't enjoy night diving.
The lower-deck cabins are roomy enough with en-suite bathrooms being a luxury at the price. There are no fans and the air-conditioner was not that strong. The good news is they will be transforming the 2 smaller upper deck cabins into larger, deluxe cabins in 2010.
The saloon has enough room for 16 guests, but the sundeck doesn't have many mattresses. I enjoyed a few movies, but only found 1 reef guide book and think a few diving magazines would have been fun to pass the time with between dives.
They served a large variety of Egyptian and Western dishes, including appetisers, vegetarian options, fish, soups and desserts. After the 1st dive each day guests are treated to fruit salad, toast, meat and cheese.
Conveniently departing from Hurghada's Marriot Hotel, there are many direct flights from Europe, Sharm El Sheikh and the Sinai Peninsula. I chose to fly into Luxor and was rewarded with speedy customs clearance, then had a relaxed taxi ride into Hurghada. Next time I plan my Red Sea diving, I will probably add in an antiquities tour cruise along the River Nile.
While reviewing our cruise with the other guests on the final night, MY Blue Planet I came out flying with 8 out of 10 for return on investment. This is a fair result if you put diving first and prepare yourself for a liveaboard that is not focussed on luxury.
So I set off home, still dreaming of my great experiences at Thistlegorm and deciding this is definitely a Red Sea site to scuba dive again soon.
Read the full version by Sheldon Hey: Blue Planet Red Sea Northern Wrecks Trip Report.