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Chris or Jan, probably

ISSUE 10 ARCHIVE - LIVEABOARD, AT LAST

Chris Collings

Parmesan – check; olive oil – check; liveaboard – check. WTF? Let's try that again without the deli stuff. Cheese, lard, liveaboard. Yep, still there; we booked our first liveaboard trip and needed to do a few things first, get Advanced Open Water certification, slot in a few more dives and slip in a photo course.

Before a summer holiday in the Greek islands we found a really good website for a dive store with loads of information and with reviews giving the diving and that very store a good thumbs-up. Pre-holiday communication was spotty, emails went unanswered, tracking down a working telephone number was hard and, once connected, the conversations were enigmatic at best. It was a triumph of hope over expectation when the dive gear hitched a ride with us.

While others were sleeping off the ouzo and dancing, we made our way to the dive store for the crack of ten o'clock, about the earliest anything gets going. We had pre-booked nitrox and in emails and phone exchanges it was "yes, yes", but on the day it was "ochi, ochi", which sounds like OK, but means "No nitrox for you, Johnnie English". The store's mix panel was away on a trip, a plan for getting nitrox from the next town disappeared as it would take too long, be expensive, and anyway there was no oxygen analyser available to test the mix. Coming clean and saying "no nitrox" up front would have been easier all round.
Diving Leisure London
Grouper Good visibility underwater let us see the rocks, the seagrass, the rocks and the fuzzy brown suede algae covering the rocks, but there wasn't much else on the well-used house reef. The dive guide worked hard to show us a couple of fire worms, a small moray with a nice yellow on black pattern and a few non descript fish lurking at the edge of vision, a bit grey, a bit silver. On the second dive we saw a generous portion of more rocks, more seagrass. The highlight was a pot under a rock, an amphora from a sunken Roman galley, but with the fuzzy suede algae covering it was hard to tell whether the lone amphora was really a survivor of a Roman shipwreck, or aunty's old chamber pot consigned to the deep years ago. The jury is still out on the piss-pot, Spiros.
LDC Training
Moray Eel The surface interval between dives was an education. While we were relaxing in the sunshine the dive guide was back down in the briny with his next gig, a couple doing an intro dive. We expected to get back in the water after that, but apparently there was a queuing system and he was next down with his Open Water students before our second dive. He did four dives on the trot and anticipated seven or eight dives one after the other every day. The other guides were just as busy, dipping in and out of the water with students muttering OW manual mantra. People like us wanting side trips to other dive sites were a diversion from packing as many people under water at the house reef in as short a time as possible, so while other sites were on the website, they were off the menu.
Boat. Nice. We had planned three days of dives, taking the Advanced Open Water course and getting a few Medi dives in, but just two dives were more than enough. We dried the gear off and made the most of the sunshine. Enjoy the websites; for us, diving there reads better than it lives.

In the autumn we had a trip to Sharm. Getting to Naama jetty in the morning was a bus trip, the divers were on time, big watches, small bags, ready to rock. Every morning we had to wait while mums rounded up snorkel parties of snotty kids (why weren't they in school?), dads with Sakara headaches and grannies from the breakfast room.
Scuba Trust
Non-specific bottom dweller Deposited at the Naama jetty area people gravitate to three groups: old hands, seen it, done it, dived Ras Mo' back in the day, relaxed in the shade; newbies keep a watch for their boat and an eye on the clustered guides, eager for the gathering signal. Then there are the guides, in the minds eye they are young, fit, bronzed and leading a life of youthful excess. Chatting to them, a life of excess is less likely than sloping off home of an evening to watch bootleg Eastenders on VHS. There are all shapes and sizes from cute as a beaver girlie bikini guide through pasty Essex man, Russian spetznaz and elders of several summers. First thing in the morning at the jetty they meet and greet with a strangely sheepish air. The kiosk does a roaring trade in cigarettes, Mars bars and full fat Coke; sugar, caffeine and nicotine, the dive guides' breakfast of champions.
Non-specific biped Known only to dive guides and the naval police, there is some secret signal, a hand wave, a sideways nod of the head that means the paperwork is done, manifest stamped and boat ready. The dive guides immediately grow a foot in stature, mature before your eyes and assume the mantle of dive guidiness, rounding up divers and funneling them through the gate search, into the jetty sunshine and the promise of loads of fish.

The jetty is a seething mass of porters, tank carts, dive boxes and the back end of boats belching out dirty diesel exhaust. Smoking two packs a day is a minor risk for the dive guides compared to the fumes breathed in during five minutes at the jetty each morning. The loading of the boats is an Egyptian jobshare scheme, as every day the shouting mass of porters appears to be made up of guys who have never set foot on the jetty before, don't know which boat to load and are making it up as they go along, guided by educational shouts from jetty bystanders. This is all a faηade, the guys have worked there for years but they still make it up new each day.
The Underwater Channel
Snapper Divers climb on board, shoes off, onto the top deck and under the sun awning, unless you're Russian then it's into the saloon to chain smoke until getting wet time. Dive guides head into the saloon just to soak up airborne nicotine. While we are out of the way the gear is loaded and we are off to Ras Mohammed, missing only my 15 litre nitrox tanks, the 12 litre nitrox tanks and the dive guide's box. Memo to the dive guides, don't piss off the porters yesterday, or your box gets loaded on the boat that sails for Tiran before you finish your second Mars bar today.

Here's a beef. Getting a plain vanilla 12 litre air tank is easy, but in the world's largest dive port getting a 15 litre nitrox tank for every dive is a labour of Hercules beyond dive centre capabilities and jetty logistics; getting nitrox every dive is not a sure bet either. My hit rate for 15 litre nitrox tanks was 25% of dives; half of the dives I got 15 litre air and 25% of the time 12 litre air, not much good to a guzzler like me and no good for my buddy. Luckily she says she's quite used to me finishing quickly, so no change there.
The guides were good, the diving was good, it was all good. We did the Advanced OW course. We dived Shark and Yolanda, saw the toilets, Anemone City was buzzing with anemone fish, there was a bait ball with daytime lion fish and trigger fish patrolling the edges to snatch up the unwary that left the safety of the group.

It's a cultural thing, me and svelte girlie divers on the day boat all rummaging in the ice box for diet Coke and there's only ever full fat Coke, it keeps up the dive guides' sugar levels. The food on the dive boats is variable, after-dive honeycake food of the gods on one boat and brick-dry sponge on another. Lunch prepared in a galley the size of a shoe is welcome after two dives and the carbs and meat sauce triggers a nap in the shade on the trip back to port.

Back home, up early and squeezed through the Blackwall Tunnel south of the river into the broad boulevards and leafy avenues of Bromley. The crunching gravel of Ocean Visions' parking lot gave Maria Munn the cue of our arrival, so she had time to get the coffee pot on and put a doily under the posh biscuits. Maria offers the El Dorado of how to do compact cameras. We had a morning in the studio learning stuff, playing with cameras and pressing buttons. After lunch Maria diplomatically reviewed fish mug shots from our trips; we blushed at bodies buried in our best efforts. We learned lots underwater in the pool, snapping plastic fish, jellyfish and battery swimming octopus. Jabbing vaguely at camera buttons is a thing of the past once you get the hang of five top tools; it's a bit like getting colour and an outside aerial on your telly all on the same day.

A while later, after the crap snow and potholed roads of January we travelled on the Sri Lankan flight overnight to Male with a noisemaker, a baby squeal wrapped in a blanket. Six rows of passengers all slept like a baby, awake when the squeal was awake, and grabbing sleep for the ten minutes it was quiet.

Stepping onto the dhoni only metres from the airport arrivals gate, getting the dive gear out and rigging up as soon as feet touched the dhoni came as a surprise and scrambled carefully packed bags into chaos. With bags empty of dive gear and feet on the liveaboard we were under power out of Male for an afternoon of sunshine, the first of many great dinners and a whole week of no shoes. Next morning kitting up beat the hell out of the 7am commute and we had our first dive on a small wreck leaning on a reef, with leaf fish, reef fish and bandit moray.

There was plenty of time on the dive dhoni to covet kit. The divers' wrists had more computing power than the Apollo space program. Sideways glances at the dive computer that tells the phases of moons of Jupiter and lets you dive on the gases of Uranus, lusting after the one-touch DSMB release reel and wondering if those curly fins really do produce the power. Good job the dive show is coming soon and we can get properly tooled up.
The Underwater Channel
Time on a live aboard is measured differently, the waking day starts with the patter of tiny feet as the crew go forward and the sound of the anchor coming up and the day is punctuated by three dives, big meals, big cakes and big siesta. After dinner the chatter dies down and bedtime comes early so we can be roused with the dawn for tea and more diving. The week is measured by the stalk of green bananas that hangs on the aft deck, the fruit too green and hard to eat when you join. Days pass and the fruit ripens for plucking off the test banana. By mid trip the cook is busy knocking out banana fritters, banana cake, banana split and banana doused in treacle, working his way rapidly up the ripened stalk. After the banana fest there are a few lonely fruit to be plucked on the trip back to Male when the bare stalk sways with the roll of the boat.

Jet lag does not seem to be an issue on the liveaboard, maybe it's the regular dunking in warm water, big eating, big sleeping cycle, and there are different body clocks at work across the divers. Tee shirts tell the tale of breakfasts and lunches past with increasing stains of egg and chilli. By about the third day femininity surfaces and the women on board get fed up of tee shirts and subtly break out summer dresses and tops, bits of jewellery at dinner and the waft of perfume. The men are resolute in the shorts routine, but start a new chapter of stains on fresh tee shirts.

It's the first time we have had the fun of negative entries and challenging currents; reef hooks – what a good idea. Visibility was good but not great on the west side of the islands, the plankton, green stuff and the high currents are why the big fish were there. There were manta, shark, rays, turtle and dolphins at the big end and porcelain crabs and spearing mantis shrimp and ghost pipefish at the smaller end. We sat out a high current dive one afternoon and though we missed the manta, we saw a mobulla ray at the surface leaping out of the water and doing backflips and front flips, just for the hell of it. After a bit we wended our way to the east side of the islands and got much better visibility.

I'm told as a guideline there should be a 'tosser' on board. I thought it might be me, I've got all the attributes; in touch with my inner muppet, inappropriate jokes and have been known to dribble. Maybe it was me, maybe there was someone better qualified, that would have been nice.

My buddy got a nasty coral cut from dirty green sticky-up coral, she was looking at a shark at the time, so apparently it counts as a shark injury and the coral wasn't damaged (honest). We had four doctors on board, count them, four. It was really lucky because back on the boat they were able to give detailed medical intervention advice and aftercare support such as "iodine really stings/stains".

On the liveaboard there was a fridge full of diet Coke, a 15 litre tank and nitrox for every dive; all done in the middle of the Indian Ocean and away from port. Listen up Greek dive shack, take note Sharm dive centre – get with the diet Coke and nitrox program.
Ocean Leisure
The dhoni crew did a great job getting us to the dive sites, into and out of the water. Well done cook; the food was plentiful, varied and good. If you like spicy, you can get spicy with chilli fish and chilli omelettes for tough guy breakfasts and scrambled eggs on toast for us wimps. The stewards kept the cabins clean and tidy amid the tangle of divers. The aircon, water maker and nine knots speed were a tribute to the engineer. As a long time navigator I've great respect for the boat captain's navigation around the reefs and islands, and his pony tail and ankle bracelet were the coolest. The cruise directors did a great job with dive briefings full of good information and humour and lots of care to make sure we enjoyed the boat time just as much as the dive time. We bought the tee shirt and the trip DVD to keep us warm and amused on winter nights.

We returned to Male late morning and had a trip ashore to the city while the dhoni was picking up stores for the next trip. Paris can captivate you for a month; Singapore interests you for 48 hours; for Male, make sure you allow the full two hours. That will give you enough time to see the grand buildings and park, note the well paved roads and traffic flow with no jay walking, escape the souvenir street, see the main drag, dip into the dive shops, and still have an hour to relax with an ice cream break. Happily back on the dhoni to the boat for packing and slices of farewell cake before plane time. OK, there was some farewell San Miguel and sauvignon blanc too.

As we left, the boat hoisted a new stalk of bananas to welcome the next group of divers. Back at home; parmesan – check; olive oil – check; next liveaboard – check.
Reef Jewellery

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