Aboard the M/Y Blue Melody for a Simply the Best Itinerary
Blue o Two has, for years, come top of my recommendations for liveaboards in the Red Sea - yet I had never actually been on one of their boats. In 2018, I finally got the chance.
It might seem odd to recommend a company with which you had never dived, but a friend (and my former editor at Red Sea journal Aziab) worked as a guide there, and so based on his knowledge and experience, Blue o Two was my first choice for Red Sea liveaboards.
I boarded the M/Y Blue Melody as a guest of the Paralenz team, on a Simply the Best itinerary leaving from Port Ghalib (Marsa Alam) bound for Hurghada by way of Elphinstone, Daedalus and the Brothers Islands. The departure point is more to do with which itinerary the vessel has previously completed (the Deep South, in this case) and there’s little difference to the trip as a whole, apart from the opportunity to dive a couple of Marsa Alam's local reefs – Abu Dabab in our case – and also the slightly terrifying three-hour late-night road trip from Hurghada.
The 2am welcome was warm, especially given that the cruise director was expecting another group at 4am, hence we politely declined her offer of a briefing until the next morning. A few hours’ kip and the dawn of a bright, sunny, day (there’s not a lot else in Egypt) and we were on our way.
The M/Y Blue Melody
The first comment I will make is that the Blue Melody is a dive boat, for divers. There might be a saying in there involving Sherlock Holmes and a lack of digested food deposits, but allow me to explain. There are a lot of vessels out there described as 'luxury' dive boats, but this always gives me pause for thought. I’ve been on some liveaboards that were so luxurious they were like floating hotels, and I’m not sure I like that.
Along with the inevitable increase in price, excessive pampering, in my opinion, leads to a lack of camaraderie between the diving guests, but the layout of the Blue Melody is such that it encourages people to gather together.
The ten single-bed, double-occupancy cabins take up the entirety of the lower deck, and there are three double-bed cabins located on the upper and middle decks. The middle deck has a dive deck leading into a saloon and then into the dining area. The upper deck has a covered outside lounge area and bar packed with sofas and bean bags, leading into the upper floor of the saloon, forward of which is located the wheelhouse. A sun deck at the top completes the traditional Egyptian liveaboard design, but it's quite exposed and in the Egyptian summer sun, uncomfortable for more than a few minutes at a time.
The guests were divided into two groups. A group from Hong Kong congregated in the air-conditioned saloon, the rest of us, mostly Brits and the Danish Paralenz team, spent our time sprawled on the bean bags, venturing inside to eat, cool down, and take the occasional post dive nap. Consequently, there was much in the way of mingling. Escape to the cabins was available if necessary, but with the fairly jovial atmosphere on board, it wasn’t.
It's the Red Sea, and therefore some of the most beautiful on the planet. The unclouded, blue desert skies and the famously distant visibility did not let us down. Elphinstone, Daedalus and the Brothers are all offshore island reefs with steep walls, the occasional small plateau and steep drop-offs. Elphinstone is visited by day boats of which there were a couple of RIBs and one larger dive boat on the day, but the size of the reef and a liveaboard's schedule meant we were free from interruption. Daedalus and the Brothers are out of reach of the shore and therefore remain unmolested by day boats and snorkellers (snorkelling is forbidden at any of the sites due to the presence of oceanic whitetips).
Topographically they are all very similar and are filled with a plentiful supply of all the usual Red Sea suspects. From long-nose hawkfish to nudibranchs, stonefish, scorpionfish, lionfish, giant morays and inquisitive Napoleon wrasse, it's all there among the vivid colour of a typical Red Sea reef. I'm a little spoiled by my four years working in Sharm El Sheikh, but there are reasons that the Red Sea is my favourite place in the world to dive, and the omnipresence of its typical denizens is among them. First-time visitors to the Red Sea will be enraptured and, as is often the case, become second-time visitors in short order.
While I prefer the topographical range of the reefs in Ras Mohammed and Tiran, drop-off and pick-up points are somewhat limited by the size of the dive boats and the sea conditions, which gives liveaboard RIB diving a significant advantage. In the case of Elphinstone, Daedalus and the Brothers, it means that it's pretty easy to steer clear of other groups in the water. The large size of Elphinstone and Daedalus meant we rarely encountered dive teams from other vessels in the area. The Brothers were a little more crowded, but only because divers congregated underneath the boats to wait for the oceanic whitetip sharks.
Sharks are always a highlight of any dive, and we were graced with their presence on a number of occasions. The first dive at Daedalus brought with it a small group of hammerheads, circling lazily at around 30m and was thoroughly enjoyable, until a very excited camera-wielding diver travelling at a decent percentage of light speed chased them all away. Nevertheless, I've spent a goodly amount of time hanging around the legendary backside of Jackson reef waiting for a whole world of blue nothing, and hence I was very agreeably content.
A couple of grey reef sharks and a whitetip reef shark passed by at the cleaning station at Little Brother, and a manta passed us by in the blue at Big Brother, but it was the oceanic whitetips that were, for me and for many thousands of divers, the highlight of the trip. I had been waiting for years to see them.
The boats stay moored for an entire day at both of the Brothers Islands, and hence after some cursory exploration of the reef during the first dive, I spent the entirety of the second hanging underneath the dive boat waiting for the sharks. And they came. Up close and personal, and I was in awe. I feel a niggling twinge of guilt because it is this type of diving that may be partly responsible for a behavioural change in the sharks which has resulted in the temporary closure of the Brothers. I'm not sure any of us who chose to hang out under the boats would have dived any differently – they were some of the most spectacular highlights of my extensive diving life, and I would have them all again in a heartbeat.
The Guides and the Guiding
There were three dive staff on board - the cruise director, lead guide and a Blue o Two cruise director intern (note: not an inexperienced diver, far from it.) All of them lovely people and happy to socialise with, and look after, the guests.
A minimum experience of 30 dives is required for the Simply the Best itinerary, and – subject to the guides’ appraisal during the check dive – divers are free to dive in buddy teams without a guide if they wish. The briefings were excellent and covered all bases, but the 60-minute dive time became something of a sticking point. It’s fairly standard in the Red Sea, and often essential to keep a day boat on schedule, but with the liveaboards moored in situ for an entire day and long surface intervals between dives, I thought it could be a little more flexible.
I understand that there has to be a cut-off point before the crew need to start looking for missing divers, but if dive teams are trusted to be allowed to dive unguided, it follows they should be allowed to dive within the safe limits of their computers and air supply.
On the first day, several divers received a sharp word for breaking the 60-minute rule, possibly a little sharper than it needed to be, and unfortunately, within earshot of other guests. To be fair on the guides, we as divers could have better communicated our wishes to the team and I know – believe me, how I know – that sometimes, managing divers really is like herding a bunch of rebellious cats. I don’t want to be overly critical, because I know through experience what it's like, I just thought it could have been handled a little better at the time. Nevertheless, discussion ensued, some leeway was granted, and we were all friends again.
Other than that, I thought the dive team did a good job herding their feline rebels. One final tongue-in-cheek note, however – I did tag along with a guide for some of the dives, and when you spend 60 minutes pumping against a current, and another team from the same boat drifts past you in the other direction, then you’re going the wrong way. Once could be attributed the vagaries of the current. Three times, however, possibly not… just saying!
I would not describe the standard cabins as ‘luxurious’. Comfortable and utilitarian with adequate storage space, yes, but not the sort of place that tempts people away from the main decks and interacting with other divers. I thought the en-suite bathroom could have done with a lick of paint and a good scrub (to be fair, Blue Melody was due in dry dock shortly after my visit). I thought they were perfectly suited to my needs, and I had nothing to complain about.
If you’ve been on an Egyptian dive boat, then you will be familiar with the typical buffet of salads, pasta and rice, crispy fried chicken and fish dishes (veggie options always available) that is served for lunch and dinner. Breakfast involves a lot of eggs, the orders for which are taken the evening before. If you like eggs, this is excellent (bread, toast, spreads and cereals are also available), but you’ll probably not have eggs for a week after your return.
However – the marvellous Chef Mohamed pulled out some absolute masterpieces during the evening meal, with the roast duck being a particularly spectacular and tasty highlight. In short, it’s not 5-star cuisine, but it is very good, and more than satisfying for a bunch of hungry divers. Juice and a selection of sodas are available at all times and are included in the price.
I would like to have seen the crew given more of an introduction at the start of the trip, but they were hardworking and fun, as Egyptian crews almost always are. Immensely helpful (to the point I had to ask them to be helpful somewhere else) and generally respectful of gear and cameras. All equipment is tagged and numbered according to each diver and their spot on the dive deck, and faithfully returned to its rightful place. Tanks were filled appropriately and I don’t recall hearing any complaints about short tanks or incorrect nitrox mixtures.
If I had a criticism, it was that some of the RIB pilots needed to pay more attention to what was going on underwater. There were a couple of complaints of close proximity and one of them drove off with an anchor line that my buddy and I were holding onto at the time. This is pretty much par for the course in the Egyptian Red Sea, but nevertheless slightly disappointing in what was an otherwise sterling crew performance.
It was epic. Returning to the Red Sea was, for me, like going home, and the crew of the Blue Melody made me feel exactly that. I did a quick survey of the divers and the one thing that came in for the most criticism anybody was actually the lasagne we had for dinner one evening. It was very tasty, but also more salty than the Red Sea itself.
Adding up the numbers gave an average rating for the trip of 4.75/5 from the guests on board, and I agree. Minor niggles which happen on dive boats, nothing insurmountable, super-friendly atmosphere, and - with the exception of that issue with the currents - near perfect diving.
Will I continue to recommend Blue o Two as my top choice for a liveaboard operator in the Red Sea? Absolutely.