There are few singular places on the planet that that can represent a whole spectrum of diving but here is the one that always gets my adrenalin pumping...
By Bob Whorton
Well, it had been 18 months since my last visit to the Brother Islands, so my invitation from Neil Plowman of Scubaway met with resounding affirmation. Since October 1999 the amount of boats ‘qualifying’ for these Marine Park jewels has increased ten-fold and I was keen to see just how much of an impact it was having on this unique marine environment.
Having been expertly and smoothly delivered to the ever-changing Hurghada Airport by the crew of the Monarch 757, visa stamps were getting licked and the well-behaved line of people moved steadily though the much improved arrivals hall under the heady scent of nicotine withdrawal rectification.
It’s always a good omen at the beginning of a trip when your entire luggage appears on the belt in front of you. Targeting the “Scubaway” sign held high by an old friend signalled that the cogs of efficiency were turning, and slowly but surely the whole group assembled outside the building... quite a mixture of folk; all pleasant and as eager as myself to get in the water. Just a quick bus transfer and we were stepping onboard the huge ‘Shalkamy Explorer 1’. Within moments everyone had his or her spacious cabin, donned ‘Safari-gear’ and began assembling their diving gear on the well-appointed dive deck. Some of the equipment sparkling, still fresh from the annual LIDS car boot sale.
The Not-so-Cunning Plan...
Mohammed the dive guide presented an eloquent briefing and after assessing the capabilities of the group via logbooks and certification (in that order!) he hatched a plan where we could sail directly to the Brothers to beat the rush. There were 10 boats with permission to dive the Brothers that week so an edge was needed to get in at least a couple of quiet dives on ‘Big Bro’ and getting prime mooring on Lil’ Bro’ before the hoards of ‘Storm Bubblers’ and ‘Disconaughts’ arrived on the following Sunday.
Not quite sure what the delay was but we were eventually on our way south and east by 06.00 with not another boat in sight... “More time to sleep eh!” At 11.30 the Victorian lighthouse station on Big Brother (Built in 1860) stood out on the hazy horizon like a giants finger.
However, arriving at 13.15 hearts sank as we discovered a boat full of ‘Free French’ type’s hat had sneaked out under the vale of darkness the night before (something they are now quite infamous for - Rainbow Warrior springs to mind eh). All we could hear was “kweek, kweek zee Anglaise irrivez: Plongee-Plongee! Followed then by organised chaos on the dive deck as they rubbered-up.
The sea was quiet, just a slight chop so it was suggested we did our first dive on this large wreck on the northern end of the island and by 14.15 we were rolling off the two zodiacs, and drifting westward towards the coral covered flanks of the wreck.
The near-upright 45-degree attitude of this wreck lends drama and emphasizes the length of her 120m hull. The British registered ship carrying engineering supplies and locomotive axels hit the reef in dense fog during the 1920’s. Colliding with the reef at a fair speed her bow carved a V-in the reef top badly rupturing the bow section. As water flooded the aft sections of the hull she split leaving the bow on the reef and the majority slid slowly down the north wall into its final resting position. The restraining chains that helped steady her can still be seen now enhanced with a floral tribute. The time between collision and sinking was more than enough to get all of the crew safely ashore and no loss of life was reported. The wreck was salvaged several years after its demise but plenty of the cargo remains strewn around the top of the reef
The wreck has provided the marine environment an even better opportunity to showcase its ability to beautify, allowing even more growing space for acres of hard & pretty soft coral’s, they cover almost its entire surface from 3M all the way down to 86M. The clarity of water in this area of the Red Sea allowing enough ambient light to travel to well over 100m, and the strong upwelling brings a constant supply of nutrients on which the coral has thrived.
Diving the wreck is an enchanting experience and I am happy to report that the corals are even more profuse than in Oct 99, but as always the sea, surge and currents will dictate the ease and practicality. A 40m-depth restriction (Cough-cough) only allows access to the upper mid section superstructure, but this is an elegant part of the wreck, with davits, rails and cabin covered in a rainbow of colour. Below, the mid section gantry can be seen sloping upwards and backwards surrounded by a host of fish. In fact as one looks up into the shallows the whole outline seems to shift beneath an orange mist of anthias. The shallows provide some exceptional opportunities to observe schooling Jack, Snapper and an abundance of reef fish. Here two masked butterfly fish played hide & seek between the spokes of a loco wheel, whilst in amongst the corals leopard blenny looked curiously back... a really pretty fish too. The extreme location of the wreck and the currents can present sightings of various big sharks including the unmistakeable Hammerhead.
After lunch we were mooring on Little Brother’s optimum mooring position, I was especially anxious to get in the water here, as this reef has been an all-time favourite for me, and I regard it as possibly the best in the world... but don’t take my word for it!
The southern wall of this reef is stunning, soft coral in every colour imaginable hanging from every overhang and standing on every rock, but that’s not all... This site has probably the most pristine collection of giant gorgonia to be seen in the Northern Red Sea, stretching from 15m – 68m in depth. On this occasion each gorgonia sheltered an assortment of species including numerous Long Nosed Hawkfish, banded pipefish and baby wrasse species. Several Cornet fish used the cover in order to discretely pick-off any of a cloud of anthias within reach, and a pretty lionfish hung vertically in the shadows of that late afternoon trying to do the same routine, with some success too. Above us swam the resident female grey shark, observing our small group before slipping out into the dim extremes of the visibility and away.
Several large overhangs on the south eastern corner are festooned with soft coral and are home to docile nocturnes such as squirrelfish and soldier fish. The eastern wall has many more exquisitely decorated overhangs fringed with various types of hard coral and sea fans, the latter tipped with various crinoids. Our dive here saw us gathering in hundreds of meters of nylon fishing line discarded after it became rapped around several hard corals no doubt. Channels have been carved into the side of the wall by the force of the strong upwelling stream bringing cooler water from the depths. At certain times of the day the water temperature here can drop as much as 5 degrees below ambient as fresh nutrients are pumped up from the colder depths, and hence the profusion of gorgonia and soft corals. Almost always a large school of black & white snapper will cruise the walls in this area during daylight, then retreat into the safety of the wall at night turning jet black as they do. Several large barracuda loitered in the shallows around the wall receiving a service from a host of cleaner wrasse.
The North Point of little brother has always been a good location for observing Hammerheads and the following morning proved no exception as the group saw several accompanied by their group of grey shark minders. It is important to note that if you’re daft enough to try and get too close to the hammerheads the greys will make you wish you hadn’t. This Bodyguard characteristic is also evident in other parts of the Red sea too.
Hammerheads and Greys are not the only sharks to be observed from this point; several threshers use the line of a 70m ridge to migrate between the two islands and can be spotted frequently heading off in the direction of big brother.
During the few days we were moored off little brother the wind strengthened and the sea became rough, which, couldn’t have happened at a worse time for several hundred tiny entities.... The brothers provide a waypoint for sand martins heading north from east Africa towards Europe. These poor little birds weighing only a few grams were finding it difficult to fight the wind, several going down into the sea. One individual flew onto the Shalkami 1 and hid inside the lounge, but within hours had died of exhaustion... If there is a God he has a sick sense of humour eh?
We took this as an omen, if you like and headed off to Big Brother the next morning, the passage was rough but nothing the boat couldn’t handle.
The two dives we were to complete were concentrated in the lea of the weather on the west wall enabling exploration of the Aida II. This wreck like the Namibia is beautifully overgrown with pretty soft corals and some artistic photography can be realised against a backdrop of deep blue or upwards to take in the bright sun. Although not as big as the Namibia, the Aida II is just as rewarding a dive with plenty of places to explore and a constant movement of life to marvel at. Sinking after a collision in the early 50’s whilst carrying Egyptian troops, again in dense fog the ships demise was identical to its neighbour. The forward section of the hull, although degraded is still visible at the surface and on the reef 9m below. The bulk sliding backwards to it’s final resting position between 25m & 65m below. During the groups dive on the wreck two hammerheads swam above them in the shallows at just 15m... a nice surprise rounding off a wonderful dive.
On the next dive I was to get a nice surprise as we rounded the point from the Namibia towards the Aida II. The larger of the Thresher sharks appeared out of the blue above the narrow plateau at 45m; amazingly it came within just a few meters of us as we hovered just above...gob smacked! It is very unusual for a thresher to approach closely to divers, maybe its instincts told it we were ‘piscatarian... we won’t eat fish! Whatever the reason the shark provided a magnificent display of poetic movement highlighted by beautiful iridescent flanks, and the large eyes making the cutest face of any shark.
Ascending from the dive the sea had become noticeably worse, the wind blown swell reaching almost two meters. (One reason I always carry a ‘Mother-buoy’) Back on the Shalkamy 1 it was decided to head back for the mainland in case the weather worsened... A good decision I might add, as the groups that remained at the Brothers couldn’t dive due to the unsafe conditions. We on the other hand carried on as normal from Safaga up to Hurghada in relative safety, which proves the experience and good judgement of at least one guide in the Red Sea.
A question I am regularly asked is “What is your favourite dive site anywhere in the world?”
Well, the Brothers in my opinion is still the best all-round dive sight in the world for one simple reason; it provides the thrills of every aspect of diving in one small place amid some of the best coral growth and surrounded by the largest marine life imaginable.
It made me happy to see that this wonderful place has survived the latest onslaught, and apart from the odd well-worn current handle has greatly improved.
The Brother Islands - Egyptian Red Sea
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