There are so many options when it comes to diving the Red Sea in Egypt – you could stay in a resort and explore the waters of Sharm El Sheikh or spend a day or two visiting the sites around Hurghada. But if you’re comfortable with drift diving and welcome the challenge, get on a liveaboard and dive the Southern Red Sea, especially the iconic Brothers Islands. Christopher Bartlett did just that, and we know curious you wants to find out if a trip to this dive destination is worth it.
After six years of almost only diving from RIBs and spreading my clothes around my house, villa, or hotel room, I’d decided it was time to see if I’d enjoy a week on a boat with a bunch of strangers. As a frequent solo traveller, I wondered whether the close confines of a cabin with a random snorer would see me sleeping on the deck by the second night. The allure of remote dive sites, unreachable by day boat, was strong enough for me to give it a go.
About 68 kilometres off the Egyptian coast, the Brothers Islands rise up from the floor of the Red Sea, 800 metres below, forming two small flat tabletops, surrounded by steeply sloping fringing reefs. The larger of the two seamounts, the cunningly named Big Brother, is approximately 300 metres long. It’s one kilometre from its sibling, has a lighthouse, a 12-man army garrison, and would be a great location for a back-to-basics series of the reality TV show of the same name. With the Brothers having the only reefs around, and being washed by strong, nutrient-rich currents, I was attracted by their reported combination of soft corals, pelagics, and sharks – not to mention two good-condition wrecks.
Covering six metres of the eight-metres width of the MY Blue Pearl, the mid-ship dining area had an open plan affair adjoining the lounge that led onto the outdoor dive prep area at the stern. My fellow shipmates, all liveaboard veterans and mostly return customers, were an eclectic, if slightly Germanic bunch: a German-Dutch couple; two German father-and-son combos; an Austrian quartet made up of a father, his son, the son’s wife and a friend. The 12th man was James, a middle-aged, Libyan-based Scottish teacher, and naturally, my buddy.
Just the beginning
I awoke to the sound of water lapping gently on the hull below my open cabin portholes, the early-morning light peeping in. From the deck, Big Brother and its Victorian lighthouse took on a red-brown hue as we boarded two RIBs and headed to the northern tip of the island. The legendary currents appeared absent from the surface, but we did a negative buoyancy entry and went straight down to 10 metres, meeting up above the beginning of the wreck of the SS Numidia, claimed to be one of the best wrecks in the Red Sea. She certainly looked huge and in good condition, given she had spent more than a century exposed in her current-washed resting place.
Built in Glasgow in 1901, the 140-metre long, 6,400-ton Numidia was on her voyage out of Liverpool bound for Calcutta with 7,000 tons of railway and general cargo when in the early hours of July 20, Big Brother’s lighthouse was sighted off the port bow and the captain ordered a slight change of course to continue south passing alongside the island before retiring to his cabin. Fortunately for us, his orders were misinterpreted and the ship ploughed straight into the northern tip of the island. No lives were lost, and much of the cargo was salvaged, but the ship went down, her keel digging into a rocky ledge. Now, she sits on a steep slope, her bow melded into the top of the reef, her stern some 72 metres below.
Hanging back, I let the others descend to try to add some scale to my pictures, capturing the lifeboat davits and the remains of the foremast in the centre of deck with a wide-angle lens as the group inspected the remains of the bridge and the engine room. Still, no image can convey quite how impressive this wreck is, dropping into the deep blue depths.
Descending to join the group, going close to the wreck, I saw it was covered in soft corals and awash with burgundy and white striped Red Sea anthias and lionfish, accustomed to strong currents, sheltering inside. On this day, there was no need, with no current and good visibility; conditions were ideal and we spent the whole dive there, ascending past some coral-encrusted rolling stock bogies at 10 meres, before being picked up by the RIBs and taken back for breakfast.
After catching a few rays on the sun deck, Pia and Mimo said it was time for a shark hunt on the southern plateau. As we were moored off the southern tip and in the absence of current, we would giant-stride off the rear deck and return to the boat at the end. Starting at a depth of 20 metres and sloping down to 40 metres, the plateau is a hotspot for thresher sharks. As we reached 25 metres, Mimo’s arm shot out, finger extended towards the unmistakable scythe-like tail of a thresher shark swimming through a school of fusiliers.It stayed within view for a couple of minutes before we lost it. We hung around 28 metres as long as our 30 percent nitrox mix would allow us, spotting a distant thresher twice more, before ascending to the top of the reef and chilling out with the sohal surgeonfish.
The next five days followed the same pattern: dive, breakfast, relax, dive, lunch, relax, dive, dinner, relax. Due to the normally strong currents, the isolated nature of the location, and the considerable presence of sharks, there is no night diving around the Brothers. In fact, on most nights, we didn’t need to get in the water to see them anyway. Whether you agree or not, it is accepted practice on liveaboards to throw organic waste overboard in the evening, and the sharks seemed to be in on it, especially at Little Brothers. Leaning on the side rails with the crew after dinner, we often saw oceanic whitetips and silky sharks patrolling around the boat.
Big Brother’s other iconic dive site is the Aida wreck, a 75-metre supply vessel built in France in 1911 that sank on September 15, 1957, when resupplying the lighthouse and Egyptian army garrison stationed there. Approaching the jetty in heavy seas, she was slammed onto the rocks and abandoned immediately. After drifting north slightly, she went down south of the Numidia, just past the end of the island. Her bows no longer exist, but from her midships at 25 metres to her stern at 60 metres, she is in excellent condition, adorned with purple soft corals and hard corals, anthias, morays and the usual reef dwellers.
The Aida wreck was the last dive of the second day, and the first dive the next morning when a decent, probably two-knot current helped us onto the Numidia and then along the wall past a large school of black snapper hanging on the corner of the reef. They were two very different dives.
The first was a gentle meander around the hull and spars, taking time to look for nudibranchs and smaller critters in the soft coral, admiring the balletic skills of the butterflyfish and the peaceful meanderings of a coral grouper. The second was a game of hide and seek, staying in the hold space to avoid the current sweeping over the old supply ship, her inhabitants now being fed by the seaborne nutrients. Allowing sufficient remaining bottom time, we popped up and moved away, rushed along Big Brother in an exhilarating ride, an invisible conveyor belt moving us to the next wreck. By now, our nitrogen buildup meant we had to stay too shallow to be able to duck into the hold for protection, so we continued our easy ride round to the corner of the reef, where the current abated and let us potter around in the shallows.The walls of Big Brother were also home to a friendly, 90-centimetre female Napoleon wrasse called Mousie. After another successful thresher-spotting trip over the southern plateau, Mousie and I flirted gently for a few minutes; infatuation was sadly cut short by my dive computer and my buddy’s air consumption, but I reckon I’d scored.
On our last Big Brother dive, we had good south-to-north current, and no sooner had we dropped in than we were greeted by a giant manta, approximately four metres across, riding the current and flanked by a barracuda, closely followed by three grey reef sharks. The action wasn’t over: As we enjoyed our underwater cruise, a 1.2-metre male Napoleon came amongst the divers, creating a scene akin to a publicity-starved celebrity (quite appropriate given the location) willingly posing for the paparazzi. He left abruptly, diving fast, to chase off a small grey reef shark sniffing around his patch. Moving north, cornet fish hugged our tanks, using us for streamlining and cover, as they looked for prey to ambush amongst the schools of anthias while we found pipefish amongst the gorgonians. As we moved closer to the surface, a manta cruised along below to bid us farewell. Big Brother had been excellent – could Little Brother follow suit?
It had two days to outdo its sibling and it did not disappoint. After an uneventful 15 minutes deep in the blue looking for sharks, we moved closer to the wall. A quarter of an hour later we had seen a male grey reef shark, two threshers, a curiously confident silky shark, and had been entertained by an even bigger male Napoleon wrasse.
We off-gassed with black-tongue unicornfish having parasites removed by cleaner wrasse, pufferfish, moray eels, orangespine unicornfish, barracudas and an octopus, thanks to the remarkably still waters. The icing on the considerable cake was provided by an oceanic whitetip and its accompanying pilot fish that came by to say hello.
The last four dives were just as impressive. The male Napoleon wrasse was often under the boat waiting to tag along on a dive, the pregnant reef shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) seemed to live near the mooring site, and the threshers milled around to the south below a magnificent gorgonian forest, home to a longnosed hawkfish, round the corner from a section of wall festooned with broccoli-like soft corals. In the normally washing machine-like shallows, we off-gassed with black-tongue unicornfish having parasites removed by cleaner wrasse, pufferfish, moray eels, orangespine unicornfish, barracudas and an octopus, thanks to the remarkably still waters. The icing on the considerable cake was provided by an oceanic whitetip and its accompanying pilot fish that came by to say hello.It would’ve been unfair to expect the final day’s diving in Safaga to compare, but “Panorama Reef” had interesting seven-metre-high mountain-like dome coral formations, anemonefish and two turtles. The snorkelling boats at Tobia Arbaà also provided much amusement from above and below the surface, and the shallow waters of the goldie covered coral bommies were also home to blue spotted stingrays and lionfish. Rather than being a letdown, these sites, two of the best in the area, served as a reminder of how spoilt we had been.
The whole experience had been excellent. Moreover, there was plenty of room on the boat, and I spent so little time in my cabin awake that sharing would have been no problem. The constant sound of the ocean was soothing and we never had to share dive sites with another group. In fact, each buddy team often went at its own pace and James and I were frequently alone at the end of a dive, hanging out with the fish. In short, I can safely say that I am a liveaboard convert and would thoroughly recommend a trip to the Brothers.
Getting there: Fly into Cairo and take a connecting flight to either Hurghada or Marsa Alam; you will meet the boat at Port Ghalib.
Best time to dive: From March through September water temperature ranges from 24–30°C.
Dive with: Blue Planet Liveaboards
Currency: Egyptian pound (EGP); USD 1 : 7 EGP
Time zone: UTC/GMT +2
Languages: Arabic, English
This article was first published in Asian Diver Issue 3/2015, Volume 138.
Two ways to read our magazines: they’re available both in print and online. Find out more and subscribe today!