It all looks deceptively calm now, but when you opt for adventurous liveaboard diving, life on the ocean waves can get rough. Pack those sea legs, but above all pick the right boat, says John Bantin
Another wave crashed across the bow, spilling down the decks and washing out of the stern scuppers. As dive guide, I sat as usual at one end of the long central table that was securely fixed to the dive deck and fielded the occasional passenger who found themselves swept past me. The sounds of crashing furniture came from the saloon and we knew that it was going to be spag bol yet again for dinner. Suddenly, and due to a momentary lapse in concentration, I too lost my footing and was swept into the stern locker, just as its lid was conveniently lifted by the water. A maritime disaster? No, just another day in 1992, travelling between the off-shore reefs and islands of the Red Sea on the Lady Jenny V. This was a vessel with a quirky reputation for reliability. Built in Bremen in 1936, its skinny hull tended to corkscrew in a following sea, but it was made of strong German steel and took a lot of pounding during its long and eventful life. Sometimes, when we travelled north into the prevailing wind and waves, the GPS displayed 'ETA - never!' indicating that we were going backwards. Amazingly, few of the passengers were ever seasick. In those days, there were only a handful of liveaboards in the Red Sea. The offshore islands and reefs were exclusively visited by a few hardy souls in European-flagged boats who braved Force 8-10 winds for some spectacular diving.
Bargain basement The world has changed since then, nowhere more so than in the world of diving. Once the Egyptians discovered their own asset in the underwater Red Sea, hundreds of local boats, working at cut-price rates, squeezed the foreigners out. Most of these vessels were locally built and were simple developments of wooden fishing vessels. They cruised around the inshore reefs, protected from the northern desert wind and the waves that made the Red Sea infamous with international mariners plying the open water between the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal. However, dive sites like the Brother Islands, Daedalus Reef and Rocky Island had already made their reputations and it was not long before the local boats found that there was a demand for trips out to them. It seems that, in Arabic, the words 'screw' and 'nail' are one and the same. Vessels designed to navigate calm waters safely were soon found to be sadly lacking in construction and design when faced with the more daunting prospect of the open sea. Some literally fell apart during the journey, and the Egyptian military became involved in more expensive rescues than it would have wished. So it put the offshore sites out-of-bounds for reasons of security - the security of the passengers who wanted to go there. Three years ago. I went on the then-new my Oyster (then masquerading as Peter Hughes' Moon Dancer) and was impressed by its Lloyds A+100 steel hull, powerful Caterpillar engines and generally good sea-keeping qualities. However, I was critical at the time that it just trolled around behind inferior wooden boats to all the local Hurghada reefs. This year I went on Oyster again but this time to the Brother Islands, a trip for which it was obviously designed.
Abyssal adventure If the diving world has changed, it is because the customers have changed. Many of the growing numbers of modern-day divers now expect swimming-pool conditions as a matter of course, and to meet animals as easily as they could in an aquarium. They certainly do not expect to put up with any hardship, and the Brothers represent an adventurous destination. The Brother Islands are a solitary outpost, rising like twin towers from the abyssal depths. As such, they draw pelagic wildlife like a magnet. It is here that you will meet grey reef sharks browsing among the gorgonians along the reef walls. Further out in the blue water, you will always encounter something special, whether it be a pod of dolphins with escorting sharks, the magnificence of an oceanic whitetip with a cluster of pilotfish keeping precise station at its nose, or a group of thresher sharks, with their curiously long tails. You might not get close enough to come back with a crisply recorded photograph, but a sighting of this order is always a heart-stopping event. There are two wreck sites at Big Brother. At the northern end are the remnants of an ancient steam vessel that was carrying parts of a railway train. The wreck has been almost fully integrated with the reef now, but a couple of massive wheels still stand proud and recognisable. There is usually a current running here, but the same thing that makes diving slightly uncomfortable encourages luxuriant coral growth and teeming numbers of small fish.
Fascinating Aida The other wreck is the Aida. This was a troopship that is said to have collided with the reef wall in 1957. It sits in deep water with its shallowest part at more than 30m and looks enticing, all covered in corals. However, few divers visit it because it is so deep, and most make do with a distant view as they swim by at shallower depths. There is a Victorian-built lighthouse atop the island and a visit to this and the men who man it, themselves always glad of a break from the monotony of watching a big light rotate, can be a welcome break from either always being in the water or having a moving deck beneath your feet. There is little shelter here from the north-west wind and the sea it produces. A single vessel can moor in the lee of either island but it is not a comfortable place to stay. Other vessels have to make do by either hanging off the stern of the first to arrive or stand off the whole time with engines running. Either way, it is important to be with a boat that is up to the task. Oyster provides luxurious cabins with plenty of fresh water in en-suite facilities, three chefs for excellent and varied menus, full facilities for photographers, two dive guides, nitrox supplies, two pick-up boats, a spacious dive deck as well as two other decks for relaxing, and warm towels after the hot showers available immediately on coming back on board. It also provides that important element of safety in that it can obviously take any weather thrown at it by the Red Sea. I can vouch for the fact that it rolls and pitches little, thanks to its 140 tonnes of steel, and beamy design. However, good as it is, Oyster is a boat and the sea is still the sea. The only cure for seasickness is to avoid going on boats. They all rock and roll, no matter how good their sea-keeping qualities. Once you are at an offshore site such as the Brother Islands, you still have to make that return journey, whatever the change in the weather. You cannot just switch off the experience like a television and settle back in your armchair. If you plan to go to the offshore reefs and islands, be sure to choose a boat that is up to the job. Ask if it has a steel hull and twin engines. Pay the extra if necessary. And take your Kwells.
The agent for my Oyster is Goldenjoy Sports, 0207 794 9767