Napoleon wrasse at Little Brother.

WRECKS IN CLEAR WATER, reefs teeming with life, big animal encounters; thats what we all want. No wonder so many people have headed off to the Egyptian Red Sea to dive some of the best dive sites in the world.
I went on a dive charter with Emperor Divers on the itinerary it calls Famous Five. Why it is called that, I dont know. We actually visited six of the best sites in the Northern Red Sea!
I joined Emperor Tranquility and a group of happy-go-lucky 6ft Belgians and their 9ft tall Dutch friend, a Sicilian girl with her rejected and dejected Spanish boyfriend, and a big macho Mexican dive-shop owner with his decorative Spanish girlfriend.

BROTHER ISLANDS
Out in the middle of the Red Sea, the two Brothers are rocky outposts guarded by a small garrison from the Egyptian army and a few lighthouse-keepers. They would be very lonely if it were not for the liveaboards that arrive on a regular basis.
The wrecks of the 19th century British freighter Numidia and the old lighthouse-supply vessel Aida at the bigger Brother remind us of how wrong things can go for vessels here, while giving us interesting sites to dive.
Two mountain peaks crowned with coral, the Brothers attract passing pelagic creatures drawn from the deep by the up-welling currents that strike these obstacles. The nutrients they carry feed luxuriant growth of colourful soft corals, and the hard corals at the core of the food chain that supports a host of territorial fish, including Napoleon wrasse, with their fantastic facial markings.
Both wrecks, with what remains of their stern halves inclined at steep angles where they slipped down the reef slope, are festooned in colour. Watch out for big tuna patrolling out in the blue, and sharks - grey reefs, sometimes schooling hammerheads, pretty little threshers down deep and oceanic whitetips cruising just below the surface in a constant quest for food. Its the same on the tongue of reef that juts out from the smaller Brother Island.

RAS MOHAMMED
Ras Mohammed National Marine Park is probably the most visited of Egyptian dive sites. Positioned where the Gulf of Aqaba meets the Gulf of Suez, it is subject to strong and unpredictable water flows. These attract masses of pelagic species that predate on the reef fish, which in turn hide among the flourishing hard and soft corals.
Look out for tight schooling barracuda in the blue, massed Bohar snapper, close-packed batfish, giant moray eels and large male Napoleon wrasse that cruise close to divers, and must recall fondly the days when divers fed them snacks. Thats banned now.
Sites such as Eel Garden, Jackfish Alley and Anemone City, with its great colonies of anemone and dominofish, are all worth visiting. But the keynote dive is along the wall of Shark Reef, culminating in a visit to the original site of the Jolanda wreck, now fallen off the reef into very deep water and leaving behind only remains of a couple of containers and a pile of sanitary ware.

SHAAB ABU NUHAS
I remember showing pictures of the entire stern section of the 1980s Greek freighter Giannis D to a stunned audience at my dive club. Their experience up to that point had been of seeing only a few metres of UK wreck at a time.
Non-divers tend to think that every shipwreck has glided gently to the seabed and lies there looking as if its still steaming along. If only. Still, its nice to see all the wreckage, rather than to simply feel it with your head!
The Red Sea has always been part of the important sea route to the East. Before the Suez Canal was built, people travelled overland from Port Said to Suez, from where P&O sailing ships set off for the second leg of the journey.
We can thank the long period of peace after the Napoleonic wars, when Britannia really did rule the waves, for giving Royal Navy commanders such as Admiral Moresby the chance to chart the worlds oceans.
In the Red Sea its largely Moresbys data that navigators still use. Even today, many topographical features are still known by the names he gave them rather than by Egyptian names.
Thomas, Woodhouse, Jackson and Gordon reefs in the Straits of Tiran are named after his cartographers and, further south, the Elphinstone is named after his boss, Lord Elphinstone.
Shag Rock was named after the resident seabirds rather than any fond memories the good commander might have had of it.
Moresby might have named Shaab Abu Nuhas after the Prince Regent, because it was big and fat and always getting in the way, but that reef had yet to make itself known to mariners.
Today its the graveyard of four vessels - or more, if you believe some wreck experts! Arguments may rage about their identities, though Im sure the Chrisoula K is among them because I remember reading this written on her bow shortly after she ran aground and long before she broke up and sank.
Chrisoula K is still often referred to as the Tile Wreck after its cargo, while the nearby Lentil Wreck, of similar 1980s vintage, is identified as the Kimon M.
The Bottles Wreck was an old P&O steam sailing vessel loaded with curiously teardrop-shaped tonic-water bottles. In the 19th century, quinine and drinks that contained it were the only perceived defence against malaria, hence the popularity of gin and tonic in the British Raj, once the sun had gone down over the yardarm.
In the 1980s, divers would rummage in the bottom of this wreck for intact bottles, a practice that would be frowned upon today. Funnily enough, while we were all working up to our arms in the silt, the captain of our liveaboard was systematically looting the brass portholes, angel lamps and other fittings, including the compass binnacle.
These are presumably now hidden in a garden shed in Oxford, and will stay there until, I guess, he decides to run a pub and call it the Carnatic.
When the Red Seas Carnatic ran aground, her officers and passengers camped on top of the reef and simply waited to be rescued by the next passing P&O ship. Alas, the vessel slipped off the reef once the weather blew up, taking with it some unlucky Asian seamen working below decks.
Twenty years after being discovered by divers, she may be a shadow of its former glorious self, but it still has a very pretty glazed transom and an intact bowsprit.
You can still swim between the heavy steel spars that used to support teak decks, and are now encased in colourful corals.

THISTLEGORM
This British ship, sunk by enemy action in 1941, must be the best-known shipwreck to European divers. Documented by Jacques Cousteau in his book The Living Sea in the 1950s, it came onto divers radar only in 1993, when DIVER published an article on it.
The wrecks position was previously known only to an Israeli skipper called Shimshon and, in the days before GPS, he had to use transits from a very distant shore. No one asked what we were doing when he took our tiny group there in autumn 1992, but the secret couldnt be kept for long.
Once a dive boat from Hurghada had turned up and the underwater world was shattered by the noise of hammers and crowbars, I knew it was time to tell all.
Shimshon has long since retreated back to Israel, and the Thistlegorm has spawned its own new legends.
I regret that I was not such a proficient underwater photographer in those days and my record of how she was is incomplete, but then I didnt expect the Egyptian diving industry to expand as exponentially as it did.
An isolated outpost in an otherwise uninspiring seabed around Shaab Ali, the Thistlegorm formed a welcome haven for wildlife, including schooling barracuda and blacktip sharks. Huge wreckfish loitered in her holds. After dark, the space under her stern was occupied by dozens of startlingly hued Red Sea grouper roosting for the night.
Washed by a fairly strong current at times, her rails above decks were covered in multicoloured soft corals. Jacques Cousteau had taken the bell and moved a couple of motorbikes, but otherwise her cargo of war materiel still lay much as he had left it.
There were motorbikes loaded onto the backs of flat-top trucks, Tilleys (a precursor to the Jeep), a generator truck, heavy haulage and Gloucester Gladiator parts, two Stannier freight steam engines with their tenders and water wagons and, of course, tons of ordnance.
Ill never forget seeing one divers face after he had hammered the end off a mysterious-looking steel box, only to find he had been hammering on the percussion end of four large shells!
There were racks and racks of Enfield 303 rifles and lots of valve radios. The galley was much as the cook had left it.

THINGS SOON CHANGED.
I was disappointed that so many visiting divers chose to rip windscreen wipers off trucks and filler-caps from motorcycle tanks as souvenirs. All the toolkits from under the bike saddles went missing.
Today, wreck details have been pulled apart as ignorant dive-guides have tied mooring lines to any convenient point, including cargo. Fifteen years after my initial diving experience, the damage is now so massive that I hardly recognise some parts.
Not before time, mooring buoys are now being provided. Thistlegorm still has its core contents and remains a good dive for the hundreds of divers who visit each week. The Mexican dive-shop owner confided in me after his first dive on the wreck that it was one of the top six dives hed ever done.

ROSALIE MOLLER
Near Little Shadwan Island, the Rosalie Moller went down after an attack by German bombers only two days after the Thistlegorm was hit. This is a very different ship, however, a collier built at the beginning of the 20th century and carrying nothing more glamorous than Welsh coal.
This wreck also sits upright on the seabed but rather deeper, with 40m dives the norm. Divers plan decompression-stop dives and a route to the surface that will keep them safe from drifting off in the current and being struck by other dive boats.
Visibility is not so good here, and its not helped by the wreck being shrouded by tiny fish and the bigger ones, including gangs of lionfish, that feed on them. Its an interesting dive, but can be rather monochromatic.

SALEM EXPRESS
The loss of the Salem Express was one of the modern worlds worst shipping disasters. The roll-on roll-off ferry, carrying as many as 1500 people from Jeddah to Safaga, hit the reef and popped its front door open, shovelling in water and going down in minutes.
More people are said to have lost their lives than died aboard the Titanic, but few people are aware of this, because these were ordinary pilgrims travelling back from Mecca, not rich Europeans travelling to America. Egyptians still have strong feelings about people diving this wreck, so treat it with respect.
Merely swimming around the outside of this modern ship, seeing the forward door forced open by the impact and the lifeboats there was no time to deploy, brings a great feeling of sadness.
Personal possessions lie on the piles of corrugated plastic put up to protect those passengers sleeping on deck from the early-morning dew. Would we dive the Herald of Free Enterprise, or the Estonia, in this way
Limited penetration is possible, although the Egyptian Navy has blocked off many passageways.
You can pass down a companionway past a couple of delivery-mileage cars to the main car-deck, where you will see a truck and a mechanical digger, and back along another passage piled high with luggage.
The magnitude and personal nature of the disaster gives pause for thought.

A GLANCE AT THE MAP shows that the dive areas I mention as my six of the best are spaced well apart, but with modern, comfortable, steel-hulled vessels such as Emperor Tranquility and the low cost of marine diesel fuel, subsidised by the Egyptian government to one-tenth of the normal international price, you can enjoy them all in a week without breaking the bank.
At 46m long, Emperor Tranquility is probably the largest and most luxurious vessel operating these charters. She is also fast and stable enough to cover a wide area. Famous Five scores six!

  • John Bantin travelled on a Famous Five itinerary with Emperor Divers courtesy of Crystal Holidays. Emperor Tranquility picks up passengers at Hurghada, Safaga and, as of 2008, Sharm el Sheikh. A typical eight-day package starts from 900 through Crystal Dive, www.crystaldive, 0870 1451373

  • The
    The Giannis D
    BSA
    BSA motorbikes on Bedford trucks - part of the Thistlegorms cargo of war supplies
    Personal
    Personal effects of up to 1500 fatalities are scattered on the seabed around the Salem Express.
    Divernet