Gold, Silver & Bronze
Divernet
Are these Egypts best natural dive sites John Bantin raises the question after taking a liveaboard south and getting reacquainted with the Brothers islands and Daedalus and Elphinstone Reefs

The Red Sea is a unique body of water in that it is, in most parts, very deep for its width. Its an extension of the African Rift, a deep crack caused by the continents of Africa and Asia slowly pulling apart. It has always seen evidence of lots of seismic activity, not least at El Akhawein, translated from Arabic as the Brother Islands.

The Brothers are all that remains of the tops of two volcanoes that burst up from the seabed millions of years ago. These two massive reef pillars lie about 33 nautical miles from the town of El Quesir on the Egyptian coast, and as such form lonely outposts in very deep water.
     They draw pelagic life. Animals come either to clean or to feed, or simply to relish the currents that flow across the tongues of reef that extend out under water from each pillar.I first went there 14 years ago in springtime, and the temporary plankton bloom was so intense that I swam round in a thick green fog, startled by equally surprised grey reef sharks into which we nearly crashed on the way.
     I couldnt say I knew the place until I returned later, and neither can I promise that the water will always be as gin-clear as it normally is, but Ive been back many times since.
     Theres a British-built lighthouse on Big Brother. Its one of a series that guide seafarers through the Red Sea from the south at Bab el-Mandab to Suez.
     It may be automatic now, but it still has an Egyptian crew to man it. They spend their time nowadays smoking hubble-bubble and selling souvenir T-shirts to the visitors who brave the climb up their rickety landing stage. Theres also a small military garrison.
     Under water at the southern end is a long reef plateau covered in corals of all types, hard and soft, that luxuriate in the flow of water. The northern end, too, is subject to strong flows, and the wreck of the ss Numidia offers shelter in its lee for those who want to hover around taking photographs.
     The vessel collided with the island during a trip between Liverpool and Calcutta at the turn of the 20th century. It now lies at a steep angle so that, although it is shallow enough at one end, the visiting diver should be careful not to stray deeper than planned.
     The stern at 70m is well beyond the reach of the air-breathing diver.
     Before it was properly identified, it was known as the Railway Wreck because of the enormous steam-engine drive wheels that can still be seen in its foredeck area. Victorian engineering at its best, it will be a long time yet before they show much sign of deterioration.
     Along the western side are the more recent remains of mv Aida II. Its arguable whether she was an Italian troop transport or a lighthouse supply ship that foundered here in a stormin 1957.
     This wreck too has colourful soft corals growing luxuriantly on its rails.
     Although the hulk sits deep at 30m and more, Aida II was less sturdily built than the Numidia, and there are signs that she might soon break up completely through the effects of winter.
     Ive often observed the Aida II lying deep below me as I passed by in the shallows after a dive on the Numidia but, after all these years, it was only recently that I began a dive there.
     Dont attempt to visit both wrecks on the same dive unless you have massive gas supplies and intend to do long decompression stops!
     Little Brother is nothing more than a large, flat-topped rock. Under water it has a long tongue of reef that stretches out at the northern end, and the flow of water that squeezes over it is speeded up like air passing over an aircrafts wing, producing very powerful, yet localised, currents.
     Its here that you stand a good chance of seeing thresher sharks. They are elegant creatures with long, scythe-like tails and big black eyes set in a narrow head. They normally frequent the deep water of the open sea, so encounters should be cherished.
     Of course, you might see any other kind of pelagic shark here too. Watch out for small schools of scalloped hammerheads, the odd silvertip or inquisitive silky sharks. Anything is possible.
     Oceanic whitetips, the oceans opportunistic feeders, endlessly roam there, looking for a meal. These sharks are usually seen alone, circling round close to the surface.
     At around 40m is a forest of perfectly formed gorgonia fans that, I suppose, are simply too deep to suffer the wear and tear from passing divers to which those in shallower water are subjected.
     I was happy to spend off-gassing time at 6m with a close-knit school of little silvery flagtails, which use a perfect defence strategy against predators. They bunch together so tightly that they appear to be a single big fish.
     Its possible to herd them around, almost to sculpt their ultimate shape, such is their powerful intention to stay close together. A passing hawksbill turtle drew my attention, too.
    
     To the south, Daedelus Reef, 52 nautical miles from Marsa Alam, is even more isolated and, as such, more or less in the centre of the Red Sea.
     It is an almost perfectly circular reef that hardly breaks the surface, exposing the coral living on its top only during extreme low tides.
     The British also built a lighthouse here in the days of empire, but it stands on a man-made plinth and is reached by a causeway that leads from the edge of deep water. The handful of men who operate this lonely outpost, which is also an automatic light, are always glad of a visit - and of the opportunity to sell their souvenir T-shirts, too.
     The steep sides of the reef form a wall all round, with only one shallow plateau at the southern end. Otherwise its around 70m to the seabed.
     The reef wall is colourfully punctuated in oranges, reds and vivid purples of dendronephthya, with massed anthias fluttering in the margins and soldierfish skulking in the shady overhangs.
     I spent a dive fruitlessly waiting to photograph a solitary oceanic whitetip shark that had been seen circling the boat, while the rest of my party went to the northern side of the reef and had close encounters with both a group of scalloped hammerheads and a thresher shark.
     I had better luck with anemonefish. If youve been to Anemone City at Ras Mohammed, stand by for Anemone Metropolis.
     On one side of the reef, the wall is covered in anemones, from a few metres deepdown to about 20.
     It is one of the largest anemone fields that I have seen, and is covered with dominofish and courageous little anemonefish, often incorrectly called clownfish. Im sorry to reveal this little appreciated secret but the real Nemo does not live in the Red Sea!
    
     Elphinstone Reef was named by Commander Moresby, who made the statismetric survey of this coastline in 1830 from which todays modern chart originates. He named it after John Elphinstone, 12th Lord Elphinstone, soon to be the last governor of Bombay when it was ruled by the East India Company. The Red Sea was still an important part of the route to India long before the Suez Canal was opened.
     The Elphinstone lies in sight of the Egyptian mainland, yet it exhibits all the characteristics of an offshore reef.
     Like the Brothers, it has a tongue of reef that extends under water both out to the north and to the south. A strong current is forced up and over the site.
     The southern end has an arch with a curious block of stone resting under it at around 60m.
     Some say that it is the sarcophagus of a lost pharaoh. Others point out that the Ancient Egyptians didnt have diving equipment, nor were they around as long ago as the last Ice Age, which is when the arch might last have been above the surface.
     I like the northern end best. You can swim down to the tip of the reef at around 40m and to a small pinnacle that rises beyond it. Big schools of barracuda and jacks, and scalloped hammerheads if youre lucky, hang off in the blue.
     Make your way back towards the northern reef wall and spot sedentary predators such as scorpionfish and stonefish lying in wait.
     I was busy photographing a scorpionfish yawning in warning at its reflection in my camera port when the unmistakable silhouette of an oceanic whitetip shark passed overhead, juvenile jackfish frantically swimming at its nose.
     I knew I would be spinning out the rest of my gas at 3m in the hope that I might capture its image on one of the two last shots I had left in my camera.
     Sure enough, it returned for a moment, swimming fast and shallow as this species tends to do.
     The oceanic whitetip has a broad dorsal fin painted clearly with a splash of white, as are the two pectoral fins that always remind me of glider wings. Its rounded dorsal fin breaks the surface like a movie sharks.
     What a magnificent animal - a solitary example of a species once thought to be the most prolific large animal to roam our planet and now, sadly, a rare and treasured sight.
     I retired to the boat to reload, but by then all the other passengers were in the water, equipped with snorkels. As Sonia, our experienced dive-guide said: I dont know if its extremely brave or stupid to snorkel with an oceanic whitetip!
     In the event, everyone had a memorable if momentary encounter, and lots of digital images were captured.
     Two other oceanic whitetips were spotted later, but with around a dozen liveaboards now moored up, the chances of getting another shot were thin.
     I spent my next dive in shallow water, spinning out my gas over a couple of hours and almost circumnavigating the Elphinstone in the process.
     Everyone else enjoyed a brief visitation, but I think the knowledge that I might attempt to take their photograph kept the sharks well clear of me.
     Instead, I used up my film on an amenable Napoleon wrasse that hung around under our boat. It eyeballed me as I clicked away.
     Along with Ras Mohammed at the point of the Sinai; Angarosh; Shab Rumi and Sanganeb in the Sudan; and Quoin Rock in the Yemen, these three must rate among the best natural sites the Red Sea has to offer. I would rate them the best in Egypt - the Brothers gold, Daedalus silver and Elphinstone bronze.

  • John Bantin travelled by invitation of Tony Backhurst Scuba Travel, 0800 0728221. A seven-day trip on board mv Hurricane, embarking at Marsa Alam, costs around£1095, with flight from Gatwick.

  • Napoleon
    Napoleon wrasse are always popular with divers - but sadly are a recent addition to the endangered species lists
    scalloped
    scalloped hammerhead sharks at the Brothers
    A
    A yawning scorpionfish, but its not that easy to get bored at the Elphinstone



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