|We arrived at the Brothers Islands in flat calm to find the two outcrops scorching in the sun, the only visual relief on a vast horizon. You could sense the anticipation as everyone on the boat started to kit up. We just knew we were in for an exceptional dive.
Sure enough, even before we entered the water we were treated to a wildlife spectacle. As we were being shuttled from the liveaboard to the drop-off by our Egyptian boat-handler - known affectionately as Captain Zodiac - a pod of spinner dolphins bow-waved us.
The Brothers, lying 150 miles from land, are among the top 10 dive sites in the Red Sea. Ours was the first party to visit these remote islands in three years, shortly after government restrictions were lifted, allowing diving to officially resume there last year.
The larger of the islands is only 400m long, its one distinguishing feature the Victorian lighthouse built by the British in the 1880s.
Our arrival at the small jetty was such an event that the Egyptian soldiers on rotational duty - the islands only inhabitants - raced to greet us. Theirs must be a very lonely job.
Ships and sharks
For our first dive, we were dropped on the Aida, a cargo ship that went down in 1957 during a mooring procedure while transporting troops to Alexandria. The crew scrambled ashore, leaving the Aida to slide down the side of the larger island, finally resting its stern in 60m with its bow in 20m.
Although it sank 10 years later than the wrecks of Truk Lagoon, the soft coral growth encrusting the Aida could rival any of the Japanese Pacific wrecks. While not on the same scale, its still a must-dive site for any wreckie worth his (or her) salt. One enduring memory of this wreck was that of a 4m thresher shark lazily cruising the 10m contour above us as we ascended.
Not far from the Aida lies an older wreck, which was our second dive. It was carrying a cargo of train wheels that scattered as the vessel sank and are now home to a wide range of creatures. There was plenty of marine life action here, with larger fish involved in domestics, vying for territory and, surprisingly, ignoring the divers completely.
The small Brothers island is only about 20m across, with absolutely nothing on it except a few piles of rocks. Under water its a different story - the small Brother is famous for hammerhead sharks, which cruise their territory at 30m (and deeper) on the southern side.
The internationally recognised sign to make when you see a hammer-head is to hit yourself on the head with your fist (hammerhead, get it), and this site will have you knocking yourself senseless!
Weathering the storms
The Brothers have never been a highly dived site, due to their inaccessible position 100 miles offshore in the middle of the (southern Egyptian) Red Sea opposite Al Quseir.
In the old days, a few of the larger (and braver) day boats offered trips out there during the summer months. Amenities were sparse, with all aboard sleeping on deck and sharing one toilet (if you were lucky!). When the weather blew up, you had to shelter in the lee of the big Brother (is he watching you) and wait it out, sometimes for weeks.
Now the Egyptian dive industry has matured and a new generation of liveaboard boats are available to take you to the Brothers in comfort, if not downright luxury. The premier vessel visiting the Brothers on a regular basis is a boat you may not have heard of before, the Shalakamy Explorer 1. This vessel and its sister ship, Shalakamy Explorer 2, are big boats (36m long x 10m beam) and are therefore ocean-going, stable platforms, well able to take the worst that the weather can throw at you. This is reassuring, as a dive holiday can soon turn into an expedition if the weather blows up when you are so far out at sea.
Nothing you have ever experienced inshore on the Red Sea can prepare you for when you get a prolonged Northerly blow in such an exposed position. You know that youre in a storm when waves are crashing over the third deck! At times like this, movement is not recommended - its best to just wedge yourself in somewhere safe and hope that anything not tied down doesnt land on top of you!
The Explorer cost seven million Egyptian pounds to build and is powered by two 750hp Caterpillar engines. Beautifully fitted out in wood panelling, this boat even has a disco - with mirrored ceiling!
The cabins are like American hotel rooms, each with a television (which sometimes receives two Egyptian TV channels), mini-bar and ensuite shower room with toilet - a luxury when youre used to competing with fellow guests for shower time at the end of the diving day.
A trip to the Brothers need not be a prolonged affair. You can dive all sides of each island in two days. If travelling from Hurghada, you would expect to dive several other sites, including Safaga, on the outward and return journeys. One such site commonly dived is the wreck of the Salem Express ferry.
Spoilt for choice
You might have some reservations about a dive boat that takes up to 24 people, but the reality is that its the other (day) boats that can cause overcrowding at dive sites. While working inshore, the Explorer can leave port after the day boats and, travelling at 25 knots, it can easily arrive at the dive site first, so you can be in the water well before them! With the capability to reach the sites that other boats cannot, you may well find youre the only group diving there.
It seems that the current trend is towards larger and more luxurious boats in the Egyptian Red Sea. No one would argue with quality improvements, yet I can remember when Sharm el Sheikh was just a hut on the beach with a compressor in it! We used to safari camp where there are now hotels. And you could shore dive on the most prolific coral in the world without seeing another soul.
But, under water, this area is no longer what it was, and you have to go offshore (and south) to find those pristine reefs.
The Red Sea still has a lot to offer. If your appetite for diving the popular sites has become jaded, striking out for remote islands like the Brothers will rekindle your enthusiasm.
GETTING THERE: Fly to Hurghada .
DIVING DETAILS: The sole UK agent for trips on the Explorer is Scubaway Tel: 01273 746261.
ACCOMMODATION: The Explorer offers luxury cabins with full facilities..
Egyptian, but English widely spoken..
Egyptian pounds or US dollars..
FOR NON-DIVERS: Sunbathing and snorkelling..
The area can get stormy in winter..
BEST TIME TO GO: May to October..
WATER TEMPERATURE: 23-30C..
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: All levels..
COST: A seven-day trip to the Brothers on the Explorer costs from 955, including flights, transfers, full-board accommodation and diving..
Luxurious liveaboard and fantastic diving, with profuse marinelife, including hammerhead sharks.
The weather can be unsettled from November to February.
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