I STROLLED PAST A ROW OF UNLIT DIVING CRUISERS TOWARDS the profusion of white lights at the end of the jetty. Dwarfing the other vessels, the new liveaboard Tiger Lily looked like a floating Christmas tree in the Hurghada darkness.Zac Macaulay travelled on Tiger Lily with Goldenjoy Holidays. A seven-night trip to the Brothers costs between£975-1019, depending on the time of year. Call 020 7794 9767 or visit www.goldenjoy.com
Within 15 minutes I was sorting out my dive gear, accessories in their box, BC on cylinder.
A useful little cubbyhole with my name on contained fluffy red towels which would later deposit their fluff and make me look like an accident victim.
I took a quick tour of the engine room. The steel-hulled Tiger Lily has a pair of 800hp marine diesel engines, which allow her to cruise at up to 13 knots. Designed to carry up to 20 divers in well-equipped double cabins, she has two generators, two water desalinators, air and nitrox and E6 photo-processing facilities.
We got off to a poor start. The try-dive scheduled to assess our weight requirements took place on Middle Reef off Safaga, but was marred for most of the divers by bad air fills.
It was a simple problem that should not have occurred. Bad air was still causing headaches on the next dive, after which it was thankfully sorted.
Middle Reef is suitably shallow, with hard and soft corals providing a home for numerous anthias , parrotfish and butterflyfish. But it was just the prelude to what we all expected to be the serious stuff. A hard steam overnight and we awoke nearly 40 miles from land at the Brothers Islands, the peaks of two sea mountains about a mile apart.
We were grateful that the weather was being kind, not always the case at the Brothers. But it soon became apparent that visibility was going to be disappointing. It seemed to be little more than 10m, the product of an early-season plankton bloom.
Our first visit was to one of Big Brothers two wrecks, the Aida II, the 280ft Egyptian troop-carrier which sank here in 1957. Its stern broke off and slid down the reef to 56m, while the shallowest davit lies at 28m. At 40m it proved dark and very atmospheric, oozing with wide-angle photographic potential. Ascending the wreck to the Big Brother wall, a constantly shifting orange carpet of anthias danced among brightly coloured soft corals.
We passed on to the Numidia, a British supply vessel which sank on her maiden voyage in 1901. She was carrying railway parts bound for Bombay, and probably ran onto the reef as a result of a navigational error.
Initially the ship lay prone on the reef but unholed, so the captain tried to refloat her. As a storm brewed, her foresection split, sending her sliding down the reef. The propeller now lies at 82m but the bulk of the wreck is at a civilised 16m.
Set after set of railway carriage wheels can be seen at 8m, and a huge scorpionfish had thoughtfully placed itself neatly on one of these to offer photo opportunities. I inadvertently knocked it with my flash arm after a couple of frames. It turned brilliant red with rage and fled.
Even in poor viz the reef around the Numidia was lovely, with many anemones inhabited by clownfish and angelfish. A Napoleon wrasse was also in evidence.
Little Brother awaited about a mile away. The visibility was worsening, but within 10 minutes a grey reef shark emerged out of the gloom. The reef earns its good reputation with large gorgonian fan corals up to 3m across and cornetfish, groupers and glassfish in abundance.
But for me, the real diving was yet to come. Tiger Lily was moving again and next morning brought us to Daedalus Reef which, being isolated like the Brothers, is very weather-dependent.
Our luck held. My first underwater sight was of a magnificent manta ray with a wingspan of about 3m which appeared from nowhere. It wasnt close enough to photograph but I hung there relishing the moment.
The ray was dragging around a good 30m of fishermans rope, which in turn was attached to two buoys. The rope was wrapped around the mouth and rear section of the ray, undoubtedly causing it much distress and physical danger. Fortunately another diver on the boat later managed to fin alongside long enough to cut off the trailing rope and buoys.
Talk now turned to hammerhead sharks. A group of 20 or so were spotted together, creating much expectation. I had only a short wait before I found a solitary hammerhead of my own. It weaved left and right, investigating me as I raised my camera to my eye.
On our next dive two more hammerheads semi-circled around me, staying close for about two minutes. Suddenly, keeping an eye away from the reef became more profitable. Soon everyone was seeing hammerheads on every dive.
Daedalus also has a small population of hawksbill turtles, and the chances of seeing one on a dive are good. Largish shoals of jack patrol near the surface and smaller shoals of barracuda eye them carefully.
But these experiences were the good news, because all the while on what had been billed as a familiarisation trip, Tiger Lily had been having problems. It was perhaps not surprising that there should be teething troubles on a new vessel with simple things like loose door-handles, shower-fixings and air-con panels held on by masking tape, but then bilge-water started leaking into cabins, and we also found cracked and broken portholes.
The local crew were relatively inexperienced and clearly learning as they went. Certainly they could have handled the RIBs more carefully.
There were no complaints about the catering, from our first seven-course dinner, presented at the table with all the care and attention of the Savoy Grill, and breakfasts and lunches were equally good. However, it was at dinner one night that a problem emerged which put the leaking bilgewater and even the bad air fills into perspective.
There were two places empty at the table, and the horrible truth dawned that two divers had been left in the water at Big Brother while Tiger Lily had been on her way to Little Brother. They had neither been counted out nor back in again.
Tiger Lily was packed with experienced divers, and it seemed that complacency had got the upper hand. As it turned out, the divers spent some four hours alone. One had a strobe with him, which helped us find them in the darkness when we returned to the spot.
The incident was a shock to everyone on board, and a salutary reminder of how easily life-threatening mistakes can be made if due care is not taken with all divers, whether experienced or novice.
Finally, as we made our way back to Safaga, one of the two engines packed up, which meant that our two dives on the Salem Express had to be reduced to one to make up for lost time.
The Salem Express was the French vessel sold to the Egyptians for use as a roll-on/roll-off ferry. On 16 December 1991 she clipped a small reef and sank with the loss of 510 or 1380 people, depending on whether you believe the official or unofficial figures.
The dive has an eerie quality to it. The wreck lies on its starboard side at 30m, with its top at around 12m. Starting at the stern, I had a good look at the bridge before moving down the vessel to peer in at the passenger decks, with their little tables still bolted to the deck. But the visibility was bad again and I had to content myself with atmosphere and close wide-angle shots.
The superstructure and detail is relatively intact and the contemporary appearance of the wreck imparts a chilling immediacy to the diving experience. But the sea was getting rougher, we still had only one engine, and it was time to limp back to Hurghada.