Brothers, Daedelus and Elphinstone – Out into the big blue

Brothers, Daedelus and Elphinstone  – Out into the big blue
Cracks, overhangs, and chmineys abound on the Brothers
Cracks, overhangs, and chimneys abound on the Brothers

Brothers, Daedelus, and Elphinstone – three of the most iconic Red Sea names on the wish list of many Red Sea divers.

With the Brothers islands and Daedelus reef being roughly a 12-hour cruise from shore, a liveaboard is the only way to get there. In June 2013 I chartered one for a week and went to check the sites out.

The typical route begins with a day at Abu Dabbab followed by an overnight cruise to the Brothers for two days diving, then overnight to Daedelus for two days diving, and an overnight ride to Elphinstone for two dives there on the final day. However, due to strong winds from the north, which we would have had to cruise around to get to the Brothers, we first sailed south to Daedelus after some gentle warm up dives off the coast of Marsa Alam. It was also an opportunity for people to practice inflating a surface marker buoy (aka safety sausage), a useful skill when diving out in the middle of the Red Sea on isolated reefs

Colourful Nudibranch
Colourful Nudibranch

I was giving a photography workshop to some of the divers and some shallow, gentle dives were ideal for re-familiarization with the cameras’ functions and settings on colourful reef fish and a few blue-spotted rays. The change of routing suited me too, as I spent a week diving just the Brothers in 2010, and knew what we would be getting. Whereas the Daedelus and Elphinstone legs of the trip were unknown entities, aside from our expectations of seeing some sharks.

Daedelus has a reputation for sharks, notably scalloped hammerheads, and that’s what we were aiming for after an uneventful night cruise. The briefing was simple. We’d drop on the east flank of the reef, illuminated by the rising sun, move off the reef into the blue, just keeping sight of it, and drift south with the current at around 25 metres for 20 minutes to see what turned up. Many of the divers had never seen a hammerhead before, and some had never seen a shark in person, so the anticipation levels were high.

We split into two groups, one of eight, one of nine, each with a local guide, and dropped 10 minutes apart. There was one other liveaboard there, and her divers were just stirring as our second group hit the water. The viz was the usual clear Red Sea blue, the wall covered in soft corals. “If we don’t get lucky with the hammers, the wall will be very pretty”, I thought to myself. It was a wasted thought. We’d barely had time to fin off the wall when a solitary hammer made a pass below us, slightly further out. It wasn’t close enough for a picture, not by some distance, but that only served to emphasise its size. As it turned to return from whence it had come, there was a distinct absence of scalloping on its funny head. We’d just encountered Sphyrna mokorran, the Great Hammerhead. What a start!

Diver on the wall at Daedelus
Diver on the wall at Daedelus

Ten minutes later, just as I was starting to get that funny cross-eyed feeling from peering into the blue, trying not to focus on the micro-particles floating by, along came another, or was it the same one back for another peek? It never came close enough for us to ask, but it was none too shabby a start. Back on the reef, the dendronepthyas swayed gently, like floppy oversized broccoli heads. Fairy basslets adorned the points and pinnacles.

Divers chilling on the walls
Divers chilling on the walls

Our dives over the next two days were essentially the same brief, only which shoulder to the reef changing, as we would dive the east in the morning and the west in the afternoon. Given the remote nature of the sites and the deep bottom, no night diving is allowed. We’d either be dropped by the small RIBs and return to the moored boat, or jump off the dive deck and be picked up by the RIB.

As we tended to dive at different paces, ranging from slow to super slow, most of the time we were diving in buddy pairs or fours and as a consequence different people had different encounters. Everyone saw at least one school of scalloped hammerheads, school size ranging depending on who was doing the counting. The same people always seemed to see more than others. Grey reef sharks were a common sighting on Daedelus, and half of us (not my half) saw a giant manta cruise by. Though the slight air of disappointment amongst my stick was short-lived, as the next dive our dive guide, Ahmed, was treated to his first tiger shark sighting on Daedelus in six years of diving.  She wasn’t a monster, but on a sub-three-metre sub-adult the markings were unmistakable despite being too far away for my 8mm fisheye lens.

Grey reef shark
Grey reef shark

After two days, it was time to cruise overnight to Elphinstone. The wind was still coming from the north, giving us a bumpy ride, and I preferred sleeping on the back deck in the open air to getting banged around in my cabin in the bows.  Elphinstone is a cigar-shaped reef, around 400 metres long, rising to a couple of metres below the surface. On a good day it can be reached from Marsa Alam in a RIB. Today wasn’t such a day. We awoke to some surface chop and one other liveaboard. We moored on the southwest end of the reef, the white caps on the northeast tip were prominent and small waves were starting to break over the top

Underwater she was sweet. Big blue walls. The idea was to start close to the southern plateau, look over the west-facing edge to see what was hanging out in the current and then go along part of the eastern side, protected by the massive wall, before returning to the boat. As we moved onto the plateau, the current started to pick up; the more I finned into it, the faster it pumped. The effort was worth it though. Fusiliers and snapper darted around, looking for breakfast whilst avoiding becoming brekkie for dogtooth tuna and grey reef sharks that patrolled just off in the blue. We hung out, literally, with a finger grip on some substrate before letting go and drifting back to our entry point and exploring a bit of the current-free wall to the north.

As we ascended the conditions became a little more challenging with down currents in a couple of chimneys, where the waves were breaking on our side of the reef now, pushing divers close to the wall onto it. We were close to the boat and decided to end the dive; we’d had 40 good minutes anyway. 10 metres away from the reef the water was calmer, but on the safety stop we could see the boat’s dive deck slapping up and down menacingly. Climbing the ladders with kit on was not going to be fun. We were the first group now, and as such, guinea pigs. After a bit of a struggle for a couple of divers, we launched the RIBs for the second group. dekitted them on the RIB and  then they jumped back in to go up the ladders. Transferring from the RIB to the back deck was not an option.

Diver in natural window
Diver in natural window

Given the inclement conditions, we decided to move inshore for the next two dives, Elphinstone was not going to see anymore divers that day. Her iconic oceanic white tips had eluded us, but it could’ve been worse. Abu Dabbab has six reefs, so we checked out a couple and although low on adrenaline-producing dives, it did produce some pleasant wide-angle and macro images, and two 80-minute dives in flat seas.

Heading to the Brothers that night was a different story. The wind still hadn’t abated, but the skipper and owner decided we could make it. Sleep was fitful, even on the back deck exactly midships, with the odd wave breaking over the back deck until the sun rose. The Nitrox blender had come loose during the night and would be out of order for the rest of the trip. As we approached, we could make out the 32-metre high Victorian stone lighthouse on Big Brother, and as the golden orb of the sun appeared out of the Red Sea, the wind died down. By the time we were moored up and invigorated with coffee, the sea was, by Elphinstone standards, flat.

Bigeye Soldierfish on Big Brother
Bigeye Soldierfish on Big Brother

It helps that Big and Little Brother are actual islands, their near shear sides providing decent protection on the leeward side. Currents here are generally north to south too, making the Numidia wreck on the north of Big Brother an excellent starting point. She was a 130-metre long cargo ship carrying railway sleepers and bogies to India on the voyage that turned out to be her last. Now the top of the wreck sits at around 13 metres, dropping down into the depths way beyond the limits of recreational diving. At 30 metres her hold is open and decorated with an abundance of soft corals and anthias.

After 15 minutes on her we took the west wall south, drifting over the second wreck here, the Aida, once a transport ship supplying the small garrison on the island (now only a dozen) that somehow also managed to hit the reef. Her bows sit 26 metres down, pointing upwards at an angle. We moved along the wall, exploring the nooks and crannies, cracks and crevices, finding giant morays, scorpion fish, a truly massive pink stonefish, more grey reef sharks, and a silvertip. We drifted for three-quarters of the length of the island until we found our mooring lines and followed them back. In the past I have seen oceanic whitetips hanging around the boat, looking for scraps, but not this trip.

Photography student on Little Brother
Photography student on Little Brother

The southern end of Big Brother has large patches of gorgonian fans, black coral, and a plateau that is popular with thresher sharks. Unlike the oceanic white tips, they were around and another entry for the life list of almost everyone on board. Their short snout and long tail see them called “fox sharks” in French and German, though they get their English name from the characteristic shape of their caudal fin, used to stun schooling prey.

Of the two Brothers, on my previous visit Little Brother was my favourite and turned out to be still the cuter of the two, and overall my favourite offshore reef in the Red Sea. What it lacks for in size, it makes up for in quality and quantity. There are more colours, more variety, and more fish here, and few boats – all in all, a winning combination.

Anthias on Big Brother
Anthias on Big Brother

For more information on Christopher’s UW photo workshops please visit http://www.bartlettimages.com/trips—voyages.html.

For more information about Indigo Safaris and their dive trips see www.indigosafaris.com and navigate to the destination of your choice.

Goby and partner shrimp at Abu Dabab
Goby and partner shrimp at Abu Dabab

Red Sea Wrecks and Reefs

Red Sea Wrecks and Reefs
Chrisoula K Wreck
Chrisoula K Wreck

My eyes were as wide as saucers, but it was only partly due to the dim light inside the hold. The Thistlegorm was every bit as good as her reputation, and then some. To boot, my buddy and I were the only ones in her, despite hosting over 60,000 dives a year. We swam a circuit round the hold, going over British WW2 Enfield motorcycles, past a truck and a jeep, aircraft engine cowlings, and round the chassis of a car, its radiator remarkably whole. Something stirred in the gloom and my torch beam I picked out a large green turtle. As we came out of the hold, by the locomotive water tanker sitting on the port side of the deck, the rest of my shipmates were descending the anchor line amidships.

Thistlegorm - Enfield motorcycles in the hold
Thistlegorm – Enfield motorcycles in the hold

Text and images by Christopher Bartlett

Discovered during one of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s first expeditions aboard the Calypso during the early months of 1956, the 375-foot SS Thistlegorm had been bombed and sunk by the Luftwaffe on the night of October 5th 1941. The ill-fated vessel’s amidships were blown open when bombs struck the ammunition hold exposing Bren gun carriers, rifles, and artillery shells. She sank with her cargo full of war supplies, taking the lives of nine sailors with her. Laying to the north west of Ras Mohamed, at a depth of 17 – 35metres, the SS Thistlegorm has become one of the most sought after wreck dives in the entire world.

Thistlegorm stern
Thistlegorm stern

After leaving the holds, we finned with the gentle current to take in the stern and the coral encrusted artillery and anti-aircraft guns mounted to the rear. She is a real beauty with many treasures to discover. I managed to dive her three more times in the following 16 hours. After a very eerie night dive into the hold punctuated by watching another group of divers put on a light show Jean-Michel Jarre would have been proud of, I hit my cabin early so as to hit the water at sunrise, a cunning plan to get her alone with my buddy again.

The light was incredible and the current slack, allowing us to move 25 yards off to port to check out one of the two locomotives blown off the deck in the explosion. With a locomotive laying on each side, when the current is pumping it’s hard to get to either of them. At sunrise the port side loco looks particularly cool, and must be one of a very few underwater train wrecks. When the current picks up with the tide, as it did on my last dive, the bows around the anchor winch buzz with schooling fish swarming back and forth.

Thistlegorm - port side locomotive on the seabed
Thistlegorm – port side locomotive on the seabed

Operated by the Red Sea Diving College, VIP One is a 16-berth, purpose built, luxury motor yacht which has been crafted and built by lovers of the Red Sea. Drawing on twenty years’ of Red Sea expertise, VIP One has been designed to offer the best in both comfort and safety for both open circuit and rebreather divers. On my trip there were four rebreather divers who were assigned their own CCR guide (all the guides are at least instructors).

Air conditioned and spacious throughout, the interior boasts large double cabins with private bathrooms, a generous saloon and dining room and a fully stocked bar area. Externally you will find sizeable sundecks on a number of levels perfect for sunbathing, reading or even an on-deck barbecue. And a top deck bar offers a perfect location for enjoying the Sinai’s spectacular sunsets.

VIP One moored up for the night near the straights of Tiran
VIP One moored up for the night near the straights of Tiran

Before embarking on the VIP One three days previously, I wasn’t much of a wreck-head. I did have a penchant for WW2 plane wrecks from Papua New Guinea, but I’d always rated corals and fish over metal hulks. Three days on and my horizons had been widened. We’d warmed up to the Thistlegorm by visiting a series of wrecks on the other side of the Straits of Gubal at Abu Nuhas reef, which has claimed at least four vessels. The first two days diving were spent diving the splendid wrecks of the Giannis D, the Carnatic, the Chrisoula K, the Kimon M, and the Kingston. Then we crossed back over the straits to arrive on the Thistlegorm just as everyone else had left their moorings to get in two afternoon dives and a night dive on one of the most interesting wrecks in the world.

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The wreck of Giannis D

But let’s go back to the start. The Giannis D, a 300-foot Greek cargo ship that sank in 1983, was a spectacular start. He stern is arguably one of the most photogenic anywhere. The viz wasn’t as good as ideally necessary for a noise-free image, but she was still a stunner with great soft corals and a bridge full of glassfish. The Chrisoula K is another Greek freighter from the early ‘80s with easy access to the bridge, another sexy stern and resident batfish.

The P&O steam sailer SS Carnatic sank in 1879 and has almost become a reef in itself, starting at just 12 feet depth at the bows. Access to the holds is easy and open, with more soft corals, glassfish, lionfish and anemones. After a great dive on this iconic site, my buddy and I were the last ones to surface with Hooch, our guide, and were zipping back to the boat in the RIB when its helmsman Mohammed simultaneously swung hard over to port and yelled “dolphins”.  “Snorkel gear on fellas” was the order from Hooch, and in we went. It was hard to resist freediving down to play with them, but luckily a few clumsy rolls and spins at two metres was enough to get them to play. There were close to a dozen, with two youngsters sticking close to their mums, and a playful adult who dived down to the reef and came up to Hooch balancing a stick of dead coral on its nose. Splendid.

Napolean Wrasse on Shark Reef
Napolean Wrasse on Shark Reef

The Kimon M is also nearby. Lying on her starboard side, she has an excellent swim-through down most of her length, and pink, white and orange soft corals decorate her superstructure, making her a treat for wide angle and fisheye lens. Small schools of batfish hang around her too.

The wreck of the Kimon M
The wreck of the Kimon M

Ras Mohamed and Tiran Straits

After such a wreck-fest, we cruised from the Thistlegorm back to Ras Mohammed, home to some world-renowned dives sites, such as Jackfish alley, Shark Reef, and the wreck of the Yolanda.

We arrived mid-afternoon, just as the last of the day boats from Sharm-el-Sheikh moved off, leaving us and one other liveaboard alone. Day boat operators from Naama Bay tend to depart from and return to the Naama Bay jetty at the same time, meaning that there can be a high number of day boats on the most popular sites in Ras Mohamed (Shark Reef, Yolanda, Anemone City, Shark Observatory, etc.) and Tiran (Jackson reef especially).  Liveaboards are allowed to overnight in Ras Mohamed Marine Park, meaning that you can dive the best sites before the daily boats arrive around 09:30 and after they leave at 16:00. It is not uncommon to be the only group on the best sites, even in July.

Reef scene from Gordon Reef
Reef scene from Gordon Reef

Between June and August large schools of snapper and barracuda hang around in the blue just off Shark Reef and have given it a reputation as being one of the best dive sites in the world. It did not disappoint, delivering a large school of both and a friendly Napoleon wrasse, two turtles, and a giant moray. There are fans and some swim-throughs, hard and soft corals. At sites like Temple and Fiesta, it is wise to keep an eye on the blue for mantas and whale sharks.

After another early morning extravaganza, we’d just finished breakfast and cast off when the flotilla from Sharm started to arrive. In an hour it would be diver soup. Not for us though, as we cruised to the straits of Tiran and Gordon reef for a post-lunch, late afternoon, and night dive. The Tiran Strait reefs of Gordon. Thomas, Woodhouse and Jackson have good hard and soft coral coverage, plenty of fish, and more fans. Jackson reef can be like swimming in fish soup on occasions, but its popularity also makes it a day boat magnet. An early morning blue dive off the back of Jackson yielded a distant glimpse of eight scalloped hammerheads, and a diver-free exploration of its gorgonian and fish-covered tip to end a fantastic week.

Whip Coral Goby on Thomas Reef
Whip Coral Goby on Thomas Reef

Need to Know:

When to Go: VIP One operates year-round. The schooling snapper and barracuda come to breed in June and July, but the big stuff like mantas, whale sharks, and scalloped hammerheads can be found, with a bit of luck, anytime.

Dive Conditions: Water temp: ranging from 21C in January to 29C in August

Viz: Often 90 feet +

Book through www.indogosafaris.com

 

The Southern Red Sea

The Southern Red Sea
Playful Dolphins at Dolphin reef

The “Deep South”, as it is sometimes referred to, must be one of the best kept secrets in the Red Sea. Yes it may be further to travel, but that is little to sacrifice for world-renowned encounters with friendly dolphins, wall diving (which must be some of the best in the world), forests of soft coral covering every inch of reef, perfect conditions and visibility that stretches on forever. It is further to travel but, to me, the ultimate benefit of being further away was the fact that 4 days went by before we saw another boat on the same reef as us.

Text and Images by Paul Hunter

After a disappointing trip to the Northern Red sea I was hesitant to return. I had placed the Red Sea on a pedestal. Yes the conditions were perfect and the visibility awesome but there was nothing to see from a fish life perspective. I have to admit though that the two wrecks we did, the Thistlegorn and the Dunraven, were unbelievable and an experience of a life-time.

One of the few times we saw other dive boats on the reefs we were diving

After much persuasion, I was convinced to return. But this time hundreds of kilometres south; the Deep South. I was told that the reefs were what the north was like 15 years ago. I joined a group of about 20 people most of whom are underwater photographers and good friends. This definitely added to the experience of the trip.

Let’s face it travelling to Egypt and the Red Sea is an adventure unlike anywhere else in the world. There is something mystical about the place, I think it has something to do with a history dating back thousands of years. A time of Pharaohs and Gods and a civilization ahead of it’s time. It was time to return to Egypt and the Red Sea.

Driving through Marsa Alam en-route to the harbour I soon realised that this once small fishing village on the western coast of the Red Sea is blooming into a Riviera. It is destined to become another Sharm El Sheik as a top diving destination. Marsa Alam is located some 250km south of Hurghada. Since the opening of its international airport in 2001 this small village has become more popular and accessible. In some way, i wanted to be selfish and stop progress so this place and the unspoilt reefs can remain just as they are.

Dolphin on Dolphin reef
Dolphin on Dolphin reef

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Clown fish in anemone

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Spectacular soft corals

Dolphin Reef, as its name describes, is home to a very large pod of friendly Dolphin. It’s a shallow horse-shoe shaped reef structure, basically in the middle of nowhere. I would highly recommend this experience to anybody who is in the near vicinity of this magical place. To spend time with these highly intelligent mammals and in such an awesome environment is a once-in-a-life-time must. From the time I hit the water it was almost a sensory overload swimming with them; from their high pitched clicking sounds bouncing off my body to being surrounded by no less than 10 dolphins at a time. The more we wanted to interact with them the more they seemed to want to interact with us. I was unsure if they were used to interaction with people or were just unafraid of us as they came right up to me, swimming continually around me in circles or from straight up from below. The interaction was surreal and I’m still unsure who was having more fun; them or us. We must have spent 90 minutes in the water with them before we had to call for the boats to pick us up as we were all exhausted.

The Red Sea and ship wrecks are synonymous so this trip would not be complete without at least one wreck dive. The Abu Galawa Wreck is not a big wreck. In fact it’s only a sailboat, and it lies at the base of the reef on its starboard side in 18m of water. The wreck is very picturesque and great for photographers and the opportunity should not be missed. The boat is mostly intact, except for decking and the upper structure. The inside is filled with a massive shoal of glassfish. I have tried to find out more about this wreck but to no avail. The only information I have is from the guides who told us that’s it’s an American sailboat that sank in 2002.

Small yacht that had collided with reef now an awesome wreck

Diversity, diversity and more diversity is something this trip had from the start and St John’s Cave was no different. From the surface it looks like somebody went to work on the reef with a pizza cutter. I could make out the myriad of tunnels which form an underwater maze through the reef. With our boat moored on the southern side of the reef we were informed that there were two openings to the north which would lead us into the tunnel system. At this stage I must point out that we were extremely lucky as our captain and dive guides gave us a lot of freedom. The captain was very flexible in terms of the different dive locations and the dive guides let us do our own thing. This helped with the bunch of photographers onboard and went a long way in keeping the peace. The dive on this reef was another highlight for me. What we found while diving here was unbelievable. There were deep cracks in the coral plate which provided us with tunnels to navigate and explore. These same cracks allowed shafts of light to penetrate right down to the seabed. It was mesmerising and cathedral-like to witness. What a pleasure to photograph these scenes. Although some of these cracks were narrow to swim through I never felt unsafe or lost as the cracks always opened up to bigger caverns or to the sea again.

Cathedral light at St Johns Caves

Wall diving
Endless visibility and wall dives

Thousands of Goldies surround the reefs

Wonderful Wall diving. With famous names like St Johns and Elphinestone on the agenda, to mention a few, I knew the wall diving was going to be good. To be honest, the wall diving exceeded my expectations. The walls were covered from top to bottom with pristine hard and soft corals. In some places there were forests of soft coral on the wall. This made for awesome underwater photographic opportunities. We were very fortunate that we never really had strong currents on our dives. This meant we could do the dives at our own pace and really get to enjoy some of the wonders on these reefs. Elphinestone lived up to its name as a magical dive site with unbelievable corals and a large variety of fish life. Another good reason to visit this location is the possibility of seeing Oceanic Whitetip shark. Unfortunately we did not get to see any this time, but that is nature and what will keep me coming back.

The phrases: unspoilt, secluded, diverse and some of the best diving I have ever done, sum up my experience. This is really a special place to visit and dive – one which I will highly recommend. If you are looking for an adventure with unspoilt reefs and secluded dive sites this is the place for you. It’s far away from the hustle and bustle of the north. I would also recommend doing this trip on a liveaboard as many of the locations are too far for day trips. With calm surface conditions, visibility that stretches forever and pristine reefs this trip is well worth it.

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