Out in the Red Sea two wrecks cling to the steep reef surrounding Big Brother island. Peter Collings reports
When my team and I first visited the Brothers back in the late 1980s, we were blessed with calm conditions and could see wreckage scattered over the top of Big Brother’s northern plateau. Large sections of iron, wheels and a ship’s engine were discernible among spars and girders.
Our first dive revealed a large vessel, covered in coral, which went down to more than 50m. The wreck had no bow and we theorised that the ship had run aground onto the reef and broken her back – there was a chance we would find the bow on the other side of the reef.
Sure enough, we found more wreckage, this time in 30m, but as we explored further we found we were once again descending towards a stern. This was confirmed by the presence of a rudder, propeller and emergency steering assembly. Slowly ascending through the wreck we discovered an almost empty engine room. It was these engines that we had seen on the reef top. We had found two unidentified wrecks, which ultimately would identified as the Numidia and Aida.
The first of the two shipwrecks is the largest and most exposed of the pair, as well as being simultaneously the deepest and shallowestp. It rests at the very north of Big Brother and bears the brunt of storms, swells and strong currents…
The story behind the wreck
The Numidia was a British cargo ship built in Glasgow in 1901 by the Henderson Company, who operated as part of the Anchor Line Shipping Company. She was a large vessel, some 145m long and 6,399 tonnes, and was powered by a triple-expansion steam engine, which gave her a top speed of ten knots.
On 6 July 1901 she set out from Liverpool bound for India carrying a cargo of 7,000 tonnes, which included railway rolling stock and several steam engines. Two weeks later the Numidia was approaching the Brother Islands when, despite a precautionary change of course, she ran headlong onto the shallow reef north of the lighthouse on Big Brother. Within a few hours the captain ordered the ship to be abandoned. For the next two months most of the cargo was removed while gravity and the intake of water finally dragged the ship down the sloping reef. The bow section broke off and remained on the reef to be dispersed by the constant storms and swells.
A tour of the wreck
The wreck lies on a steep slope at the very north of the Big Brother plateau, starting at 10m and plummeting down to 80m. Strong currents often sweep the structure, but you can always shelter inside the wreck in order to observe the patrolling grey reef and hammerhead sharks.
The intact hull offers divers protection from the currents and it is possible to enter the starboard side companionways, which are adorned with soft corals. Portholes are barely discernible because of the carpets of coral. A descent down these corridors, heading aft of the bridge superstructure, is often halted by the wreck’s resident lionfish, which should eventually move out of the way to allow a descent to continue. The open deck and the cross-bracing of the stern mast (rising up towards the surface) ahead marks the safe limit of sport diving, at 40m. Another empty hold leads down to her stern castle and steering assembly – a domain for technical diving. Holds and deck fittings below beckon the unwary. Snapper jacks and trevallies hover in the company of barracuda, and sharks patrol the perimeter. Turning back towards the shallower part of the wreck, anthias add a haze of orange, hovering over every coral-covered structure.
At this point (40m) the return journey to the surface begins. It is possible to enter the engine room where blue light, which filters through the skylights above, illuminates an intact and fascinating engine. The steam cylinders slope upward, as if still driving the ship ashore! Surrounded by walkways, stairs lead down into the lower engine room where gauges remain in place and doors provide access to accommodation areas and eventually the bridge. It was here, deep in the heart of the wreck, that we found a clue to the ship’s identity – the builders’ bronze plaque.
Moving upwards, most of the wooden floors have long been eaten away by marine worms allowing easy access and light into the interior. An alternative exit is out through the funnel’s port at 20m and back into the brilliant sunlight. The colours and formations of soft corals are without rival in the Red Sea, save for the neighbouring wreck of the Aida. Soft corals smother the handrails and anthias hover in clouds of orange. Countless reef fish have made the wreck their home. The metal structures of her framework, at such a steep angle offer some unique photo opportunities – even a deck winch becomes picturesque when covered in a healthy growth of orange corals.
At 10m the wreck ends with girders strewn all over the reef leading up to the sets of iron wheels, bathed in sunlight.
Careful planning is needed when diving this wreck because of its exposed position and the strong currents. It is best to continue back around the reef at 10m heading towards the Aida, as this will allow for a more sheltered pick up.
The story behind the wreck
The Aida was built in France and launched in 1911. She was a smaller vessel than the Numidia, at a length of only 75m and displacing 1,428 tonnes. The ship was powered by a triple-expansion engine, which provided a top speed of nine knots. Originally, she was to be used as a supply vessel, but was commandeered by the Egyptian Navy to ferry troops. During the Second World War she was bombed while at anchor, but after repairs was able to take up duties as a supply vessel.
On 15 September 1957 the crew of the Aida were attempting to unload her cargo and disembark replacement lighthouse staff onto the jetty at Big Brother. However, bad weather caused the ship to strike the rocks and she soon began to sink. A tugboat responded quickly and took off the crew and lighthouse personnel. During the storm the ship drifted a few hundred metres northwest before her bows finally embedded themselves into the reef. As the stern sank, it came to rest at an extremely steep angle on the reef, the bow section breaking off and eventually breaking up on the reef top
A tour of the wreck
Although smaller than the Numidia, this wreck is more difficult to dive because it starts at 28m and goes down to the stern and propeller at 52m. Like the Numidia, the Aida lies at a very steep angle and it’s amazing that it hasn’t slid any further down the reef, out of reach of recreational sports divers.
The wreck has sheered all the way from the foc’sle to the superstructure. This gives easy access to the engine room, with its large shoal of glassy sweepers. Cobalt-blue light filters down through four skylights, providing a great backdrop for photographers. The engine room is easily explored and it plummets down to 36m, where you can gain access to the rear cargo hold. The deck’s cross beams are covered in soft coral growth, which forms a frill around the edges.
When you emerge at the aft you are treated to the amazing sight of the steering binnacle covered in marine growth, yet still easily recognisable. Lionfish glide by effortlessly and the wreck’s entire metal frame structure is covered with lush soft coral-coloured red, purple and every hue in between. Anthias add a splash of orange to the scene as the ascending route leads to companionways flanking the ship. Large anemones and clownfish are dotted around the wreck. Doorways tempt visiting divers, but are often blocked by the wreck’s resident groupers. The accommodation area and bridge above are easily accessible and the portholes are still in place, though covered in soft corals of orange, purple and red. With all the wooden structures gone, only the steel framework remains, affording easy access and an ideal substrate for marine growth, which seems to increase in density in the shallower regions of the wreck. The wreck ends abruptly where the fore section should be.
Leaving the wreck at 28m doesn’t mean it’s the end of the dive – a superb reef running under the pier awaits the diver. Look out for evidence of a third and much older wreck solidly concreted into the reef, origin unknown. It’s an ideal place to off-gas and let the computers do their work!
Both wrecks lie in the shadow of the early morning sun and therefore, as far as light is concerned, the later you do this dive the better – the true colours cannot be enjoyed if the wrecks are in shadow. From a decompression point of view, it is better to dive the Aida first, as the shallowest part of the wreck is at 28m, whereas the Numidia comes up to within 10m of the surface. The calmer afternoon currents make the Numidia safer, with less chance of being ‘blown off’ the wreck. The surrounding reefs, between the wrecks and the pier, are stunning and even an off-gas at 6m can result in encounters with sharks!