Diving in the Red Sea: present and past
The Red Sea is the worlds most northern tropical sea, squeezed between two continents of arid land and deserts. Geologically its considered to be a crack in the large and slowly shifting continental plates of Africa and Eurasia. It is 1200 miles long but only 350 miles wide at its widest point, with an average depth of around 1500 ft, and a long central median trench of a least 7000 ft. One would not expect to find such a deep crystal-blue sea in the middle of those immense heat-blasted deserts of rocks and sand.*
Underwater For underwater photographers the Red Sea is still one of the most interesting places on our planet to visit. The underwater world is similar to that of the Indian Ocean and the Maldives. Its crystal clear water, rich and colorful coral reefs and abundance of fish make it the ideal environment for either macro or wide-angle shots of all kind of objects. There are tiny cleaner shrimps, gobies, reef fishes, sharks, shoals of snappers, wrecks, soft and stony corals, steep drop offs and caverns. The variety of reef fishes that have chosen the coral and its crevisses as a habitat is astonishing: the different species of butterfly fishes are just one example. The contrasting colours (especially yellow and red objects on the foreground against a blue background) and the beautiful light make the Red Sea a perfect place to play around with techniques like mixed-lighting and CFWA (Close Focus Wide Angle).
Early years In the 70 and 80ties the North-Western Red Sea was visited by only a 'handful' of divers. Some people not even knew of its existence! Diving tourism was still in its infancy, and towns like Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada were sleepy and friendly villages with only a few hotels and visitors. Some local dive clubs, mostly run by Euopeans took their clients with rented fishing boats to the reefs in the neighborhood: Ras Muhammed in South Sinai (see picture), the wrecks in the street of Ghubal, or the Abu Rimathi, Carless and Giftun island reefs near Hurghada. The reefs in Southern Egypt were still 'white spots' on the maps. Mass tourism only started ten years later around 1990. First by visitors of the beaches, and later also by scuba divers when larger vessels departing from Sharm or Hurghada took divers to more remote islands that later became famous ‘hotspots’; the Brothers, Elphinstone, Daedalus and deeper in the south: Rocky Island, St Johns reef, Zabarghad, Fury Shoals and Shab Abu Fendera. Like tourism, UW photography in these years was still in its infancy. Most popular cameras were the Nikonos (successor of of the Calypso, designed by Cousteau) and the medium format Rolleimarin housing (designed by Hass) with a Rolleiflex 3.5 F inside. Both systems used analog roll films, allowing ony a limited number of exposures.
The tourist invasion Another ten years later (say from 2000 on) luxury diving resorts and hotels started to grow like mushrooms in the desert along the entire Egyptian Red Sea coast. Often financed by rich Egyptian or Saudi businessmen. The advent of luxury live-aboards catering for the growing influx of divers put an end to the small scale diving trips of former years. But it also led to more crowded diving sites and packs of diving boats lined up along the reefs with their pick-up Zodiacs racing around. In the same period underwater-photography was lifted to a higher level. Two factors played a role: the advent of modern digital cameras with interchangeable lenses, and the live-aboard photo workshops. Best known (if not famous) were the ones led by Alex Mustard in the Sharm area (see picture above), but later on also at more southern locations in Egypt. A live-aboard workshop offers more comfort for divers and photographers, and the certainty that one will we dropped at interesting sites. But is also means more safety than the hotels, bars and restaurants in crowded towns like Sharm, that sadly enough have become potential targets of political terrorist groups in our modern times.
Environment Fishery can not supply enough fish for the growing populations. This holds for countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the southern states of the Arabian peninsula, that still depend to a large extent on fish caught in the Red Sea. Their catch of course can not compete with that of the fishing industries that operate in the Atlantic Ocean. But there are complaints of pollution affecting the fishing areas in the Saudi regions, similar to those in the Atlantic ocean. And then there is the controversial shark finning by fishermen along the southern Arabian peninsula selling their product via Dubai to the Asian market. Nevertheless, large parts of the Red Sea's underwater wilderness still exist, and there are stil magnificent reefs to visit in Egypt, as well further south in the Sudan.
Red Sea: deeper south Sudan was once a state under former British-Egyptian administration, but is now a republic. The Umbria wreck, Sanganeb and Shab Rumi atol islands, not so far from Port Sudan had already become legendary underwater locations in the late 70ties. Shab Rumi was the site of Jaques Cousteau’s underwater village Precontinent II in the early 60ties. I myself became a regular visitor of the Sudanese reefs in the years between 1983 and 1990. Our trips were organized by a small London tourist office and led by Jack Jackson, a lanky black bearded Londoner. Flights from London were often hectic with several stops in Cairo, Khartoum to Port Sudan, separated by long intermissions. On one occasion we even had to travel 500 miles in a crowded not air-conditioned bus from Khartoum to Port Sudan, after a strike of flight personnel. From Port Sudan Jack took us, usually a small group of divers, on a former military vessel to Sanganeb’s light house island. The island is a large atol, a real underwater paradise with massive coral tables (Acropora) and soft coral trees (Dendronepthya) expanding their splendid branches when there is a current. Here we camped on foam mattresses in the open air for one or even two weeks . Two small compressors provided the air to fill our tanks.
About sharks and feeding sharks. In recent years some shark species, like the Oceanic shark have even become easier to approach than in the pioneering years of Hans Hass and Jacques Cousteau. In Egypt, Oceanics show up regularly at the Brothers and Elphinstone, despite the fact that feeding sharks is prohibited. Cousteau did describe various encounters with sharks in the Red Sea in his books and documentaries, but his pioneering pictures of sharks still had a poor quality. At Shab Rumi, were he had his underwater village, sharks were probably not their primary research interest. The six shark cages of the village were not meant to attract sharks, but as a shelter against eventual shark attacks of the 'Oceanauts'. The rusty remains of the cages covered with corals could still be seen during our visits to Shab Rumi in the 90ties. I think we must have been one of the first groups of divers that started baiting (or feeding) the grey reef sharks at Sanganeb without a cage in that period. I must also mention a German diver called Herwarth Voightman, who probably was the very first shark feeder without a cage. Herwarth started to train grey reef sharks in 1978 by hand feeding them on one of the Maldives islands. He also had a feeling for spectacle, and let his beautiful daughter Bine feed the sharks from her mouth. Our method was less spectacular, but probably more effective from an UW photographers perspective. A piece of dead fish was hidden under a stone, sea fan or attached to a heavy object.** Grey reef sharks were our most frequent visitors, but sometimes other species like the silvertip, schools of hammerheads and silky sharks also moved in.
After the political coup in 1989 that led to establishment of a Muslim state and legislation in Sudan, it was not allowed to camp on the island anymore. But years later, its reefs near Port Sudan became accessible again for larger live aboard’s leaving from Sharm or Hurghada. In 1990 Sanganeb island was declared a national marine reserve.
-My Red Sea diaries 1981-1991
*Coral Kingdoms. Cark Roesler. 1986. Abrams publishers, N.Y
**Reef. A Safari through the Coral World. Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch.1991. Headline. London