Northern Red sea revisited
After returning from my (20th?) visit to the Red sea, I here like to share some of my reflections on the trip. This was not an UW photo workshop, so the emphasis was more on diving than on making UW pictures. I must confess that over the years diving has become less important for me: I rather see it as a condition for making pictures than a purpose on its own. UW photography also requires different underwater skills than diving as a sportive event. Which implies that typical diving hazards like strong currents, navigating in murky water, and visiting deep wrecks are not my favorite and even have become a reason to skip a dive.
Our itinerary went a.o. via Shab Abu Nuhas, Ras Muhammed, Jackson reef, Thistlegorm and the 'tile wreck' Chrisoulis K. The majority of divers on our live-aboard Whirlwind came from the UK on a trip organized by Scuba Travel in London. This meant pleasant company and lots of laughter and jokes on the upper deck between the dives. The essence of which I (a Dutchman) was no always able to follow. Regular diving trips often imply that individual divers follow the group and swim around a lot with insufficient time for the UW photographer to lag behind on interesting photogenic spots. Nevertheless, the dive masters on our trip were aware of this problem and permitted me and Jack Bernstein (my diving companion from the US) to dive apart from the group. At the end of the trip Subatravel had arranged for our group one overnight stay in the Hurgada Hilton hotel prior to our flight home. Here we enjoyed free drinks and meals, and were entertained with a never ending stream of classical music (mostly Mozart) flowing from the loudspeakers of the lobby and pool area.
Diving trips in the Northern Red sea are different from those in the Southern Red sea, where shark encounters have become the primary target. Compared with my trips in the early 90-ties, the recent explosive growth of tourism and an the diving industry in northern Egypt does not seem to have substantially changed the conditions of the Red Sea reefs. The only nuisance perhaps being the more crowded dive sites where several live-aboards are often lined up along the reefs. With Ras Muhammed leading the list of favorite and busy sites.
Egypt is still a country with a majority of underpaid or poor citizens. The military regime is often critisized by Western democracies, but probably also guarantees that tourists can still travel safely and enjoy their vacations in the Red sea area. In the past Egypts prosperity and resources depended largely on the river Nile, the reason why the Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt a “Gift of the Nile". Now, almost 2500 year later the Nile and its agricultural benefits seems to be not the only gift that the Gods had in mind for Egypt. Modern tourism industry has developed into the most important sector in the economy, in terms of high employment and incoming foreign currency. This not only includes historical attractions in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, but also the Red sea resorts and diving trips. Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh now collectively boast over 90,000 hotel rooms and provide jobs for half a million Egyptians. In the south, Marsa Alam is following the trend with similar wide scale investments. Charter flights allow citizens from various European countries, including Russia and more recently China to fly in to Hurghada in -say- five or six hours to profit from its relatively cheap hotels, resorts and splendid beaches.
The investment of billions of dollars spent in the last 30 years building a tourism industry with world-class resorts, beaches and hotels also created an awareness in Egyptians to protect the Red Sea’s fragile marine ecosystem. A single major oil spill could indeed cause economic disaster. In the northern Red Sea such could happen with oil platforms within striking distance of Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh. Luckily the deep waters in the central Red Sea basin prevents building rigs further from the coast. But more to the north, in the shallower waters of the Gulf of Suez, Egypt’s main oil producing area accounts for 80 percent of the country’s oil production. Over 180 offshore platforms siphon oil from the gulf’s maturing sub-sea fields, their gas flares illuminating the night sky.
The northern Red Sea as we witness it today, still offers interesting photogenic sites with healthy corals and many fish species moving around in their coral habitats. Lion-, butterfly-, soldier-, squirrel-, crocodile-, banner-fish and moray eels are abundant, with occasional visits of a turtle or dolphins. Not to forget the snappers, batfish, damselfish, blue spotted rays, groupers, and numerous anthias swarming along the drop offs. Sharks however have become rare visitors of the diving sites south of the Sinai peninsula.
For fish-eye shooters many of these species are ideal targets to approach from a very close distance against a blue background and with bright sunlight. The presence of divers, or the diving boat on the surface can help to enhance the perspective. This wide angle mixed-lighting technique* works very well on reef locations where colorful fishes often linger in their habitats, like a branch of soft coral expanding in the current or a stony coral table. My best pictures were actually taken in shallow water under the boat were lionfish, butterflyfish and moray eels were willing to pose for me. The boat on the surface hid the sun but kept the sunrays spreading around the silhoutte of the boat. With a small aperture and the strobes set at half power this created a pleasant contrast between the bright strobe-lit fish on the foreground and the slightly darkish blue background (see picture at the front as an example). The resulting strong light-dark boundaries give the suggestion of clair-obscur, a suggestive effect often seen in in Dutch paintings of the 17th century.
Another must for northern Red sea divers are the wrecks. Wreck dives are also a challenge for UW photographers. Our morning dive to the famous Thistlegorm wreck at Shab Ali near the SW point of the Sinai desert was quite hectic with strong currents and low visibility on the wreck. The greatest challenge of visiting the Thistlegorm are the motorbikes and lorries, and swarms of smaller fish inside the holds. Another series of sunken ships can be found north of Shab Abu Nuhas closer to Hurghada. Here four wrecks are lined up in sequence: Ghiannis D, Carnatic, Chrisoula K. and Kimon M. A strong wind and high waves made it difficult to approach Chrisoula K. in the small ribs. A reason for the captain to cancel further visits to the wrecks and head for reefs closer to the coastline.
Overall, my feeling is that despite the beauty of the Red sea's underwater world, its diving hazards should never be underestimated. Strong winds, currents and high waves can create difficult conditions, especially for UW photographers carrying heavy equipment. When the big boat is not able to approach the diving site, a bumpy ride with the ribs is the only option. Climbing aboard a rocking dinghy after handing over camera and gear to the skipper in moving seas is certainly a physical challenge, but not a pleasure for the less athletic or elderly divers. The same holds for deploying your surface marker buoy at the end of a dive, while holding the camera in one hand and inflating the buoy with your free hand.
Source and links:
*Underwater Photography Masterclass. Alex Mustard, Ammonite Press, 2016.