The Guardian features Egypt’s real treasure: diving with sharks in the Red Sea
Wednesday 05/April/2017 - 06:15 PM
To say the Egyptian economy، much reliant on tourism، has seen a turbulent time of late، would be a woeful understatement. As you travel along the Red Sea coast from Hurghada، through Safaga، and El Quseir، the litter-strewn landscape of low hills and desert occasionally gives way to tourism developments and scattered international hotels. Their gardens are still maintained and the palm trees watered، but call in for a drink and the bars and pools are emptier than their designers expected. Equally، many hotels were never completed and desert-worn signs featuring smiling couples who will never visit، lend a post-apocalyptic air، The Guardian said in a report regarding the Egypt and its Red Sea tourism.
The figures speak for themselves. From a high point in October 2010 of almost one and a half million، tourist arrivals in Egypt were a little under 500، 000 in September 2016; a continuation of a slow decline، (punctuated with significant dips in numbers following acts of terrorism). Egypt’s’ tourism minister، Yehia Rashed، has his work cut out and is on record as stating the country is now safe for tourists. As a regular visitor، I personally feel safe. The request for a bribe though، from the police officer at the gates of Hurghada’s new airport، when a fellow traveller didn’t have their printed flight coupon handy، suggests not all is not quite as it should be.
Think of tourism in Egypt، and you’ll be forgiven for thinking of crowded markets in Cairo، the splendours of Giza and Abu Simbel، but this would be missing a major contribution to the tourism economy. The Red Sea and its treasures are less well known internationally than King Tut’s mask or the sphinx، yet staff at dive centres in Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula will tell you that one famous shipwreck – the SS Thistlegorm – brings in more foreign income than the pyramids at Giza. In these troubled years، the European-based dive tourism companies have looked to destinations further afield، but the lure of history-rich wrecks، spectacular corals، sunshine and warm water just five hours away keeps the Red Sea firmly in the minds of individual divers. If flights from European airports are returned to previous levels، divers will flock back، perhaps ahead of more mainstream tourists.
I can forget much of that for a short while at least. As an underwater photographer and diving journalist I’m here for the sharks. As our boat heads out of port the captain is confident of good weather and a quicker than average crossing to our isolated destination. I’m leaving the dusty streets، the taxi drivers and the tourist shops، and we are heading out، into the blue.
The next morning، the water is around twenty-six degrees and we’ve finned back towards the boat from the coral-covered reef wall. We’ve used most of our gas and the plan is to spend the last few minutes of the dive hanging a few metres below the surface، hoping for shark activity. A fellow diver points towards a two-metre shark، cruising past at a leisurely pace، a few pilot fish ahead of its sleek snout، and as I take a series of photos I rise a few metres closer to the surface، much to the understandable annoyance of the dive guide، before correcting my buoyancy. The long، lobed pectoral fins، each tipped with bright white identify it as the ocean-wandering oceanic whitetip، a supreme and graceful predator that was once perhaps the most widespread large animal on the planet، before sharks became so threatened.
The fish are deeply curious and use a combination of senses، from their chemosensory ability (not entirely smell، but sort of) to an electrosensory ability، that has no analogue in mammals، used in close encounters. Oceanics (as they’re often referred to) will come very close، making them a favourite with divers. Just as we realise there are several fish in the water، ranging from small males to a large pregnant female، one young male passes exceptionally close and might have just “bumped” me a little to check out the large camera I’m holding. If I’m honest، despite my rational brain telling me it’s not needed، the camera serves as a buffer between me and a fish I know will not attack.
As I climb back onto the boat، a fin breaks the surface a few metres away، and while I’m mindful of the shark’s abilities، I realise that beyond mild caution، I have not felt real fear at all. I’ve felt something akin to reverence. These fish that cruise the tropical oceans have shown interest in me; they were curious، aware، and individuals showed unique behaviour، exhibiting preferences in how they cho se to interact.
Back on the boat in the lee of the largest of the two El Ikhwa islands (known more commonly as the Brothers) about forty miles from shore، the sharks continue to cruise from boat to boat. I had expected they would shun the noise and commotion of the dive boats and the little rigid-hulled inflatable boats with their noisy outboards، that shuttle divers to and from their entry and exit points. On the contrary، oceanics are attracted to the boats، their noise and chemical signatures and trails in the water. Unlike deeper dwelling sharks like hammerheads، oceanics will scout for food close to the surface and may take mammalian carrion as well as injured fish floundering on the surface، which brings me to the controversial subject of shark attacks.