Egypt is an ancient land full of mysteries, contradictions, contrasts and beauty. Located in the northeast corner of Africa, this desert nation is bordered to the north by the Mediterranean Sea and to the east by the legendary Red Sea. Scuba divers arrive in droves to sample the Red Sea’s bountiful underwater riches, which have been lauded by such notable diving legends as Jacques Cousteau and Dr. Eugenie Clark. My wife Lauren and I have returned to Egypt for these reasons, but even more, to see the famed oceanic whitetip sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus) that are becoming increasingly rare in the Red Sea.
Oceanic whitetip sharks, or oceanics for short, used to be one of the most plentiful shark species on the planet. Growing up to four metres in length, this apex predator is a muscular shark with a tall, rounded dorsal fin and long, paddle-like pectoral fins. Oceanics once ranged throughout most subtropical and tropical oceans, but overfishing, such as with the use of longlines, has decimated their populations worldwide. The World Wildlife Federation’s Position Statement on these vulnerable creatures states: “Once among the more abundant pelagic sharks within their range, available catch data indicate that the species has undergone severe historic and recent declines.” This and other bleak declarations by marine scientists fueled my urgency to visit the Red Sea.
Ready for Red
On the advice of Terry Simpson from Emperor Divers and expert Dr. Elke Bojanowski, Lauren and I learned that the months of September through December in the Southern Egyptian Red Sea sites offer the best odds to find and photograph this revered species. Once aboard the Emperor Divers’ MY Emperor Elite liveaboard for a one-week charter, the visual contrast between the land and the Red Sea is striking. I have read that on days when the sea is calm and the sky is clear, the setting sun’s rays reflect off these mountains and stain the waters a brilliant shade of crimson, hence the name the Red Sea.
I am somewhat anxious to speak with the dive guides, Nick Salt and Lisa Matthews, to find out if they saw any oceanics during the previous voyage, but the entire crew is busy getting the Emperor Elite underway. Nick finally takes a breather and stops by the camera tables near the dive deck to talk with me. He tells me sightings have been unpredictable, no sharks were seen on the two most recent trips and that I should have been on the boat last month when guests had four healthy specimens near them for an entire dive at Daedalus Reef. I smile, thank him for the information, and start to wonder. I tell myself there’s no reason to panic just yet.
The checkout dive at Tobia Arbaa reminds me the Red Sea is quite a bit saltier than typical ocean water when I realise I am unintentionally bobbing like a cork at the surface. The arid climate and semi-closed basin of the Red Sea causes evaporation to be much greater than the rainfall. The combined effects of this precipitation deficit, the limited freshwater input from rivers and the reduced salt water exchanges with the Indian Ocean make the Red Sea the saltiest body of water in the world that is still attached to an open ocean. I need more weight!
The Brothers in Blue
An overnight cruise of 105 kilometres southeast takes us to the Brother Islands or El Akhawein (“Brothers” in Egyptian). These two small, rocky islands, known as Big and Little, are the tops of undersea mountains and separated by one kilometre. They are the only substantial reefs in a vast area and constantly bathed by open sea currents that provide valuable nutrients. The islands’ isolation and pristine underwater conditions attract large pelagics and support a diverse variety of reef inhabitants.
Our initial dive at Big Brother, which sports a Victorian style stone lighthouse, is most eventful. Your chances of seeing an oceanic or any other large marine animal, for that matter, are significantly reduced if you spend your entire dive looking in holes and crevices. With that in mind, I constantly scan away from the reef and up towards the surface as we leisurely swim along the southern point of the island. We are only fifteen minutes into our dive when I spot the familiar, graceful, flapping wings of a manta ray (Manta birostris) swimming towards us. With a wing span in the neighborhood of 4.5 metres, this magnificent ray circles our group.
A signature image of the Red Sea is of anthias swarming over hard or soft corals. The first part of my dive at Little Brother is spent trying to capture such a shot. Lauren attempts to draw my attention away from the anthias, but I am lost in my own world. A loving rap to the back of my head finally does the trick. I not-so-politely turn to see her pointing at a Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) the size of a small billboard about seven metres below us. Plump, blue, pouty lips and small, beady eyes give it a cartoonish appearance. Ornate markings on its face and flanks are reminiscent of the hieroglyphics that epitomise the temples and tombs of Egypt. Perhaps Napoleons, a favorite fish of mine, are living monuments to the artistry of creation.
As we gradually rise to the surface, I see a shark disappearing into the haze at the edge of my vision. It might be an oceanic, but I cannot be sure, and there is not enough air left in my tank to investigate. These two days at the Brothers provide us with memorable dives, but also leaves us with an ever-growing itch needing to be scratched. We push further south to Daedalus Reef during another overnight crossing. Daedalus is very similar to Big Brother Island in that it is remote, relatively small (less than a kilometre wide), home to a lighthouse and part of the Egyptian Marine Park system. It is also our best and possibly last chance to photograph an oceanic.
When oceanics are present here, their curious nature often draws them to the thrumming generators and other associated stimuli of tied-off boats. The more boats, the greater the noise, the stronger the attraction. To maximise our chances of spotting a shark, Nick and Lisa strongly recommend we eschew the reef sites in favour of shallow five to eight metre dives in the vicinity of the Emperor Elite. Our first dive offers an extraordinary amount of blue water and little else. I stare into the distance so long I start to see mermaids. We blow bubbles and then almost resort to a game of Charades before deciding to head-up for a short break.
Refreshed in mind and spirit, we forge ahead with our second dive under the vessel. Almost as soon as I finish checking my gear to make sure everything is in order, I get the unnerving sensation that someone or something is watching me. I turn to the left just as a 2.5-metre oceanic, with 12 pilot fish in tow, swims past at a mere two metres away. There is no time to raise my housing for a shot. And, though the shark appears to be in no hurry, the deliberate, powerful strokes of its tail make it clear a chase would be futile.
Lauren and I stare at each other as if to say, What’s next? We decide to stay put, face in opposite directions and keep watch. Ten minutes later, I see what looks to be the same shark with pilot fish entourage approaching from the same direction and at about the same depth as the previous pass. It is obviously a return engagement.
I simultaneously reach behind to signal Lauren and raise my camera. The shark has the sun slightly behind it and the resulting glare is making it difficult to track its movements through the viewfinder.
The shark barely seems to register our presence as it deliberately swims past. I fire off a series of ten shots, then watch it disappear yet again. The oceanic whitetip reminds me of a patrolling prison guard assigned to a designated path. I quickly examine my photos and do not like what I see. The exposures are way off; the result of yours truly improperly compensating for the intense sun rays in such shallow water.
Wait for White
If the shark is on patrol, it might just come our way once more. We resume our back-to-back positions and wait. As if on cue, in another ten minutes, here comes Mr. Longimanus. Its pace has quickened, which makes it difficult to photograph. Thankful I have already adjusted my settings, I squeeze off another ten frames.
Lauren huddles next to me as we look into the back of the housing to check the images. The outcome is much more pleasing this time and allows me to release a sigh of relief. We wait another twenty minutes or so, but the shark does not return. Two subsequent lengthy dives yield only distant views of one or more smaller specimens. Even so, we are pleased knowing that oceanic whitetips still reside in the Red Sea, despite the hardships wrought on this and other shark species globally.
There are an almost infinite number of reasons to visit Egypt and the Red Sea. The land and the ocean are married to and even mirror one another. Oceanic whitetip sharks will continue to be a major reason we choose to return to Egypt. But, even if these impressive sharks become as numerous as the stars in the nighttime sky or ultimately disappear altogether, Egypt and the Red Sea will still beckon us from afar.
Taken from Scuba Diver Issue 1/2011