Dean Martin is mesmerised by close encounters with several species of shark.
Tourism in the Egyptian Red Sea may be going through a torrid time at the moment due to flight bans and regional unrest, but this didn’t deter me from making my second liveaboard in this fabulous diving destination. In fact, now is the ideal time to visit, with many deals available and the lack of divers meaning that marine life is even more prolific than normal. Despite the Red Sea being the number-one warm-water location for British divers, it wasn’t until last year that I finally made my first-ever visit. I had been endlessly tempted by fantastic photographs of Egyptian flora and fauna, and thought it time I saw it for myself. I embarked on a liveaboard to the Deep South, a favoured haunt of various species of shark, but we didn’t see a single one. Not that I cared - as it was my first time in these rich waters, I was busy taking photographs of everything else!
This time, however, I wanted to break my shark ‘duck’. I had booked myself on to the same itinerary as my previous trip - the Deep South, comprising St John’s, Daedalous and Elphinstone - and on meeting my fellow passengers during initial boarding and the first night, it became clear we were all after the ‘big stuff’. Namely oceanic whitetips, manta rays, hammerheads and even whalesharks. Would our luck be in?
After the usual check dive and generally getting into the swing of things - jumping into the Red Sea under a cloudless blue sky is a world away from sploshing into a British quarry when it is chucking it down! We kicked off our Deep South odyssey with the short trip to the legendary Elphinstone.
We had the routine now - bell rings, check Nitrox cylinders and sign log. Bell rings again and it is briefing time. Third ring of the bell and you get kitted up and go diving. I had dived Elphinstone the previous year and it was an awesome dive - we had dived with the current and made our way all the way around. This year was going to be a little different, as during the briefing we were told that only a few days earlier, oceanic whitetips had been spotted. My heart began to race - it’s one thing thinking you may be in the water with sharks, but it’s completely different when you’re told it is nearly guaranteed you will be encountering them!
We made our way to the dive platform and jumped in. We slowly made our way over to the reef and waited… and waited. Now, when you are at 10-15m staring into the blue for what seems like an eternity, it gets a little strange and you start to think ‘what am I doing? I’m a grown man just hanging in the water waiting for a big scary fish to show its face’. I spotted a jellyfish and swam over to take a few pictures and then, just out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a twometre female oceanic with an entourage of pilot fish swimming straight towards us.
“These sharks were getting to be like a schoolyard bully and I had to admit I had a little moment at being last in the water, but we all made it back safe and sound after the most-electrifying dive I have ever had ”
I looked at my buddy and shouted ‘shark!’ through my regulator while pointing at the beauty coming directly towards the pair of us. I was now getting mixed feelings of ‘what am I still doing in the water?’ to ‘make sure you get the shot’!
My heart was racing and even though she swam away after a single pass, I was left feeling absolutely ecstatic - my first Red Sea shark sighting and it was an oceanic whitetip!
We followed up our Elphinstone dives the next day with dips at Gota Sorya (Little Gota), Gota Kebirn (Big Gota) and Dangerous Reef, which all boasted a multitude of marine life swarming in and around stunning coral gardens, bommies, pinnacles and walls. Even though it didn’t have the heart-thumping drama of our Elphinstone encounter, there was more than enough going on to keep even the most-hardened liveaboard veteran glued to their viewfinder.
The St John’s reef system is unlike anywhere else in the Red Sea, and I was almost as excited to be revisiting some of the sites as I was about seeing more sharks. Our first site, Umm Aroug (St John’s Wood) boasted a sandy bottom with an abundance of pinnacles - it was almost like an underwater moonscape, but rather than being devoid of life, it was smothered in shoals of fish.
The next dive was at Umm Kararhim (St John’s Caves), which was one of my favourite dives from the previous year. It’s part-cathedral, with beams of sunlight shining through cracks and holes in the coral, and part-labyrinth, with myriad twists and turns as you venture into swim- throughs, tunnels and caverns. It is an extremely atmospheric location, with plenty of photo-opportunities for those with cameras, and because it all lies in relatively shallow water, you can spend pretty much your entire dive within the ‘caves’.
That afternoon we headed to Sataya South (Dolphin House), a walled reef dropping off to 45m that is home to a resident pod of dolphins. Unfortunately for us, on this particular occasion they were out playing or hunting, but even without the presence of the pod, it was still a good dive, with walls of coral full of huge gorgonian seafans and sea whips.
Our excitement built yet again as we travelled overnight to Daedalus, a huge expanse of reef with a dramatic lighthouse and a long jetty. It is not what you expect in the middle of the Red Sea, and I can see why the lighthouse was constructed as it sits in the main shipping lanes. But while the reef itself may be enthralling, that wasn’t what had got us excited - it was the promise of hammerhead sharks lurking in the depths that had us on edge. Morning couldn’t come soon enough.
We were split into two teams for the long zodiac transfers round to the northern side of the reef. It was so hard to watch the first wave go out on the zodiacs, knowing they were going to see them first, but it wasn’t long before the boats came whizzing back to collect us. We were all grinning wildly. This was what we had all been waiting for - a chance to dive with the big boys of the sea, hammerheads. We still had no idea if the guys in the first wave had even seen any, but we were full of hope. As the zodiacs reached the northern side of Daedalous, our guide
entered the water to check the current, gave the ‘okay’ and then we were all in and dropping down the wall into deeper water. It didn’t seem any time at all before one of the team shouted ‘shark’ and pointed out into the blue. There they were, swimming almost on their sides – a total of 16 hammerheads. They continuously circled us for almost 30 minutes before it was time to leave and make our way back to the reef and safety stop. As we excitedly chatted about our dive on the way back to the liveaboard in the zodiacs, we are still not sure if the first wave of divers saw the sharks, but as we drew near, we could hear the cheers! I couldn’t wait to check my camera and see what shots I had managed to take.
We logged two more epic dives on Daedalous and then opted to stay for another whole day, repeating our hammerhead encounter the next morning. This time the sharks were a little deeper, but they swarmed in and around the divers with little concern for their close proximity. It is hard to put into words how I was feeling on this dive when I had large hammerhead sharks above, below and to the left and right of me. My entire body was tingling with adrenalin, and looking into the eyes of my fellow divers, I could tell that they were feeling the same way.
All too soon, the trip was coming to an end, but with our final dives being back on Elphinstone, we were confident that they would make a fine finale to an awesome week - and we were not wrong.
Dive one got off to a slow start - we hung in the blue for what seemed likes eons before seeing a single oceanic whitetip in the distance just as we had to head back to the boat - but dive two more than made up for it!
Initially I had that sinking feeling, as I spent 30 minutes in the blue without a sniff of a shark, but then just as I was ready to give up hope, a sole oceanic with her pilot fish entourage came cruising out of the blue, swiftly followed by another one. At first they kept their distance, but then they became increasingly curious, bumping cameras and making quick turns for repeated close passes.
There were six of us together in the water and the two oceanics circled us, drawing us away from the boat and reef wall into their playground and their comfort zone - and out of ours. We were all so excited, with endless camera flashes from the strobes firing and the sharks only inches from the dome ports - this was what we all wanted, but it was getting a little scary as we started to think we had to climb back into the zodiac! One by one we made our way into the boat, with me still shooting at every chance I had. These sharks were getting to be like a schoolyard bully and I had to admit I had a little moment at being last in the water, but we all made it back safe and sound after the most-electrifying dive I have ever had.
I cannot put into words how good this dive was, and it was great to spend it with a bunch of people who, after 17 dives together, had become friends for life. To share something like this with someone who only six days earlier was a total stranger is a little weird, but that’s diving for you, and even more so liveaboard diving. You make friends with people you may never meet in your normal walk of life, but for a week on a boat in the middle of the Red Sea, you have bonded with and shared experiences like never before.
Dean had a close encounter with a curious oceanic The hammerhead shoal circled the divers Oceanic with attendant pilot fish
Clownfish in host anemone “As we excitedly chatted about our dive on the way back to the liveaboard in the zodiacs, we are still not sure if the first wave of divers saw the sharks, but as we drew near, we could hear the cheers!”
Inside the caverns at St John’s
Elphinstone is famed for its oceanics