What a year to have been in the Red Sea. The whole of the last 12 months have been full of reports of incredible marine encounters, particularly between the months of May to October. Manta and whale shark this, hammerhead and tiger shark that; 2009 was a classic Red Sea dive year, even on local training reefs. Charlotte Boan talks to dive guides about their lucky underwater moments of the year.
If there was an award for the largest number of big creature encounters from dayboats in Egypt in one year, then a sure runner in the race would be Gunn Bumoen of Camel Dive Club in Sharm el Sheikh. Of all the three years she’s worked here, none have come close to beating the incredible underwater moments she shared with her guests in 2009. It all kicked off with mantas in April.
‘Almost every day I was seeing mantas locally,’ she recalls. ‘One day we even had seven in one dive swimming around us about 25m away. I also saw a lot of hammerheads. I guess I must have seen hammerheads about 15 different times on the back of Jackson Reef this year. Two of the best dives were four hammerheads close to us for ten minutes, then eight of them for 21 minutes on another day. There were only three times on the back of Jackson when I didn’t see them.
’However, on one of three dives Gunn didn’t see the hammerheads, she shared an encounter with a turtle and a pod of dolphins. And one of the other hammerhead no-shows involved a grey reef shark. ‘I decided to head north from the back of the Lara wreck, no hammerheads, but we saw a turtle we stayed with for a while, before a pod of about 20 Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus) swam close to us for about eight minutes. Fantastic.’
Gunn’s other logbook entries in 2009 include thresher, whale, black tip and white tip sharks, as well as mating turtles, a sailfish, frogfish and huge schools of barracuda. ‘These were huge barracudas, about 1.5m-long’ she says. ‘When I first saw a school of about ten, I thought they were sharks at first from a distance because they were so big. I think I’ve had a really lucky year – 2009 has been amazing.’
El Gouna dive guides, such as Christian Anderson, manager of Colona Divers, encountered dolphins almost every day throughout the high season 2009 in waters just north of Hurghada. Diving and snorkelling with playful dolphins has become a regular part of Christian’s working days on the boat. Some would say that’s more than enough luck, but one day he was treated to a few more big visitors in the water around him.
‘We were heading back from Sha’b El Erg reef with five clients on the boat who had just enjoyed a morning of diving with dolphins and turtles,’ says Christian. ‘Just before we reached the next reef of Gota El Deir, the captain spotted a manta on the surface. I had never seen a manta before and I was like a small child. I jumped in the water and took lots of photographs. But it wasn’t just the one I saw. There were five swimming around. The biggest one was about 2.5m. Two of them stayed with me and played around me for a while – that a was pretty cool day.’
For some, the luck came pouring out over a week. Susi Rumpel of Emperor Divers has been working in the Red Sea for four years. She enjoyed lots of shark encounters off waters near her home in Cape Town before she moved here. But it was Egypt’s waters in August 2009 that she had a super five-day underwater adventure, which included her best dive ever.
‘I had the same guests all week and we saw everything,’ she recalls. ‘It started with a dive off Jackson Reef in Tiran where we saw a baby white tip shark, then an oceanic white tip. Both came very close to us and stayed for quite a while.’But it was at Ras Mohammed where Susi’s lucky dive streak hit gold. ‘We were at Shark and Yolanda Reef. A large shark, about 3m long, was swimming away from the reef about 5m below us. It was definitely a bull shark - its body-shape and markings were clear. Its fin was black and slightly rounded. We verified this in the books afterwards. But that was just the start of the dive.
‘We were already breathing fast with all the excitement of seeing the bull shark when a school of about 300 trevally swam past us. Then as the current took us towards Yolanda, an 8m whale shark appeared. We swam with it for quite a while.’
That was not the end of the story for the dive. ‘Swimming close to the whale shark, I saw what I thought was a small reef shark. It was about 1.5m, but on closer look was not a shark. We identified it later as a cobia fish, so that was an amazing encounter in itself with a feather-tail stingray. I definitely used up a lot more air than usual on that dive. Emperor Maria’s captain wasn’t so impressed though. I’ve got quite a loud voice and was over-excited. He kept telling me to be quiet.’
You would think there was little that guides who have spent many thousands of hours in the Red Sea have yet to see. But a tiger shark was something that had eluded Hassan Abd El Malek, the manager of Aquarius Dive Club at the Marriot in Hurghada, for 12 years.
‘Sometimes we take our guests to Marsa Alam to dive Elphinstone Reef,’ he says. ‘We had already been lucky enough to see three oceanic white tips there on one morning dive in July. When we went in for a second dive, we ventured to the north plateau. At about 15m to 20m a 2.5m-long shark started heading slowly towards us. It was a tiger shark. I was very excited. It was so cool. It was the first time in about eight years since a tiger had been spotted there. I heard stories from other colleagues that there were four hanging around the north plateau over the summer. An incredible experience – one I will never forget.’
The last 12 months were not all about the big stuff, however. Dive guide Ahmed Nubi of Nesima Dive Club in Dahab made a name for himself in 2009 as an expert seahorse spotter. He has been guiding in the area for more than 11 years and has learned a few tricks about spotting these elusive macro creatures.
‘Almost every time a guest asked to go and see the seahorses, we found them in the Lighthouse area or at Ras Abu Galum,’ he says. ‘You really have to concentrate to find them.
It’s really about buoyancy. You have to tilt your head at sea grass level and wait patiently for any strange movement. They are never in the same spot, and move around quite a lot in the seagrass – sometimes up to 100m from one day to the next. When you move close, they spot you before you spot them. They try to hide, but they don’t usually escape from me.’
Covering the whole of the Egyptian Red Sea this year on three liveaboards, guides Reda Ramadan and Sameh Zeineldin of Tornado Marine Fleet reported back on some incredible underwater moments of 2009. Their trips on MY Cyclone, MV Hurricane and MY Tempest involved dancing with dolphins on more than one occasion.
‘As we finished the dive and about to return to MY Cyclone, we could make out a shout of ‘dolphins’ though someone’s regulator,’ explains the pair. ‘Within minutes we were following a pair of dolphins that were rolling and twisting with the grace of Fonteyn and Nureyev and completely oblivious to us. Lovely.’
Their second of four incredible 2009 dolphin encounters was off the wreck of the Ulysses. ‘After a drift along the reef, stopping off to see some very large lionfish, many divers were met by a few dolphins,’ they recall. ‘While hanging on the line a pair came down and circled us a few times. It was magical, unforgettable. Then we had a great dive on the Kingston wreck, topped off with a pod of 15 to 20 dolphins swimming past.’
But dolphins were not the only big animals they encountered this year. Their logbooks were also full of tales of sharks, including hammerheads, oceanic white tips, as well as leopard sharks.
‘The first/check dive of one trip at Stingray Station and we saw a guitar shark. This shark casually swam past us accompanied by cleaner fish and then turned around and came back and swam under us at extremely close range, completely unaffected by us.’
By Charlotte Boan
First published in BLUE magazine January 2010