I THINK MY ADRENAL GLAND IS BROKEN. Either that, or my adrenaline is to fear what shandy is to alcoholic beverages.
I know this because, whenever I should be moving rapidly away from something, I tend to move towards it.
Take oceanic whitetip sharks. Carcharhinus longimanus, as the men in white coats call it, is reputed to have chomped through hundreds of airmen and sailors lost at sea during World War Two, and countless fishermen who parted company with their vessels over centuries.
There are even stories of longimanus chasing divers and snorkellers back onto their liveaboards and then swimming menacingly around to stop them getting back in the water.
However, Ill be the guy hanging off the back of a boat waiting for an oceanic, and using my body as bait until I can feel it brush against me. If my photographic subjects got any closer, Id be their dinner.
I spent a long time planning my oceanic whitetip shark photo-shoot.
I organised a trip to the Red Sea at the time when they are most abundant - in autumn. I picked my favourite liveaboard mv Oyster (now reportedly diveable itself after accidentally grounding on a reef) for a cruise of the best oceanic haunts, Elphinstone, Daedalus and the Brother Islands.
But getting the shot was to be a frustrating business.
My quest stemmed from an earlier close encounter. We had finished a wonderful afternoon dive on the Numidia at Big Brother Island (in the days before it was so named) and, as we reached the liveaboard (again the Oyster), someone had shouted that there was a shark in the water.
Our inflatable stopped, I donned my mask and stuck my head in the water. Id heard of people jumping into the sea to swim with what they thought was a whale shark, only to be confronted by a huge tiger shark. This was a rare example of my self-preservation system winning an argument with my mind.
Seeing the classic long, white-tipped pectoral fins of a longimanus was, however, enough for my browbeaten husband of a preservation system to shrink back to the kitchen sink. I grabbed my scuba kit, fins and camera and slipped in along with two or three others.
As the bubbles cleared, I looked out into the blue and saw... well, blue.
But one of the other divers was waving her arm and pointing downwards, which seemed an odd thing to do, as the seabed was several hundred metres down.
Then a 2m-long oceanic whitetip swam beneath me. She had been almost perfectly camouflaged against the deeper blue of the ocean, and become visible only when she rose to investigate us. Our entry must have scared her downwards. *
I split from the others, as I wanted desperately to get pictures without hordes of people in the shot, but the sleek animal ignored me. She swam gracefully at a distance, circling us, but with each revolution got closer to the others.
Then, either she noticed me or thought she had better find out what I was. Eyes fixed on my torso, she swam directly at me. The usual reef sharks simply change direction slightly and drift towards their target gently, but this was rather intimidating, like being a guy in a nightclub with a beautiful woman walking towards you.
She broke off a couple of metres away and circled, but kept an eye on me as she closed more cautiously. I brought up my camera and focused.
As she came to within a metre, I pressed the shutter lever....
Nothing happened. At first I thought the focus couldnt lock on to her body, but she was large and sharp in the viewfinder (and getting bigger).
Then I looked at the information at the bottom of the screen and saw what no photographer wants to see when confronted by such a willing subject - a finished roll of film!
I could get out of the water, change film and risk missing the experience, or stay and enjoy the show. I stayed.
The shark circled me tightly, then moved off to do the same to the others. The Brothers had been out of bounds for three years and this was the first boat to visit (officially, at least). Chances were, she had never seen a human before.
Oceanics frequent offshore reefs set in deep water, but prefer to hunt close to the surface. As scavengers, they investigate most things, nudging them, swallowing anything small enough to fit in their mouths and spitting out what is unappetising.
I once saw one investigate a floating mango three times before taking it into its mouth, only to spit it out seconds later. These are not vegetarians!
Oceanics like their water warm and are found most often in the Red Sea from September to November. They can be seen at other times as well, but not in such abundance.
Elphinstone, a popular stop for liveaboards, has had a resident population of two to five oceanics for several years. Daedalus and the Brothers may have, but no one seems to know.
I planned to used Elphinstones population as a fallback, so I was a little worried when I realised we were heading for this relatively near-shore reef first. What if the sharks failed to show
In mid-October, the water is at its warmest and was chopped only slightly by the gentle northerly breeze coming off the Sinai mountains.
We dropped onto the eastern side of the slender reef and drifted south. My mission involved staying at around 5-9m and searching the surface for the telltale white underside of an oceanic.
About midway through the dive, Roger, the guide, pinged his tank and pointed upwards. In the distance, I caught an oceanic cruising along the reef about 30m from the wall, heading for a congregation of black snapper feasting at the surface. I rose gently, but it carried on, not even turning to look at me.
I saw the shark a couple more times, but it was about as interested in me as a movie star is in astrophysics.
All I managed was one distance shot of it dead above me.
The second dive was on the west side, the wall lit by the afternoon sun. I searched all along the reef but caught sight of only one shark in the distance. I was beginning to think that my fallback reef was not what I had hoped. Perhaps the sharks were so used to divers that the novelty of investigating them had worn off.
As the group came up to its safety stop, however, an oceanic did approach a little closer.
I hung in the water as others prepared to climb into the boat, and watched as she (there were no claspers by the anal fins) swam in between the divers. This was my chance.
I took several pictures, but by now the divers had realised that a predator was among them, and I was suddenly surrounded by bubbles, divers and a shark with more to look at than a six-year-old in a fairground.
She came close enough for a few shots, but nothing spectacular. She was also pretty beaten up, with deep lacerations down her flanks. These could have been mating wounds or the result of a tangle with a propeller.
Elphinstone can get crowded with boats, making life somewhat hazardous for a surface-dwelling predator.
All I had were a few grabbed shots of a skittish shark. So much for the fallback.
Daedalus is a small reef that doesnt quite break the surface but is topped by a lighthouse, one of a string down the Red Sea. Oyster anchored along the south side early the next morning, the wind still coming from the north. This is classic oceanic territory, with deep water all around for miles, yet a good concentration of fish from the reef.
The problem, however, is one of two needles in a haystack trying to get together. I hoped that the boat would act as an attractant.
The first dive revealed some bluewater sharks - hammerheads, grey reefs and the odd whitetip reef - but no oceanics. After breakfast I snorkelled, hoping to lure a curious shark with my presence.
Hanging in blue water with nothing to see but the buoy on a line extended from the liveaboards stern was both dull and extremely pant-trembling. There is something scary about being alone in the ocean and looking down into nothing.
My heart was pounding as I nervously searched all around, but after about 40 fruitless minutes, I emerged disappointed.
The second dive passed like the first, a beautiful drift along a healthy reef.
From the top sundeck, I searched the water for signs of life. A few poo-fish (my name for brown surgeonfish, because of their habit of living and feeding around certain parts of boats) and a barracuda were all I could see.
On the last dive I stayed shallow and took few shots. The racking light from the low sun reduced visibility and dampened my spirits. I saw hammerhead, grey reef and whitetip reef sharks, huge morays and lots of colourful reef fish, yet none of it mattered. There had been no sign of an oceanic all day.
The hammerheads were still cruising the deep blue water the next morning as we dived before breakfast. They are great to see, but rarely come close enough for a decent photograph. Still, their abundance that morning cheered me up.
Back on the reef, everything was as normal. There were plenty of those fish that dont mind divers - soldierfish, grunts, morays, clownfish etc - so I tried to put oceanics to the back of my mind.
They are rarely encountered this early in the day, so I shot most of a roll of film and climbed into the inflatable happy.
After breakfast, one of the other divers went in for a snorkel, but I opted to observe from the sundeck again. Then, feeling like Orinoco (the Womble, not the river) I retired to my cabin for 40 winks. But as soon as I lay down, someone thumped on my door. A shark had appeared.
I grabbed my camera, stubbed my toe, and limped down to the dive deck.
I gasped at how cool the water felt without a wetsuit on. Two other people were in the water and pointed in the direction in which the shark had left.
We waited, and just as I thought Id missed my opportunity, the shark returned. A small female, without pilotfish or remoras, she swam lazily towards us but stayed several metres away and eventually drifted off.
Well, I thought as I climbed the ladder, at least I know the oceanics are here.
During the second dive, the Red Sea started to show her unpredictable side. The southern side of Daedalus is usually calm, but the strong wind was pushing a current around the reef.
I didnt fancy being swept away this far from anywhere, but I decided to forego the afternoon dive to hang off the boat. The crew threw out the safety line and I slipped into the water and waited.
It didnt take long. A 1.5m oceanic popped up and nudged the buoy. I was about halfway between boat and buoy, and the shark took little interest in me. I edged closer, but it drifted off. The current was pulling quite hard now, and I didnt want to let go of the line.
As I moved back to the halfway point the shark reappeared, but moved off again as I closed. So much for the ever-inquisitive longimanus!
I spent more than an hour in the water and saw the shark about five times, but got close only once. I climbed aboard with an aching arm from holding the line and an aching frustration gland.
Tonight we were moving on to the Brothers. Pulling in the anchors took some time, and in the dark the captain switched on the deck lights. These attracted a mass of plankton, which in turn pulled in a shoal of fusiliers. The seething mass of bright blue fish swarmed about close to the surface, right next to the boat.
Suddenly, part of the shoal exploded as fish leapt from the water. At first we thought it was barracuda preying on the fusiliers. Maybe it was, but not for long.
I know that the commotion was started by barracuda because one leapt from the water, travelled through a space in the vessels gunwale and landed, flapping, on my foot. It was possibly more shocked then I was, but not by much. *
I kicked it back into the water and saw why a healthy fish would rather jump onto a boat full of hungry divers than stay in the water - a shark. A large oceanic whitetip was swimming through the shoal, which parted as the very sea on which we floated once did for Moses.
It was joined by another, and then another and another. Soon there were eight oceanics passing in and out of the shoal of fusiliers, white fin-tips flashing as they caught the light. Fish jumped and splashed everywhere as they fed.
I desperately wanted to be in there to capture the action on film. I wasnt worried about being in the water at night with feasting oceanics (though I should have been), but the boat was under power, the anchors were coming up and a ripping current was running away to the south. It was, however, a scene to relish (unless you were a fusilier).
I dont sleep much on a moving boat, but I dozed and slept lightly that night. So lightly that, as soon as the engines drone changed, I leapt up to look outside. The sun was not yet up, but the sky was awash with pinks, oranges and light blues. Ahead was Big Brother and, to my dismay, about eight other boats.
Some were proper liveaboards - large, seaworthy and able to take whatever the Red Sea can throw at them. Others were basically day-boats with a compressor thrown on the back - small, wooden and not very safe-looking.
We moored at the southern end, close to the plateau. The wind was easing and the sea calming as we headed for the first dive. With so many boats, I figured I had little chance of getting a good oceanic image, even though this was where my fascination with the species had started.
Our first dive produced a thresher sighting, a couple of grey reef sharks and lots of pretty coral. In the years since the diving ban was lifted, Big Brother hadnt suffered greatly. The seafan forest was still intact at the south-west flank and the southern wall as densely populated with soft corals as ever. It was a heartening sight.
I slipped into the water after breakfast to float behind the boat again. A large barracuda was cruising but nothing else, so I returned to the boat.
I had just washed my camera off when I heard shouts. As I reached the dive deck, I could see only one person in the water. He and the shark were as close as a couple of teenagers making out at a house party. The sharks dorsal fin broke the surface and the snorkeller was actually pushing the animal away.
I grabbed my fins, mask and snorkel and leapt into the water with my camera. The snorkeller was heading back to the boat, but another guy joined me and we both watched the shark circle at a distance. She was probably patrolling the water between the liveaboards hoping for something edible to fall off, which was what we had done.
Suddenly she turned from her circle and headed straight for us. I was ready. As the body grew larger and larger in my viewfinder, I started firing shot after shot.
She came in so close that I could feel her skin on my arm, and my lens would no longer focus. My companion resorted to guiding the shark away with his fin. It was tremendous fun.
She came in several times, so close that I could see the individual ampullae of Lorenzini on her head. After the fifth or sixth pass, she backed off and, sure that we were no threat, stayed at a distance.
I had had the shark encounter of my life. My heart was thumping, forcing that broken adrenaline around my body.
I could hear it in my ears, feel it in my chest. I was still smiling hours later
The encounter was better than that first one years before, in almost the same place. Had I managed a good shot then, Id probably never have come back to experience something even better.