|Stingray Station at the southern end of Shaab Mahmoud is a splendid dive at any time, but today were peering up at a hawksbill turtle. It has been recharging its lungs at the surface, and we hope itll dive once more. |
Encounters with turtles are quite common in the Red Sea, but more often than not theyre fleeting, and rarely close or interactive.
Im keen to photograph the turtle with my wife Susanna in the background or close by, but this type of shot does require the co-operation of your subject. Having two divers converge on a turtle can frighten it off, and once scared it can easily outswim a diver.
After several minutes of gentle finning 10m below this one, it stops and dives gracefully. We hold our breath, and Im thrilled to see the turtle turn to swim between us. I rattle off four or five quick shots while Ive got the chance.
The turtle seems to slow and look at me in a manner that I can only describe as inviting. I begin to swim away gently just ahead of it as it swims towards me.
We keep this up for a few minutes with Susanna following along. Then a most unusual incident unfolds.
The turtle comes to a halt and touches down on the sand - we both do the same. It then turns towards Susanna, seeming to assess her, and swims towards her with what appears to be the intention of making physical contact.
The turtle hovers in front of Susanna, peering into her mask, and then comes slowly forward - perhaps, I think, seeking a kiss!
This is enough for Susanna, and she raises her hand gently to halt the turtle and avoid any possible clash between beak and mask.
The turtle is quite persistent, but not aggressive in any way, and continues to swim against Susannas hand while I frantically try to capture all this on film.
By now weve been joined by another photographer in our group. He watches in amazement and mentally curses the fact that his camera is fitted with a macro lens.
Eventually, the turtle leaves Susanna and swims back towards me. The entourage moves off again. The swim doesnt last as long this time, and ends with the turtle heading for the surface once again.
The hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is the most common species in the Red Sea, though green turtles are sighted occasionally. Hawksbills can be seen on shallow reefs and are easily recognised by their narrow heads and pronounced hooked beaks. They weigh in at 40-75kg, and have attractive carapaces up to 1m long.
For centuries hawksbills have been hunted for this carapace, the natural source of tortoiseshell, and for eggs highly prized in some societies. They are listed as an endangered species.
These independent turtles are mostly encountered individually, except during summer mating when they congregate and will ignore almost any intrusion.
Hawksbill turtles come ashore to lay their eggs in shallow nests on the beaches of the mainland and Sinai coasts, and on the islands of Tiran, Zabargad and Dahlak.
Some of the best opportunities for encounters are during very early morning dives at the top of the reef to catch them as they emerge from a nights rest.
They generally start the day feeding, mostly on sponges and soft corals, and are more approachable at this time. There are several resident turtles in the Straits of Tiran, Ras Mohammed and Shaab Mahmoud.
Hawksbills will normally tolerate the intrusion of one diver for a while, but generally depart once a group arrives.