|WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HOVERING OVER A WASTELAND If I had wanted a featureless, barren dive, Id have gone to Southend Pier and jumped in there. |
OK, so the water is warmer and the visibility better, but before me stretches a field of sparse seagrass, as if planted by some demented farmer.
Looking left, all I see is seagrass. Look right, and I see the same. Its almost as boring as if it were just mud - which is exactly what the seagrass is growing on. Thats what makes the visibility so fickle. Even a light fin-kick sends a plume of brown sugar-coloured mist into the water column, so I have to swim carefully.
The seagrass isnt even the thick, densely growing variety you find in the Mediterranean. Its like a scruffy urban grassy backyard, compared to the Meds lush summer meadow.
After sitting in the back of a truck in the Egyptian sunshine, I had wandered across a beach full of gawping sun-bathing Italians to get here, and all I find is this.
I half expect to find a partly demolished car on blocks, a shopping trolley or any of the other rubbish that seems to collect in the gardens of poor urban neighbourhoods. It would at least have lent some interest.
Yet here I am swimming out over the ever-so-gently sloping seabed, as eager as a child on Christmas Eve.
Why am I so pleased to be here, and not on one of the numerous and lovely coral reefs that adorn this coastline
Well, the answer is just that - it isnt a coral reef. I have dived hundreds of reefs, seen copious butterflyfish, angelfish, anemonefish, damselfish, triggerfish and the myriad of other colourful reef-dwellers.
What I want to see now are the other inhabitants of the Red Sea - the animals that shun the reefs and dine in the shallow, sometimes murky bays and mangrove stands.
I had been given the chance while staying at Shagra Village near Marsa Alam, and had jumped at it. Here was a chance to see a new marine ecosystem, and one so close to the coral reefs that, when I had had enough of seagrass, I could just meander across the bay and swim with the coral life again.
But now I am here, I can see why most people diving the tropics stick to the coral reefs - seagrass is about as exciting as watching dry paint get old and flake off the wall. And as I see the drop-off at the edge of the bay, I can feel the despondency within me well up and kick me in the backside.
So to stifle the sensation, I start heading south across the bay to where I know there is a reef full of brightly coloured yet completely recognisable fish that can save this disaster of a dive.
I move off the drop-off a little way into shallower water, where the seabed is flatter, and swim perpendicular to the reef. Small jellyfish are rolling around in the slight surge, but they appear to be dead, or very close to it.
They are victims, I suppose, of a cruel current that drove them into a shallow bay, where either there was little food to keep them alive or they simply died of boredom.
Further into the bay and to my right, I see what looks like a dustbin. I am a long way from shore and think this an odd place to find such a large piece of rubbish. The boats I had seen had all been at the edge of the bay, with their divers on the coral reefs, so it must have been chucked some way to get here, even if it was buoyant.
As I am contemplating this, the dustbin does the oddest thing - it sticks its head up. Now, at 8m deep, I am nowhere near narked enough to believe that dustbins have heads, so I figure that it is something else. And I am right. As I close on the huge object, it lifts itself off the bottom with two massive flippers and makes for the surface.
I am pretty sure that I am dealing with a life-form vastly superior to any dustbin I have encountered so far. As it takes a few breaths at the surface and descends again, I recognise it as a massive green turtle.
Turtles encountered in the Red Sea are usually the smaller hawksbill, which feeds on sponges on coral reefs. So commonly seen are hawksbills that many Red Sea divers dont believe just how endangered this species is.
Hawksbills are lucky that the Egyptians have not decided to eat them. The rest of the tropical world doesnt feel the same, and has chomped through so many adults and eggs that the species is a whisker from being endangered. Green turtles are much the same.
Watching my new friend revealed why such a beautiful creature should end up with a scientist reaching for a red pen to add it to a list - it was completely unperturbed by my presence.
When you grow to the size of a dustbin, there isnt much in the sea to bother you, especially when you have a shell for added protection.
Its akin to putting a Volvo inside a Chieftain tank and driving it round the M25. It is safe from just about everything - except humans.
My friend was a she, as it turned out. A couple of remoras were watching what she ate, just in case they could nip round and help themselves to some leftovers. I doubt whether seagrass is that nutritious, especially for a remora, but they seemed happy and were certainly big enough - one was almost as long as the turtle.
Green turtles love seagrass. They must do, because they eat enough of it. Throughout my dive, this turtle simply lies on the bottom, her mouth ripping up clumps of the stuff. When she needs to breathe, she lifts off, heads to the surface, takes a few good gulps of air and then sinks close to where she was before.
After a while, I decide that she has probably had enough of being my buddy - God knows where he has gone - and I move off towards the reef. I stop a little way on, however, as I come across another huge green turtle, this time
a male. He is doing exactly the same as the female, and again has attendant remoras. Its easy to tell male and female turtles apart. Males have a longer, thicker tail, while females have only a short stump.
The male seems to feed even more voraciously on the seagrass them his female companion, but after a while I leave the shelled leviathan and carry on to the coral wall.
Being so close to the coast and a large hotel, I had not expected the reef to be that good, but I am surprised. The coral is in great condition and there are plenty of fish around. OK, so it isnt up to what divers expect from a southern Red Sea reef, but it beats those in the north.
A little further south at Shagra Village, an eco resort, there is a house reef of superb quality. All the usual reef subjects are present, plus a few you only usually hope to see, especially on a shore site. There are numerous crocodilefish, many blue-spotted sting rays, several hawksbill turtles and, at dusk, its common to see loads of lionfish and even the odd whitetip reef shark.
But all these things I have seen in the Red Sea before, and the green turtles are my first really new species in a long time.
So the next day I am back swimming over seagrass and mud again. This time I know where to go. I head for the edge of the seagrass line and then move back about 10m and stay on that line until the dustbin appears. It doesnt take long.
This time I find three turtles - all of a similar size, except that the male is slightly larger.
All are still feeding enthusiastically.
If seagrass isnt that nutritious, perhaps you need to eat an awful lot to make a decent meal, so I decide to experiment a little.
I watch one female move across the seabed to a new patch of seagrass, but stop along the way to gobble down one of the many jellyfish. This sets me thinking, and once she is again engrossed munching seagrass, I pick up a jellyfish and push it towards her.
Lo and behold, she lifts her head and snaps it up. I try again, this time with my camera ready, and she does the same. She loves those jellyfish. However, not wanting to disturb her
too much, I move off to see if I can find something else.
I swim across the featureless seagrass towards what I hope is the beach. It is so easy to become disoriented in the bay. The shallow seabed stretches out in all directions, and with such a gentle slope, its hard to know which way is out. I end up using the sun, of all things.
Every so often, I come across a small group of dull-looking fish feeding in the sand. Goatfish are quite a frequent sight, and I see a few free-swimming remoras, which may have grown bored watching a dustbin eat seagrass so have gone for a swim with their mates.
Then something catches my eye - a movement, not too far away, but quite unusual. The metre-long creature swims as a snake moves, with a slithering motion. It is coming towards me fairly rapidly - a guitar shark.
I have seen pictures of these unusual sharks resting on the seabed, but this one is clearly hunting. It sweeps across the seabed, swaying its head from side to side as it seeks out hidden fish. Its a swift little beggar and I know it wont swim towards me for long, probably figuring that no small fish will be suicidal enough to stay around such a large bubble-blowing creature as me. Thats why the picture is pretty poor - sorry.
I follow the guitar shark at a distance for some way before coming across another, doing the same as the first. This seems to be the place to find guitar sharks, though not, unfortunately, the best place to photograph them.
The second one, however, leads me towards the shore, and I clamber out of the water. The full weight of my kit hits me, but I am glad to be back in the air.
I love diving from the shore and am glad its still possible here in the southern part of Egypts Red Sea. Not only that, but the marine life makes me feel like a Red Sea virgin again.
OK, so seagrass beds and mangrove stands (also here) may not have the diversity of life of a coral reef, but the life is different and, in some cases, more interesting, with the turtles, guitar sharks and even the possibility of meeting a wild and endangered dugong.
The mangroves have numerous juvenile fish and both ecosystems are very important for the health of the coral reefs, which are also well worth a visit.
So if you really want to understand the tropical marine ecosystems, the Marsa Alam area has everything you need and in close proximity.
|A Bigeye squirrelfish on reef close to the seagrass bed |
|So there is something in the seagrass after all |
|Eating a jellyfish. |
|The green turtles played host to several remoras which seemed to think it acceptable to bite their host on the bum! |
|A guitar shark hunting over seagrass |