|SHARM EL SHEIKH IS ONE OF MY FAVOURITE places to dive, and in the past four years I have been fortunate enough to spend 18 weeks diving in Egypt, all but four of those in Sharm.|
Only five hours from the UK, Sharm guarantees good visibility, warm waters and plenty of fish life. Large shoals of barracuda, batfish and snapper can be seen through the summer months at Shark and Yolanda Reefs. If youre lucky, you might spot hammerheads on the outside of Jackson Reef.
The one thing I had never seen in the Red Sea Whale sharks. A couple of years ago we had travelled all the way to Australias Ningaloo Reef to snorkel with these creatures, which feed in the plankton-rich waters and have been reported to grow to 18m long.
The plankton bloom makes for a sometimes fairly soupy visibility, but its an amazing experience. The whale sharks are found by spotter-plane, and once the boats home in on them you have the chance to swim alongside the largest fish in the ocean for as long as you can keep up, or as long as the shark decides to grace you with its presence.
These gentle giants are deceptively fast swimmers, and if they decide to dive into deeper waters, you could have a long wait until you see another.
Whale Sharks in the Red Sea are not unheard of, but neither are they commonplace. This year, however, has told a different story. In May, a friend emailed me about diving in Sharm with manta and eagle rays... and whale sharks. The list went on.
Quite envious, I consoled myself with memories of my Australian experiences. But through June the texts and emails started coming thick and fast, reporting more and more encounters.
At the end of July I finally made it out to Sharm, to discover that sightings had dropped off somewhat. I had missed the peak. Still, it was summer so we were certain to have good diving. Between my buddy and I, he shooting stills and me with video, we generally get some interesting material by the end of a weeks diving.
WE HAD DECIDED TO MAKE an early start one morning, the plan being to do a bluewater dive at the back of Jackson Reef (weather permitting) for a chance to photograph the hammerhead sharks.
Boarding Lady Ghada that morning at Naama jetty, we were informed that the boat had been nicknamed Lucky Ghada by the staff of the Ocean College dive centre, because of the skippers uncanny knack of being able to predict where whale sharks could be found.
Earlier this year he had spotted 17 whale sharks in one week, and photos of him swimming with them were proudly displayed all around the saloon.
That morning, he informed our dive guides Annette and Jo that he thought there would be a whale shark at Far Garden, one of the more northerly local dive sites.
We kept look-out on the bow as we passed the Gardens on our way to the Straits of Tiran, but with no luck.
After a very pleasant dive in Tiran, managing to explore the satellite reef between Jackson and Woodhouse reefs, and glimpsing a grey reef shark crossing between the two reefs, we were all back on the boat, wondering whether we could attempt the back of Jackson later that day.
Then, at around 9:30am, the first of a series of text messages came through from other boats: Three whale sharks and a baitball, Near Garden. The skipper was vindicated, and he was keen to leave immediately.
The consensus was, however, to do another dive at Tiran and then make our way to the Gardens, although the chances of three whale sharks and a baitball staying around all day were slim.
Still, we were all quietly hopeful that we might get a chance to snorkel with a whale shark - if we were lucky.
As we neared the Gardens at about 1.30, I pulled on my boots, had fins and mask in my hand, and hurriedly attached my snorkel, which had seen no action that week and had been stashed at the bottom of my crate.
There didnt seem to be much going on when we arrived at the dive site, just a couple of dive-boats. Then we spotted a group of four or five circling a spot just off the reef plate at Near Garden.
When we got nearer, the scene wasnt so calm. People on the other boats were shouting to us and gesturing to get in the water. Mask on, fins on, I jumped.
I couldnt have imagined what I was jumping into. I landed square in the middle of a huge shoal of baitfish that took my breath away. Then I spotted a whale shark... and another... and then another two. Four whale sharks, all swimming in and around a baitball.
After a couple of minutes, the dive guides yelled: Anyone who wants a third dive, get out of the water and get your kit on. I was furthest from the boat, and had a tiring swim back with my bulky video camera.
We had a short briefing while kitting up, mainly concerning the safety aspects of ascending after the dive, bearing in mind the increasing boat traffic.
WITH CLOSER TO NINE OR 10 BOATS joining in the action, we jumped back in. There were divers, snorkellers and freedivers everywhere. There were some more unorthodox dive practices as well. A couple of technical divers jumped in with stage tanks and regulators attached, and instructors were seen diving with one scuba unit between two.
This should have been chaos but, strangely enough, it all seemed to work well, as if the event had somehow been orchestrated. Everyone was incredibly respectful towards these juvenile sharks, all between 3 and 5m in length.
I heard of only one instance of a diver touching one of them. He was at once berated by a number of nearby divers, and didnt attempt it again.
I dont know whether this good behaviour was a testament to the strict Red Sea no touch policy, or whether everyone simply understood how extraordinary this event was and stayed calm and respectful, but I cant imagine such restraint elsewhere in the world.
During my time with these astonishing creatures, I found myself engulfed within the ball of shoaling fish on a couple of occasions.
It was a strange sensation. The fish split in front of me as I moved in among them, and then closed up again behind me until I was completely surrounded, accepted into the shoal.
The ball continually changed size and shape as both people and sharks moved in and around it. The sharks seemed curious about the divers, though hardly in awe of us, as we were of them.
They showed no signs of being fazed by all the attention, and swam very close to divers and snorkellers, allowing us a few moments in their world.
ON OCCASION, WHALE SHARKS WOULD ENTER the baitball and become hidden among thousands of fish. As they swam through, the fish parted around them, and the shark re-appeared dramatically, a flash of white belly descending through the mass of fish.
Starting to get low on air, we had to end the dive. I went back in for a snorkel but by that time the baitball had started to dissipate, and the sharks were making their way further offshore in ones and twos. The show was over.
Why these typically solitary sharks had decided to grace us with their presence that day, I dont know.
Seemingly in no hurry to move on, they cruised around with their baitball for about seven hours - astonishing when you consider that most encounters are fleeting glimpses as the sharks feed.
This dive was the highlight of my diving life to date. Much as I love it, I hadnt thought the Red Sea held any more surprises for me. I was wrong - Sharm still has the ability to thrill, and for anyone who thinks that local dive sites hold no appeal, perhaps its time to think again.
Videographer Pash Baker and photographer Gareth Millson run Scorpionfish Underwater Photography (www.scorpionfish.co.uk). Gareth, who uses a Canon 20D in an Ikelite housing, entered his first underwater photo competition last year, winning the Stoney Cove DIVER Splash-In Close-up category.
|The whale sharks |
|Pash and Gareth |