|ONE of the most exciting times to dive the northern Red Sea, particularly around Ras Mohammed, is during early summer. Around March and April, the first plankton bloom has cleared and the water temperature begins to rise. This triggers breeding activity among the fish and they start congregating in massive shoals. |
If you want to see this happening, it is best to get on a live-aboard. Some of the boats operating from Sharm El Sheikh are crewed by Bedouin fishermen, who have unbeatable knowledge of the movements and behaviour of various fish species. I had gone there to photograph schools of red snapper, and as I joined the Coral Queen in Sharm, I was hoping that the advice I had been given by the owner and crew - all Bedouin fishermen - was accurate.
They explained that many fish species generally spawn on a full moon spring tide, having eaten very little during the preceding days. They then congregate in massive shoals, and at this time are very easy to approach. Apparently, we had arrived just at the right time, for on our first dive at Ras Mohammed, we were confronted by thousands of red snapper hanging in the water column just off the northern end of Shark Reef.
The fish were solid from a metre or so below the surface to 30m or more, and were moving slowly in a spiral formation. As it was a neap tide period, there was virtually no current, which meant that we could swim easily off the wall and mingle with the fish, which showed no concern for our presence.
It is an awe-inspiring experience to swim as part of a huge shoal of fish, some of which are almost half your size. Into the action came 30 to 50 jacks. Every so often, pairs of these jacks would peel off from the main group and swim erratically together while one changed colour from silver to jet black in preparation for mating.
I was getting through film fast as I dropped through the shoal, and realised that there was movement of a different kind just below me. Directly below the snappers, and following much the same formation, was a much smaller shoal of unicorn surgeonfish, perhaps a hundred or so - a sight I had not witnessed before. The light was poor below the snappers, but I followed the surgeons in the hope of good shots until I realised that I had dropped to more than 40m, and had to ascend.
Time and air consumption dictated that we should now move towards the pick-up point between Shark Reef and Jolanda Reef. As we approached the sand saddle between these two coral masses, another surprise awaited us in the form of shoaling batfish engaged in their spiralling mating dance.
These fish are normally encountered in pairs or small groups, but here was a shoal of 50 or more making preparations to spawn. The shoal would spiral from the surface down to 20-30m, and every so often a pair would break away and pursue each other in a more vigorous spiral chase while changing their pattern of stripes from pale grey to dark brown.
The Coral Queen can be booked through Oonasdivers, tel. 01323 648924.
When to see the action
THE summer months are the busiest underwater in the Red Sea, with a number of species congregating in shoals either as a prelude or conclusion to spawning. But there are several other seasonal high spots:
March: First plankton bloom of the year brings manta rays, particularly in early morning and evening; also, comb jellies and jellyfish swarms and the occasional whale shark.
June: Shoals of white snappers at the beginning of the month, red snappers after the full moon; jacks, batfish and unicorn surgeonfish. Ras Mohammed and Jack Fish Alley are hot spots.
July: Shoaling barracuda with an escort of silky sharks, masked butterflyfish, masked pufferfish and the remnants of the snapper shoals. Turtles begin to mate close to the surface.
August/September: Second plankton bloom of the year, with more reliable sightings of mantas and whale sharks, but visibility can be variable and potentially poor.
November/December: Grey reef sharks begin to congregate around Ras Mohammed, displaying their apparently aggressive mating behaviour of biting their mates.