I HAD VISITED THE RED SEA MANY TIMES in my 20 years of diving, yet my shark experiences there had been limited to blurred shapes in the blue. So the prospect of a week aboard blue o two’s liveaboard blue Horizon, billed as Project Shark, filled me with excitement.
Although shark encounters cannot be guaranteed, the format for this week was designed to maximise the chance of us getting up close in a safe environment for both sharks and diver.
Heading the trip was our dive guide, marine biologist Dr Elke Bojanowski. She had arrived in Egypt in 2004 armed with a PhD in animal behaviour from Berlin, and after spending time observing an oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus) at close quarters beneath a dive-boat – much to the captain’s distress – she had decided to found Project Longimanus.
Supported in her research by the Hurghada Environment & Reef Protection Agency (HEPCA) and blue o two, she has dedicated the intervening years to studying this species.
The project involves using the digital photographic records made by Elke and by the many visiting divers who are invited to submit their own photos to her Red Sea Sharks website. It is vital that they also submit the date, time of day and location of the sighting.
By using the shape and the white markings on the fins of oceanic whitetips, it is possible to catalogue individuals, and the information can be used to log the migration patterns and life-span of these sharks, about which very little is known.
Unlike many species of shark, oceanic whitetips are known for their inquisitiveness around humans in the water – and close contact is important from a photographic point of view.
On the diving itinerary for the trip were the marine parks of the Brothers islands, Daedalus and Elphinstone, these offshore reefs being considered the most likely spots for such pelagic encounters.
The boat journey from Hurghada to the Brothers and between the offshore reefs is long and can be rough, so the size and stability of blue Horizon was welcome.
The crossings were made overnight to maximise dive-time during the day, and sleeping proved to be no problem, despite a moderate swell.
Diving consisted of three dives a day in the marine parks, because night-diving is not allowed on safety grounds.
After the last dive of each day, before our evening meal, Elke gave interactive talks on shark biology, identification, behaviour (especially around humans) and conservation.
Her interesting presentations refuted many myths about sharks and shark attacks, and prepared us for rewarding encounters. Elke emphasised how much more dangerous we are to sharks than they are to us, and the impact humans are having by slaughtering them for their fins or through fishing practices such as long-lining for tuna, which can involve sharks as by-catch.
Sharks are at the top of the food chain, and vital to the overall health of the marine environment.
Divers’ behaviour when sharks are around is important, and not just for safety, either. Doing the wrong thing can drive a shark away, and then there will be no interaction for anyone.
Red Sea dive-boat operators have been given specific instructions for maintaining diver safety. Feeding or baiting of sharks is not permitted, and boat operators found breaching this rule are subject to fines or withdrawal of their licences. All this makes diver behaviour an even more important factor.
Elke explained the normal behaviour of the sharks, and which diver actions would upset or agitate them. She also reinforced the fact that we as divers are most definitely not on their menu.
Circling behaviour is the shark’s method of gleaning as much information about us as possible, by sensing vibration and electrical fields. It should not be mistaken for a sign of impending attack.
Relax, maintain neutral buoyancy and enjoy the experience was the message.
Our early-morning dive at Big Brother island brought sightings of three thresher sharks above the southern plateau.
Little Brothers’ South-west Drop-off cleaning station allowed us close contact with several grey reef sharks, and at Daedalus reef we encountered several whitetip reef sharks.
Seeing three species in four dives represented a good hit-rate, but the oceanic whitetips for now eluded us.
The weather was fair, so it was decided to make an overnight crossing to Elphinstone and carry out the next dives there in the early morning.
Awake by 5.45 and in prime mooring position directly beside the reef, we were excited to learn that the crew had seen at least one whitetip at the surface while mooring the boat. Presumably it had been attracted by the noise and vibration of the engines in the darkness.

NOMINATED TO BE AMONG the first group of divers, I jumped in with my camera. Elke had asked me to take pictures of any sharks we saw from their left and right sides and also front-on.
A few minutes into the dive, the unmistakeable outline of an oceanic whitetip appeared, no doubt attracted by the sounds of divers entering the water. Well-prepared as we had been, it was still electrifying to see the shark coming towards me from the blue.
I gained control of my breathing as I took my pictures. Then, incredibly, two more whitetips appeared and became interested in the activity. My 68-minute dive rewarded me with close contact with two large females and one smaller male previously unidentified by Elke.
The sharks continually came and went in and out of the blue, and it was helpful for taking pictures to have two buddies visually tracking them while I concentrated on a single subject.
The male came particularly close, circling me and rubbing against my body.
Remaining calm, I circled with it and maintained eye contact, as instructed. At no point did I feel in any danger, because the sharks remained interested but calm. My state of mind was certainly helped by Elke’s thorough teaching.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but it’s important that the human effects on shark populations be reversed so that such encounters are possible for generations to come.
Millions of still-living sharks are thrown back into the ocean each year to face a prolonged death after removal of their fins to make soup. Shark products find their way into the health and beauty industry through the mistaken belief that they can prevent cancer, smoothe out wrinkles or act as an aphrodisiac. It isn’t difficult to buy shark-skin products such as belts and handbags.
No one question the right of a subsistence fisherman to catch a shark to feed his family, but killing them in huge numbers for spurious reasons is troubling. Shark killings must be reduced, and shark reproduction needs to be encouraged.
Elke Bojanowski is working towards the deeper scientific understanding of sharks needed to educate those who see sharks as a commodity or a danger to humans.
Identifying shark-movement patterns is one step on a long journey, but at the last count her Project Longimanus, now Red Sea Sharks, database had received more than 30,300 images and video clips from 821 contributing photographers, leading to 829 individual sharks identified.

Project Shark: Red Sea weeks are now split by region: Best of Brothers, Brothers & Elphinstone, Daedalus & St Johns, Deep South and Simply the Best, with prices from £1095pp. blue o two also now offers Project Shark: Maldives and from May Project Shark: Galapagos trips, with Dr Elke Bojanowski or Nicola Weeden, www.blueotwo.com. Oceanic whitetip project, www.redseasharks.org