The southern half of the Red Sea is set in some of the most isolated country in the world, with barren desert on both shores. But beneath the seas surface lies a rich and varied world. In the west, the Sudanese coast has coral mountains that shoot up from great depths through clear blue water to the surface, with a greater variety of corals than any other part of the Red Sea.
There is now a small fleet of boats in Port Sudan, offering dive charters from October to June in this part of the Red Sea. Several boats in Sinai also make extended trips to Sudan, and an international airport has been built to serve the area. We chartered the Italian boat Wandu, skippered by Gianni Mandarino, who has been taking divers to the reefs of the Sudanese Red Sea for 18 years. Our plan was to go from Port Sudan 100 miles north to Mesharifa Channel, in Donganeb Bay. From there we would gradually work south to famous diving places along the coast, like Shaab Suadi, Shaab Rumi, Sanganeb and the Suakin archipelago.
Just 30 minutes out from Port Sudan, in the Wingate Channel, Gianni cried: Whale shark!. Three of them were swimming just below the surface, sifting plankton through their great mouths. We saw their dorsal fins sticking up above the surface. The whale shark, the biggest fish on earth, is a plankton feeder and harmless to divers. The biggest one was about 6m long, a child compared to a fully grown whale shark, which can be 20m. Soon we were swimming with them. They were not shy at all; one of them swam right up to me and touched me.
After a while I put my camera aside and did what I had dreamt of doing since I was a child: I took a ride on a whale shark. I lay down on his pectoral fin and put my arm around his back.
Surprisingly, his skin was very smooth and his body soft. He noticed my presence and accelerated slowly. At the same time he started rolling through the water. After a while, he went down and I had to let go because I did not have an air tank on. Before going out into the open sea, we stopped at the Umbria, an Italian merchant ship scuttled when Italy declared war on England in 1942.
Resting on her port side at 23m on the inside of Wingate Reef, she is in very good shape. To swim along the promenade deck, with its coral-encrusted rails, is an exciting experience, and the wreck is an underwater photographers dream.
Hiding in a red sponge I found a little blenny which modelled for me like a professional. He was probably used to having divers shooting flashes in his eyes. On another sponge I discovered a brightly coloured nudibranch. Their conspicuous colours tell predators to stay away. They are cousins of seashells, but instead of having a protective shell, most of them are poisonous. A vicious-looking moray eel peered out from under a coral, and showed his teeth when we passed.
A hawkfish was lying motionless on a place with a good overview. There he could watch what was going on and catch an unsuspecting passerby. In the holds we found the Umbrias cargo of bombs, neatly stacked, and in another hold a couple of Fiat cars from 1940.
Two days later we anchored in Mesharifa Channel, and went looking for the manta rays which are known to mate there in the autumn.
The boat was slowly gliding through the water when suddenly we heard a big splash behind us. A tall fin split the water. Then another one, parallel to the first. We had found our rays. We prepared our camera equipment quickly and jumped into the water. I saw a ray heading my way, like a big bird. His mouth was wide open to let water through his gills, which filter out plankton. It was big enough to swallow me. In front of the ray was a school of pilot fish, and on its white belly two sucker-fish.
It came up to me. One of its big eyes gazed at me curiously for a moment, and then, with an elegant flip of its wings, it turned away.
The mantas kept swimming around us, performing a ballet like butterflies in a summer field: an extraordinary sight, considering that they weigh a tonne or more. Hanging there in the blue space, with a whole school of these gigantic creatures, I felt as if I had encountered extraterrestrial beings. Never before had I seen manta rays show an almost human interest toward divers.
From Donganeb Bay we turned south towards Shaab Suadi, where we planned to visit the wreck of the Blue Belle. She ran on to the reef some years ago with a cargo of trucks. After a while, she slid off and turned around, and now lies upside down, with her bow on the reef edge at 14m and her stern on the bottom on 64m. As a result of the accident, there are now Toyota trucks standing upright on the reef shelf at 14m.
In the warm, clear water it was tempting to follow the wreck all the way. We sank like parachutists in slow motion into the dark blue depth. For me this is the ultimate form of diving, but you know you are only allowed a short time in this alien world. At 45m, we had to light our torches. They triggered an explosion of colour from the beautiful soft coral that was hanging down from the deck.
As we approached the stern, we saw in front of us a moon landscape of dead coral. It looked like a miniature Grand Canyon. I saw a strangely shaped sponge, with protrusions hanging down like stalactites, a strange sight in this weight- less world. I felt a slight euphoria from nitrogen narcosis. The breathing sound from our regulators sounded distorted, and seemed to echo through the water. Our time was running out so we turned back, heading towards light and life again. Two eagle rays came swimming towards us with languid grace.
Cousteaus underwater habitat experiment took place at Shaab Rumi, 30 miles north of Port Sudan. When he moved on, he left a shark population used to being fed by divers. Sport divers have continued the feeding, and Shaab Rumi has become known as a place where divers can study sharks at close range.
Over the years sharks here have been conditioned to react to the sound of divers, and they turned up immediately when we arrived. To see this perfect creature, unchanged for 70 million years, slowly glide through the water in perfect harmony with his element, is an aesthetic experience.
Most of them were grey reef sharks. There were also some big silvertip sharks, with pilot fish swimming in front of them. We opened the bait bag and moved away. In a few seconds the sharks picked up the scent and a frenzy started. In a minute they had devoured all the fish. The last lucky shark took off with a fish sticking out of its mouth, and the rest of the gang chasing after it. As soon as they had consumed the fish, they calmed down and slowly started to parade in front of us, gliding against the current and back.
I watched one shark being cleaned by a cleaner fish. The shark gave a signal by suddenly stopping with its body almost vertical and its mouth wide open. A cleaner fish approached and eagerly started to clean the sharks teeth, swimming in and out of its mouth.
We continued to study the sharks for several days. They were all females, and some of them had deep cuts from love bites, inflicted during their violent love-making.
We increased our influence over the sharks until we thought we had them completely under our control. We selected a place for the bait up-current, and when we released it the sharks picked up the scent and lined up in a long row, swimming against the current one by one. We were able to plan our pictures in detail, and got some fine shots of the shy creatures together with divers.
We could touch their bodies when they passed. The scene was so peaceful that somehow I felt a signal from the sharks that we were their friends, that they had accepted us into their kingdom. I opened another fish bag and held out the bait for them. One by one they came up to me and took the fish from my hand, like pets. I was euphoric.
When I had given them all the fish I took off from the protection of the reef. Visibility must have been 100m-plus, and I was floating in a dark blue space, surrounded by 20 beautiful sharks.
Suddenly, four big hammerhead sharks showed up. This was quite unexpected, since they are usually only seen in deeper water. One of them swam up close to me to investigate. He passed slowly, but didnt find me interesting, and they all took off and disappeared.
The truce between divers and sharks eventually came to an end. We became too confident. We forgot that we were playing with powerful animals over whose instincts we had no control. Gradually the sharks became more and more confident, and lost the caution they had shown towards us initially. I saw my brother beating them on the nose to keep them away.
Suddenly, I got a terrible blow to my head. I turned around and looked straight into the white eye of a big silvertip! He had got a good grip on my BC and was trying to chew it. He shook me like a puppet. I beat him with my elbow on the nose and he eventually realised his mistake and let go. We threw away the bait. One of the sharks grabbed the bag and took off, with the others going after him. We aborted the dive and went back to the boat. I was unhurt but shaken. My BC was in pieces and useless. My brother had seen the whole incident, and told me that one of the sharks had left the pack, swum up under the surface and attacked from the side, where I could not see him. The attack had all the signs of territorial defence. My BC had protected me from severe wounds.
On several occasions, one of the big open-ocean sharks came in closer to the reef to check what was going on. It was very beautiful: 3m long, with white fintips. Slowly it glided passed us, before disappearing.
On our return from Shaab Rumi, we saw a school of dolphins followed by a group of silvertip sharks, patiently waiting to catch a baby or sick dolphin. Sharks and dolphins have always been considered deadly enemies, but sharks are probably not able to attack a healthy adult dolphin with success. Dolphins, however, are known to kill sharks by attacking their soft bellies with hard blows from their beaks.
We continued further south to Sanganeb Reef. Sanganeb has a big lighthouse, built by the British 60 years ago. The platform has been used by divers as a camping ground since the 60s. Like Shaab Rumi, Sanganeb Reef is also an atoll with perfect anchorage.
We concentrated on diving the south point, where we expected to find hammerhead sharks. They prefer cold water, and cruise around the point at 40m, so to see them we would have to go deep, in strong current, which is hazardous diving.
It is normally not possible to attract hammerheads with bait. We just hoped we would be lucky enough to be there when they were. But they were very shy and kept us at distance - until one day, when I did not expect them and was not ready.
I was sitting by myself at the reef edge, 30m down. Below me the water was 1000m deep, and I was wondering what unknown monsters were hiding down there in the blue water. Suddenly, I saw the water in front of me grow darker. It was as if a cloud had hidden the sun. I looked up and saw a big school of 3m-long hammerheads coming towards me. I counted to more than 50. They slowly glided over me, their perfectly streamlined bodies shining like steel, incongruous against their strangely shaped heads.
They ignored me and disappeared in the haze. My film was too slow, and I didnt get any good pictures. But my brain is engraved with one of the most fascinating sights of 30 years diving.