|Hammerhead sharks are magnificent creatures, but they are shy and elusive, spending their time in cool deep waters.
A well-know haunt of hammerheads is Dædelus Reef, a remarkable and unique off-shore Egyptian dive site that has been closed to traffic for several years. When I was invited to take a trip out to the reef on the liveaboard mv Coral Queen, I jumped at the chance.
I hadnt dived there since 1992 when I was a dive guide. So I relished the idea of going back with a closed-circuit rebreather that would give me more time at depth with the sharks.
But it wasnt to be. Not because the promised permission failed to materialise the boats owner was prepared to risk going without it. The problem was with the other passengers who decided they werent up to the rigours of a trip into the rough water of the open sea. They voted to stay within the protection of the inshore reef system.
I hid my disappointment and decided to make the best of it.
The inshore sites of southern Egypt can be disappointing if you approach the diving with the wrong mind-set. The sea tends to be shallow, with far fewer dramatic reef walls than further north, where deep water comes close to the shore. Hard corals are more prolific, but colourful soft corals are much less common than in the north.
We dived some of the reefs like Samadai and those at Fury Shoal, but otherwise we concentrated on the habilis, such as Habili Ghadeira and Habili Wadi Gimal. Habili means literally foetus, and is used to describe an unborn reef a coral structure that hasnt yet grown up near the surface.
Habilis are magnets for marine life, and fish tend to congregate there in large shoals. Normally you see lemon butterflyfish in pairs, but here you see them in flotillas. The same goes for bannerfish, one-spot grunts, snappers, goatfish and jacks.
Even the divers most feared enemy, the titan triggerfish, prefers to hang around in a gang, as does the delicately coloured but oddly named yellow-edged triggerfish which is actually pink and green, looking like its sponsored by the Beverley Hills Hotel!
With depths reaching a maximum of about 20m, which, using the Buddy Inspiration, would give no-stop times of three hours, it seemed unfair to inflict this way of diving on the other passengers. I would have been going in with them on one dive and coming out with them on the next!
But I wasnt going to entirely forego the pleasure of diving with the closed-circuit rebreather I would just keep this miraculous piece of equipment in reserve for those sites where I could take full advantage of it.
Under the hammer
There are a few deep reefs in this area Shaab Mansour and the Elphinstone being the most notable. It was at the former, using the rebreather, that I left my fellow passengers and headed over the edge of the reef down to 50m.
Here I eventually found my sharks, enjoying the cooler water at that depth. There were five of them together in a group four scalloped hammerheads and a grey reef shark.
Aware that I was bigger than they were, I pressed myself to the reef wall and tried to look inconspicuous easier said than done with a bright yellow box on my back. I kept very still, camera at the ready, and waited.
Its at times like these that you wish you were equipped with something other than an extreme wide-angle lens. Although the sharks were very close, in my viewfinder they looked tiny.
I fired off a few pointless frames in case that was as close as they would ever come, then I watched and waited. After 20 minutes, they suddenly decided to come over and examine me.
In pair formation one leader, one wingman the hammerheads swam by, just a couple of feet above me. I squeezed off two shots of their undersides, then they were gone. I was left with just the grey reef shark, which nearly mesmerised me into incurring lengthy decompression stops.
I eventually headed back to the boat. I was using a technical divers gas-switching deco-computer to control the decompression of my dive in four stages. I also had an air computer as a reserve timer and depth gauge I got to the surface having missed 87 minutes of stops on it. But then I wasnt breathing air on open-circuit scuba gear.
I had brought several of these ordinary air computers with me because I knew they would come up bent and be unusable for 24 hours after each rebreather dive.
Luck comes and goes
The Elphinstone is probably southern Egypts most spectacular and famous inshore reef. Its extremely deep and lies at an unusual angle to the prevailing current. The site is very exposed and there is no shelter for the large number of liveaboards that visit it.
When we arrived, there was a certain degree of chaos among other boat operators as they put in their divers and later tried to pick them up where they surfaced in an explosively rough sea.
I was grateful that our skipper was prepared to wait until most of them had gone. Ever with a mind to safety, he put in our divers in small groups using the inflatable tender; each group was assigned a fixed dive time. I was sensibly placed in the last group so that I could have my own individual pick-up later.
The northern end of the Elphinstone faces the prevailing wind and waves. Its a rough place to get to in a small boat. Under water, the reef extends out and down like a long narrow tongue. The current and clarity of the water have given rise to a dense covering of vibrant soft and hard corals.
Of the other three divers in my group, two sensibly stopped at 40m and only Nicholas, the dive guide, carried on down the reef with me to 50m.
The short time he was allowed down there enabled him to see shoaling scalloped hammerheads behind a school of barracuda, browsing grey reef sharks, a couple of whitetip reef sharks, a Napoleon wrasse and an enormous marbled ray.
He then headed back, to be scolded by a pair of divers he came across from another boat. They wanted to know where his buddy was.
I was still down there, recording this spectacular scene, thanks to the additional time gained by the rebreathers oxygen-rich gas that I would breathe on the way up, the shortened decompression times it would give, and the units long duration.
But, as usual, things didnt quite go to plan. As every underwater photographer knows, luck plays a large part in all our endeavours. I found out later that my camera/flash sync lead had partially flooded, losing the important element of exposure control. Looking at a set of very dark slides, I could only imagine what they might have been like if I had got it right!
l John Bantin travelled with Oonasdivers (01323 648 924) and Monarch Airlines, which provided a special baggage allowance of 90kg as a rule divers are allowed 30kg on Monarchs charter flights. Divers Lodge at Hurghadasupplied three scuba-cylinders of pure oxygen.
My trip in search of hammerheads was aboard the mv Coral Queen, with its charismatic owner Guido Cherif.
Formerly a successful businessman in Alexandria, Guido became fascinated by the Bedouin people, and after the Camp David Agreement, when the Sinai was handed back to Egypt, he took to spending much of his leisure time down at Sharm el Sheikh.
There he came into contact with a group of people who did little more with their lives than go diving. What struck him was the fact that, although they didnt seem to be very rich, they were remarkably happy. Maybe it was something to do with what happened when they went under water.
So Guido decided to have a go and it changed his life. Like many of us, he got hooked. So hooked, in fact, that eventually he retired early, bought himself a boat, and now devotes his time to the two major loves of his life diving and the Red Sea.
The mv Coral Queen was the first liveaboard dive boat built at Latour in the Sinai. It is 24m long, built of timber, and has cabins for a maximum of 12 passengers. Among other Egyptian liveaboards she is fairly unremarkable. What makes her different is the fact that Guido is on board, and probably because of this her crew are exemplary. And the diving is run with a European attitude to safety.
The British diving establishment has taken to Guido and his boat: from Peter Scoones and Martha Holmes making BBC natural history films, to Mark Webster and Linda Dunk running underwater photography courses. In fact most of the passengers are British.
Guido loves the way people from every strata of society come aboard and mix on equal terms as divers. He has learnt as much as he can about the Red Sea and enjoys imparting this knowledge to his guests. His quest is to share with them his love for the Red Sea.
Start a Forum discussion on this topic