This comes from Dahab on the Red Sea coast of Egypt. OK, it’s a holiday but in my business – and by the sea – you are never far from your vocation. It’s 37C when it's hot and a little less when it's cold and a few clouds drifted through the sky yesterday. I remember when I worked in Mexico and we had a cloudy morning one day and then the sun broke through ‘ruining a beautiful day’ in the words of a local.
I’ve been scuba diving for four days now, doing some of the familiar sites like ‘The canyon’ with the vertical descent into a great fissure, guarded by moray eels, down to a sandy floor at 32 metres. This was followed by ‘The Bells’, another vertical descent headfirst down a chimney, emerging through an archway at 26 metres onto a phenomenal 200m sheer drop-off in the open blue Red Sea. The geology, oceanography and biology of the Red Sea are extraordinary and its coral reefs remain relatively intact and apparently undamaged by the extraordinary warm years of late (in contrast there were huge losses in other parts of the planet). After emerging from the underwater archway at ‘The Bells’, we gradually worked our way up the coral encrusted drop-off, fleetingly escorted by trumpet fish, over a coral garden saddle into the ‘Blue Hole’. The Blue Hole is a like a circular Olympic-sized pool, over 100m deep, that natural processes have carved into the reef table. Apart from the 6m deep saddle, it has an archway connecting it to the sea at 58m. That’s far too deep for a recreational diver like me and some people have tried it at their peril (the monuments stand around the shore of the pool). Anyway, we were not going to do any of that dangerous stuff! The coral garden on the saddle is an amazing array of colourful corals with myriad coloured fish, coral boulders hiding puffer fish or poison-barbed lion fish, and pastel anemones shielding families of clown fish. We skirted the stark walls of the Blue Hole with a little flotilla of Russian tourists overhead, sploshing along with rented fins, masks and snorkels. Another dive completed and a Bedouin lunch with my Egyptian and Palestinian dive companions for the day.
At this point, I must tell you that I am not a hugely experienced professional diver. We have a whole team of them at SAMS and they are in another league. As an oceanographer, I spent most of my life at the surface, lowering stuff into the sea, or more likely in the office working on reports and admin. No, I learned to dive at the un-tender age of 59, in a dry suit in the cold waters of a Scottish sound. I did my advanced open water training here in the Red Sea half a year later and have never regretted it. And this trip to the Red Sea is really special because my 12-year old daughter Annie has completed her Padi Open Water course and today we had our first dive together.
Beyond the excitement of seeing the world I have talked about most of my professional life, there are more troubling aspects that present quite a dilemma. One of the reasons that people do not hold protection of the marine environment high on their ‘must do’ list is that they rarely experience it in person and it does not connect with their value system. The recreational diving experience should change that (certainly Annie doesn’t want to eat the groupers on sale in almost every restaurant here). But there are dozens of dive centres here and hundreds more along the entire Red Sea coast of Egypt (and not only Egypt). Diving does have an impact, not only through molestation of sea life but by direct contact with fragile corals, exposure of corals to the toxins in sun cream, effluent from hotels and other installations and removal of fish (legally and illegally) to feed tourists. And then there are the droves of untrained snorkellers and even people who scrunch their way over fragile reef tables with neoprene boots or even flip-flops because they can’t be bothered to swim. PADI training makes a strong point of avoiding coral contact and good buoyancy control but this skill isn’t easily learned and there are accidents, at least at first. So it’s hardly surprising that I can feel a palpable increase in the quality of the reef as I swim further and further away from entry points.
Last time I was here, I visited the Gabr-El-Bint reserve, inaccessible from the land, except by camel trail. Our boat was moored very carefully with lines to the shore and we completed an awe inspiring drift dive through an underwater landscape with some 85% coral cover and a big resident shoal of ‘milk fish’ (‘tourist sharks’ said one Egyptian colleague with a wry smile). I haven’t been able to return this time around but a local guide warned me that the site has already been noticeably damaged; anchor damage where increasing numbers of operators are mooring and ‘someone harpooned the milk fish’. OK, the site is still supposed to be fantastically beautiful but it is changing quickly (my last visit was less than two years ago). I am unconvinced that the word ‘reserve’ is offering the kind of protection that was envisaged when most maritime countries in the world signed up to the Johannesburg Declaration (2002) to create a globally representative network of marine protected areas by 2012 (no need to be smug, we haven’t achieved it in the UK yet either). Egypt does however, try to enforce CITES regulations strictly (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora); take diving trophies at your peril!
Back to this week. Yesterday, while Annie was doing her last Open Water dives with her instructor, we did a couple of dives in Moray Gardens, just South of Dahab. The second dive was a little challenging because of the strong downwelling cross-current below 15 metres, surprising my local dive guide. We had a very hard slog back and at one point had to pull ourselves up a boulder slope, hand over hand. But the great moment in the dive is when we saw a very large octopus, with a body almost the size of my head that made no attempt to hide. It changed colour a few times and then spectacularly altered its body form, imitating a rock with its skin transformed from the familiar smooth texture to a rough form covered with little ‘spikes’ – awesome!