There’s a certain high involved for us city dwellers in seeing wildlife in their natural habitats. It is addictive. Once you’ve achieved your first high, you keep going back for it again and again.
The ten-hour bus trip from Cairo to Marsa Alam, a ridiculously small town on the Red Sea in the deep south of Egypt, was
boring, but it passed. I managed a couple of hours of restless sleep and then slept for an additional three hours on the boat when we arrived.
Day 1 of diving at the dive site of Shaab Marsa Alam the following morning was uneventful and not very interesting. It was a necessary day, though, of check diving. We needed to make sure our gear was in order for the more adventurous diving we were to undertake the following two days.
Late at night, after our group of 28 divers had dinner and most of us settled into our cabins for the evening, the boat’s engines turned on and headed east. Our destination was Daedalus Reef, a 400-meter-long by 100-meter wide reef some 90 kilometers from Marsa Alam, midway between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As the boat made its way toward this middle-of-nowhere dive site, the boat rocked back and forth as we slept, sometimes violently, waking me up a couple of times from my first full night of sleep since we left Cairo, threatening to throw me off my bed.
Our aim was to see some sharks. This was not the first time that I had gone shark diving in Egypt. Every time I’ve said that to non-divers they think I’m crazy. “Aren’t you frightened they will eat you?” I’m almost always asked. I roll my eyes and manage to show them a smile of superiority; for they are naïve and unknowing, these friends of mine.
In the three years since I started diving, I have probably managed to see just under ten sharks. I have actively gone out to search for them. I’ve done more than 100 dives (which is, admittedly, nothing when you compare it to divers who have been diving longer) but I have barely managed to catch sight of sharks. And the ones I have seen are always – ALWAYS – relatively far away. It is still an exhilarating experience. And your goal then becomes to see more sharks, in larger numbers, closer.
Day 2 of diving was on the Daedalus Reef. I dived twice this day. Neither of the two dives were particularly exciting. I managed to see one reef shark during the first dive. The other two dive groups both managed to see hammerhead sharks. Sensing that my dive group may be jinxed, I switched to one of the other two groups on the second dive. We saw lots of colorful little fishies, but that was it.
I had a minor pain in my ear after the second dive so I decided to sit out the third dive of the day. I wanted to be conservative, allowing my ear to rest rather than risk a ruptured eardrum. Diving poses minor risks to air spaces in the body such as that in the middle ear due to the increased pressure of the water as you descend. When my original group came out of the water, they had a real adventure to boast about. A hammerhead had approached one of our diving friends, Tarek. He told us how their eyes briefly met, how he had his alternative regulator ready in his hands to blow bubbles in the shark’s face if need be, and how he frantically swam backwards when he felt the shark had gotten just a bit too close. The shark was not interested, it turned out, and swam away.
I was disheartened. I began to feel that I was not destined to properly see sharks. Ever.
On day three, I woke up feeling that my ear was better. I was going to dive. I decided to stick to my original group. What will be will be, I thought. It is rizk to be in the right place at the right time and see sharks, we all agreed. Rizk, or a gift, from God.
My group, six of us including our guide, all wobbled delicately into the zodiac, the motorized rubber boat that would carry us to our destination. Our gear was heavy on our backs. It was barely 6 AM. The waves were very high. The zodiac bounced up and down as we rode over the waves to reach the site. My air tank loosened. Khaled, who was sitting next to me, noticed and began to try to tighten it back in place. It would do for now but we would have to tighten it better once we were underwater. Our guide, Joseph, promised he would take care of it. ONE! TWO! THREE! And we all rolled backwards into the warm 30 degree Celsius waters. I was disoriented for a few seconds, managed to figure out where up and down were, and began slowly descending into the deep. Joseph almost immediately came behind me and began to tighten the release that held my tank to my buoyancy control device (BCD), a vest that helps divers control their ascents and descents in the water.
Joseph had barely started to get to work on my tank release when I spotted my first hammerhead some 10 meters below me. I
was overjoyed! A hammerhead! It looks so pretty, I thought. Just like the documentaries. How odd those two protruding bulges were on the sides of his head. I could go back to Cairo with a feeling of accomplishment.
Jo finished tightening the tank and we descended further. There must have been more than 20 divers in the same area, all waiting to see more hammerheads, all watching.
And then it started. Another hammerhead passed by, then another, followed shortly afterwards by a third. For twenty minutes we watched solitary hammerheads idly swim by, as if just awake and stretching their fins as they started their day. I stopped counting and just kept watching in awe. I was not expecting this at all! We had to start ascending as our dive computers were all loudly yelling at us their warnings that we were nearing the maximum time it was safe to stay at that particular depth. And as we ascended, more hammerheads swam by. At 15 meters, we waited for a bit longer. I saw a hammerhead several meters below us and signaled to the group. Then suddenly Tarek pointed straight ahead. I looked. What is that? I thought. In the distance, I saw two big slabs of white that met at a 90 degree angle. Were those the bellies of two sharks that were kissing? They came towards us. Suddenly I screamed with delight. It was a huge black and white manta ray! Oh my God! Oh my God! I kept yelling with my muffled voice. No one could hear me. It didn’t matter. They all saw it. It soared lazily, majestically, and regally passed us. I don’t think I have ever seen anything so beautiful. We surfaced. I was elated.
I had just dived the best dive of my life.