RICHARD ASPINALL finally gets to the Brothers and learns valuable lessons about how to behave with sharks. But first, itâs own-up timeâ¦
GET CLOSE TO THE REEF and send up your SMB if you lose the group,” the guide had said in the briefing, and all I could think about was just how much I regretted saying: “I’ve never come up on the wrong boat” as we kitted up, and the oceanics passed by the dive-deck.
For the first time in more than a decade, I was the numpty who allowed himself to be distracted and lost his buddies! Not a good situation to be in at the best of times, but I was off Daedalus Reef, a location where strong currents are the norm.
On surfacing, the Zodiac driver clocked me quickly and I was fine, but as we all know, simple mistakes can multiply and become major ones.
But let’s backtrack a little…
I’ve been booked on four separate trips over the years to the Brothers.
The past three had been scuppered by the weather, so when we arrived at a very quiet Port Ghalib and the palms weren’t bent double, I knew we were in luck – I would finally get to the isolated offshore islands of Daedalus and the Brothers. Would a trip to these world-class sites live up to my expectations?
Adding to my anticipation was the chance to see sharks. Autumn, while risky for windy weather, can offer some of the finest shark encounters in the Red Sea.
To whet my appetite, we stopped off at that small yet wonderful lump of reef known locally as Sha’ab Abu Hamra, or to us divers as Elphinstone.
Easily reached by day-boats from the Hurghada area, Elphinstone is spectacular, as anyone who has visited will agree. Soft corals hang like curtains from the walls, and the current-swept northern and southern tips, which drop to 50m and below, offer chances to dive with plenty of pelagics.
I concentrated on getting some shots of the colourful corals, shooting upwards in a bid to capture the reef colours as well as the sunburst in the blue, before heading out to the reef’s tip, fingers crossed for sharks.
ELPHINSTONE DIDN’T DISAPPOINT, and in one of those “they look just like they do on TV” moments an oceanic whitetip swam languidly past me, its long white-tipped pectoral fins standing proud from the body.
As my aluminium cylinder’s contents reached around 70 bar, I became aware that my buoyancy was not as it should be, and it was time to end the dive – a shame, because there were at least three individual sharks, but I did have some shots bagged.
On any ordinary dive, floating at the surface waiting to climb aboard the boat or Zodiac is not a problem, but being in the water with oceanics requires divers to adopt more considered behaviour and practices.
Divers should limit their time at the surface, without compromising their safety, after safety stops, and exit with the minimum of fuss. Buoyancy checks should be completed, and divers accustomed to steel cylinders need to bear in mind that aluminium tanks are lighter.
Encounters with oceanics haven’t always been positive, sadly. Even though the risks of attack are vanishingly small, we owe it to ourselves, and the sharks, to do everything possible to behave correctly and sensitively around them.
Oceanics will take surface carrion such as dead fish, turtles and even sea-birds. They are intelligent and use their chemosensory ability (analogous to smell) to follow chemical trails and investigate their source, often “bumping” objects, including divers, to better understand the environment around them.
The last thing needed is a diver at the surface misinterpreting a shark’s curiosity and lashing out. Oceanics are supreme predators, but they can be skittish and will defend themselves. We are not on the shark’s menu, but we still need to be sensible and cautious.
It is, perhaps, this behaviour that makes interactions with oceanics so wonderful and, at the same time, potentially risky.
Happily, for photographers, curious fish make for good photographs, and as the sharks approach you get the classic head-on shot that emphasises those wonderful, wing-like pectorals. Watch carefully and you can see how the shark angles one of these fins downwards to then move in that direction.
That night the good weather continued and the boat sailed east. As the sun set, and my seasickness failed to rear its green-hued head, I was a happy man. The boat rocked me to sleep.
I ALWAYS WAKE EARLY on a dive-boat, keen to see the sunrise and get a few coffees in before the early-morning briefing. The sea state was superb, and I could see Daedalus Reef to our starboard side, a few low breakers over the reef, and those long piers to the lighthouse.
Daedalus is known for the chance it offers to observe hammerheads, and after hanging at 30m for a while with nothing doing, we headed back along the reef’s flank, taking in the corals and fish life.
At depth, the walls are covered in tree-like black cup coral, thriving in the plankton-rich currents. As we reached the shallows the reef took on more colour, and as we approached the boat, there was a small oceanic.
It was a young male, recognisable by the small claspers between its pelvic fins. It came close and checked us out.
Our keen-eyed guide pointed to another, this time a large female, observing us from afar. For the first time, I began to realise that sharks have something we might describe as personality: some would come close, while others were shy, staying a little further away.
We still hear sharks described as “mindless killing machines” and other such nonsense, but it’s only by spending time with them that you realise just how ill-informed these descriptions are.
The next dive would see me being picked up by that Zodiac. As the driver approached, I realised with a sense of deep embarrassment that it was not our boat, and as he helped me aboard he indicated that he would be going to the other end of the reef for his divers first, delaying my return.
Back on board and explaining what had happened to the understandably annoyed guide and my buddy, I was aware of how foolish I’d been.
Hanging in the shallows watching sharks and focusing on my camera meant that I’d failed to keep an eye on the group. The current had separated us, and I had placed myself in danger.
I missed the next dive, disappointed at my own stupidity. I share this account now, in the hope that my lesson will not go unlearned: no matter how experienced you are, never forget the basics. What would have happened if I’d forgotten my DSMB, or been hit by a Zodiac?
THE NEXT DAY SAW US at depth with hammerheads. We had travelled to the reef’s north-eastern end by Zodiac. The water was a little murky, and at just under 40m the hammerhead sign went around the group. A lone individual had broken away from the distant shoal to check us out.
It’s hard to estimate size, of course, but these scalloped hammerheads reach around 2m. Heads apart, they are so different from other sharks with that far more sinuous swimming motion.
I managed a few average shots, glad I had a zoom lens fitted, because had it been a wide-angle the shot would have been very disappointing. Two shark species ticked off my list – could it get any better?
Autumn weather in the middle of the Red Sea can be poor. Reaching the Brothers from Daedalus, I was told, usually meant getting closer to the shore before making the crossing.
Again we were lucky, and could sail directly to the Brothers, gaining extra dives and more sleep. The diving gods were looking down on me and smiling.
Finally, the Brothers! That dusty (and slightly decrepit-looking) lighthouse was a welcome sight next morning. We were moored on Big Brother’s western flank and oceanics were cruising past the boat! We enjoyed several more dives with them, and every time I marvelled at how unique each fish was.
As I got my eye in, I was able to spot individuals based on their markings and fin damage.
The sharks would cruise the reef from boat to boat, and as they did I held them in the viewfinder, waiting for them to get close before squeezing the trigger, hoping to get a good sequence before they changed direction. No one wants a shot of a shark swimming away!
Even though I knew I wasn’t at risk, I could still feel a little adrenaline.
I had been concerned that my strobes would cause the sharks to scarper, but it wasn’t the case. I was using diffusers to soften the light, so perhaps that helped.
I had even wondered if the electrical fields generated by the charging circuitry might disturb the sharks, but I learned that their ability to sense electric fields operated only at close quarters – one of the reasons they “bump“.
By the following day (I can’t believe I’m going to say this), I was a little bored with sharks! Heresy, I know. I was looking forward to the option of diving the Numidia. I fancied seeing something a little more colourful, and I’d heard that this deep wreck was a stunner.
Like the rest of The Brothers, it didn’t disappoint. It was great to see so much life on the superstructure and surrounding reef, and some amazing-looking seafans too – but I digress, and want to return quickly to sharks!
THE FINAL DIVES were spent between Big and Little Brother. Sharks were plentiful, though I didn’t get to see the silkies or the giant mantas, but there was one last dive that would exceed my expectations.
The plan was to split the group into two waves and drop, negatively buoyant, from the back of the boat, down to the south-western plateau on Big Brother.
At around 30m a series of pinnacles hosted cleaner wrasse, attracting passing pelagics.
Rounding the corner, I saw the shark sign from others in the group, and much excited pointing.
In the dark waters I made out a shape: a long graceful shark, with a tail – and what a tail! The long sweeping shape of a pelagic thresher cruised past.
I’d always thought threshers were fish that happened to other people.
I remember as a nerdy little kid drawing threshers from my Big Boys’ Bumper Book of Fishes or whatever it was called, and here I was, with one a few metres away!
We took up station close to the reef-wall, with the pinnacles in front and slightly below us. My god, there was another! And as the first one swung round, I realised that it was going to swim towards me.
Now photographers (not all, but some) can be real nuisances under water, and we have the capacity to try too hard sometimes. I’ve seen divers with cameras speed towards their subject and cause it to flee, thus ruining the experience for other less forward divers.
Mindful of this, I purposely held back, not expecting to get a pleasing shot, but that fish was heading towards me, and I could make out its large hunter’s eyes and the blue sheen to its skin.
I fired off some shots, as did a few other divers, and those on video captured some amazing footage.
Our wall of bubbles persuaded the shark to turn, and I got my first look at that astounding tail, used for hunting. Threshers herd smaller fish into tight groups before speeding towards them and deploying their pectorals like air brakes.
Slamming on the anchors like this transfers their momentum into their tail, which whips over their heads or sides to stun or even kill their prey outright. The sharks then eat at leisure.
THIS WAS ONE of those dives that showed just how luck can play a part in getting a shot. Putting yourself in the right place is vital of course, but anything can happen and good fortune can make all the difference.
That night I swapped out my camera’s memory card and put it in a safe place, popping in a spare, just in case.
This had been quite a trip for me. I had finally reached a destination that had eluded me and my limited budget for quite some time. I had also learned much about sharks, and how behaving around them demands more consideration and awareness than I think I had at first realised.
It was, perhaps, one of the finest trips I’ve enjoyed in recent years.
Yes, the shark encounters were superb, but I came home renewed a little, humbled as well, and reminded that perhaps I should try a little harder and consider whether I had become a little complacent.
It’s not a bad thing to take a good hard look at yourself and perhaps come out of the scrutiny a better diver!
Appeared in DIVER April 2017