The Shark Reef Drop Off in the Northern Red Sea in Egypt
The Best Dive of My Life
June 2011. This is the third day of the underwater photography cruise we have organized. I wake up at 4 AM. Because it is very hot in the cabin, I sleep on the top deck of the boat. The cabin is air conditioned, but, because I can get bronchitis if the temperature changes suddenly, I prefer to sleep outside on a foam mattress. I also enjoy sleeping under the stars and being up to see the sun rise. Once I am awake, I go down to the main cabin to get some breakfast. Then I sit on a bench on the upper deck and wait for the sun to rise. Sometimes I'm joined by one or two other divers. During my travels, I often find that there are a few people who enjoy this little pleasure every morning. The funny thing is that the only word we say to each other is "hello". For an hour, everyone is immersed in their private thoughts. This is a special time, with no talking, no noise. We just sit quietly, in communion with the environment and with each other. This is the best time of the day to think and make decisions. For me, these sunny mornings are sometimes the happiest time of the day. This is one reason why I love diving cruises.
Today I am joined by our diving guide, Marc Van Espen. He works for the diving center Dune, and is one of the two best guides I have worked with. We agree to take the group diving to Shark Reef in the Ras Mohammed underwater reserve, just off the point of Sinai. Shark Reef is a very deep drop off, which falls to 300 yards. A diver can swim around the peak in 15 minutes. It is very small, but the southern part is covered with exceptionally beautiful coral. Another point of interest is the presence of multiple schools of fish, each consisting of several hundred individuals. The only problem is the extremely strong current. I have been to this site 20 times and every time, I have only been able to stay for a few seconds because the current was so violent. During each dive, I took three or four interesting photos. This strong current from the northern Red Sea keeps the water very clean. Visibility is often exceptional, sometimes more than 100 yards, and the current brings in a lot of nutrients, which is why there are so many schools of fish. Marc and I talk about the beauty of this site, and think about how great it would be if we could dive without the current.
It is 6:30 am. Vessels are not allowed to anchor in the Ras Mohammed reserve, so we use an inflatable boat to go to the site. This is why the corals are so perfect. They are not broken by anchors or mooring ropes. We are dropped just above the Shark Reef drop off. That way, even if the current is violent, we will not miss it. I hold my housing close to my chest and fall into the water on my back. My BCD is fully deflated so that I can descend quickly and find somewhere to shelter from the current. I have just enough time for 3 or 4 photos. I start the descent, and there is no current! It is absolutely incredible. What a gift! I'm already thinking that I will have Shark Reef largely to myself for an hour, with no need to kick like a madman to fight the current in order to take pictures. I look around me. There are 7 other photographers. I am so surprised by the exceptional conditions that I do not know where to start. The water is crystal clear. A few yards from the surface, I see a school of hundreds of black snappers, and I swim slowly toward them. There's no rush, I have plenty of time. I know that I can spend a full hour in total freedom to enjoy the colors and lights. Suddenly I feel a huge adrenaline rush. It happens sometimes when I'm very happy, and it is a wonderful sensation. I can’t explain it, but I am overwhelmed by a huge wave of happiness. I have had the opportunity to chat with other photographer divers who have also experienced this sensation. One compared it to an orgasm. I start photographing the snappers. They remain serene in their compact school. I take my time and enjoy the moment.
After few minutes, I see a school of batfish swimming nonchalantly a little bit below me. There is definitely something special and amazing about this dive. I swim slowly towards this new opportunity. I control my buoyancy and wait patiently for the fish to move into the sun. It is absolutely amazing. All I have to do is wait. It is easy to compose my photos. All I have to do is adjust the exposure and shoot. I know that I have an excellent series of photos. I'm starting to head towards the drop off to take some photos of the view when I see a school of unicorn fish in the deeper water. A school of unicorn fish is an unusual sight, so I decide that it is better to take advantage of this chance. At 30 yards, a new wave of happiness washes over me. There is no doubt that I will remember this day forever. When I reach 40 yards, the school is right in front of me. Usually, unicorn fish are very shy, and flee at the sight of a diver. Now they are quiet, and I can get very close to them. It seems like my internal joy is spreading to everything around me. I do not know why, but the important thing is that the school of unicorn fish is here for me. I cannot stay at this depth for more than 4 minutes, so I take five photos and then go back up to the drop-off.
When I reach 20 yards, I start taking photos of the view. I'm still in nirvana. The corals are beautiful and the visibility is exceptional. I take plenty time to compose my photographs well and choose the best possible exposure. I breathe very slowly. I know it is against the rules of diving, but I want to extend this magical moment as long as I can. I want it to last as long as possible. What a pity that I dive with a rebreather. I will just have to make the most of this moment of happiness while I have it. After an hour in the water, my pressure gauge indicates 40 bars (600 PSI). It's time to go up. Once at the safety stop, I inflate my parachute. I'm realizing that I just had an incredible dive.
I have been on more than 3,500 dives. Of all of them, this has been the most magical and unique. Yet I have not seen any whales, dolphins or sharks. In fact, I have seen nothing that would seem to explain this joy: just three schools of fish and a colorful drop-off. It is inexplicable, but this has been the best dive of my life. This is it.
It is like this in landscape photography. The greatest moments are often made up of little, personal things that we cannot explain.
I'm just fine. Life is good.