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Volume 18, Number 5September/October 1967

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Under The Red Sea

Don a face mask and descend into the haunting, hypnotic world…

Written and photographed by Ludwig Sillner

Off the coast near Jiddah about six years ago I slipped a pair of flippers onto my feet, put on a face mask and gingerly poked my head beneath the placid surface of the Red Sea. I am not sure, now, exactly what I saw in that first glimpse; shafts of sunlight, probably, slanting off through clear blue water; a coral reef of fantastic beauty and, no doubt, many fish. But I do recall that by the time I surfaced I had already developed a need to return to that incredibly lovely world below. So I did. Indeed, it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that except for such periods as were necessary to earn a living, I have rarely been anywhere else. Diving became a passion and then a way of life—one, as you will gather, I totally endorse.

For the first year after that initial experience I amused myself by hunting fish with a spear gun. It was not at all difficult. Fish are so abundant there that divers do not need to use tanks to get down to where the fish are; they find them near the surface. Furthermore, the water of the Red Sea, like the Caribbean, the South Seas and parts of the Indian Ocean, is so transparent that you can see up to 150 feet away. Thus all you really need are a mask, a snorkel tube to breathe through, flippers and a spear gun.

Hunting, however, began to pall on me. I began to wonder if it wouldn't be more interesting—and more sporting—to photograph some of these magnificent creatures rather than kill them. It was certainly an ideal place for underwater photography. In addition to hundreds of species of fish the Red Sea coast offers thousands of miles of what they call "fringing reefs,"—great barriers of coral 10 to 200 miles wide that wind along the African shore from Egypt to Djibouti and down the Asian shore from Aqaba to the Bab al-Mandab at the gate of the Indian Ocean. Although no more than the accumulation of billions of coral polyps—minute creatures that produce a calcareous deposit—the reefs have grown to fantastic sizes, the largest being the 1,200 mile-long Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Living in the sneiter or me reers, in the quiet haven of coral forests beneath the wind-blown surface, countless varieties of brilliantly colored, almost fluorescent coral fish swim lazily through the branches. Among the loveliest are the bizarre "angel" or "butterfly" fish. Their Latin name is Chaetodontidae which means "bristle toothed." They have a long trunk-shaped mouth which enables them to pick up their food from the ramified coral. They are not very good swimmers but luckily, like most of the brightly colored coral fish, they do not have good meat either, so few carnivorous species ever harm them. They have practically no enemies, in fact, except the members of their own species who sometimes try to penetrate their living areas. For a long time the fantastic colors and designs of these fishes were a riddle to scientists, but today they generally believe that the glowing dots and stripes may be a kind of signal to warn others of the species from entering their preserve.

Some butterfly fishes live alone while young but later find a mate whom they never abandon. If you try to separate them they find each other again with absolute certainty, even over distances of several hundred feet. What instincts guide them? Love, or the undersea equivalent? We know so little about underwater life.

Let me say right now, that I didn't know any of this back when I began. I had to learn everything as I went along: the kinds of reefs, the names of fishes, the techniques of safety and such things as how to either slip up on a fish without alarming him or else how to lure him close enough so I could take a good clear picture. With the fish extremely sensitive to vibrations and the water so clear that the fish can see you as easily as you can see them, it is not easy to make an unnoticed approach. Without either a camera or a gun you can sometimes do it by keeping your arms close against your sides and depending entirely on your flippers for locomotion. With a camera it is much harder.

Tricking fish, however, is possible. Once, for instance, I wanted to get a good close-up of a barracuda, a nasty fish that rarely comes closer to a man than 20 or 30 feet unless he is looking for food, in which case you don't concern yourself with photography. I had tried several times to approach barracuda but they always withdrew, and usually stayed almost exactly the same distance away. Since even 20 feet was too far away for a sharp picture, I decided to try a trick. Knowing that barracudas, like magpies, are attracted by shiny objects, I waved the silvery reflector of my flashgun in the direction of a barracuda and, when he approached, turned over on my back and moved away still waving the reflector. The barracuda followed, this time getting a little closer. When I thought he was really interested I suddenly accelerated, turned suddenly with my camera ready and shot an excellent close-up before he could withdraw.

On another occasion a companion and I were trying to take a picture of a manta, that enormous "winged" creature that men know as the terrifying "devilfish."

It happens that the manta is one of the most peaceful creatures in the sea, a vegetarian, in fact. Unfortunately it has a distressing habit of scratching its back against the bottom of boats to rid itself of parasites. Since this back is rather large, the manta often upsets the boats without even knowing it.

But if harmless, the manta is an exciting creature for a diver to see as it swims slowly through the water, its huge triangular pectoral fins flapping up and down like the wings of a giant bird and its two large feeding fins, one on each side of the head, scooping up plankton and feeding it into the huge oval mouth. It is these "wings" that have added so much to the aura of terror that surrounds the manta. Stretching nine to 12 feet from tip to tip they are indeed a strange sight as they ponderously undulate just beneath the surface, their tips appearing and disappearing like the dreaded dorsal fins of a shark. Nor are these "wings" entirely misnamed, for the manta, despite a weight that often exceeds one ton, can actually "fly." Scientists doubted this for a long time until someone eventually took photographs showing the manta leaping out of the water and "sailing" several wards through the air before crashing back down into the water in an effort to dislodge its parasites.

For all those reasons I was more than eager, one morning in the Farasan Islands, to join a companion who through his binoculars had spotted a manta in the water near a reef and wanted to swim out and try to photograph it. We seized our underwater cameras, donned our masks and flippers and swam to the reef. The water was murky—which was probably why the manta had come in so close—and at first we could see nothing but a sort of bluish-green mist beneath the surface. Then, out of the mist came the manta, a pale ghostly monster with a "wingspread" of about nine feet. He swam right at us and for a moment I found myself wondering if there were more to the "devilfish" legend than I had supposed. But the manta was only curious and began to circle us, as if he wanted to play. I began to shoot as fast as I could. Fortunately I had a wide-angle lens on the camera, and in 10 minute, time I was able to take more than 20 photographs as the creature gamboled around us. Once he came right up to me and I automatically lived to avoid a collision only to find myself looking directly into a huge eye that seemed to be staring at me with definite curiosity. He swung around and came back while my companion tried to put himself between us so that I could photograph them together. He went right up to the manta and touched his right wing without provoking any reaction at all. But just then another manta appeared, apparently a female. Our monstrous friend joined her and together they "flew" lazily way into deep water, their "wings" apping almost in unison.

Such experiences, of course, are exciting, but they would be fruitless if you didn't know how to use a camera underwater or which camera is best. I use, how, a special underwater camera called the Rolleimarin, a Rolleiflex 6 X 6 with special underwater housing. The latest lenses are fitted with close-up lenses with which you can shoot from as close as 10 inches. But even at the beginning it as the problems with light that bothered e most. Water has a filtering effect on reds, oranges, and yellows and in just a few feet of water those colors disappear completely, leaving you and your camera in a world in which only blue and green can survive. To achieve natural colors, then, it is imperative to use a flashgun, preferably with normal bulbs rather than the "strobe" light so much in vogue now in the United States, since the electronic flash is good for only short distances or for black and white pictures. For daylight reversible film, I learned that at distances of more than a yard the "warm" light of clear bulbs helps compensate for the filtering effect of the water but that blue bulbs can be used for close-ups.

Of all the things I had to learn, the hardest was how to cope with the fear that I imagine must grip all men when they venture into an environment inhabited by strange and possibly dangerous creatures of another species. It was particularly hard in the Red Sea, because like everyone, I had heard that it was alive with barracuda, moray eels and above all, sharks.

So much has been written about sharks that even now, after six years of experience with them, I hesitate to make definite statements. Here, as a matter of fact, I am only going to make two: they can be dangerous and they are always interesting.

I am often asked if I am not frightened to meet a shark under water. To answer frankly, yes! There are, after all, some 200 different species of sharks and although many species will never attack a man, there are some that will, and unless you are an expert you will hardly be able to distinguish the dangerous ones from the harmless. In the Red Sea, for example, you commonly had a white-tipped shark called Triaenodon obesus, a relatively harmless species, but you can also meet the Carcharhinus menisorah, a gray and rather dangerous beast, as well as such definitely dangerous deep-water species as the blue shark, the tiger shark and the hammerhead shark.

But having said that, I must also add that I think the dangers faced by divers in the Red Sea have been exaggerated. For example, the most dangerous shark of all is the white shark and yet Hans Hass, a famous Austrian sea explorer, has seen only one white shark in his whole career. Furthermore, although it is always dangerous to swim in deep prater, divers can generally work safely in the Red Sea if they keep their eyes open, never dive alone, avoid murky water and always keep the reef at their back. Above all, a diver must remember that when there is blood in the water, any shark, no matter how "harmless," can turn savage in an instant. For that reason experienced underwater hunters always take speared fish immediately to an accompanying boat and never fasten them to a belt around their waist as some careless beginners do. It is also very helpful to know what to do when and if sharks approach you.

When sharks approach divers they usually do so warily. Why? Because divers are in the water, not on it. And to the shark, or any fish, this makes a difference. From experience, sharks and other fish know that what they find on the surface of the water is usually easy prey—carcasses and garbage, etc.—while what is in the water is usually alive and possibly dangerous. That's why sharks, before they actually strike, first nudge their victims—with bruising power—and then circle back to see whether the victim is dangerous or not.

There are very few cases of sharks attacking a diver, but stories about swimmers killed by sharks are rather frequent. Thus divers, unlike swimmers, start with a definite advantage. If they make use of it they can usually drive most sharks away. Some people, for example, carry a "shark billy," a stick about four ; feet long with an iron point that they can drive into the presumably sensitive snout of curious sharks. Of course, should a shark pick you as prey, his teeth could snap that billy like a dry twig, but since his first approach is usually a scouting expedition, the poke on the snout is ordinarily enough to discourage him.

You can also drive sharks away by kicking them. Once, early in my career, I decided to try to get some pictures of sharks in the Gulf of Aqaba and had some Jordanian friends toss in a charge of dynamite from a reef in hopes of attracting some. It worked better than I expected. Within seconds a shark appeared, and headed right for me, moving with the speed and power of a torpedo. All I had time to do was kick out at him with my flipper. He rolled away, circled, hesitated—then streaked for the surface where he seized one of the fish killed in the explosion and disappeared. The scene reminded me of a dog who had stolen a piece of meat and was afraid of being caught.

Noise also seems to discourage sharks. I once chased away a shark by slapping my hand against the surface of the water. Hans Hass has driven them away by shouting through his snorkel. This method, he reports, is so effective that the sharks jump as if they have been hit—although off Greece or other Mediterranean countries where fishermen frequently use dynamite to kill fish, sharks are sometimes either deaf or insensitive to noise.

Sharks are often accompanied by so called pilot fish (Naucrates ductor). They are said to guide their host to his prey but probably they just clean parasites from his body. Another companion is the Echeneis naucrates which attaches itself with a sucking plate to the body of the shark and scours its host of parasites and dead tissue.

There are, of course, many other dangerous inhabitants of the Red Sea besides sharks. One is the "stone fish," a small creature so camouflaged that its arty surface looks like a rock, but which in inject a deadly poison into any unwary lot that treads upon it. Another is the scorpion fish" or "chicken fish," a beautiful creature with fins on each side " the body that look like the feathers of a chicken. This fish also has fins on its back which are tipped with poison. An Egyptian friend of mine who was stung by a scorpion fish—right through his diving suit—was partially paralyzed for three days.

Two of the more "dangerous" creatures are the moray eel and the barracuda.

Actually moray eels are dangerous only when threatened and are rarely seen since they spend most of their time in narrow holes in the reef with only their heads protruding. If they are provoked, however, they have a poisonous bite and are incredibly strong. Once, a German expert on fish asked me to shoot an eel for his collection. I located one in relatively shallow water and fired a spear into him from a compressed air spear gun. The spear went through the eel's head and pinned him, literally, to the reef. With a second spring gun I tried another spear and for good measure gave him a blow with the shark billy. I was sure I had him and had started to swim to the surface to wait for the mud to clear when I felt a pull on the line leading to one of the spears and looked down just in time to see the eel—an enormous six-foot creature—vanish, leaving behind the bent and twisted spears.

Of all the dangerous fish, the barracuda, whose shape resembles that of the fresh water pike, is probably the most underrated. The largest are as large as common sharks and they all are equipped with rows of savage teeth that can tear prey to ribbons in minutes. In some circles they are considered even more dangerous than sharks. Indeed, it is possible that barracuda are responsible for some of the fatalities ascribed to sharks by people who do not know the different characteristics of the marks left by the teeth.

I have seen single barracuda but they usually travel in schools of up to 20, and even though there are no recorded incidents of barracuda attacking divers, it is still a disconcerting experience to find them near you as you dive, waiting motionlessly in the still water, their rows of murderous teeth flashing fierce grins through the clear water.

From all this it might be thought that I am trying to say that underwater exploration is a very dangerous sport. It isn't at all. I have singled out the dangerous fish simply because to most people they are the most interesting and because they do add a certain spice to the sport. But they are not, as the old saying goes, the only fish in the sea. There are thousands of others, most more beautiful and certainly less dangerous. They are the ones you usually see. And it is the haunting, flickering colors of the coral and its innocent inhabitants as much as the hint of danger always lurking in the shadows that draw me back again and again to the hypnotic, timeless world under the surface of the Red Sea.

Ludwig Sillner, a German sales representative who has dived for sport in the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Arabian Gulf, last spring accompanied the French explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau on a two-month expedition to the Indian Ocean.

This article appeared on pages 27-32 of the September/October 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1967 images.