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Volume 42, Number 4July/August 1991

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Diving in the Southern Red Sea

Written and photographed by Erik Bjurström

For most divers, "the Red Sea" means the northern waters off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula, particularly its southern tip, Ras Muhammad. Apart from being an excellent dive area, southern Sinai is easily accessible and has well developed diving facilities, with several resorts and dive boats operating in the area (See Aramco World, May-June 1989). But seasoned Red Sea enthusiasts are now looking south to new, relatively unexplored areas. Some of the dive boats operating out of Sharm al-Shaykh in Sinai are now making extended trips down to Sudan, and one even sails all the way through the Bab al-Mandab strait to Djibouti and then back up to Yemen.

The southern half of the Red Sea is set amid some of the most isolated territory in the world, with wild, barren countryside on both shores. But offshore, beneath the sea's surface, lies a rich and varied underwater world. In the west, the Sudanese and Ethiopian coasts feature coral mountains that shoot up from great depths through crystal-clear blue water to the surface. It was off Sudan's coast in 1950 that Austrian zoologist Dr. Hans Hass shot his celebrated film, Under the Red Sea, unveiling for the first time the world beneath the surface here. As a 12-year-old, I devoured Hass's books about his adventures among sharks and manta rays outside Port Sudan. It was also here that Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his team of divers conducted the Conshelf 2 experiment in 1965, living in an underwater habitat for an entire month. Using a saucer-shaped, two-man submarine, Cousteau explored the floor of the continental shelf down to about 275 meters (900 feet) and shot some stunning film, used later in his movie World Without Sun.

Names like Sanganeb Reef, Sha'ab Rumi and Sa-wakin Archipelago are legendary among Red Sea connoisseurs: These are sites where divers can expect to encounter the big pelagic, or open-water, fish like sharks and manta rays, rare in other places. I've had some of my most hair-raising Red Sea experiences at Sha'ab Rumi, where the sharks grew accustomed to humans during Cousteau's prolonged stay there. Today, as soon as a diver enters the water at Sha'ab Rumi, he is surrounded by sharks waiting to be fed.

Some of the charter boats from the Mediterranean have discovered that they can winter profitably in Port Sudan, offering dive charters. A fleet of about six boats, most of them Italian, is now serving an increasing number of divers there every winter.

On the other side of the sea, along the Saudi Arabian coast, is the Farasan Bank, an extensive shoal that runs about 593 kilometers (320 miles) from west of the coastal town of al-Lith down to Kara-maran Island. This is a shallow area where the reefs, with their greater access to sunlight, have spread over large areas and been transformed into beautiful coral gardens. Cousteau, in his book The Living Sea, describes this area as one of the most interesting coral ecosystems in the world.

To the south lies the Bab al-Mandab - the Gate of Lamentation - where the sea bottom rises from a depth of about 1830 meters (6000 feet) up to just 46 meters (150 feet). The volcanically active rift that separates Africa and Arabia comes close to the surface here, and as recently as the 1950's there were eruptions which created several lava islands.

Plankton is the foundation of the marine food chain. Much of the Red Sea is relatively plankton-poor, compared to the cold, plankton-rich waters of, say, the North Atlantic, where there are fewer species but larger numbers of individuals, the key to survival there. In the Red Sea generally, the protection afforded by the coral reefs allows for a great variety of very specialized species, but since there is more intense competition for food, there are normally smaller numbers of individual creatures. The southern Red Sea, however, enjoys a mixture of conditions - both more plankton and more coral reefs - and thus a mixture of marine life, with numbers characteristic of cooler seas and the diversity of species normally found in warmer seas.

I had an opportunity to join the expedition vessel Lady Jenny 5 for part of a special trip along the entire length of the Red Sea. She had traveled from her base at Sharm al-Shaykh to Port Sudan to Djibouti, where I would join her to travel north toward Yemen and then back to Djibouti. On previous dives, I'd explored the eastern, western and northern waters of the Red Sea, but never the southern, and I was looking forward to the trip because of reports of the area's incredibly rich marine life. My imagination soared when I heard names like Ghubat Kharab, the legendary home of the tiger shark, or Seven Brothers, with its manta rays and huge schools of well-known reef fish seen elsewhere only in smaller numbers.

From Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, a Djibouti Airways flight took us for the hop across the Red Sea and down the East African coast to Djibouti, a charming, sleepy little seaport with a distinctly French flavor. In the harbor, Lady Jenny 5 awaited us. After orientation the next morning, we were on our way, with the course set north to Seven Brothers, a group of uninhabited islands at the entrance of the Bab al-Mandab. The islands are barren, consisting of fossilized coral.

We anchored at Manta Island, so named by the French divers of Djibouti because this is the territory of the manta ray. The mantas are giants among rays, measuring up to five meters (15 feet) in wing-span and weighing several tons. Yet for all their fearsome appearance, they are harmless eaters of plankton and small fish.

The currents were very strong, and we had to cling to the bottom to keep from being swept away. Visibility was bad because of all the plankton. Suddenly, a huge black shape appeared through the plankton haze and came swimming toward me. It turned right in front of me, and swept past. It was a manta ray, an immense, beautiful creature with a black back and white belly. It seemed to be interested in us, and kept swimming around us. In front of its mouth swam a school of pilot fish, and attached to its belly were two suckerfish, all typical companions of the big open-water dwellers. With its mouth wide open, seining for food, the martfa ray flew through the water with graceful wing movements, looking like a giant prehistoric bird. The mouth was big enough to swallow me.

Later that evening, Lady Jenny 5 was lying at anchor in a small bay. The lights from the dive boat attracted swarms of small fish, which in turn attracted the manta rays. We heard a big splash and spotted a manta swimming back and forth through the clouds of fish. I quickly donned flippers and mask, grabbed my underwater flashlight and jumped in the water. It was totally black, and my light beam cut through the plankton like a spotlight through fog. Then I saw the huge ray, all of three meters (nine feet) between wing tips. It passed below me, made an upward turn and came back toward me swimming upside down. Clearly, it wanted to check me out. I stretched out my hand and let it brush the creature's white belly. Its skin was sandpaper-rough. One of its big eyes gazed at me curiously for a moment and then, with an elegant flip of the wings, it turned away. I grabbed its tail for a ride. The manta dragged me through the water with irresistible power, faster and faster, until, finally, I had to let go.

Hanging there in black, empty space with this gigantic creature somewhere nearby, I felt as if I had encountered an extraterrestrial being. Never before had I suspected that a manta ray could show this almost human curiosity toward divers.

On the Lady Jenny 5, we continued north through the strait to the Hanish Islands, between Ethiopia and Yemen. The shipping channel in the Red Sea narrows considerably there. The ships have to run a gauntlet between sharp coral reefs and lava rocks in strong currents. In the old days, when the area was poorly charted and navigational tools not as sophisticated as today, the strait was a dangerous obstacle on the way to Asia - thus its name - and there are shipwrecks on almost every reef along the shipping channel. They serve as sanctuaries for a fascinating array of marine life.

We dived to visit one of these wrecks, at a spot called Ship Rock. The captain of Lady Jenny 5 told us it was the wreck of a 2000-ton English steamer of the P&O Line which struck the reef in 1859 on her way from Aden to Suez. P&O, the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, today the biggest shipping line in the world, started operations in 1826. In colonial days it was one of the symbols of the British Empire, its ships an extension of the Eastern life for the sahibs and memsahibs of the British Raj. We found some old porcelain on the wreck - perhaps fragments of a dinner service -painted with the company device, "Quis separabit", meaning "Who shall divide [us]." I wondered what had happened to the passengers who had eaten from these plates: Here, in the middle of nowhere, their trip had ended in disaster. Did they all drown, or were they saved by a passing ship? I later learned that the ship was the iron passenger liner Alma. One day out of Aden, bound for Suez, she hit a reef and sank on June 12,1859. Baggage and cargo were lost,but all passengers and crew were rescued.

The steamer was very much broken down, but the stem was beautifully intact, with a huge bronze propeller. Under the overhang of the stern we found a big nurse shark lying on the bottom. Nurse sharks are docile creatures and we were able to study this one at close range, but his patience was not limitless: After too many strobe flashes in his face he swung around violently, pushed the divers aside and swam away looking insulted.

For a while, we were puzzled by a strange noise in the water around the wreck. We kept hearing a sharp crackl, like the snapping of a tree branch. The mystery was solved when we surprised a huge jewfish - a giant species of the grouper family - on the wreck. The fish shot away from us, making that distinctive cracking sound by closing its gill-covers quickly, perhaps intending the noise as a warning. There were many of these huge groupers around, but they fled as soon as they noticed our presence.

Stony corals need light and relatively warm water to develop into reefs. Because of cold, murky water and strong currents, reef formation has been negligible in the waters around the Hanish Islands. Only fringe reefs could be seen in the shallow water around the islands, all of which consisted of black lava and seemed to have been quite recently formed. Black, horny and soft corals that thrive in strong currents and dimmer light dominated the seascape everywhere. There were huge carpets of Rumphella, an Indo-Pacific species. The white coral polyps made the terrain look like an early winter landscape with frost-covered trees - almost appropriately, because the water was very cold. At Hanish al-Kabir, we swam through a forest of pink Gorgonia coral, or sea fans. Further north in the Red Sea, sea fans are found only in deeper water, growing as solitary bushes on the reef wall.

This seascape was home for big schools of yellow sweetlips and striped snappers that swam through the soft coral fields like streams of gold. The color contrasts between the yellow fish and the white color of the soft coral were striking. At Abu'All, the fish all seemed to be swimming in the same direction, like crowds of people gathering for a public meeting. They flowed into a cave under a big rock, and I followed after them, eager to see, if I could, what was causing this atypical behaviour.

In the cave was a near-solid mass of fish, teeming, thousands and thousands of them. Starfish and sea cucumbers were releasing their milt and eggs into the water like small trails of smoke. We saw different species of coral fish, normally seen as solitaries or in pairs, now congregating in large schools, as if they had come from far away to meet and mate at this particular place - bannerfish, angelfish and lemon butterfly fish. Even the sharks had come in schools.

On another occasion, I was taking some wide-angle shots at South-West Rocks. Suddenly I saw a streak of silver-gray pass by in my viewfinder. Five silver-tip sharks, about 1.5 meters (five feet) long, circled around us, trying to find out what we were doing in their domain. They were not aggressive, but curious. I couldn't help admiring their beautifully shaped bodies as they slowly glided through the water in total harmony with their environment, a perfect creation that nature has not found reason to change in 70 million years. More and more sharks arrived; soon we had twenty around us. One by one they came shooting toward us, while the others lurked as shadows in the haze, at the limit of visibility. After satisfying their curiosity, they disappeared.

The silver-tip shark, Charcharinus albimarginatus, is an open-sea dweller rarely seen by divers. I had only seen one or two before in Sudanese waters. They are considered a potentially dangerous species. My experience, though, is that sharks are only dangerous to divers if provoked: if the diver charges them in their own territory - this is especially true of the gray reef shark - or if he or she is carrying dead fish that trigger the sharks' incredibly effective sense of smell. If a diver avoids these things, there's no reason to fear a shark attack.

On our way back to Djibouti, we passed Seven Brothers again. We decided to stop at the South Island for the last dive of our trip - a dive that proved unforgettable. We descended in crystal-clear water, the first we had seen during our trip. I estimated visibility to about 60 meters (200 feet). Before us stretched a rugged undersea landscape of clefts and rocks covered with soft coral.

It was as if we had jumped into an aquarium. A school of fast jacks and barracudas came up and turned in front of us. The amusing ocean trig-gerfish were everywhere. They are shaped like the fast-swimming open-water fishes, but they swim like reef triggerfish, with wobbling movements of their back fins. It looks as if they are using a propeller to move forward. These fish are native to the Indian Ocean and not found anywhere else in the Red Sea. We descended, following a ridge toward deeper water.

Other species came up to us to have a look - batfish, bannerfish and angelfish. Three small manta rays glided gracefully through the seascape. A curious blenny looked out from a pipe-shaped bright red sponge. Beside the sponge was a lionfish. In the coral kingdom, its bizarre appearance is a warning to steer clear: Its dorsal spines are highly poisonous. In my eagerness to get a close-up, I was lightly stung. It felt as though I had touched an open flame.

A squid came hovering over the bottom. As he moved, his body changed color continuously, like a neon sign. When I triggered a flash, he turned completely white. The squid has the ability to change its color to match the environment as a form of camouflage. In this case, it turned white to match the photo flash. Yet on my film, the squid was white, meaning that it had changed color in less than a sixtieth of a second, the shutter speed I had set on my camera!

I focused next on a little fish fry lying on a coral head. He looked at me with big surprised eyes. Unbelievably, he let me come all the way up to him for a closeup. The intricate shape of the hard corals makes them an excellent nursery for all the small fish that would otherwise be easy prey for bigger predators. This is the basis for the great variety of species on the coral reef. Every species fills its own niche in the ecological balance where it is most efficient in the struggle for survival.

We reached the end of the ridge and found something unexpected on the bottom - two giant nudi-branchs, each about 30 centimeters (one foot) long. Their colors were beautiful pale shades of white, pink and yellow, the work of a master decorator. These were bigger than any other nudibranchs I had seen in the Red Sea, including the famous Spanish dancer (See Aramco World, May-June 1989). Nudibranchs are shell-less mollusks related to clams, oysters and scallops that use other protective measures instead of shells: They have stinging cells and secrete a distasteful liquid to discourage predators. Like the lionfish, they combine these defenses with very conspicuous colors to get their warning message across.

We went over the cliff edge and followed a reef wall covered with bright red bigeye fish, nocturnal creatures that cling to the shadow of the rock. I found a strangely shaped sponge there, bright yellow with dangling appendages like stalactites, oddly vertical in this weightless world.

Down on the bottom, gray reef sharks patrolled back and forth. We stayed for a while, admiring them, until our air began to run out. Then we reluctantly headed back to the surface, our exit from this underwater Garden of Eden.

Dr. Erik Bjurstrom, a consultant at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Riyadh, has spent seven years in Saudi Arabia and explored the length and breadth of the Red Sea.

This article appeared on pages 32-40 of the July/August 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1991 images.