Egypt's Underwater World
Written by Eric Hanauer
To divers, these are magical names, representing some of the finest sites in the Egyptian waters of the Red Sea. And ever since the early explorations of Hans Hass and Jacques Cousteau, they have been a prime destination for diving enthusiasts from all over the world.
What is it about this desert-edged sea that has captured the imagination of people who have seen the best that the underwater world has to offer? More than the astonishing contrast between the hot, monochromatic desert and the multicolored reefs below the surface, the Red Sea has everything that divers look for.
Begin with warm, clear water. Then add a colorful marine environment rich with fish and invertebrate life. For excitement, throw in the occasional large visitors from open water: sharks, eagle rays, turtles, perhaps a school of tuna. Now take a sheer dropoff, decorated with an abundance of corals, beginning at the surface and descending into the indigo blue of infinity. Finally, throw in a few historic shipwrecks, covered with the same spectacular growth that encompasses the reefs. Many destinations offer a few of these things: The Red Sea has them all. And elegant new facilities, most of them constructed within the past three years, have raised the standard of comfort and convenience decades beyond what was there before.
The diving community first learned about the Red Sea nearly 40 years ago. Dr. Hans Hass, an Austrian zoologist, had won international renown by filming Caribbean sharks in 1939, using primitive oxygen rebreathers for his air supply. This was four years before Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan invented modern scuba - self-contained underwater breathing a pparatus. After losing nearly everything in World War II, Hass was seeking a way to regain his fortune and refurbish his reputation. The unexplored underwater world of the Red Sea was his opportunity.
Hass borrowed money, secured the necessary permits, and set off alone for Port Sudan in the autumn of 1949. In two months of solitary diving, using underwater camera housings he had designed and built himself, he shot over 1,500 photographs - including pictures of sharks and manta rays which look sensational even by today's standards. Hass filmed the "devil rays" - most people at the time thought they were man-eaters - swimming directly at the camera, tiny pilot fish inside their open mouths. Although black and white, his photographs have the impact of living history.
Hass returned to Port Sudan in May, 1950, and made a motion picture, Under the Red Sea, which became the commercial success he had sought. Its extraordinary footage included the first pictures ever taken of a whale shark underwater.
Jacques Cousteau arrived in the Red Sea on Calypso a year after Hass had left. His early voyages there are recounted in his first book, The Silent World, and in his Academy Award-winning documentary film of the same name. Most of Cousteau's diving was done near Port Sudan and on the shallow reefs of the Saudi Arabian coast. He also visited the Brothers Islands in the Egyptian Red Sea, describing the shark activity there and taking some of the islets' profuse black coral.
Cousteau returned many times, ranking this his favorite diving area in the world. His books, articles and films were perhaps the prime factors that made people aware of the wonders that lay below the surface of the Red Sea. However, both Cousteau and Hass by-passed today's principal centers of diving tourism, Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh.
Recreational diving in the area began in the 1950's when Greeks and Italians, working for oil and mining companies, began skindiving along the Hurghada coast. Their primary interest was spearfishing, and they exacted a heavy toll on the population of large groupers around the reefs. During the 1967 war, and for eight years afterward, Hurghada was closed to sport diving. Big fish returned to the reefs during this respite, but when it was reopened, the slaughter began once more. Dive guides were the first to voice opposition; tourists and fishermen soon joined in. Finally in 1977, the government placed a total ban on spearfishing throughout the Egyptian Red Sea. This ban is still in effect.
On April 25,1982, the last section of the Sinai was returned to Egyptian control under the terms of the Camp David Peace Accords. As a result, 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) of coastline, from Sinai to the Sudanese border, were thenceforth administered under one flag.
The immediate reaction in the diving community was one of concern: Would the dive sites be accessible under Egyptian control? Would the infrastructure, facilities and equipment be there to support recreational diving operations, while at the same time protecting the environment? Egypt had limited background in sport diving, yet it had a long history of tourism, and was seeking new venues. The government was looking for ways to lure tourists back to Egypt after they had seen the Pyramids and the temples along the Nile. It realized that the beaches and reefs of the Red Sea might be that lure.
A joint-venture company was formed to run the hotels and dive centers that had been built in Sinai and to promote tourism in the area. Many experienced operators were persuaded to remain. Through the first five years, tourism was down, and little was done to improve the dated facilities. Then in 1987 a building boom began the likes of which Sinai had never seen. Within a year, the tiny village of Naama Bay, north of Sharm el-Sheikh, was transformed into a major international tourist center. Luxury hotels featuring comfortable, air-conditioned bungalows, fine dining and even swimming pools, represented a 20-year leap into the future. Live-aboard boats, built especially for diving, offered travelers the opportunity to reach more remote sites, and spend more time diving there.
According to government policy, the controlling interest in all Sinai tourist facilities had to be in Egyptian hands. Leading foreign investors, including American hotel chains and high-profile European dive operators, went into partnership with Egyptian firms on the new resorts. A desalination plant provided more than adequate fresh water, while auxiliary generators minimized the frequent power failures of earlier years.
There were still some campgrounds for backpackers on low budgets, and desert safari trips for those who liked to rough it. But the infrastructure and the facilities had definitely gone upscale. In addition to divers and campers, Sharm el-Sheikh was now attracting vacationing families, both from Egypt and from foreign lands.
Hurghada's building boom preceded Sinai's by about two years. Vast tourist villages, with air-conditioned bungalows, were constructed along the coast of this mainland city, and now offer a full range of activities including sailboarding, fishing, water skiing, or just lying around the beach. One-week diving certification courses are offered for those with the desire but without the training to go underwater. Because of the proximity and the low airfares, the vast majority of visitors to Hurghada still come from Europe, but American and Japanese divers have rediscovered the area, and are arriving in ever-increasing numbers.
What has made the Red Sea such an exceptional diving site? It is a combination of climate, geology, and oceanography.
The Red Sea is an arm of the Indo-Pacific, one of the richest regions of the world ocean, and shares many of its characteristics.
It is a deep, semi-enclosed basin, restricted at its north end by the Suez Canal and at the south by the Bab el-Mandab strait. A sill, only 100 meters (328 feet) below the surface, restricts water flow to the south, and the shallow Suez Canal restricts exchange with the Mediterranean. This reduces transfer of larvae - the dispersal phase of most marine animals - and is important in creating and maintaining the higher temperature and salinity of the Red Sea: It is the saltiest part of the world ocean, and temperatures are high for this latitude. Adapted to local conditions, a number of species are now endemic, or unique to the area: It has been estimated that ten percent of all the Red Sea fish species, and about the same percentage of invertebrates, are found only here.
The reefs of the Red Sea are among the northernmost fully developed coral reefs in the world. Reef-building corals are tiny colonial animals belonging to the order Cnidaria. Over thousands of years, their calcium skeletons accumulate to form massive underwater structures. Requiring warm, clear waters, corals cannot survive winter temperatures below 18 degrees Celsius (64.4?F). The boundary of their worldwide distribution is the 18-degree isotherm - the line that encloses the areas where lower temperatures do not occur. The desert climate, along with geothermal activity in the depths of the Red Sea (See Aramco World, September-October 1982), maintains water temperatures well above normal for these latitudes.
Corals also require considerable light: Photosynthetic algae living in their tissues need the light to produce food for themselves and the coral. Because of the low planktonic population of Red Sea waters, along with lack of floating sediment, light penetrates the water to great depths. Sediments, often river-borne, would also clog coral mouths and tentacles, interfering with breathing and feeding, and too much dilution of seawater by fresh water can kill the animals. Clearly, coral reefs and large rivers don't mix - but only one river, the Baraka in Sudan, flows into the Red Sea.
If we could return to the Red Sea's location about 200 million years from now, we would probably find a major ocean. Running right up the middle of the sea is the East African Rift system. The opposite coastlines, now 306 kilometers (190 miles) apart at their widest point, fit together nearly perfectly, and were once joined. Today, Africa and Arabia, on their separate continental plates, are moving apart at the rate of about?12 millimeters (half an inch) per year - more slowly than most people's fingernails grow. But the movement, slow as it is, indicates that the Red Sea is still evolving.
Unusually deep for such a narrow body of water, the Red Sea is 491 meters (1,611 feet) deep on average, but the deep axial troughs reach 2,500 meters (8,200 feet). Volcanic activity and hot water vents on the deep seafloor make subsurface temperatures considerably warmer than expected. At a depth of 1,000 meters (3,280 feet), the Red Sea is about 21 degrees Celsius (70?F), whereas Indian Ocean water is six to eight degrees Celsius (43? to 46?F) at the same depth. In the hot, saline deeps of the Red Sea, temperatures can reach 56 degrees Celsius (132?F).
All these factors add up to a rich marine environment that is home to many fascinating animals, from tiny nudibranchs to gigantic whale sharks. Even divers without formal training in biology eventually become students of the reef and its creatures. They learn many things from observation, and many more from books and magazines.
On a first visit to the Egyptian Red Sea, divers are usually overwhelmed by the colors of the soft corals. Looking like flowering trees and attached to the substrate, they are actually colonial animals, consisting of hundreds of individual polyps. The translucent branches, in brilliant reds, purples, pinks and oranges, are partially supported internally by hard calcium spicules, but are soft and spongy to the touch. Found throughout the Indo-Pacific, these animals are fast-growing, opportunistic organisms, located in profusion especially in areas of currents. Food - planktonic plants and animals - is borne by the current to the corals' mouths, which are surrounded by stinging tentacles. Nourishment is shared throughout the colony by an internal digestive network.
Some of the most colorful creatures in any ocean are the nudibranchs, sea slugs usually about an inch in length. The world's largest, however, is the nocturnal Spanish dancer, which is about as long as a human forearm. This animal swims by undulating its entire body, and since it has a white stripe around the perimeter of its bright red mantle, it resembles the skirt of a flamenco dancer - a resemblance that gave it its name.
Flashlight fish are another nocturnal species that are often found in the Red Sea. In most oceans of the world, they remain in extremely deep water, never ascending to the shallows where divers could observe them. But here, especially on moonless nights, they can even be seen from the surface. French divers call them les petits Peugeots because they resemble miniature automobile headlights. Underwater, it looks like a fireworks display as hundreds of tiny crescents pierce the darkness, bathing the reef in an eerie blue glow. Only 75 millimeters (under three inches) long, flashlight fish usually swim about the reef in pairs. A pouch of translucent skin below each eye contains millions of bioluminescent bacteria whose bright light is clearly visible in the dark water. By momentarily covering the pouch with a flap of skin, the flashlight fish can hide their lights. This action confounds and confuses predators, because the nervous little fish dart about while "blinking," and their light disappears, then reappears somewhere else. The predator, whether a large fish or a larger diver, is easily frustrated chasing such elusive prey.
Clownfish hide from predators by retreating within the tentacles of a host anemone. A mucus secreted by this fish prevents the anemone's nematocysts, or stinging cells, from firing; other fishes would be painfully or fatally stung. This is a symbiotic relationship: The anemone, for its part, gets crumbs of the clownfish's food, tactile stimulation, and the removal of some parasites by the fish. It may also get some protection from coelenterate-eating fishes as well, for the tiny clownfish are extremely aggressive: When eight-centimeter (three-inch) fish swim up to the mask of a 180-centimeter (six-foot) diver and attempt to bluff him away from "their" anemone, we have to admire their courage, if not their judgement.
Clownfish are one of the species that undergo sex changes as part of their normal life cycle: All young clownfish are males; in a given host anemone, one young male will change its sex and become a female if the largest female departs or dies.
Among Red Sea bottom dwellers, the Moses sole has received much attention for the mucus it secretes, which has been found to repel sharks. Scientists have attempted to synthesize this substance, so far without success. Usually buried in the sand, this flatfish clumsily swims only about 30 centimeters (one foot) when disturbed, then buries itself again by vibrating its body to agitate the sand. It will remain there even while a diver fans its sandy cover away, perhaps believing its camouflage or its poison will discourage this persistent nuisance.
Stonefish, the most venomous fish in the ocean, are not very common in the Red Sea, and their nearly perfect camouflage renders them virtually invisible. Most people who claim to have seen one were probably looking at a scorpionfish. The true stonefish lives within coral crevices in shallow sandy areas, and resembles a rock with a frown. Since it lacks scales, its skin becomes overgrown with the same life that covers the reefs, including algae and even tiny corals. An ambush predator, it pounces on unwary prey that mistakes it for just another rock. Wounds from its spines are excruciating, resulting in death of the tissue around the injury, and may take six months to heal. Indeed, stonefish have caused numerous human deaths, but they are not aggressive toward people, and will usually remain motionless even while being provoked or prodded - though that is a dangerous undertaking.
An old and often useful saying among divers is, "If it's ugly, don't touch it." The lionfish is an exception to the rule, because it is one of the most beautiful fish in the ocean, and one of the most dangerous. Sometimes called zebrafish, turkeyfish or firefish, two species are common in the Red Sea. Their enlarged pectoral fins resemble wings or medieval pennons.
Any time you see a slow-moving fish in the open, oblivious to predators, you must assume it has some sort of defensive firepower. Lionfish do: They are among the most venomous fish, their sting causing severe pain and even some human fatalities. A poison gland located at the base of each sharp dorsal spine secretes venom which flows along a groove in the spine into the body of an aggressor. When threatened, these fish always turn their backs, pointing those deadly spines directly at the enemy.
Moray eels are common throughout the world's oceans. The largest in the Red Sea can attain lengths of two meters (six feet six inches) or more. Morays have had a bad press over the years, but they are dangerous only when provoked. Some have become so accustomed to visiting divers that they accept food by hand and may even be embraced and petted. However, they have poor eyesight, and sometimes mistake a finger for an offering of food. Feeding them is an activity best left to the dive guides.
These are just a few of the animals that have made the Red Sea a magnet for divers from around the world, who come here to observe and experience the beauty around them, or to capture it on film or videotape. Unlike the early spearfishermen, they respect the environment, and wish to see it and its creatures preserved.
Recently, Ras Muhammed was declared Egypt's first national park, but implementation is still in its early stages. Dive guides have been doing their part to educate both local people and visitors about protecting the environment. This effort ranges from forbidding the taking of shells and corals, to cautioning divers on buoyancy control to prevent inadvertent damage to delicate reef structures. Now that the new resorts are being aggressively promoted, and the number of tourists continues to increase, these concerns have become even more significant. If the conservation efforts are successful, the treasures beneath the surface of the Red Sea may someday rival the Pyramids as symbols of Egypt.
Eric Hanauer is associate professor of physical education at California State University at Fullerton and author of The Egyptian Red Sea: A Diver's Guide, published by Watersport Publishing in San Diego.
This article appeared on pages 16-27 of the May/June 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.