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Sally's workshop

by Mark Webster

Reproduced from in focus 45 (August 1992)

A problem which always faces the travelling underwater photographer, both budding and experienced, is how to ensure that he or she joins a group which has similar interests. All too often, after months of planning and substantial investment in equipment, film and the cost of the trip, the photographer is faced with a group of divers who may be depth hounds or wreck fanatics. This comment is by no means intended to belittle these interest, its just simply that these activities are rarely compatible with the needs of the underwater photographer. The photographer's preference is normally for an uncrowded boat, shallow photogenic sites with plenty of marine life, perhaps daily E6 processing and most of all the opportunity to make long and unhurried dives with the knowledge that other divers in the group will respect his "water space".

The idea of photographic workshops, which combine these crucial elements, is not a new one. A further advantage for the less experienced photographer is the presence of an experienced photographer who is on hand to offer help and advice, process the day's film, and provide constructive criticism or praise on the day's results. The most recent of these workshops was organised by Oonasdivers during March on board MV Sally sailing from Sharm El Sheik in the Red Sea. Our group of six photographers ranged in experience from raw beginner to film maker and in age from 16 to over 50. On the face of it, a very mixed party, but all individuals had the common goal of photography which ensured a successful week and plenty of lively conversation.

The Sally emerged as the ideal vessel for the trip. She is stable, provides clean and comfortable accommodation for up to eight divers (our group was restricted to six for additional space), has a preparation and charging area dedicated to underwater cameras and boasts an excellent cuisine and a well-stocked bar! The vessel is skippered by Udo Fischer, an affable German sea dog who has over eleven years experience in the Red Sea. This fact alone ensured that the diving sites chosen are some of the least known and dived, and therefore best preserved, but is further enhanced by the fact that the Sally is one of the few boats which is Egyptian registered. Only Egyptian flag vessels are allowed to visit Tiran Island, which boasts countless unspoiled reefs, where you are unlikely to encounter more than one or two other dive boats; and certainly not the hoards which frequent the big name sites on the Sinai coast. During our week we anchored over night with one other boat, but always had the dive sites exclusively to ourselves.

We visited a variety of sites and had one or two memorable experiences. Although part of the week was blighted by a plankton bloom, very unusual in the Red Sea, all the group were able to progress and produce some excellent results. To wet the appetite, I have summarised below the major sites that we photographed.

The Temple

This is a site very close to Sharm El Sheik and often used as a check out dive site by the live aboard boats. It is also much frequented by day boats from Sharm. I first visited the site in 1976 when the area was totally undeveloped and was therefore able to appreciate how much the site has changed over the years with the build up of diver traffic. The site still has some very nice features, notably a large gully or swim through in the reef which is filled with soft corals and is very photogenic. There are also several large Napoleon or Hump head Wrasse resident on the site, which are willing to come extremely close.

Ras um Sid

This site is a little further north up the coast from the Temple, in easy range of day boats. It was best known for its large Gorgonian fan corals and these can still be found in all their glory at about 20m depth. The best coral is found further up the coast from the point, perhaps 1/4 to 1/2 a mile, where a gentle current will drift you back to Ras um Sid, to be picked up by your dive boat.

Ras Nasrani

Continuing further up the coast brings you to the attractive reef of Ras Nasrani. The reef almost breaks the surface and slopes gently to a plateau at about 25m. The corals are in good condition and the reef is well populated with all the expected Red Sea species. We found some particularly ugly Stone fish as a well as a number of very colourful species of nudibranchs.

Jackson Reef

The reef lies between the Sinai coast and Tiran Island and is swept by some very strong currents. This, coupled with some spectacular drop offs into deep water, provides the potential for sighting large pelagics and the occasional shark. Although the site is well dived the reef is still in good condition, probably due to the fact that most dives are drift dives. In order to avoid the inevitable diver congestion it is necessary to dive the site early in the morning before the day boats arrive from Sharm. In our case this meant a pre-breakfast dive at about 7.00 a.m., which is a good time to dive as the day time reef is just coming to life and many fish are more approachable then later in the day.

Gordon Reef

The reef lies close to Jackson and consequently is a very similar dive. We encountered large shoals of Sheep's Heads, Garfish and bright yellow Goat Fish, which were very co-operative. Gordon represents the limit for non-Egyptian registered boats. Our next stop was Tiran Island itself.

Tiran Island

The island lies almost mid way in the Straits of Tiran, between the Sinai Peninsula and the coast of Saudi Arabia. Its geology and topography are the same as that of the mainland and it therefore offers the same variety of diving sites, from tranquil lagoons with shallow coral gardens to spectacular drop offs with everything in between. The major benefit is that this great diversity is found in a small area so that the boat is able to anchor in a quiet cove at night and between dives, and it is then only a short run to one of the many dive sites. Most of these are unnamed, and their corals are in excellent condition. Fish life is less wary of divers than on the mainland sites. We had numerous dives around the island, but the three below stand out in my memory.

Thomas Reef

This is a classic Red Sea reef with a fringing shallow coral garden on a narrow submerged beach giving way to a spectacular drop off into the blue depths. There are many pelagic shoals here and we had sightings of Jacks, Barracuda, and cruising Eagle Rays. A gentle current makes for an almost effortless dive.

The shark cave

Almost all week Udo had been telling us about his secret cave, where we would be guaranteed to see sleeping sharks. We were initially skeptical of the description of more than twenty sharks crammed into a single cave at one time, but we were not disappointed with the reality. Udo led us (somewhere on Tiran Island), as it would have been impossible to find it unaided, to a very narrow horizontal opening in the reef wall at about 17m. Sure enough there were sharks, thirteen White Tips in all, sleeping one on top of another and mostly facing towards the reef. The opening is so narrow that a diver can only just get his head into the cave and the sharks tails are then no more than 18 inches away! A distinctly warm current can be felt coming out of the cave, which is one possible reason for the sharks congregating, although it has been suggested that the large numbers are due to the fact that the sharks are all pregnant females resting.

In order to get a reasonable image a very wide-angle lens is the best tool. I pre-focussed my 16 mm fish eye lens and then poked both housing and flash into the cave separately at arms length. After several bracketed shots the flash had the undesired effect of waking one of the sharks. As the shark struggled to get out of the cave I was torn between self preservation and the need to get the housing out of the cave without scratching the dome port! As the shark shot away above us, all Udo could do was to laugh at me!

The Pinnacles

Udo has several "protected" sites around Tiran Island, but this was definitely the most memorable. Here there were five pinnacles rising from a maximum depth of 15m almost to the surface. Each is slightly different, but you have the feeling that the combination offers all the Red Sea species on one dive and all of them are seemingly fearless of diver intrusion. We saw shoaling Banner Fish, Sweetlips, glassy Sweepers, Crocodile Fish, Stone Fish, Eagle ray, Morays, and lots more including one large stubborn Grouper which refused to move no matter how close you came. The procedure here was just to change your tank and film, decide what you wanted to photograph next, flop into the water and swim to the appropriate pinnacle. The variety of corals was stunning, including some very large gorgonians with resident Hawk Fish, and their condition was pristine. Udo saved this dive site to the end of the week and in my opinion was certainly a grand finale, like turning the clock back to 1976 when I first visited the Red Sea.

In conclusion, I feel that many underwater photographers will find the concept of a workshop, whether they come for guidance or the company, very beneficial. Travelling to Sharm El Sheik is now much simpler, with direct flights, and it is only a short ride away from the airport to the jetty, where you board your boat and sail away from the crowds. Despite the continued development of the area, there is still some great diving to be found!

Reproduced from in focus 45 June 1992 with kind permission of Mark Webster (http://www.photec.co.uk/)


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