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Seasons in a Desert Sea

by Mark Webster

Reproduced from in focus 68 (June 2000)

Until relatively recently the Red Sea has often been regarded as a winter destination for divers landlocked by the British weather, The last few years have seen the steady expansion of the market to the present status of a year round destination. Regular visitors to the Red Sea will have noticed that they are seeing different species and behaviour dependent on the time of year and it soon becomes obvious that although it appears to be 'always warm' there are very definite seasons under the surface of this desert sea.

First visits to the Red Sec can be a little overwhelming for many divers as they struggle to absorb all the colour, and activity on the reef and they return with the memory of stunning visibility and an explosion of life. On subsequent visits you can absorb more of what is happening and how certain species are behaving. The next stage may be to refine this further and visit the region at specific times of the year to experience a particular phenomenon or activity.

One of the most exciting times to dive in the northern ked Sea, particularly around the Ras Mohammed area, is in early summer. At this time of year the first plankton bloom (March and April) has cleared and the water temperature is beginning to rise. This triggers breeding activity amongst many fish and sees them congregating in massive shoals. Although you can glean this type of information from many authoritative reference books, my experience has always been that local knowledge, particularly from fishermen, will prove invaluable when planning to encounter these events.

You need the flexibility of a live aboard boat to pursue these objectives and a little research will show that a proportion of those operating from Sharm El Sheikh are crewed by Bedouin fishermen who have unbeatable knowledge of the movements and behaviour of various fish species. In June this year my objective was to photograph the schools of red snapper and, as I joined the Coral Queen in Sharm, I hoped that the advice I had received was accurate. The owner and crew (all Bedouin fishermen) informed us that our timing was perfect as they explained that many fish species generally spawn on a full moon spring tide having eaten very little during the preceding days. They then congregate in these massive shoals during which time they are very easy to approach.

Much discussion had built up our anticipation for the first dive at Ras Mohammed and we were not disappointed, it was simply electric. AS predicted by our crew, we were confronted by a massive shoal of thousands of red snappers hanging in the water column just off the northern end of Shark Reef. The fish were solid from a metre or so below the surface to thirty metres or more and were moving slowly in a spiral formation. Being a neap tide period there was virtually no current which enabled us to swim easily off the wall and mingle with the fish who showed absolutely no concern for our presence. It is an owe inspiring experience to swim as part of a huge shoal and be almost 'accepted' by the fish, some of which are almost half your size ! The action was joined by intruding groups of thirty to fifty jacks who would swim through the shoal intermittently. Every so often pairs of these jacks would peel off from the main group and swim erratically together whilst one changed colour from silver to jet black in preparation for mating. Once again these fish showed no interest in the proximity of divers but would suddenly depart in their pairs toward the surface presumably to spawn.

I was getting through film fast as I dropped through the shoal and realised that there was movement of a different kind just below me. Directly below the snappers and following much the same formation was a much smaller shoal of unicorn surgeon fish, perhaps a hundred or so, a sight I had not witnessed before. The light was not good below the snappers, but 1 followed the surgeons in the hope of good shots until I realised that my depth was now more than 40m and a gentle ascent was required!

Time and air consumption dictated that we should now move along the reef towards the pick up point between Shark Reef and Jolanda reef. As we approach the sand saddle between these two coral masses another surprise awaited us in the form of shoaling batfish preoccupied in their spiraling mating dance. These fish are normally encountered in pairs or small groups, but here was a shoal of fifty or more making preparations to spawn. The shoal would spiral from the surface down to 20?30m and every so often a pair would break away and pursue each other in a more vigorous spiral chose whilst changing their pattern of stripes from pole grey to dark brown. The grand finale to this was four or five black tip reef sharks cruising ever closer for a look at the action 1 Needless to say this was the first of many dives here and we were able to plan our pursuit of particular subjects for subsequent dives.

Although Ras Mohammed is always potentially a busy site, diving from a live aboard gives you a distinct advantage as you can plan your dives for early morning or late afternoon and early evening, when the day boats are in harbour. The main shoals appear to prefer the northern end of Shark Reef, one of the busiest areas, and so following this routine means that your group can have the site almost to yourself. However, even diving at the busiest time of day, you will be amazed to find that most groups swim by concentrating on the wall or only giving these huge shoals a cursory glance.

The months of June and July are perhaps the busiest with a number of species congregating in shoals either as a prelude or conclusion to spawning. These include white snappers and jacks in early June, red snappers, unicorn surgeons, batfish and sweetlips in late June and barracuda, masked butterfly fish and masked puffer fish in July. However, there are several other seasonal high spots during the year so don't despair if you can't make a trip in the summer months. Below is a short calendar guide of the high spots:

March: First plankton bloom of the year which brings with it regular sightings of manta rays particularly in early morning and evening. Comb jellies and jellyf ish swarms and the occasional whale shark.

June: Shoals of white snappers at the be~qinninq of the month, red snappers toward the middle after the full moon, jacks, batfish and unicorn surgeon fish. Ras Mohammed and Jack Fish
Alley are hot spots ?

July: Shoaling barracuda with an escort of silky sharks, masked butterfly fish, masked puffer fish and the remnants of the snapper shoals. Turtles begin to mate close to the surface.

Auqust/September: Second plankton bloom of the year with more reliable sightings of mantas and whale sharks but visibility can be variable and potentially poor

November/December: Grey reef sharks begin to congregate around Pas Mohammed displaying their apparently aggressive mating behaviour of biting their mate. If you want to witness this you need to have patience and concentrate all your efforts on the blue water off the reef.

Travel Information:

The Coral Queen can be booked through Oonasdivers, Tel. 01323 648924

Reproduced from in focus 68 (June 2000)

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