It had been a lovely dive. Very chilled and relaxing. Swimming along the edge of the reef at 12m, we had almost come to the end of our dive.
Congregating together on the white sandy bottom at 5m near our exit point just along the harbour wall in El Quesir, Egypt, we investigated the sand whilst completing our safety stop. I had been trying out a new macro fisheye wet lens and had screwed it onto the front of my housing in anticipation of finding something fairly small. All of a sudden I spotted a commotion just out of the corner of my eye, sand being kicked up in a big cloud. Bursting through with squeaks and whistles, a group of 7 bottle nose dolphins surrounded us.
Screaming through our regs to make the others who had not noticed aware, we frantically started snapping away with our cameras. Paul Colley, the eminent underwater photographer, had already begun his ascent with his buddy, Dan Kirk, and were only a meter from the surface. Dumping all their air, they quickly sunk to the bottom whooping and screeching like children at this wonderful sight. My buddy, Matt Bacon, ex Marine and very experienced owner of Fin Divers in Stevenage, flapped around waving and making guttural ‘wow’ sounds, so excited all his training went to pot as he bounced around on the bottom trying to position himself to take a photo.Circling around us, some of the dolphins tried to mimic our kneeling positions on the bottom, by digging their tails in the sand, making their bodies hover at a right angle from the bottom. Then, to prove to us how superior they thought they were, they would use a little tail flick to kick up a waft of sand then come straight towards us shaking their heads as if they were laughing. OK..so our buoyancy wasn’t all that good whilst twisting and turning trying to keep up with their swooping around agilely, but there was no need to laugh!
Showing off their acrobatic skills they would rush to the surface then rush back again centimeters from us then spin round and round us making us dizzy.Having not had time to change my wet lenses, and not knowing how long this experience would last, I started snapping away. Composition and technical lighting skills out of the window, I just hoped for the best.For a full ten minutes, the dolphins played with us (rather than us play with them), choosing who to interact with and who to kick sand in the face of. As quickly as they had arrived, they disappeared into the blue.Hoping for a reappearance, we hung around for a couple of minutes before we realised our air was almost completely depleted, then, reluctantly headed for the surface, Dan punching the ocean and whooping, and as I looked around at the other divers too, mirroring the hugest smile on mine and the others faces.This had been my first experience of a wild dolphin encounter ever. I had been diving for over 25 years, waiting and waiting for this incredible experience, coming close many times, where we would see dolphins on the surface, only for them to disappear as soon as we got underwater, but had almost given up on seeing them.To have this kind of totally natural encounter, on their terms, made my first experience even more special.
Once on the surface, it became clear most of the other divers had never experienced a natural wild dolphin encounter either.
I had expected Paul to have witnessed this many times, with his vastly experienced diving career, however, one look at his ear to ear grin, confirmed he hadn’t. He also made me feel much better by telling me he had forgotten all his training in underwater photography and snapped away in the same way I had, so totally enthralled and bewitched by these creatures, like the legends told, sailors of old were by mermaids.
The next day we asked Steve Rattle of Roots Dive Camp, if we could return to the same dive site, as some of our group had missed out on the dive whilst completing other courses. Hoping beyond hope of a similar experience, we went about our dive in the same profile as the previous day, whilst constantly keeping an eye out into the blue for that telltale flick of sand or flash of a sinuous grey body, whilst trying to listen with bat like precision for clicking and squeaking. Towards the end of the dive, we just knelt in the sand looking towards the open ocean, sure this shadow here or that movement there could be the dolphins approaching. With only 10 bar remaining in our tanks, we had to admit defeat...they didn’t want to play today.
Good naturedly blaming the new divers in the group for the dolphins not visiting us, I wondered if it was going to be another 25 years before my next experience.As it happened, only 13 months later, again in Egypt, I was lucky enough to have two more wild dolphin encounters.My second was in El Gouna, whilst reporting on the Miss Scuba UK beauty pageant (article in July’s edition of Diver and on Divernet). At the aptly named Dolphin House, Colona Diver’s Niklas Funk had told me they had dolphin sighting fairly frequently in this protected underwater shallow bay, however, it was quite a large area and the dolphins often left through a channel in the reef to feed in the deeper open waters.
Mooring up in the protected beautiful turquoise waters, we had planned the day around the PADI open water training of the girls.
One of the boat crew spotted dolphins in the distance, this time spinner dolphins, jumping and spinning in joy far away from us. As the course needed to start underwater, we left them to their play and hoped they searched us out. Hearing distant clicks and chatter, we prayed for them to come closer to us. No luck.During our surface interval, the dolphins finally decided to come check us out. Swimming under and around the boat for only a minute or two, we frantically donned our fins and snorkels, only for them to disappear immediately.
Tantalising us with their appearance then reappearance again 10 minutes later, we decided to hope for the best again, whilst underwater on the second dive of the day. Again, we were aware they were very close, but just out of our range of sight. They were obviously playing with us again, but a different game this time..hide and seek. One of the groups finished their open water skills early so went off to explore the reef. As the others surfaced after taking more time on their skills, I decided to swim after the first group. Heading in their general direction, I knew I didn’t have much air left. I had started my dive photographing the free diving mermaid model, Kat Felton before the others had entered the water, so didn’t want to go too far, but as we were only in 8m of water, thought a little search for dolphins in order. The visibility had been vastly reduced by the student open water divers, so looking into the blue for the dolphins became quite difficult. Almost at the end of my dive, there, at the edge of my vision, I saw a few familiar shapes coming towards me, before darting away again.Yes! Although a brief glimpse, I had seen dolphins underwater again, in their natural environment. Once back on board, I looked out towards the bubbles of the group who had gone to explore. Spinning and jumping around them only a few meters away, were a large group of dolphins. Damn...if only I had 20 or 30 more bar of air, I would have been in the midst of them. Oh well, I still felt fortunate I had glimpsed them, and enjoyed watching this totally natural experience for the other divers from the surface.
Swimming off towards deeper water after a few minutes, the dolphins left some extremely happy and very fortunate student divers. Wow! It had taken me 25 years, and they hadn’t even qualified as open water divers. Whilst having lunch on deck, before our final dive, the dolphins returned to the boat again. Niklas, having forgone lunch quickly jumped straight in and swam with them, whilst others clumsily tried to grab their snorkels and masks. Instead of braving the coolish water, I grabbed my camera and started to snap from above. Niklas was heading out fairly quickly next to the fast swimming dolphins, and I figured, by the time I got in, they would be well away from the boat. Lucky for me, I was right. The others didn’t get anywhere close to the dolphins, whereas I had some great shots from the surface of Niklas interacting with the dolphins.
Only 10 days later, down in Berenice, near Hamata right in the south of Egypt, I had my third experience.
Spending most of the week shore diving on the beautiful healthy reefs, we decided to take a day trip diving at Fury Shoals. A two hour boat trip to the south of Berenice brought us almost to the Sudanese borders just north of St. John’s. This impossibly beautiful submerged coral atoll has many dive sites around it’s perimeter. In the centre we could see spinner dolphins in the distance, somersaulting and pirouetting in the protected shallow waters.
The entrance to the interior of the atoll was the furthest most point south, so it was decided we do a dive on the way down to the entrance of this large atoll, at Sataya South. Enjoying the beauty of this pristine reef, I was constantly on the look out for some friendly mammals. I had been told the dolphins normally entered the atoll between daybreak and mid morning to rest after hunting over night, so hoped a few stragglers were dragging their tail flukes and would pass by us on the way in.It seemed we were too late though, or any remaining dolphins were giving us a wide berth. Surfacing, we could still seem them playing in the distance.Moving around the atoll, the boat manuovered to be positioned tucked into the furthest internal point of the reef. Here we moored for an early lunch. The dolphins had disappeared for a short time, so the captain decided to let us out to explore on the rib.
Quietly arranging with our dive guide Alex, my buddy and I grabbed our dive gear and threw it on board at the last moment. Everyone else just had their snorkel gear, but I had managed to talk Alex into letting us sit on the bottom at 5m in the middle of the atoll, whilst the others snorkeled around us.Back rolling into the calm waters, we settled on the bottom relaxing in the peaceful, quiet solitude. All of a sudden, a cacophony of noise surrounded us as a massive group of around 60-70 dolphins surrounded us. Babies, juveniles and adults zoomed past us, turning in formation to zoom back again, checking us out briefly before disappearing totally from sight and sound. Within a minute or two they were back, again, zooming all around us, letting the curious babies get fairly close before shepherding them away. After the third pass, they disappeared completely and didn’t return again.
What an experience...this super pod of spinners checking us out....we felt so privileged and in total awe of them.Back on the surface again, the snorkelers had tales of close encounters themselves. Unfortunately one of them, a lovely lady called Anne, had borrowed a go pro from us after flooding her camera. She was so happy to have experienced, for the first time, natural interactions with wild dolphins, and was sure she had some amazing photographs as they had come within arms length of her. Unfortunately, in her excitement, she had pointed the camera the wrong way round and taken over 200 selfies!
After our next dive at The Maze, a incredible series of rock formations and pinnacles which allow you to swim around as if you are in a maze, our boat captain took us back into the centre of the atoll.Sure that the dolphins had headed back into deeper water, we all donned our snorkel gear to cool off before our long trip back to the marina.Within minutes, we were surrounded by more dolphins than we could count. Alex, an expert at freediving, swam down towards the bottom and spun and pirouetted alongside the dolphins. Speeding under, to both sides and even between us, the dolphins delighted in entertaining and playing with us for over 20 minutes.What an incredible end to the day, and what an amazing 13 months, after waiting over 25 years, to have 3 totally natural dolphin encounters in different locations of the same country, Egypt.