Security lockdowns mean more and more of Egypt’s most fascinating destinations are becoming inaccessible to the public.
by Richard Hoath
It’s June and it is going to be hot. Very hot. And it is going to be Ramadan and that was going to be the general theme of this piece — how the natural world, the denizens of Egypt’s deserts cope with extreme heat and extreme austerity in an amazing number of ways and with an extraordinary range of adaptations that we can only marvel at. And then the tragedy of flight MS804 unfolded and all of that seemed unimportant.
So I reflected, and I reflected on travel and travel within Egypt, not without, and it was not positive reflection. I cannot go to many of the places I have been over the past twenty years and more. I cannot go on fall trips to Zaranik west of Al Arish in North Sinai. I cannot go down to the Gilf Kebir and Gebel Uweinat. I cannot camp out overnight in the White Desert between Bahariya and Farafra. My dreams of getting down to Gebel Elba in the very southeast of the country and always requiring special permission seem remoter than ever. Lost to me on my Egypt list will be Shining Sunbird, Fulvous Babbler and Rosy-patched Shrike.
And Sinai is getting difficult. But I am fortunate. I have visited many of these places and have written extensive diaries and in these journals I can revisit places and times that are now inaccessible or different. As the summer heat hits I went back to my journals to revisit places visited and, in the case of the Red Sea and Sinai and the Gulf of Aqaba, places that were once threatened by tourist activity and in the absence of that activity the insanity of the Red Sea Bridge. Like a geriatric DJ I went back to the 90’s, a time where the tourist explosion was so furious that many of us labeled as ‘environmentalists’ in very disparaging terms were very seriously concerned about the impact of tourism. Those concerns have been borne out with the explosion of environmentally damaging developments throughout the Red Sea Coast and too along the North Coast. Sinai not excluded. My journals took me back to an era where over-tourism seemed a real problem and to where environmental legislation was in its infancy through Law No. 4 of 1994. With hindsight halcyon days and for a definition of halcyon see my column last month on Halcyon smyrmensis. We’re underwater. Let me take you down.
I first dived the Thistlegorm in August 1993. The SS Thistlegorm was a supply ship carrying troops and equipment in the Second World War and was sunk by German airstrikes in 1941 near the mouth of the Gulf of Suez. It sank to just over 30 meters complete with all of its cargo — motorcycles, trucks, engine parts and ammunition, and, to one side, a steam locomotive then largely intact. Much has now been pillaged by irresponsible booty hunters but my abiding memory is of a very large Circular Spadefish that hung around the rope to the wreck. Spadefish are silvery and orblike and up to 60 cm in length. They can be found in shoals but this one was solitary and seemed to have adopted a ‘guardian of the wreck’ type of role. Other fish on my dive list included Black-bordered Dascyllus, Cube Trunkfish and a shoal of Doublebar Bream. Subsequent dives in later years yielded many more fish species but it became increasingly apparent that looters were taking the mechanicals, the nuts and bolts, for souvenirs.
At the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba is Thomas Reef. It is close to Tiran Island which we all now know is Saudi Arabian territory. I made a drift dive there on June 26, 1998 and it was stupendous. There were angelfish galore, Emperor, Regal and Arabian and Orangespine Tang, Redtooth Triggerfish, jacks and tunas and fleeting glimpses of White-tip Reef Sharks. Any diver wants to see sharks. And every diver seeing a shark is instantly humbled by just how incredibly deft and adept they are in the water. Some 300 million years of adaptation to their submarine environment have not gone unwasted. But while the White-tips slipped effortlessly away, rather more languorous was a solitary Leopard Shark. Also called the Zebra Shark from its boldly patterned juvenile phase, it emerged from the coral substrate and twirled effortlessly up and off without the flashy urgency of the White-tips. My Arabian Angelfish was similarly languid but spectacular in deep blue and yellow and much more intense than the similar and more common Yellowbar Angelfish. A dive there the next day produced a spectacular immature Clown Coris. There is nothing especially clown-like about the adult Clown Coris. It is a large and stout fish over a meter long and largely dull, dark blue with a pale central band. But the juvenile is bright white and boldly marked with orange and black ocelli. To the unfamiliar, or those with nitrogen narcosis, it may seem clownlike. Or not.
Perhaps my favorite fish from Thomas Reef is the Longnose Hawkfish. Hawkfish are pretty brazen. Perhaps the most common is Forster’s Hawkfish. At a little over 20cm long this rather stocky species, pale below, dark above and with freckled face and gills sits out in the open on coral heads and is an opportunistic predator. The Longnose Hawkfish is rather more subtle. A rather more diminutive 13cm long it is rather slender with the long snout the name implies. It is largely white with a bold red grid-like pattern that renders it almost invisible amongst the grid-like branches of the gorgonians it hangs out amongst.
Close to Thomas Reef is Jackson Reef and a night dive there on the same trip produced a fabulous sighting of a Reef Octopus Octopus cyaneus. Octopi are shellfish with no external shell and precious little else for most to relate them to their shellbound kin such as mussels and oysters and cockles and the like. While their relatives the squids retain an internal shell even that has gone with the octopus and the ‘foot’ has now evolved into eight dexterous tentacles armed with an array of powerful suckers. The eyes have evolved to become as receptive as our own and in defense the octopus can eject a screen of ink. Perhaps their most incredible ability is that to change color and pattern to render them invisible against any background regardless of color or texture. I alerted my dive buddies to my octopus by tapping on my air-tank. By the time they had responded my octopus was so supremely camouflaged against its coral backdrop they were initially unable to make it out.
Jackson Reef also produced a Stonefish. If an octopus is hard to see, then multiply that a thousand fold for a Stonefish. It is indeed a fish but it looks exactly like a stone. It exploits this by lying half buried in the sand and looking, well, exactly like a stone. My dive-master found me my Stonefish and to this day I do not know how he found it or distinguished it from the coral rubble around. The camouflage is supreme and potentially dangerous. Stonefish have poison glands and can inject a highly toxic venom through their dorsal fins if unwittingly trodden on.
And then there were Slingjaw Wrasses and Napoleon Fish and Threadfin, Crown and Lined Butterflyfish, Humbugs and Footballers, parrotfish and Sergeant-majors, morays and mojarras, tunas, triggerfish and trevallies. I’ve recorded them all. I’ve sketched and noted them in all their kaleidoscopic diversity. Egypt has some of the richest coral reefs in the world in terms of biodiversity. One of the world’s foremost marine biologists Dr. Eugenie Clark said that “if I could dive in only one place for the rest of my life, I would choose the Egyptian coast of the Red Sea near Ras Mohammed.”
And now they want to build a bridge through it all.
Richard Hoath is a Senior Instructor at AUC’s Department of Rhetoric and Composition. He has published extensively about Egypt’s wildlife and fauna.