In 2008, I was asked if I would be interested in going to Aqaba to photograph the marine life for a book about Jordan’s underwater world. I had previously heard many good things about Aqaba’s diving and its special marine life, but more important to me the promise of crystal clear waters and relatively easy diving. It didn’t take much to convince me that I could capture the material for the book within the two and a half week schedule, and so one month later my buddy JAK and I found ourselves standing on the edge of a dive boat platform looking down into the turquoise waters of Aqaba.
Descending down over the hard corals of ‘Japanese Gardens’ and I was filled with joy of finally having 30+ metres visibility. Equipped with two cameras, one wide and the other macro, I continue to descend in search of something interesting to photograph. It didn’t take long; a mass of various zooplankton taking refuge within a sand jellyfish, a blue spotted stingray and a group of peppered morays with cleaner shrimps all within 20 minutes. Realising that the dive should soon come to an end I look up the rich coral slope and while watching a silhouetted hawksbill turtle swimming in the shallows, I thought to myself “I’m going to like it here”.
Kitted up, ready to go and before I know it I’m descending down the buoy line onto the ‘Cedar Pride’ shipwreck, and it’s impressive. For the last couple of days we have been diving the reefs of Aqaba but now we find ourselves looking at the Cedar Pride, a ship that was sunk as an artificial reef in 1985. Lying on it’s starboard side at 28 metres I can see that there is a large swim through under the wreck and as I come out the other side and look to the surface, I see the ships coral covered crow’s nest teaming with marine life. As I approach the mast a shoal of Banded Bream swim away and looking closely amongst the soft corals I see several Common Lionfish taking cover from the mild current. As I photograph the array of marine life around the crow’s nest, hundreds of Anthias surround me, darting up into the water column feeding on tiny fragments of food that float past them. With three wreck dives under our belts and reducing visibilities we decided that for the last dive we would go shallower in search of critters that inhabit Aqaba’s sea grass slopes. After 60 minutes of diving ‘Black Rock’ we had managed to find a pair of delicate Dragon Sea Moths, a Seahorse and several Pipefish.
Kneeling on a sandy slope in front of a small coral covered pinnacle, 18 metres down I find myself on ‘Eel Garden’. Staring at a huge cloud of marine life hovering over the soft coral covered pinnacle, I cannot help but be amazed by how different the dive sites that I have seen over the last several days are. As I turn and look down the slope I see a large shoal of Red Sea Banner fish around another pinnacle, while groups of Garden Eels sway in the current. The next dive, ‘Gorgone One’ and the marine life to be found around one of the large pinnacles on this site is the most impressive I have seen so far. Around the top of the pinnacle, several large Stonefish blend into the dome coral while large shoals of Damsels unknowingly swim centimeters above them. All the time Trevally and Garfish swoop down onto the Damsels causing chaos. Down one side of the pinnacle a crevice leads down to a cave where inside a large Redmouth Grouper surrounded by thousands of Golden Sweepers are seeking shelter. Around the cave, Lion and Scorpion fish lie in wait and as my bubbles disturb the Sweepers, the predators move in on the distracted fish.
A couple of days later we had planned a day of wreck diving. The first would be the ‘Al Shorouk’, a shipwreck that was sunk by Aqaba Marine Park only weeks before our arrival. Lying deep off ‘Eel Canyon’, the Al Shorouk is 38 metres at its shallowest point and exceeds 60 metres at its deepest. With poor visibility we descended down onto the bow of the boat briefly so that we could photograph it. The next dive was the Second World War American ‘M42 Duster’ tank complete with anti-aircraft canon lying in 6 metres of water. This unique wreck was sunk in 1999 by the Jordanian Royal Ecological Diving Society and since its introduction has developed into a nice artificial reef, reachable by not only divers, but snorkelers too. Our final wreck dive of the day would be a night dive on the Cedar Pride to see what this wreck would be like during the night. We were not disappointed and the most impressive crow’s nest by day was even more amazing by night. As we illuminated the mast we found that all of the soft corals were fully extended and covered with an array of macro marine life including the most fully camouflaged Oate’s Soft Coral Spider crab.
A of couple days later an arrangement had been made for us to dive a private wreck. During our dive brief it was mentioned that a bottlenose dolphin had been seen playing with jet skiers near the dive site and on the odd occasion had been seen down on the wreck. My goal was to photograph a pair of Painted Frogfish that resided on this dive site and as our guide pointed out the camouflaged critters, I photographed them. Moments later our guide signaled to me to follow and looking down from the top of the wreck I saw JAK with the dolphin. Waiting for what seemed like an eternity, I gave JAK the space he needed to film the dolphin and as it returned to the surface for its breath of air, I dropped down onto the seabed. Looking up at the surface I waited patiently hoping that it would come back and as I watched, this graceful creature glided effortlessly down from the surface and joined me. Looking directly into my mask the dolphin inspected me and with what seemed like a nod of approval, then backed off and nudged the sandy bottom with his nose, signaling me to play with him. With his nose in the sand, I also buried my finger into it and with this, the dolphin instantaneously followed it allowing us both to interact with each other. By now I was ready to get the picture and as the dolphin nuzzled its nose into the palm of my hand, I pushed him away and upwards to my chest height. Quickly I raised the camera and as I did, the dolphin spotted its reflection in the dome port. Inquisitively the dolphin observed its reflection and while doing so remained perfectly still allowing me to take a photo. Momentarily, I looked to the back of the camera to check the photo and while doing so I reached to the dolphin with my other hand. Swimming forward, the dolphin placed his nose back into my hand and we continued to play our game of push and shove until he needed to return to the surface. After making several trips to the surface it was now my turn and with my twin cylinders nearly empty I sadly made my ascent leaving my new friend behind.
My last diving day at Aqaba had finally arrived. Still on a high from the previous days dolphin experience, I am feeling tired after an intense schedule of diving and so in a way I am a little relieved to be going home. JAK and I had already made up our minds where we were going to dive, ‘Coral Garden’ and the ‘Aquarium’ and so as we headed for the ‘Royal Diving Club’, I assembled my equipment for the very last time.
Although I had previously dived the coral gardens, I decided to venture a lot deeper and my decision to do so paid off. At 30 metres there was a slight current and as normal the dive site was busy with marine-life, however, one thing that I noticed was that a lot of the soft tree corals were fully extended. Although I was treated to this spectacle on the Cedar Pride night dive, I was especially happy to be spending my last day capturing more of these pretty corals and as Anthias left the shelter of the coral to catch food, I snapped away. Moving from one small garden of life to another, I now realised that on earlier dives I had missed out on a great opportunity as each of these small eco-systems offered something different. Like every other day, while handing up the cameras, surfacing just before lunch we were always greeted by the rich pleasant aroma of Arabian barbequed fish and chicken being cooked on the dive platform by the boats chef. With cameras in freshwater and a plate of freshly barbequed food with humus and Arabic bread, I sat with my feet in the water gazing down on our last dive site.
Although a fairly shallow dive, the Aquarium is staggering all the same with pristine hard and soft corals fighting for space. Hovering above the corals are various reef fish and with the good visibility I can see the furthest since I have been in Aqaba. There are predators everywhere, Stonefish and Filamented Devilwalkers lying perfectly still in the sand while Bearded Scorpionfish compete for space around small pinnacles. With my 5-metre safety stop complete I decide for the very last time that I would explore the maze of hard corals in the shallows and as I venture closer to the shore I encounter more predation. Groups of juvenile Common Lionfish in less than a metre of water are stalking small fry and as I take my last photographs I just can’t help but continue to be amazed at how unique Aqaba is.
As our boat glided through the calm sea, I watched the sun sink down behind the Egyptian mountains for the last time and with the warm sea breeze on my face reflected on the great diving I had experienced over the last two and a half weeks. Looking back, Aqaba is a truly fun place to dive with plenty of marine life for divers of all experience levels and given the chance, I will surely visit again.