There have been at least eighty deaths at Egypt’s Blue Hole. Divers get disorientated in the long tunnel of coral known as The Arch, and can’t find their way out. Tacked into a dusty orange cliff to the north of the bay are scores of shiny memorial plaques.
‘Don’t let fear stand in the way of your dreams’ are the words of one dead diver.
My dreams have never extended as far as diving. I don’t like oxygen tanks, whistles and wetsuits, I just wanted to float like a fish. Yet I can barely swim, so I rented a luminous life jacket from one of the new cafes lining the bay, then wobbled away from the travellers and touts heading north along the sea path to the Blue Hole proper, a ragged circle of blue ringed by palest green.
As I walked the salty African air burned my skin and dusty red stones scratched my feet, then I arrived at a safe entry to the Red Sea a few hundred metres along the cliff, where I looked out to Saudi Arabia’s moutains across the sea, mauve in the desert heat, then set on the warm rocks at the reef entrance and wrestled on my fluorescent flippers while divers clogged up the corridor in the reef as they made their descent into the blue.
Crash, I fell off the rocks into a cluster of divers. Flip, flap, I paddled away red-faced round to the bank of coral that led back to the Blue Hole a few hundred metres along the coast. The rubber strap of my cheap snorkel dug in, cool water tingled against my head, salty sea leaked into my goggles. Blink, rub, spit, rub. I cleaned and tightened my snorkel, then went back under the water.
Flashes of fish appeared in the dusty blue light. Big fish, small fish, striped fish, spotted fish, every kind of tropical fish fought and floated and survived on the banks of this Egyptian underworld. Pastel coral hung down the reef, like Dali might imagine the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Plink! Bubbles the size of my face shone in the sunlight. Hundreds of them were coming from divers’ oxygen tanks below. I floated around and popped the air like bubble wrap, wrapping myself up in the glistening columns of light.
I had company. An Egyptian snorkeller, holding an octopus, was bursting bubbles like me. We made friends through sign language and fed hundreds of fish with bread from the pocket of his trunks, then floated along without for a few minutes or a couple of hours. Time does not exist under the sea, but I had started shivering, so I popped my head above the surface to see.
It was getting late. The 4×4′s were back, disturbing the burnt dust of the desert to pick up tired tourists from sleepy Bedouin cafes, yet there were still scores of snorkellers circling the Blue Hole. I paddled over. Snorkellers covered in suntan lotion spilled oxybenzones and methoxycinnamates into the water, killing fish in their thousands. Russians practically danced on the reef with their plastic feet. The coral was no longer purple, yellow and green. The coral was grey, dead.
I swum back to land and hauled myself out of the water. Rubber-mouthed, I wiped the snorkel marks from around my eyes, to see a Bedouin guide feeding Coca-Cola to his camel for the tourists. The camel smiled, but how could I?