Home » Middle East » JEAN SHEPHERD Travel. The Middle East, the Red Sea part 2 of 2

JEAN SHEPHERD Travel. The Middle East, the Red Sea part 2 of 2


swimming in red sea--fish

The next morning, oh boy, let me tell you about this.  I wake up about six o’clock in the morning and throw back the curtains and my room looks right over the Red Sea—blue, green, little touches of silver.  I get up, I go down and have a little breakfast, and I go wandering out, and I am about to go skin diving in the Red Sea for the first time.

The beach itself is not very impressive—it’s pebbled.  Half sand, half little pebbles.  But as you wade into the water, the instant you get in this water you know that this water is different from any sea water that you ever waded in.  To begin with, it’s as clear as the clearest glass.  Frighteningly clear.  So much so that there is a danger that comes from that clear water.

For those of you who have never skin-dived, there’s several ways of doing it.  There’s the aqua-lung, of course, and there’s snorkeling.  In this case we had aqualungs.  You wade in backwards, and as you do the water starts coming up rather quickly.  This is not a low island situation like Jones Beach, it’s mountainous, so it’s very deep and slants away quickly.  Now you’re waist-high, you turn over, you spin, and you are now on your stomach and you dive under and start gliding down in water that’s maybe six or seven feet and suddenly it slants away and off it goes, down, down, down. aqualung

The bottom under you suddenly changes—it stops being pebbles and sand and becomes sand.  And it looks almost exactly as white as sugar.  When the sun is coming down and hitting the sand at the right angle, it hurts the eyes in the diver’s mask.  As the bottom slants away and goes down and down and down, you look ahead and you can see the shadowy sea getting deeper and deeper and deeper, the ground slanting away almost at a thirty degree angle and you see these great coral reefs rising higher and higher as the water gets deeper and deeper.  All of a sudden you’re in the middle of this unbelievable forest.  For those of you who saw the movie and have seen really good skin-diving movies I don’t have to tell you much about that except that to experience it is a totally different thing than to see it in the movies.

Because you feel all this water moving above and around you and you’re not in the water for more than a few minutes when you begin to have a completely—I suppose the word should be—other-world feeling.  As though you don’t really exist anymore.  If you can imagine this paradox, this is really what happens.  Your body sort of melts away.  You have no weight is the first thing that happens.  You have a sense of almost absolute freedom—which, by the way, is dangerous.  The French word for it means “the rapture of the depths.”  You begin to have this peculiar exhilaration and many a skin-diver is killed because of that.  He often forgets where he is and ultimately finds himself in bad trouble because of the rapture he begins to experience.

As you go down lower and lower, the first thing that hits me is—I had never been in water where the underwater life is anything like this.  The variety of the fish-life in this water, and it’s all hanging in crystal—no sense of water at all in this place and that’s one of the peculiar dangers about it.  There’s absolutely no sense of being in water, it’s as though you’re in some kind of melted glass.  I don’t know how to describe it really.  It’s not exactly like air, it’s as though something, somehow, has suspended all animation.  All you can hear is the roaring in your ears of the aqua lung and the water pressure WHOOOOO.  And that’s it.  Even that, after a few minutes, you forget completely about.

This great purple fish with long, thin, yellow fins comes drifting by.  Big, heavy fish drifts right by.  Big red eyes.  He looks at me as though I’m another fish and drifts on past.  No fright.  Just drifts past.  I’m drifting around, spinning, slowly spinning, and then a whole school of angelfish go past in a V-formation.  Down below me s this enormous coral cave that just stretches down and down.angel fish


The man that I’m skin diving with is a bearded Israeli, a man who, a few years ago was in the world headlines.  Raffi Nelson, who was caught in the Suez Canal trying to make it through in a one-man boat.  In an Israeli canoe.  This is the guy.  He’s drifting alongside of me.  Both of us are just moving along and we begin to explore these reefs.  Of course he’d been down here twenty thousand times before, and he’s taking me to these various caves.  He points, “Look, look, look!”  He’s pointing, and drifting out of a coral reef, a kind of ring of coral—a wreath of coral, yellow, and green and orange coral—comes this fantastic barracuda.  Great big barracuda about four feet long.  He just drifts by, and you can see those gleaming, silver teeth.  He just drifts past.  These big google-eyes.  He moves on past us, flutters around us, gives us another look and POOOOOH—you just see his tail—he moves.

swimming in red sea--fish

The water is maybe forty feet deep and crystal clear. With just a touch of green and yellow about it..  Raffi points, “Look, look, look.”  Down below us we see this eight or nine-foot eel crawling along.  Moving along through the coral, and we continue to move, drifting slowly, spinning up and down, and all the while Raffi is taking pictures with an underwater camera.  Once in awhile I turn to see the water, green and silver, and see the sun above, and down we go, drifting on and on.  You lose all sense of time.  You lose all sense of place.  That too, is dangerous.  I can’t tell you how long we are doing this.  I can only tell you we must have drifted maybe a mile under the sea, and along that great reef of coral.

Riffi drifts up past me, trying to get my attention, he’s drifting past me.  He makes a triangle and he points ahead.  Triangle!

I say, “Huh?”  I shrug my shoulders.  What do you mean?  Triangle.  So I start going—he pushes me back, he’s making another triangle!  What?  What?

Triangle!  Triangle!   He makes his mouth move but nothing but bubbles come out.  Triangle!  Triangle!  It suddenly hits me!  He’s saying, “Pyramid!  Egypt!”  He’s saying, “Look out!”  That next reef is right across the line.

I drift back and forth and I can see there’s a big shadowy reef and you can see a few barracuda drifting in and out.  You see a school of angle fish going across the Israeli-Egyptian border.  I’m drifting around.

I get this peculiar image that, sometime, someplace, there will be a barricaded reef.  Can you see it now?  A pillbox underwater?  To get skin divers who dare to go through or above or around to cross the borders of this country?  Guarded by barracudas?  Trained barracudas?

Twenty minutes later both of us are up on the shore, shaking the water off, taking the equipment off.  I say, “Was that—?”

He says, “Yeah, that was.”

I say, “Is it dangerous?”

He looks at me.  He says, “Well, we lost three of them last month.  Ain’t heard from them since.”

And the sun hangs up over us there and the great red hills move on—march toward the horizon.  Ah!  To be skin diving tonight in the Red Sea!

swimming in red sea--fish



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