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Elphinstone Reef is one of the world’s most exciting diving destinations. A few small breakers are the only visible sign that just below the sea’s surface is the summit of a subterranean mountain, rich in colourful corals and fish species, and attracting the interest of hungry barracuda, dolphins and sharks.
It is two shark species in particular that attract divers looking for that unique once in a life-time close-quarters encounter with a big sea predator. The scarily curious oceanic whitetip and the oddly shaped hammerhead.
This is one of the few places where divers can regularly come eyeball to eyeball with these feared but fascinating animals. The whitetip is categorized as vulnerable to extinction by the World Conservation Union and the hammerhead one level worse at endangered.
However these encounters are only for highly experienced advanced divers – not primarily because of the sharks who do not actively seek out human prey – but due to the reef’s location in the open-sea, its’ alluring but dangerously deep coral plateaus and caves and its’ infamous and constantly changing currents.
As one diver recalled on TripAdvisor –
“Pure adrenaline…. a truly unique experience, a little fear mixed with intense emotion.”
( Franco 6 November 2012 )
WHERE IS ELPHINSTONE REEF ?
Also often referred to by its’ local name Sha’ab Abu Hamra – Elphinstone Reef lies in the open sea around six and a half nautical miles ( 12 KM ) east from the coastline at Marsa Abu Dabbab (the popular beach and bay near Marsa Alam’s Hilton) at coordinates 25 19 North and 34 52 East.
This makes it 17 bumpy minutes from the shoreline by Zodiac providing sea conditions are suitable and about 17 nautical miles ( 32km ) distant or two hours from Port Ghalib by a much safer and more comfortable motorized boat.
WHAT’S THE REEF LIKE ?
You might wonder how this tiny speck on the charts – a three hundred metre finger-like stretch of reef, just twenty to forty metres wide, could be such an attraction.
This sliver of reef runs approximately north-south. The middle section can usually be seen from the surface breakers as it lies barely concealed below the surface at a depth of just one to two metres. However the reef descends down to an arrowhead point at around 40 metres at its’ southern most point while the northern section descends in steps to around 42 metres.
Go any further north or south and you descend near vertical cliffs. Similarly the east side is also an almost perpendicular drop off while the west is less steep and slightly sandier with a number of overhangs and small caves.
Since its’ first mention in the first ship log records in 1827, no one has known quite how deep the surrounding waters are –
“Distant from the Egyptian shore about three leagues,” noted Captain Denton of the British navy, “It is steep and at a distance of half a mile no ground at one hundred fathoms.”
All that can be said is that the depth descends to several hundred metres into the deep blue – making for an eerie but beautiful contrast with the reef’s many colourful coral types, especially the purple and pink soft corals and graceful red gorgonians – their tentacles moving slowly in the strong sea currents.
There is also the dangerously enticing sarcophagus archway at a depth of 52 to 65 metres near the southern tip of the reef. Legend maintains that one of Egypt’s Pharaohs lies buried here, and you can just make out in the dim light the shape of a sarcophagus shaped mass encrusted in coral. However you should not descend this deep without your professional guide’s approval. This type of depth far from the shoreline is only for very advanced and experienced divers.
Marginally more accessible are two pinnacles of coral on the northern plateau at around 42 metres depth but most divers would be better advised not to descend below 30 metres which is sufficient to explore most of the reef’s length. Visibility is generally good at an average of 20 metres.
ARE THERE ANY DANGEROUS SEA CURRENTS ?
The sea currents are variable and usually (but not always) run from North to South. They are often quite strong – two knots or greater – and this can benefit those skilled in drift diving as they can start with a dive off the northern point, which is possibly the most likely location for shark encounters, and go with the flow southwards along the reef and have the boat meet them at the southern end.
However the currents necessitate careful consideration and your guide should be prepared to adjust your diving plans according to any unusual changes in the current that he may notice. This is important as this reef is fully exposed to the open sea with nowhere to shelter.
WHAT SEASON AND WHAT TIME ?
Late summer and early autumn have the warmest sea temperatures ( 29 degrees centigrade in August compared to 22 in March ) however as August is also a peak diving season it can get disappointingly crowded so the Autumn is probably ideal. Sharks can be seen all year round although oceanic whitetips are most numerous during the October to December period.
Go very early at around dawn for the best chance to avoid the crowds and also the most likely time to see sharks. By eight or nine o’clock the area can sometimes get quite congested.
“Two live aboards and a few day boats unloaded all their divers at the same time….,” one diver grumbled. “It was a bit crowded down there.”
( TripAdvisor 5 December 2012 )
This despite the fact that she had arrived at the site “very early” – although she doesn’t state the exact time – which suggests that how many other divers you encounter and what you see is often a matter of luck .
WHAT WILL YOU SEE ?
You are not guaranteed to see sharks but you have to remember that these are wild creatures and that you do stand a very good chance, especially if you make repeat visits.
Some divers have been fortunate enough to have had several shark encounters at the reef –
“I have seen whitetips, hammerheads, grey reef sharks and of course what Elphinstone is famous for, longimanous oceanic whitetips” remembers dive guide Ian Higgins writing on divesitedirectory.co.uk
And that first encounter is a never to be forgotten moment –
“On a sunny, blustery morning,” recalls one diver, ” we just hovered around in the deep blue off Elphinstone watching the sharks as they circled around and through us… curious and graceful. What can I say other than I will always treasure this experience.”
( TripAdvisor 15 December 2012 )
Shark species you might encounter are not just the inquisitive oceanic whitetips and the strangely shaped hammerheads, but also silky sharks, grey reef sharks, the evasive blacktip and possibly even the mighty and majestic plankton feeding whale shark. There were even several sightings of Tiger sharks during 2009.
And besides sharks, you can also discover all manner of marine life. Solitary giant barracuda usually lurking at the edge of the reef and shoals of jacks and black snappers closer in as well as huge dogtooth tuna, beautifully coloured Napoleons and the snake-like Moray eel.
Of course many other fish species, too numerous to list, can be found as well as occasional turtle sightings on the sandier west side and frequent visits by dolphins whose company can be a great consolation –
“No sharks on our dive,” lamented Mark from Essex on Tripadvisor “but we met a pod of dolphins at the end of the dive !”
( 20 April 2012 )
Just about the only marine animal you are unlikely to see is the dugong sea cow which prefers the sea grass meadows of Marsa Abu Dabbab and other coastline areas. But unfortunately some divers have gone to Elphinstone believing otherwise – “Dove’ il dugongo ?” asked one Italian diver adding that he had not “seen even the shadow !”
( TripAdvisor 16 January 2013 )
HAMMERHEAD SHARKS AT ELPHINSTONE
The best location to see hammerheads is probably in the deep blue off the northern point. These large animals, typically weighing 200 kilos or more, are usually found at below 60 metres and such sightings are usually only a privilege of really professional divers. However in the summer they do tend to swim at lower depths and have often been sited by divers.
“I dived this excellent reef during the summer season when hammerheads were abundant,” recalls one Canadian. “It was impressive. I counted a dozen one day along with three grey reef sharks.”
( The Glacierist on TripAdvisor 22 August 2012 )
And another diver recalls
“Then it happened – two hammerheads swam by, then turned to come and check us out, before carrying on into the blue. Awesome creatures.”
( Martin TripAdvisor 27 July 2012 )
OCEANIC WHITETIPS AT ELPHINSTONE
Oceanics whitetip sharks are frequent visitors to Elphinstone and are very curious of divers and can often be found close to the surface so that it’s only necessary to descend 10 metres to have a good chance of an encounter.
The best time of the year to see them is usually from October to December. Dr Alex Mustard, a regular at Elphinstone comments that “occasionally at the peak of the season you can see more than 20 individuals in a day.”
However divers need to be extremely cautious of these animals. They are very curious and will often circle divers, approach them closely and even bump or nose them.
Some visitors maintain that in recent years the oceanics at Elphinstone have become more aggressive, approaching more often and more quickly. Experts believe this may be due to short sighted or ignorant divers feeding the sharks from the boats.
The sharks are not interested in the divers as such but more in the possibility of food. However this enhanced curiosity has heightened the potential dangers.
It’s essential that only divers who know they will be able to keep calm should dive when oceanics are thought to be in the vicinity. A nervous diver may move and breath too quickly – attracting the attention of the sharks and turning the normally remote possibility of an attack into a significant and deadly risk.
Divers should try to remain in a group as this reduces the risk of an attack and they should also never try to swim after these animals or touch them.
Staying close to the reef will limit the area of open sea around you and the chance of being surprised which could lead you to panic and increase the likelihood of an aggressive response from the shark.
HOW DID ELPHINSTONE REEF GET ITS NAME ?
According to some of the guides, it was a Commander Robert Moresby of the newly formed Indian navy who named the reef in 1830 in honour of Mountstuart Elphinstone (1779-1859), fourth son of Lord Elphinstone and recently retired from his position as governer of Bombay for the East India Company (1819-27). The reef does indeed appear on Morseby’s charts.
However my own research suggests that it was first discovered by Mountstuart Elphinstone himself three years earlier on 18 December 1827 when he was on his way back to England via Egypt. And it was an encounter he and his ship only narrowly survived.
“At half past three, while we were at dinner,” recalled one of his fellow passengers – a Mrs Charles Lushington, “breakers were reported from the mast head, and at four they were visible from the deck, at the distance of one mile…. We were soon becalmed and it was impossible to anchor, from the great depth of water. Hence our position became very precarious being at one time half a mile from the shoal, the breakers on which we heard occasionally.”
Luckily a slight breeze picked up and the ship sailed on to Cosseir (EL Qusier) where Elphinstone and his party loaded their goods and equipment on to camels in order to cross over to the Nile and then onwards to Alexandria. Meanwhile the ship’s Captain made a point of noting the particulars of the reef on the charts.
“As this shoal was not laid down in any chart…. Captain Denton took its’ bearings carefully and named it the Elphinstone Reef.”( Narrative of a Journey from Calcutta to Europe by way of Egypt in the years 1827 and 1828 by Mrs Charles Lushington )
THE TRAGIC EVENTS OF 2007
On the morning of 6 January 2007 a small group of five divers, including three Russians, a Dutch man and their Egyptian guide descended from a small boat to explore the reef.
Some accounts suggest that they dived to a considerable depth and that one of the divers had difficulties with his oxygen leading the group to become disorientated and that when they surfaced in choppy water they could not see their boat or any other vessels near by.
Unfortunately that day the currents were unusually strong and equally untypically – flowing northwards – meaning that when their absence was initially reported by the dive boat skipper at around 11.30am – some boats may have searched for them in the wrong areas.
As they drifted rapidly northwards in heavy seas, one of the Russians, Vladislav Lukyanchenko, decided to swim towards some lights he could see on the coastline and after three hours he managed to reach the shore at Badawia resort – some 15km from Elphinstone reef. He collapsed unconscious and had to be taken to hospital.
Despite the use of a helicopter and at least fifteen boats, the others were never found.
IMPORTANCE OF SAFETY PRECAUTIONS
It is thought that the divers involved in the tragic 2007 incident while they had a surface marker buoy with them, may not have had either flash lights or whistles which might have helped rescuers locate them.
The victims faced appalling conditions but even in normal conditions, Elphinstone reef can be a very hostile environment for the ill-prepared
If you want to dive at Elphinstone you must had an Advanced Open Water Diver certificate and you should have experience of at least 50 dives and also experience of deep diving, drift diving and rough sea conditions.
Your guide should give you a comprehensive briefing and you should know what to do in the event of anything unexpected and also consider what to do if the current is stronger than anticipated. Dive guides should also be honest about the depths involved and check that all divers are suitably qualified and aware of the challenges they may be about to meet.
It’s no fun if you find yourself in difficulty at depth as this diver recalled of her last trip to Elphinstone Reef –
“Clinging to the reef to prevent the current whipping me away. I desperately tried to get air into my lungs…. At 40 metres there is extra pressure on the lungs, and mine were screaming for air…. I felt extreme terror, and an overwhelming urge to fill my jacket with air and shoot to the surface… Had I chosen that option I would have died. “
( Caroline Spence in The Guardian 26 September 2009)