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Fatal Attraction

Fatal Attraction

Jul 2014

Words Theodora Sutcliffe

Dahab is on many a diver’s bucket list and for good reason. Warm waters, fantastic visibility and a cool, bohemian atmosphere on shore are part of the attraction but for some it’s all about testing their limits and the lure of the Blue Hole. 

“I’m always very pissed off with them,” says Tarek Omar, matter-of-factly. “Because they’re leaving a big family outside, crying – that’s my first thought. And then – within 20 seconds – I feel sorry for them.”

I’m sitting with Omar in the bright, crisp Sinai sunshine, sipping Bedouin tea, while workmen to and fro with fittings for Tek Tribe, the dive store he is opening. When he’s not teaching tech diving, Omar recovers divers’ bodies from Dahab’s legendary Blue Hole, descending to depths often below 100 metres, solo, on Trimix. 

“I normally have five or six minutes bottom time,” he says. “I observe the scene briefly, to see what clues are there, and then I bring the bodies up in the buddy position, face to face, holding them by the upper arm.”

Omar spends the long deco stops on ascent from these depths face to face with the dead diver, until he reaches 40 metres, when he can send the body to the surface. 

“I try to do it humanely,” he says. Omar accepts only the cost of the gas used in these recoveries, which he does for the sake of the bereaved families. “You want to respect the families, so you don’t want the bodies to get caught on the reef.” 

But isn’t it traumatic, as a diver? Alone underwater, holding a dead body?

“After ten days, the body is decomposed,” he says. “That’s horrible. That’s the worst mission you can have. But even after a few hours, the face is beginning to change. Sometimes, you have a problem with the expanding gases on ascent: they’ll find the weakest point to make their way out.”

“What’s that?” I ask, unwisely.

“The eyes,” he says. I wince, and sip more tea.

The Blue Hole, a submarine sinkhole in the gin-clear waters of Egypt’s Red Sea, has a reputation as the world’s most deadly dive site. There are no accurate figures on how many divers have died there, but Ahmed Wahab, of Inmo, who’s been diving in Dahab for almost 30 years, estimates that, on average, one person dies there every month, and, even during peak season, no more than a hundred-odd divers visit the site each day. 

That would suggest that at least one in every 5 000 dives at the Blue Hole ends with a fatality – worldwide averages, according to DAN, are around one death for every 200 000 dives. 

Local policy insists that divers have a guide to dive the Blue Hole. In theory, also, only divers qualified to at least Advanced Open Water are allowed in the Blue Hole at all, and only tech divers are allowed below 40 metres. Still, as Dahab divers put it, “You could open a dive shop with all the dive equipment that’s down there.” 

Curiously, the Blue Hole, when dived within PADI recreational limits, has few obvious dangers. There is, by international standards, close to zero current. The visibility is stellar – it’s a rare day when you can’t read a hand signal at 5 metres. And the waters are warm year-round. 

And yet, as I trudge, sweating, in full kit over the low hill that leads to the classic shore entry, El Bells, I pass a rock face lined with plaques to divers who have died there – in Russian, German, Arabic, English, it’s a United Nations of loss.

The deliciously narrow crack in the rock, named El Bells for the chime of tanks banging against the edges, opens up to frame the blue like a postcard. Then it’s a drop through a short chimney to about 26 metres, and a dramatic exit into the blue, on a sheer wall that descends hundreds of metres into invisibility

That dazzling exit onto the wall is risky for new divers, who can forget to inflate on emerging, or panic when confronted with the blue. The battered coral along the outer wall – an inverted cone with substantial overhangs -- testifies to years of horrible buoyancy. “When I guide people in El Bells I am always anxious,” says Wahab, who remembers one new diver found dead under an overhang at 20 metres. “You need to wait for one diver after another and sometimes you have to wait in a long line at  around 28 metres. It’s a very easy place to lose a diver.”

Yet it’s not only divers who die at the Blue Hole. Snorkellers have got trapped exploring holes in the reef or suffered shallow water blackout after diving deeper than they realised. 

“I found one girl at around five metres,” recalls one instructor. “She was Japanese, I think. Or Korean. Very beautiful. She had long black hair and it floated out around her, like something from a movie. I didn’t dive again that day.” But the real fatal attraction at the Blue Hole – the place where divemasters and instructors die – is The Arch. 

Descend a little below 40 metres in the Blue Hole, and a gleam of light appears below, like a pane of blue stained glass. “It’s the brightest blue,” says one instructor who has dived it. (No PADI recreational dive professional in Dahab will go on record as having dived The Arch, though many have.). “It’s like a window to the sky.” 

Yet The Arch is not a window. Not a gateway. And it’s deeper than it seems. With its ceiling around the 56 metre mark, it’s a 30 metre swim through, its siren call deceptive, not least because the bottom drops away below.

Why do The Arch? “It’s just a beautiful dive,” says Wahab. And so too, he says, is the bottom of the Blue Hole itself, where the water is so pristine that, even below 100 metres, visibility is at least eight metres. “Sitting on the bottom of the Blue Hole, breathing Trimix, looking out through The Arch, is just wonderful.”

Partly, perhaps, because of cost, (tech training and the required gases are expensive, and dive professionals don’t earn much in Egypt) and partly because historically in Dahab everyone dived on air, many – too many – divers attempt The Arch on air.

“It’s a very macho attitude,” says Omar. (Although many women dive in Dahab, almost all diver fatalities at the Blue Hole are male.) “Most of those who died are instructors. They have a few drinks, they come up with a plan, let’s do an early dive. Sometimes they even go in stoned.”

While some of the deaths at the Blue Hole – heart attacks, rebreather issues – could have happened anywhere, others are very hard to rationalise. 

One divemaster, partway through the classic El Bells dive to 30 metres, veered off and down, to attempt The Arch solo on a single, half-empty tank. A dive professional couple topped up Nitrox tanks with air and dropped to 60 metres on hyper-oxygenated air. 

Three dive professionals attempted The Arch for the first time as a night dive, they switched off their lights to see the luminescence sparkling in the water. Only two of them switched their lights back on - the third had disappeared.

Narcosis? Machismo? Most divers I spoke to who had survived The Arch on air denied feeling narced, even when diving air to 80 metres and below. Like most who like to go deep, they frame the appeal in terms of quiet, solitude, space -- not the narcs. 

But, says Wahab, “You feel it. Everyone feels it. You can build up a tolerance to it, like you can to alcohol, but it’s there, and you need to recognise it to handle it.”

Narcosis, per se, won’t kill you. But it can draw you to depths where you can run out of air, suffer DCS on ascent or succumb to oxygen toxicity. While susceptibility varies from individual to individual and from day to day, oxygen toxicity is almost always fatal. Divers typically convulse, lose a regulator, inhale seawater and drown.

One diver, who still comes to Dahab today, first dived the Blue Hole in 1979. The strip that is today a paved corniche lined with hustlers-touting seafood restaurants, stalls selling the backpacker staples of hippie pants, cheap sunglasses and flip flops, dive stores advertising fun dive packages and guesthouses offering free dorm beds for divers was then a beach with a few Bedouin huts.

“We came in Range Rovers, bringing a kitchen with us, made a camp on the beach, set up our own compressors,” he recalls. “There was nothing there.”

Back in those days, he says, “Everybody used air and the US Navy tables. We’d go to 80, 85 metres on air, with two cylinders and two regulators, but no training. I dived for twenty years with no training.” He lost a school friend on a trip. 

“It was a deco accident,” he says. “He didn’t make the correct stops: he ascended too fast, and we found him dead in the water.”

How did he feel? Swiss, he draws a parallel with Alpine mountaineering, where one can without guilt leave a friend who’s beyond help. 

“When you are diving deco you can’t go up to help. It’s the same when you go to the mountains,” he says, with a shrug. “I dived again the next day.” Not everyone responds to the loss of a friend with similar sangfroid. 

Tarek Omar’s journey into tech diving began at Dahab’s other iconic dive site, The Canyon. Dived within PADI recreational limits, The Canyon is an exhilarating drop through a narrow entry into a stark, architectural underwater gorge. You can rest on white sand at around 30m, looking up at the blue sky or a full moon, or explore a dark world of gothic overhangs populated by ghostly clouds of glassfish. Dived outside recreational limits, it’s a different story. “Full Canyon”, an exit through an arch at 52m onto a pristine coral wall is a classic Dahab choice for landmark, anniversary dives. A feature called Neptune’s Chair on the wall at 70 metres is a popular tech dive destination.

Back in 1999, two Egyptian divers lost their buddy diving the Canyon wall on air. At around 70 metres, he went down – and never came up. Some think narcosis. Others talk of suicide.

The next day, possibly motivated by the Islamic requirement that a body should be prayed over and buried within 24 hours of death, the pair went back to the wall to recover their friend. They never surfaced. “My friend, Tarek, was married to a German girl,” Omar recalls. “And for a week I’d see her sitting by the Canyon, and I knew that she was hoping that she’d see him come out. I decided I wanted to find my friend. On my first mission, I went to 70 metres, on air, and I couldn’t find him, so I qualified as a Trimix diver. Eventually I found them deeper than 100 metres.”

It is not only partners who are left grieving. The mother of James Smith, who died in 2003, aged only 24, still makes regular pilgrimages to Dahab, in memory of her only son. His plaque reads: “Don’t let fear stand in the way of your dreams.” 

The Arch is an undersea tunnel that extends for almost 30 metres and requires a descent to around 60 metres. Is it insane to attempt it on air? Not necessarily.

“The TDI air standard is 60 metres,” explains Wahab. “You can do The Arch as a planned tech dive on air, with two tanks, two regulators, two computers. To do it on a single tank would be crazy.”

Attempting The Arch with one cylinder, a single reg and a recreational BCD means that any equipment failure is fatal. Further, a single 12 litre cylinder does not hold enough for most divers to complete the required decompression stops after that period at depth.

“When you do The Arch, even diving doubles, there is no margin for error,” says a divemaster who trained under the CMAS system, which includes planned deco dives on air. “You descend to 30m, check everything. If there’s any leak, you abort the dive. Descend again to 56m, check everything again. You are on your own on a dive like that.”

Some get lucky. Some die. Others get bent. And it’s a long drive on a bad road to Dahab’s decompression chambers.

A myth tells of a princess who drowned herself for love, and now sits at the bottom of the Blue Hole, a mermaid, or siren, luring divers to their doom. Like the story that it was here, not far from Mount Sinai, that Moses hurled away the golden bull, it was most likely concocted by a Bedouin to entertain tourists.

“I know that story’s not true,” says Tarek Omar, himself a Bedouin, albeit from a distant clan. “I’ve spent hundreds of dives at the bottom of the Blue Hole. I know that place like my living room. If there was a princess there, I’d have seen her. And she would have taken me.” 

The most obvious lure of the Blue Hole? The architectural beauty of The Arch. “If you hear about a new place, it makes you jealous,” explains one divemaster. “You want to see it. You want to have the adventure. It’s curiosity.”

Yet there is more to the appeal than the siren song of the deep and the desire to push one’s personal limits. In Dark Tide, the wealthy businessman who commissions Halle Berry to take him freediving with Great Whites brags about a near-death experience at the Blue Hole, Dahab.

And the deadlier the Blue Hole’s reputation, the greater the desire for bragging rights.

Yuri Lipski, a Russian diver who had qualified as a recreational dive instructor, came to the Blue Hole in 2000. He wanted to descend to the bottom of the Blue Hole, to a depth of over 90 metres, on a single tank of air, and film it. “I met him two or three hours before he died,” says Omar. “He came to me and said he wanted to dive to the bottom of the Blue Hole. I said, ‘Let’s talk. What are your qualifications?’ He said, ‘I’m a recreational instructor with deep speciality.’ I said, ‘If you’re going to do it, you stay here for 15 days and I’ll train you.’”

When the call came in to recover a body, Omar knew exactly who it was. “I was shocked when I found him,” he says. “He had a single reg, a single tank, a heavy camera tied on with rope – no quick release. He was overweighted with 12kg and he was wearing a recreational BCD. By the time he’d got to 30 metres, he had no lift left.”

Yuri did, indeed, film his descent – and his camera captured his death. The video is now heading towards 10 million YouTube views. When I tell Tarek this, he shakes his head. 

“I should have flooded the camera when I brought him up,” he says. “I had no idea it would still be working. And you know why I should have flooded that camera? Because now that will be the last sight his mother has of him. But I thought... I thought that after Yuri, after seeing that video, they would be conservative.”

Yet, in fact, both Wahab and Omar observe, divers are not being conservative. Quite the reverse. Morbidly, some tech divers descend to the bottom specifically to see the bodies that rest in “the graveyard” there – not every family has the will, and not every diver had the insurance cover, to bring the corpses up and home. 

“Highly trained tech divers are dying there now,” Wahab remarks, with sorrow and confusion. “Sometimes they push it. They push it so quick. They didn’t dive for a whole year, and the next day, the day after they come from Russia, they want to go to 100 metres. To make this sort of dive takes planning.”

“To go deep,” amplifies Omar, “You need to have a reason. Some tech divers are just diving to see the number on their computer. That’s the first thing that’s going to kill the diver.” 

But people continue to try. A Russian tourist, not a qualified diver, spent a day trawling around Dahab to find a guide who would take him, his unqualified wife and their unqualified child through El Bells onto the wall.

Nobody did. But, in a poor country like Egypt, a fistful of euros will buy a lot. Including the chance to die.

Source: The Divesite