There was little or no infrastructure in the Sinai then. We traveled down the coast from the border with Israel by ancient battered Landcruiser and slept uncomfortably under the stars, battling the cold desert air with ineffective sleeping bags.
Leaving the Bedouin guides on the rocky beach to build a fire for lunch, we entered the calm protected water of the lagoon and swam to the inauspicious reef wall. It was covered in dead coral. As we descended, that coral turned to nothing more than rubble on sandy ledges.
As we progressed deeper, I thought it looked even less promising. A monochromatic scene with small coral boulders and the occasional elderly rubber mask and snorkel, faded to gray, and dropped from the surface, I assumed, back in the days when the Israelis occupied this area after the Six-Day War.
We’re probably all familiar with wall dives, but it’s not often you get the opportunity to dive on the inside of a wall, but that is exactly what you can do at Dahab, now a thriving resort on Egypt’s Red Sea coast.
Back then, I started to question why we had bothered. There were no visible signs of life, and no fish to speak of. It was getting darker as we went deeper, and there was little, if any, color.
We kept descending until I saw it: The top of an arch, the water below of unknown maximum depth, provided a tunnel maybe 50 feet long, out to the ocean side of the reef. The end of the tunnel provided a blaze of vivid blue light in the darkness, a veritable sapphire, provided by the desert sunshine filtered vibrant blue by the depth of gin-clear Red Sea water outside the reef.
This was the Blue Hole. A long hole in the reef that inevitably invited any diver to swim through it.
The danger was that the top of the arch was about180 feet deep, and in those days long ago, when we had no option but to breathe compressed air, it was very near what most believed to be the limit for safe diving. Regulators were not so generous either, then.
Undeterred, I entered the tunnel. I was only equipped with a single 80 cu. ft. tank and knew I had to control my breathing to conserve the air sufficiently for the deco stops I’d need to make during the ascent the other side. My buddy followed.
I swam on my back from time-to-time, keeping a wary eye on the tunnel roof. I had been warned that air pooled there from the exhalations of other divers could mislead you into thinking it was the surface, and one might start heading deeper to disaster. There were a couple of commemorative plaques on the cliff below which we’d climbed into our wetsuits, and the lagoon lapped the shore, listing divers who had done exactly that and lost their lives.
It happened more often than it should. Military divers were then called in from Israel to find the bodies.
The father of one girl, who’d lost her life at the Blue Hole, traveled around the world with her tank and its remaining air, trying to prove that the air was poisoned. It was, of course, at the depth at which she had eventually taken her last breath. We’ll never know if it was oxygen toxicity or nitrogen narcosis that killed her.
Sadly, in those days, many divers considered deep diving was only a matter of conserving an air supply. Many had little or no knowledge of diving physics, and there was a culture of deep-diving among a few ex-pat residents of the Sinai’s Sharm when 300-foot dives were almost the norm. The narcosis they enjoyed was almost a substitute for recreational drugs. I met one of those proponents of deep diving at the international DEMA show years later. I was so pleased to see he was still alive and said so. He answered, “I don’t do that deep-diving shit no more!”
The magic of the Blue Hole then was the difference between the somber back-reef and the magnificence blue light showing from the seaward side. It was palpable. The big danger of the arch was that divers went deeper than they intended while looking for it, or passing through it, and then paid the price.
Today, with the advances of technical diving and appropriate breathing mixes, that danger should have been eliminated. I even once saw the Italian free-diving ace, Umberto Pelizzari, swim down and through the tunnel on a single held breath.
However, back in 1983 on my single tank of air, progressing in a disciplined manner and keeping close to the arch roof, I soon reached the ocean side of the reef wall. It was a riot of color of massed corals and sponges in the welcoming, clear water, where we ascended safely.
That part of the Red Sea, an extension of the African Rift, enjoys very clear deep water with few currents, and today it attracts technical divers looking for depth. The lagoon, protected from the main part of the sea by the saddle of the reef, is ideal for straightforward deep bounce diving, but like any extreme sports, it has its casualties.
Nevertheless, it has earned the reputation of being one of the most dangerous dive sites in the world, but it isn’t the site – it’s what people attempt to do in it. Dive very deep.
This has led to a lot of coverage in international media, but, as is often the case, journalists with poor technical understanding can get it wrong.
Standing on the shore and unaware of the existence of the arch through the reef, they’ve collectively decided to call the lagoon itself the Blue Hole. This is probably because, superficially, it looks akin to some of the ocean-side Blue Holes in the Bahamas. Just last week, I saw an article about the “dangerous dive in Dahab,” illustrated with an aerial view of the Great Blue Hole in Belize.
I even once sat alongside a diving journalist who wrote a piece about surveying the Blue Hole, when in fact, she had only surveyed the lagoon and missed the arch completely. She should have known better. When I tried to point this out to her, she was having none of it. So even diving magazines became complicit.
So that is why the lagoon at Dahab is now known as the Blue Hole. It doesn’t offer much apart from extreme depth with current-free conditions. Divers still are drawn to it for its extreme depth and protected water, but the wonder of that brilliant blue window through the reef wall, easily attainable today by technical divers breathing a helium-rich mix, seems to have been consigned to a mere side show.
And before you write to me to tell me how risky it was to swim that deep through a tunnel with only a single tank of air – I know – now!