Adventures in Egypt
Most of my photographic interest involves working underwater. However, some places in the world are as interesting above water as below. A trip to Egypt would not be complete without visiting the Pyramids and other sites of the ancient world. Planning such a trip is a logistical nightmare, though, involving domestic flights and ground transportation. It is best to use a travel agent who specializes in your destination.
That is why Oceanblue Divers dive club decided to use the services of Learning Through Travel. Darlene Buonauro and David Hartman have been traveling to Egypt and setting up tours for divers and non-divers for the past ten years. They also have a partner in Cairo, Afifi El Shimy. Afifi was our guide in Cairo, and is eminently qualified – he has a master's degree in Egyptian history.
As soon as we arrived in Cairo, we immediately went to the old section of the city. This part of town still has the look of ancient times. Here we visited the Ben Ezra Synagogue. This Synagogue dates back to the12th century; it is linked to Moses and the persecution of the Jews by the Pharaohs. Repairs in the 19th century unearthed hundreds of Hebrew manuscripts from the Synagogue's intact geniza, or treasury. The Jewish congregants of the Ben Ezra Synagogue saved the tatters of any holy book, or indeed, any piece of paper bearing the name of God. They deposited these remnants in the geniza. These acts of conservancy resulted in a legacy of thousands of documents dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries.
We also visited the Church and Convent of St George. This church has been around since the 10th century, and the convent, since the 15th century. Although my interest is to create images, you are not allowed to take photographs inside any house of worship, tomb or museum. This is very frustrating when you see the beauty of their interiors. But it is important to remember we are guests, and to respect the rules of our hosts. We must be satisfied with documenting the outside of these ancient structures.
From the church we moved on to the Khan El Khalili bazaar. Here the narrow streets are filled with shops that are a photographer's paradise. All of the goods hang outside the shops and the merchants are as colorful as their wares. Keep in mind that they are very aggressive, and it is difficult to take a photo without being asked to make a purchase.
The next day, we were ready for fun and education. Our tour would proceed in the order of history. We started at Memphis, the first capital of united Egypt. This city was founded around 3100 BC. What is left is in an outdoor museum. The artifacts displayed outside are very interesting and are worth documenting. Try to keep the sun to your side. This side lighting will bring out the texture and allow the hieroglyphics to pop. The most impressive artifact is the colossal limestone statue of Ramses II, housed inside. The statue is reclining, so go up to the balcony for a good view. This statue is so big, an ultra-wide lens is best. I used an Olympus E-520 camera, with the 7-14mm zoom lens.
From Memphis we traveled to Sakkara. Here we were able to enter the Tomb of Ka-Gmni. This tomb dates back to 2340 BC. We also entered the Titi pyramid. Both these structures have interesting hieroglyphic drawings on the wall. Again we were only allowed to take photos on the outside. In Sakkara we were also able to see the first pyramid ever built. The Step Pyramid is a striking structure. Photos of this with the tomb located in the front make an impressive image.
The great pyramids of the Giza Plateau really command your attention. It took more than 100,000 workers more than 20 years to construct each pyramid. A high vantage point with the road in front is the best place to photograph these wonders of the ancient world. Here you can also take a camel ride down the hill. Make sure you have a good camera strap if you want to take photos during this bouncing camel ride. The camel trainer is used to tourists, and will know how to use your camera. It would be a shame to go to Egypt and not have a photo of yourself on a camel. The grounds in front of the pyramids really are not that interesting on their own. But by placing a couple of camels in front of the pyramid, you create a classic Egyptian scene. Remember to tip the person that helped you with the camels. The population is rather poor and it is customary to tip your camel trainer as well as anyone who poses or helps you take that award-winning photo.
Not far from the great pyramids is the Sphinx. It was carved out of solid natural rock about 2650 BC. This magnificent monument, with the body of a lion and the head of the Pharaoh, is lit ideally in the morning. By the time we got there though, the Sphinx was backlit. I was still able to get side views with decent lighting.
The next day we took a domestic flight to Luxor. This is the ancient land of Thebes. When you travel, remember that safety and health come first. So using prudent caution, I did not drink the water, I did not eat uncooked vegetables, and I brushed my teeth with bottled water; but I still ended up with a bad case King Tut's revenge. We soon discovered that a virus was going around that had even local people sick, so it might not have been anything I ate or drank. I took a day to sleep in Luxor.
The next day, feeling better, we ventured to the West Bank of the Nile River to the Valley of the Kings. Here we were able to enter three of the 63 tombs in the area, as well as the tomb of King Tutankhamen. Besides the tombs that we were not allowed to photograph, the land itself makes for some interesting images. Also there was an archeological group, working to find another tomb. Photographing these workers created wonderful images of local color.
From here we moved on to the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. This is considered one of the finest buildings in Egypt. Queen Hatshepsut ruled Egypt for 20 years in the 18th Dynasty. From here we visited and photographed the Colossi of Memnon. These two 60-foot statues of Amenhotep III have been a tourist attraction since Roman times. Roman tourists believed the northern-most statues would sing at sunrise.
That evening another domestic flight took our wandering adventurers to Sharm El Sheikh. Here the desert ends, and the Red Sea begins. It is now time to get wet!
We planned to be diving with Emperor Divers. This British-owned dive operation has a truly international staff. Our main dive guide was Dan Zanoni from Italy. Our other two instructors were Kelly Williams, who is from New Zealand, and Roger Jenkins, who is from Wales. In preplanning this trip, manager Duncan McAllister and head of the tech department Aaron Bruce were extremely helpful. They organized our group and helped me with tech support for my rebreather. In Sharm El Shiekh, Emperor has four day boats and one liveaboard. They also run boats in Hurghada, and Marsa Alam. Besides charters they teach classes from open water to trimix and rebreathers. All of their dive guides are full instructors. For teaching classes or just hanging out, they have a very large pool, and the "Debriefing bar." I now consider such amenities a must for any dive operation.
The first day of diving would be easy check-out dives, to make sure our diving skills would keep us safe and we would not damage the reef. We stayed close to shore and dived Near Garden, Middle Garden, and Fiddle Garden. Considering these were not the premiere dive sites, they were still beautiful, and we even saw two Napoleon Wrasse in Middle Garden. For the most part there was not a lot of current on these dives. The first two dives were done with the boat moored near the reef. We would dive in a circle and return to the boat. In Fiddle garden we would dive draft style. The boat would remain unanchored. We would swim along with the current. At the end of the dive one diver would send up a safety marker on a line. The boat would see this and then pick up the divers.
For most of my dives I would be doing photography with the Sea & Sea DX-2G camera, wide-angle conversion lens and two YS-110a strobes. This small point & shoot camera really does have many features of a larger, more expensive SLR system. The large buffer allows you to shoot RAW without waiting between photos. There is a slight shutter delay, but it did not cause me any problems. I really like the fact that you have two different dials for f-stop and shutter speed. But I found the LCD showing this information to be very small and hard to read.
The small size of the camera, even with two strobes attached, made it very easy to handle even in a strong current. I really enjoyed being able to add or remove the wide-angle lens underwater. When shooting with an expensive SLR setup, you have to decide beforehand if you are shooting wide-angle or macro. With this gear you can go between the two underwater. The lens caddy attached to the Sea Arm VII strobe arm was a convenient place to store the WA lens when shooting macro.
The Sea & Sea YS-110a strobes are a pleasure to use with this camera rig. The power dials are easy to access and to adjust. The strobes recycle lightning fast even when discharged at full power. Attaching the strobes to the housing's dual fiber optic ports with fiber optic cables allowed consistent firing. None of this would matter if the image quality were not up to par. Not to worry. The image quality of this small 12-megapixel camera is perfect even for reproduction in magazines or large inkjet prints.
On our second day of diving we went to the Straits of Tiran. Our dive sites were Thomas Reef, Jackson Reef, and Far Gardens. We were now doing the typical Red Sea dives that we would be doing the rest of the week. Most of the time, we were diving a sheer wall that dropped hundreds or even thousands of feet. Usually there is a current that runs from mild to very strong. The walls are decorated with coral pinnacles of different sizes. The pinnacles are teeming with life of incredible variety. All of this is very beautiful and worth photographing with a wide-angle as well as a macro lens. By using the DX-2G, I was able to use both lenses on the same dive.
On day three we moved on to the famous Ras Mohammed National Park. This area has so many dive sites we would dive there for two days. The sites we would cover included Ras Ghazlari, Yolanda & Shark Reef, Ras Umm Sid, Ras Za'atar, Jackfish Alley, and Amphorae. Most of these sites had a strong current. Stronger currents bring in more food and more life. Taking photos in these conditions can be a challenge. It is important as you are swept along in a current not to damage the reef. Sometimes you just have to grab shots as they go flying by. You can also try to find a spot without coral to hold on to with a finger as you set up your photo. In a strong current, as we experienced at Yolanda & Shark Reef, this was very difficult. At the end of our drift, the current slacked off as we swam over a large pile of toilets and sinks. This was the cargo of a ship that sank many years ago. The cargo remains, but the shipwreck slid down to an undiveable depth.
Since many animals are active only at night, we made a night dive. It is important to have a good light, both for you to see and to allow your camera to focus. On this trip I was using the Nocturnal Light SLX- 800. This three-LED light is extremely bright, producing 800 lumens. It uses six AA batteries, giving a total run time of eight hours, with a maximum output of two hours. By changing the optics you can change the beam angle from 12 to 60 degrees. Setting it up as a spot is perfect when you're diving. The wide beam makes it great as a focus light. Add the diffuser and you can use it as a video light. The SLX-800 also allows for different handles or mounting options. I was able to attach it to a standard Sea & Sea-type head mount so I could use an Olympus short arm to connect to the housings accessory shoe. I also used a one-inch ball so I could attach it to my Fantasea strobe arms. This light will soon be available at B&H. The most interesting behavior I discovered on this night dive was that Lionfish were attracted to our lights. These creatures were hoping that the lights would attract food for them. When pointing the camera at these lionfish they would come running into the light and then follow us like puppies. It was also interesting to watch them feed.
Many in our group were shooting with small cameras in the manufacturers' housings. Glen Whelpley was shooting with a Canon Powershot G10 with the Canon WP-DC28 housing. The G10 is a remarkably good camera for its size and price. Glen was not using an external flash or wide-angle conversion lens. By carefully choosing his subjects according to the limitations of his equipment, Glen did remarkably well. Sometimes he would shoot available light but other times he would use the on-camera flash with the diffuser that came with the housing. In the clear waters of the Red Sea (and by being careful not to stir up the bottom), Glen was able to get images without backscatter that on-camera flash usually produces. By adding the reasonably priced Fantasea Remora flash and BigEye lens, Glen will be able to get closer to his subject and have more control of his lighting on his next trip. It is important to remember: it is the photographer that takes the photo; cameras and flashes are just tools.
Kelsey Smith decided still photos were not good enough and decided to shoot hi def video. He used the Sony HDR-SR11 camcorder in the Ikelite 6038.94 housing. Just like still photography, Kelsey needed to add white light to bring back the natural colors. He used two diverite LED lights. A wide-angle lens so you could get closer to your subject also helps. The Ikelite Fathom Imaging WP-80 is the perfect wide-angle solution for this housing.
One of the highlights of diving off a boat in Sharm El Sheikh is the wreck of the British cargo ship SS Thistlegorm. This wreck is an awe-inspiring World War II time capsule. The ship was launched 1940, it only completed two missions, and was sunk on its third voyage, on October 6th 1941. The Thistlegorm left the port of Glasgow, Scotland, with a full shipment of supplies. British troops stationed in Egypt needed new equipment in order to push German and Italian troops back out of Libya. The ship was to circumnavigate Africa, round the Cape of Good Hope, sail back up through the Red Sea and finally go through the Suez Canal to the Port of Alexandria. This was the longer, but supposed safer, route. While waiting to get through the Suez Canal, the ship was spotted by two German Heinkel He 111 bombers that were stationed on the island of Crete. Their original mission was to find and sink the Queen Mary. Although they were unsuccessful, they spotted the SS Thistlegorm by pure chance. At 12:35 AM, on October 6, they attacked. The planes dropped two bombs containing two tons of explosives each. The bombs landed near hold No. 4. This was close to the engine room, and where the ammunition was stored. This made the explosion even more violent, and the ship sank rapidly. Nine men out of the crew of 39 lost their lives.
The ship was carrying motorcycles, trucks, airplane parts, boots, rifles, Bren Carrier MK II tanks, locomotive train engines and other supplies the British troops needed. Our first dive was a tour of the insides of the cargo holds. Many of the supplies are still in place, as they were in 1941, ready to be unloaded. It is a fascinating dive and it feels as if you are swimming through a World War II museum. Luckily for us divers, the ship landed right-side up and intact except for the damage the bombs created. The ship sits in only 100 feet of water. Swimming around the exterior of the wreck is just beautiful. Much of the machinery is still in place and large numbers of marine life now call the Thistlegorm their home. Of special interest is the 4.7-inch anti-aircraft gun and 40mm anti-aircraft machine gun, located in the stern.
For photography I used the Olympus E-520 camera with the Olympus PT-E05 housing and UFL-2 strobes. For the shipwreck, I wanted to be able to use the Olympus ultra wide 7-14mm lens, which has the angle of view of a 14mm lens on a 35mm camera. The Sea & Sea DX-2G with conversion lens is a 16mm, but for the wreck I wanted to be able to go as wide as possible. For the wreck's interior, I wanted the extra control of the UFL-2 strobes from the back of the camera. The Thistlegorm is in the middle of the Red Sea with no protection from the wind. The seas were rough, and getting back on the boat was difficult. If I had used the Sea & Sea DX-2G, the smaller camera, even with two strobes would have been a lot easier to get on and off the boat. I used the Nocturnal SLX- 800 light as both my dive and focus light when I was penetrating the wreck.
Leaving Sharm, we headed two hours north by car to Dahab. Since the water drops off close to shore our plan was to do shore dives. Our dive operation was Sub Sinai, which is a 5 star IDC resort. Besides diving, they provide tours by camel or four-wheel drive; they provide yoga retreats and survival training in the desert. Owned by Khaled Amin and Gabriele Pointner, they have been operating Sub Sinai for eleven years. Gabriele is a PADI course director. Our dive guide was Ahmed Hafez. Here we would go by four-wheel-drive truck to such famous dive sites as the Blue Hole, The Bells, and The Canyon. The drive, and having snacks at the local restaurants, was just as much an adventure as the dives.
Entry to these sites was much harder than jumping off a boat. We had a short hike with our gear in order to enter The Bells. On all dives, small slippery rocks had to be negotiated without falling down with gear. Having the smaller size DX-2G was a help for both entering and exiting the water.
The dive site Moray Gardens is not really known for moray eels. Yet we saw three different varieties of moray eels on this site. On this dive I went back to the Olympus E-520, UFL-2 strobes, but with the 50mm macro lens. Between nudibranchs, small fish and eels, I had a great time documenting the smaller side of life on the reef. Of course, a spotted eagle ray swam close to me, laughing since my macro set-up would not allow me to photograph such a magnificent creature!
My dive partner in Dahab, Renata Rojas, used a Canon Powershot SD960 with the Ikelite compact housing to take photographs on the one dive I did not bring in a camera. Without strobes or a wide-angle lens, she created a few dramatic images. Shooting with this kind of camera rig is limiting, but when used within the equipment's limitations, you can still get great photographs. Again, this proves that it is the photographer that creates the image; the camera is just a tool.
We reluctantly left this magnificent area, where the desert meets the sea, to return to Cairo. On our last day we went to the Cairo Museum. Here you feel like you're taking a journey through a warehouse. Many of the treasures are not even labeled. The mummy rooms are extremely eerie, when you realize that you are looking at a human being that lived many centuries ago. The treasures of King Tutankhamen were another remarkable highlight. We then had dinner while floating up the Nile River, being entertained with local music. As we headed back to NY, we knew we would cherish the memories of our travels and dives, and be able to relive them through our photographs.