It happened to me
A dive in the Red Sea became a battle with a belligerent moray eel for advanced diver Jim Seymour
I was on a dive trip to Sha’ab Samadai (or ‘Dolphin House’), near Marsa Alam, in February. I was travelling with friends from Chesterfield SAC and although it was my eighth visit to the Red Sea, it was my first to Marsa Alam.
On our way to the dive site, we were thrilled to spot a large group of spinner dolphins, including several youngsters, porpoising in front of the boat. Sadly, it meant there wouldn’t be many around when we got to their ‘house’.
We had a good, if uneventful, dive – my first with my new buddy Keith. There was plenty to see and we went at a relaxed pace. After the dive, we were whisked away by RIB to snorkel with 30 or so spinner dolphins that were relaxing in the lagoon – the highlight of the itinerary.
After lunch, we were ready for our second dive, to be done in two groups. The first, smaller group, descended to the sandy bottom at around 12m and, to the surprise of us all, my mate Chris followed them down, even though not all of our own party was in the water yet. He claimed to have been checking his kit when he heard someone say ‘let’s go’, and didn’t realise it wasn’t meant for him. The rest of us exchanged puzzled glances but stayed put, waiting for him to realise his mistake. It didn’t take long, but he didn’t re-ascend, instead he pointed excitedly at a moray eel swimming behind the other divers. It wasn’t the biggest moray I’d seen but, at nearly 2m long, it was quite a monster.
The rest of us descended, and I was delighted to see the eel enter a hole in the coral, clearly heading upwards. Spotting an obvious exit from the coral, I halted my descent and got the camera ready. I have heard stories about morays reacting to camera flash, maybe mistaking it for the sun glinting off a turning fish, so switched mine off. I positioned myself about a metre and a half from the exit and waited a moment – there it was, swimming past me. Suddenly, it turned towards me, which sent a chill through me. I knew immediately that it was going to bite.
Fortunately, its first target was my fin, which I used as a shield. It took the bait but clearly wasn’t satisfied, and a titanic struggle began. My aim was to keep the moray deflected with my fin. The moray’s was to get around it to access something more tasty. At this point, Keith was quick-witted enough to take a photo rather than making any futile attempt to intervene.
There was only going to be one winner. Any ideas I had harboured about my underwater agility enabling me to evade a predator were dismissed in an instant. The moray got around my fin in no time and took a grip of my ankle. However, I was in a drysuit (it’s windy in Egypt in February) and he effectively had a mouthful of welly. This seemed to put him off because he recoiled without leaving any signs of damage, although I felt the pressure of the bite.
It was now moving up my leg and was obviously not finished. I had my camera at the ready, to give the eel something other than flesh to chew. But it had other ideas and turned to strike at my knee. Again I felt it but, maybe puzzled by the taste of my suit, the eel moved away, went up to the surface and was gone.
I was quickly surrounded by the other divers, who signalled to ask whether I was okay. Surprisingly, there was no damage, apart from several slits in my suit. I composed myself, located Keith, and away we went.
‘I’ve never seen that before,’ said our guide as we surfaced. ‘I wanted to help but didn’t know what to do. I was so relieved that it was you and not one of the less experienced ones!’
It was a potentially serious attack by a creature capable of causing real damage. We were more than an hour from shore in a fairly remote area, and I’d rather not think about what could have happened if I’d been wearing a shorty. I’ll be packing a full-length suit again and staying a bit further back next time.