it happened to me
An unusual encounter in the Red Sea teaches Sinead Lenehan the importance of keeping control, whatever the situation
I’ve been diving for four years and am a BSAC sports diver, but I’m rather nervous of meeting sharks and am apprehensive whenever I jump into a dive site called ‘shark reef’ or ‘shark point’ or similar. I blame it on watching Jaws at an impressionable age.
This summer, my boyfriend and I were on holiday in Egypt. We were staying near Marsa Alam and had booked ourselves a day trip to dive at Shaab Sharm, a reef a 40-minute boat ride from the dive centre. It was meant to be a good place to spot sharks – hammerheads in particular – so I was rather nervous about the experience, but also tired of shore diving at the house reef.
I only had a shortie wetsuit with me – though I was a little chilly on the deeper dives, I was willing to put up with the odd shiver because I find it so much easier to move around without
a full-length suit on.
We’d completed the first dive on the east and south side of the reef. There was a gentle current guiding us around the steep wall, and all eyes were on the blue for large visitors.
Our second dive was on the reef’s west side. Almost as soon as we dropped in, I noticed a fish I’d never seen before. It was long, thin, and silver with a large, flatish head.
And it was behaving oddly. Completely unfazed by us divers, it approached really close. Like a puppy, it went from one diver to another, swimming closer and closer. And then another appeared, smaller and darker than the first, but behaving in exactly the same way.
I watched as the silver fish approached another diver in our group. It was hovering above her tank as she was swimming along. Then it was below her fins, undaunted by the prospect of being kicked in the head. She became aware of it, and tried to bat it away, but it just came closer. It wasn’t going to go anywhere, and the harder she tried to scare it away, the more it seemed determined to stick by her.
I was really rather wary of this fish by now. I was watching it constantly, praying it didn’t come closer to me, as it nipped from one member of our group to another.
But it soon turned its attention to me. I stopped swimming, and hung in the water, hoping it would go away. This tactic worked for a while – the fish lost interest and headed to my buddy.
I swam on. But suddenly felt something at my legs – the fish had brushed me! In fact, it had tried to suck on to the bare skin of my legs!
I’m sure all you knowledgeable divers out there have worked out by now that what we had encountered were remora. These hitchhikers attach themselves to sharks, rays and other large animals for protection and as an easy way of getting from place to place. At the time I had only a hazy notion of what these fish were. All I knew was it was trying to bite my leg. I desperately tried to bat it away. I was wriggling around, in danger of shooting to the surface as I did so, and for a moment I panicked.
I was lucky my buddy was by my side. Without fear, he batted the fish away, and calmed me down. We took a minute or two to breathe and continued. Throughout the dive, the remora fish stayed with us, but I was in control now, and though I was still unnerved by their behaviour, swimming under my fins, or at my shoulder, neither fish attempted to suck onto me again.
Unfortunately for the other divers in the group (though I didn’t mind so much), that encounter was the closest we got to a shark that day – being mistaken for one.
So what did I learn from the experience? Well, wear a longer wetsuit, for one thing. And also, keep your cool, whatever is happening. The only danger I was in was from my own reaction to the situation – the fish itself presented no threat whatsoever. But if I had panicked, there could have been serious consequences for me, my buddy and everyone we were diving with.