We saw the tourist plane descending over the town, and a couple of hours later, with all our guests on board and already wearing their bathing suits and sipping cold drinks, happy and excited about the lovely sea and the start of their vacation, we cast off and set course for the Coral Island, a few miles south of Eilat and the site of our first dive.
Werner Bauer was the eldest of the lot but in good shape; he looked like one of those strict but honourable German officers in those war films and even bore a slight resemblance to Kurt Jurgens.
Helga Schmidt, his companion, looked at first like any other pretty and well-built young woman, very much the efficient secretary type. However, as soon as she reappeared in a bikini and stretched out in a deckchair it transpired that she was not just well-built but had a most marvellous body; and from then on I started noticing other things which bode ill for my peace of mind on this particular cruise. Her greenish-blue eyes had a way of changing shades like the sea over the reefs. She had a lovely husky voice, a beautiful full mouth with upcurled corners, and a mass of wavy, light, but not quite blond hair. The finishing touch, something without which, to me, no woman can be truly beautiful, was some slight, hardly noticeable sadness in her eyes when caught offguard.
Be still, my heart, I said to myself; she is chasse gardee, the official cabin-sharing girlfriend of a special guest. You will survive it for a fortnight and then she will be out of your life, leaving you free for d'autres cieux et d'autres amours. But note how the blasted girl's presence steers you towards French poetry.
Although there was no personal physical resemblance, Max Hoffmann could have been Werner's son, or perhaps one of the junior officers under his command in one of those films. He was clearly a sportsman, which was nothing incompatible with a young European insurance agent. They have the means and the possibilities, the beaches in summer and the ski slopes in winter, with local swimming pools and the tennis courts in between. Max was from Frankfurt like Maria, and when they discovered this they got together to chat about their home town. Maria threw me a couple of half-guilty and half-quizzical glances; she seemed a little apologetic about getting friendly with Max so quickly, but also noticing my interest in Helga Schmidt.
Pierre Dubois and Claude Duchesne were slightly younger than Max - early twenties to his late ones - but they seemed to have succumbed quicker to office life and good food. Claude was the taller, leaner, and clean-shaven one of the two, a more silent and intellectual type, while Pierre was short and stocky, with a full black beard and the beginnings of a belly. Olaf Jorgensen, the Norwegian soldier with the UN in Lebanon, was the youngest of the lot, with close-cropped blond hair and blue eyes. He spoke both English and German but neither very well; and, through a combination of his shaky English which was the international language here, natural shyness, and simply good manners, he listened more than he spoke, with occasional appreciative though respectful glances at Helga and Maria.
We rounded a little promontory and the Coral Island came into view.
"Oh, look," Helga said; "there are ruins of a castle on it! How old are they?"
"It's a Crusader one; don't believe anyone who tries to tell you it dates back to the Pharaohs."
"Did the Crusaders get this far south?"
"For a while, yes. By the way, it's not a real coral island, just an offshore rock which has accumulated some coral. Alright, let's start getting ready for our first dive, beginning with a briefing. I suggest Helga buddy-dives with Werner and Pierre with Claude; this way we'll have two teams which have already dived together; and Max with Olaf. I'll be leading, with Bob at the back and Maria in the middle. I suggest no complicated photographic equipment on this first dive because it's your introduction to the coral reef and you might feel better with both hands free. Now let me scare vou a little, for your own good. The most dangerous fish you can run into, and it's quite common around here, is not the shark or the barracuda - I'll get back to these two later - but something called a stone fish because it looks like a stone and lies motionless on the bottom and won't move aside for you. It grows to about thirty centimetres but most are smaller; this is a picture of it, in this guide. Now, the thing's got poisonous spines on its back. To get those spines into your foot or hand you have to step or lean on it, but if it's a large fish and one of the spines reaches one of the larger blood vessels, you could be dead within twenty minutes. A lesser penetration can still send you to the hospital for a couple of very painful days. The fish is so well camouflaged that it is practically invisible to an untrained eye, and I'll point out to you any we come across so that you can recognize them, as well as the spots they're likely to be found in; it's often rock ledges. Remember that it won't make way for you; to budge it you have to prod it with your snorkel or the handle of your diving knife."
"How about the point of the knife?" Pierre asked dryly.
"Absolutely no. There are strict regulations concerning nature protection along this coast and we do not, repeat, do not, kill, spear, catch, collect, remove, or displace anything around here; we leave the coral reef exactly as we found it.
Now, the next nuisance, and the most common one, is the sea urchin. The spines are long and brittle, break off easily, stay in the wound, and cause pain and infection. Your wet suits, gloves, and fins offer good protection but they can still be penetrated, so watch where you put your hands and feet, and what a current, if any, presses you against. Next on the list is fire coral, the brittle yellowish one with the flat rounded branches. If you touch it with your bare hand it stings for a while but that passes soon unless you have very sensitive skin or are allergic; it's best to wear a pair of these canvas gloves at all times because, not to be outdone, the coral that doesn't sting usually has razor-sharp edges which can cut your hand. Even the water itself is a little treacherous; it is so clear, and the light so strong, that things look nearer than they really are, and you can easily find yourself deeper than you think you are and exceed the forty metres limit, so please keep an eye on your depth gauge at all times. Now, for some other fish ..."
"Aaah," said Pierre with delight," here come the barracudas and the sharks."
"Yes, and I am sorry to disappoint you because there's practically no danger from either. Let's take the barracuda first. You will see schools of the smaller ones, and occasionally a large solitary one, sort of peering over your shoulder to see what you're doing but it's nothing to worry about. All the reports of barracuda attacks come from murky waters, with the barracuda mistaking some flashy metal object on the diver for a fish, but there is no such risk here. Now, about the sharks, once again starting with the good news. There has not been a single case, repeat, not a single case, of a shark attack on a diver in these waters in living memory, or, to be more exact, since Israel became a state in 1948 and since it occupied the Sinai in 1967. To be perfectly truthful, there was one case of an attack on a swimmer, not a diver, in Eilat some years ago. It was a German girl tourist, swimming far offshore in some splashy style, and splashing on the surface is one of the things you don't do in shark waters; I'll come back to this in a moment. There was also a rumour that she was having her period at the time and that it might have attracted the shark, but that's a debated point. By the way, she was not killed, only bitten in the leg and shoulder before she was rescued. We're not likely to see any sharks on this particular dive, but there are sure to be some later on, especially at a place called the Shark Reef, near Sharm-el-Sheikh; as a matter of fact it's a place we take tourists to see sharks because they're there every time."
"When is the next plane to Europe?" Pierre asked briskly, and everyone laughed. It looked like he was going to be the joker of the group.
"Please understand, Pierre," I said gently. "We've got to have those sharks down there. You've come a long way and paid serious money for this vacation, and we can't possibly let you go back to say you've dived the Red Sea without seeing any sharks. In case of understandable initial hesitation, Bob and I will be glad to drag you down by force to see them."
"Thank you ever so much in advance, Cobi."
"You're welcome. Now, there's been considerable research done on what attracts sharks and makes them bite, all of it good news again. They are not interested in divers moving slowly along the bottom or the face of a reef, only in fish which are their natural food and which are plentiful around here. They are able to sense vibrations or splashing from afar and will come to investigate because it might mean a wounded fish which makes an easy meal. They are also able to smell fish blood from half a kilometre away, and this is sure to bring them in, in a biting frenzy. So the worst thing you can do in shark waters is spear fishing, especially if you keep your catch on a stringer attached to your belt; you then have between five and twenty minutes until the sharks arrive, depending on the distance and the current. Luckily, spear fishing is strictly taboo on this coast, and God help anyone the authorities catch as much as taking a speargun out of his car. By the way, sports rod-and-line fishing is allowed in some areas, and we shall do some trolling between the dives. The coast Bedouin are also allowed to fish with nets because it's part of their livelihood; but the best reefs are fully protected, and that's where we're going to do all our diving."
"We'll meet the Bedouin, won't we? According to our program we interrupt the cruise to visit them?"
"Yes, it's a two-day trip on camelback, spending a night at one of their camps in the desert and everything. You will come back expert camel riders and, especially if we catch a particularly nasty heat wave or a sand-storm, just about dying to get into the water again. By the way, the water here is always cold, even in mid-summer. Without a full wet suit you're likely to start shivering after a quarter of an hour, and of course it's also good protection against all sorts of cuts and scratches."
"By the way, Cobi; is this really any good against sharks?" asked Max, taking out of his bag a slick slim blue- anodized bangstick. "In the shop where I bought it they said it's the latest model, and an absolute must in shark waters. I've got a dozen cartridges for it."
"Is it for banging them on the head?" Pierre asked.
"No," I said, "although there is something called a shark billy, a simple stick to prod them on the head if they get too close, and it's surprising how often and how well it works. This one can also be used like that, but it also has a small explosive charge in front, usually a waterproofed shotgun shell and a trigger to set it off, complete with a safety catch because it's a proper firearm and you have to be as careful with it as with a pistol. If you touch it to a shark's head, the nearer the brain the better, and pull the trigger, it kills the thing on the spot, the added benefit being that if there are other sharks around they usually start making a dinner out of him while you get away. It's a reassuring thing to carry in shark waters; we have two of them and always take them down with us near the Shark Reef, although we've never had to use them yet and hope we never will. Is it a German make?"
"Yes; it's a new company making all sorts of sports equipment."
It was a well-made bangstick, with a surgical rubber wrist loop at the back and a quickly detachable protective metal cap over the muzzle. This cap puzzled me a little. It had a so- called bayonet mount, two L-shaped slots matching two pins on the barrel, which enabled the cap to be put on and removed by a simple push-and-twist or twist-and-pull motion. It was knurled on the outside for better grip, and anodized a slightly darker blue than the rest of the bangstick, which made me think for a moment that it might have been custom-made; but different batches of components do sometimes come out of the anodizing bath with slight differences of shade.
"What happens if you forget to remove the cap before you fire?" I asked Max. "Mightn't the front end explode?"
"I asked them that in the shop and they said the front part of the cap is very thin and would just blow out without any other damage, while in the meantime it does its job of keeping out sand and mud. By the way, I have replaced the original braided nylon wrist strap with this rubber one, and on my torch as well. All the diving manuals say this is the proper way, in case something you carry gets stuck in a crevice and you want to free your hand quickly."
"Yes, it's good practice."
The surgical rubber wrist-strap made the bangstick resemble those simple fish spears where a similar loop goes over the diver's hand. To cock the spear you stretch the rubber by moving your hand forward and grasping the shaft firmly. Then, after you point the spear at a fish and let go, the spear jumps forward, much faster than you could propel it with your hand.
"Before we start gearing up", I said, "a small bureaucratic formality; may I see your diving cards and logbooks, please? I know you have them but the Israel Scuba Diving Association insists on every instructor personally checking those of anyone he's taking below. And by the way don't forget to enter your dives in your logbooks and have them stamped with the official Sinbad seal."
All the diving cards and logbooks were in order. Leafing through the logbooks, I noticed that Werner had the most dives in the group, close to a hundred; Helga and Max were the most recent newcomers to the sport, with a couple of dozen each, while Pierre, Claude, and Olaf were somewhere in-between. Max's inexperience showed when he attached the regulator to his tank the wrong way round, with the mouthpiece upside down. He discovered the mistake himself, almost at once, with some apologetic words about not having dived for over two months.
I had reminded them that the first thing to do in preparation for a dive is to stop hurrying, and they were gearing up leisurely and discussing the relative merits and disadvantages of the various types of depth gauges, air regulators, and diving watches they have brought with them. Werner had one of those expensive Omega watches with the large heavy angular stainless steel case and a red button to lock the bezel ring, with his initials engraved on the case. It was one of the biggest and heaviest diving watches on the market, and Pierre asked innocently:
"Don't you need a license for it?"
This was the second time he made what might have been taken for a provocative remark, both times to a German, and I gave him a little quizzical glance, hoping he would understand it as a polite request not to introduce any unnecessary tensions on this cruise. But Werner only laughed and said:
"Yes, I suppose it could be classified as a blunt weapon; perhaps if we get in trouble with a shark and Max misses with his bangstick, I can hit it on the head with this watch."
By now Sinbad was anchored in the lee of the Coral Island and we were ready to go in. The last few minutes on the deck, with rubber suits, heavy tanks and weightbelts, and with the sun beating down are always uncomfortable, and rivulets of sweat were beginning to run down our faces.
"One last thing," I said, "to make sure we're all using the same signs underwater. This ( a ring of thumb and first finger) is "OK", both question and answer. This ( hand pointing to mouth) - a request for air. A hand across the throat - "Am Out of Air". Twirling your hand like this, "Something Wrong". Thumb up, "Going Up", thumb down, "Going Down"; hand pointing like this, "This Way". One last thing: If you don't already have a whistle attached to your safety vest you are now getting one as a present from Sinbad; it's a cheap plastic model but very loud and perfect for the job. If you're on the surface and merely want to attract attention, give one long whistle and wait before repeating. If you're in trouble and need help urgently it's three short whistles, repeated, if need be, at short intervals. Please remember; the three short whistles are for real emergency; don't give them by mistake or as a joke, because someone might risk his neck trying to get to you as fast as possible. All right, we jump off here, vest partly inflated, one hand on the mask, the other holding the tank down. We wait until the one before has surfaced and swam aside. We get together on the surface, by the anchor cable, and then go down together. I wish you a very pleasant first dive in the Red Sea."
Werner stepped forward through the little gate in the railing, dropped the couple of metres to the water, resurfaced, gave the OK sign, and swam away towards the bows. I noticed with smug satisfaction that he did so with his face in the water, getting his first glimpse of the coral reef below, and it never failed to fascinate a newcomer. I myself, a jaded old- timer, have never quite forgotten the wonder of my first sight of it and would always relive some of it at the start of each dive.
A few minutes later we were on the bottom, around the anchor, in about ten metres of water. Everyone in turn gave the OK sign, and some repeated it pointing at the corals around us. The masks and regulators made the faces expressionless, but I knew that the reef was fast getting hold of them.
I led the file down the sloping bottom, stopping to point out the giant shells, the various kinds of coral, and an evil- looking head of moray eel peering out from a hole in a rock. We also spooked a blue-spotted sting ray buried under a thin layer of sand with only the eyes protruding, and it took off with graceful undulations like a bird flying. Then I spotted a stonefish, the villain of my recent briefing. Gathering our group around it I pointed it out to them and then, prodding it with the handle of my diving knife, made it shift slightly aside and sink again into invisibility. They hung around the stonefish, fascinated as if by a deadly snake in a zoo, except that here there was no glass or mesh separating us. Max also drew his knife and, holding it by the blade, gave the stonefish another prod with the handle and made it shift aside again.
Afterwards, before replacing his knife in the sheath strapped to the calf of his leg, he sat down on a rock, got hold of the long forelock of blond hair which had been getting in front of his mask and obscuring his view ever since the beginning of the dive, and cut it off with one pass of the sharp knife; he was not going to let it interfere with his diving for the next fortnight. The group applauded silently while Maria pretended to wipe a tear off her face. I was also impressed. Max must have been rather proud of his longish, blond, carefully trimmed and combed hair. Even though the forelock would grow back again in due time, there were two pretty girls on board in the meantime to impress, and the underwater haircut was a brave and manly thing to do on the spur of the moment. If all German insurance agents were like this, I wondered what their commandos must be like.
Back on deck after the dive, enthusiasm was high and words like "fantastic", "terrific", "unbelievable", and "out of this world" were flying about while bottles of cold soft drinks were being opened. (I had advised against beer or wine at this stage because we were diving again in the afternoon.)
After a light lunch, while Sinbad was chugging southward to our next diving site, Bob and I rigged out two deep-sea fishing rods astern, with feathered lures skipping the surface behind the boat's wake. For a while nothing happened, and then a medium-sized tuna hit one of the lures and the line began to go out with the whir of the heavy reel. The deck sprung into action. I let Werner take the rod and strapped him into the seat, with a few words of advice on setting the brake and playing the fish, while Bob took the wheel to handle the boat so that the fish could be played and brought in with less risk of breaking the line, and Ron went to look for the gaff. Twenty minutes later we had the tuna on deck. It was a lovely round solid fish almost a metre long. As soon as Ron took it towards the galley, to be killed by a blow on the head out of the girls's sight, another one of the same size hit the second lure. I offered the rod to Helga, but she passed it up in favour of Pierre who seemed very keen. The two fish determined our meal for the evening: fresh grilled tuna steaks, one of the most delicious meals the sea could offer.
In the afternoon, after a light lunch and a rest on the sundeck, we reached our next diving site, had coffee, geared up, and went down again. This new reef, not particularly deep at between fifteen and twenty metres, was even more picturesque than the one before, wilder and more jagged. I led our guests, one by one, through a coral archway cloudy with masses of small red fish, and afterwards we glided over a veritable forest of fan-shaped, flat-topped coral, as if flying slowly and low over savannah trees. The majority of the colourful fish which fascinate from the pages of illustrated books about tropical seas were right there, seemingly tame and sometimes even sluggish. We saw several lionfish, their long striped fins outspread, floating in the shade of the corals like tropical birds or flowers, almost allowing the divers to touch them (which, having been warned that they are only slightly less poisonous cousins of the stonefish, nobody tried.) One of the huge-mouthed groupers we saw must have been over a metre long. Then, towards the end of the dive, we met a fairly large turtle and I caught up with it and, holding on to the sides of the carapace, rode it for a while before letting it go. (I told them afterwards that one should not hold a turtle down too long because it might run out of air and drown .)
Back on deck, our guests were as enthusiastic about this dive as about the first one except that now they were already talking about the new things they have seen. I promised them that they would probably see something new on practically every dive during our cruise and they were happy to hear it.
"You know," Helga said to me over a drink as the sun was going down, "last night I was still in Hamburg and it was cold and rainy, and now all this, and home is all of a sudden far away and unimportant. I mean it happens on every vacation to some extent, but here it is much stronger."
I nodded and smiled, and noticed with a pang that Helga's eyes at that moment were exactly the colour of the sea behind her, something I have seen in only one other girl, some years before, and who had left me with a nasty scar in my heart. I wondered whether Helga had smuggled a hint into her remark about the remoteness and unimportance of Hamburg down here, perhaps including in it her relations with Werner, but I could not be sure. One of the worst things a skipper of a diving yacht can get himself into is seducing a guest's wife or girlfriend, unless she clearly throws herself at him, in which case utmost discretion and secrecy are called for. There would be time enough to investigate the situation in this case. The first couple of days of a cruise are always the busiest, with everything settling down and people getting to know one another.
There was also a vague uncomfortable feeling: something was bothering me about Max Hoffmann.
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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