The Bone Garden
A Visit to the World's Deadliest Dive Site
By Maik Grossekathöfer in Dahab, Egypt
It doesn't have the nicest coral formations nor the most fish. But the Blue Hole in the Gulf of Aqaba is a magnet for divers, primarily because of its reputation. Dozens of adventurers have lost their lives here over the years and, when they do, Tarek Omar pulls them back to the surface.
Tarek Omar says that he doesn't know exactly how many bodies he has recovered. "I stopped counting at some point," he says. But he can still remember the names of the first two he pulled up from the depths of the Red Sea, bringing them back onto the Egyptian shore.
"They were Conor O'Regan and Martin Gara. Irish. They were considered cautious divers. Both died here on Nov. 19, 1997. They were only 22 and 23. Sad."
Omar is sitting under an awning on the edge of the desert, drinking tea with milk and looking out over the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba, which wash against the east coast of the Sinai. The nearest settlement, the resort town of Dahab, is 10 kilometers (six miles) to the south.
"I found the bodies at a depth of 102 meters (335 feet)," says Omar. "They were holding each other in an embrace. This is how it must have happened: One of them had problems and kept sinking deeper down. The other wanted to help him. And then both of them lost consciousness. What can you do? Their memorial stone is up there."
He steps out of the shade and walks along a dusty path. Sunburned tourists in life vests are snorkeling in the water. At the end of the cliff-lined bay, Omar stops walking and points to a slab of black marble set into the ground, with the words "In Loving Memory" inscribed onto it. "It's only one of many memorials," he says, and turns around.
"There…," he says, pointing to a white panel in the cliff: "Yuri, a Russian. On April 28, 2000. Terrible story. Was lying at a depth of 115 meters." Nearby is a black-and-red panel. "James, June 1, 2003. At 135 meters. And then here," he says pointing to a gray plaque, "Andrei, another Russian. Aug. 24, 2004. I didn't find the body. At 170 meters, there is a tank and a neoprene suit; it might have been his equipment."
Because It's the Most Dangerous
The dead also include Karl Marx, an Austrian: Jan. 10, 2007. Stefan Felder from Switzerland: Sept. 23, 2008. Madlen, a diving instructor from Sachsenhausen: May 9, 2009. The beach looks like a cemetery.
There are 14 memorial stones dedicated to divers who have lost their lives in the Blue Hole, an opening of about 80 meters in diameter in the roof of the barrier reef. Its walls taper down like the sides of a funnel, but there is an opening. At a depth of 52 meters, an arch opens into a 26-meter-long tunnel that leads through the reef and into the open sea. The floor of the tunnel slopes from a depth of 102 meters down to 120 meters. On the other side, the seafloor drops in increments, first to 130 meters, then to 150, 250, 300 and, finally, to 800 meters.
It is 10 a.m., and 23 SUVs are bumping along the road to the Blue Hole, where they unload guests from Sharm el-Sheikh. A woman in red bikini briefs and flip-flops takes a picture of the memorial site. It's a popular subject.
There are more attractive dive sites than the Blue Hole of Dahab, with more colorful corals, and more fish, shipwrecks, channels and caves. But the Blue Hole is considered to be most famous diving spot in the world -- because it's the most dangerous.
There is no official list, but Omar estimates that more than 130 divers have lost their lives in the hole in the last 15 years. He compares what is happening in the Blue Hole to the madness on Mount Everest.
There is likely no one who knows more about the Blue Hole than Omar. He was the first to explore the hole, touch the bottom and see the bodies on the ocean floor. He still holds the depth record in the area: 209 meters.
The locals in Dahab tell the legend of how the soul of a dead girl lures the divers to her. She is taking revenge on her father, a general who once forced his daughter to drown herself in the Blue Hole. "I know every corner down there, and I haven't seen anything," says Omar. "No monster and no mermaid."
'The Parents Want a Burial'
Omar, 47, born in a village near the border with Libya, is a Bedouin from the Aulad Ali tribe. He has a slim build, gray side-whiskers and friendly eyes. He wears the white jellabiya, a shirt-like robe, along with a turban, sandals and Ray-Ban aviator glasses. Omar owns two mobile phones and an iPad.
He came to Dahab in 1989, looking for a job. In 1992, Omar learned to dive, and he began working as an instructor three years later. Since then, he has undertaken all the missions in the Blue Hole, he says. A "mission" is what Omar calls bringing a dead body to the surface.
He says that he doesn't wait long to recover a body, usually two or three days, but no more than seven. "The parents want a burial." Besides, he adds, the body looks terrible when it remains in the water for too long. Because of the crabs, he says. When that happens, it's better to leave it down below.
Omar squeezes into his neoprene suit ahead of a dive into the hole, but only for fun today. "It isn't difficult to dive in the Blue Hole. On the contrary," he says, "but that's what makes it risky." Many divers underestimate the hole, he says, which quickly turns it into a trap.
The Blue Hole is easy to reach. It doesn't take a boat to get there, and you don't even have to swim out to it. You just hop in. It's about 10 meters from a beach chair to the Blue Hole. The water is warm, there is no current and visibility is good.
When Omar slides down into the water, he floats like an astronaut in space, remaining almost motionless. The light and the colors gradually disappear, first red and later orange and yellow. In the end there is nothing but blue, hence the name.
The light returns at a depth of about 45 meters. It's the most beautiful in the morning, when the sun rises over Saudi Arabia and shines directly through the tunnel into the Blue Hole. It's a mystical sight, one that also attracts divers who shouldn't be down there.
The makeshift cemetery on the beach in Dahab. This image dates back a few years...the number of deaths has increased since then.
Easy entry sign says it all. Too unregulated and open for anyone to give it a try.
It's called the Blue Hole for a reason. Mesmerizing to the eyes and to the senses.