Colonel Sameh Adel Mesharafa (Officer in the Egyptian Marine Guards & National Underwater Photographer Champion) was born in Egypt on 25th February 1959, and graduated from the Egyptian Police Academy in 1979. It is interesting to know his criteria included training in firearms, firefighting, diving, and all types of life-saving and crime prevention skills. He completed an intensive six-month diving course with the Marines in 1981 - diving both in fresh as well as salty water. This enabled him to choose his specialty as a first-rank officer in the Egyptian Marine Guards, with its headquarters situated in Garden City, Cairo. Then, to broaden his spheres, Col. Mesharafa achieved his Bachelors degree in Commerce from the Cairo University in 1985 and then took a computer course at the American University in Cairo. Now, he has his own diving center in Cairo (Scuba Fun Club, in Digla, Maadi) where his rates are the best in Egypt, as far as I know. The good thing about his diving courses (for foreign guests) is that the fees are equal to what the Egyptians pay, and his course is considered fifty per cent less expensive than other dive centers.
Sameh Mesharafa is a board member of the Egyptian Underwater Sports Federation, (sports and life-saving) which is affiliated to the Ministry of Youth, and recently also a member of the international board “Confederation Mondiale d’Activités Sportifs“ (CMAS) situated in Italy.
Mysterious Drowning in Hurghada
According to Mesharafa, smuggling via the Nile is nil. It occurs instead usually at ports or along the seacoasts. But Col. Mesharafa was sent to investigate the recent October 2002 drowning of three Diving Instructors in Hurghada. One (Polish Diving Instructor) managed to emerge, but his two colleagues, (also Polish and diving instructors) were probably held down by their heavy equipment (which included 7 air tanks) and sunk into a deep abyss beneath the normal diving limits. There bodies were never recovered. During that same week, Colonel Sameh Mesharafa made a round on all the diving centers in Hurghada to check out all the boats and diving equipment available and ensure their validity and safety.
I asked Mesharafa if he ever won any medals for saving someone. And he said that once, when there was a German delegation from the Red Cross, and while he was with them in front of the Shepheard’s Hotel, he got a duty call announcing that a young lady just threw herself into the Nile. In two seconds, Colonel Mesharafa navigated pell-mell to the scene of the suicide attempt, with the German delegation in tow, and was just in time to catch her by her hair, and drag her up to safety. Then, he performed first aid mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and saved her life. Afterwards, he got a lot of press reviews and acclaims through the Red Cross, in Germany, who thanked him for his bravery. However, the ungrateful drowning woman said, “Why did you save me? I wanted to die!” He said that she is still alive, and to his knowledge, has not attempted another suicide.
Col. Mesharafa explained that most Police Guard boats patrol the Nile River, and some stay afloat underneath the bridges, specifically for suicide attempts! There are at least 400 police boats (small and big) along the Nile River. The other boats within the Red Sea area are military boats, belonging to the navy, and not police boats.
Marines’ Retirement Age
As for the retirement age from the Marines, Col. Mesharafa said they apply the normal retiring age (60 in Egypt), with the difference that from 45-up, a Marine Guard works in the supervisory capacity for the team, rather that dive and participate in diving. But, these Marines are trained to keep fit. For instance, in the hour I chatted with Colonel Sameh Mesharafa, I noticed his beautiful smile ‘TV toothpaste ad’ (touch wood!!) He doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t drink coffee. He is probably also a ‘health food’ nut, and probably orders only Diet Coke! (Col. Sameh Mesharafa, I suggest that you add one more course to your criteria: nutrition and health behaviour!)
To Colonel Sameh Mesharafa’s expert knowledge, the two worst Nile pollutants are the floating hotels’ dish and laundry detergents, and chemical waste discharged from factories, as well as all the restaurant boats. He reassured me that all harmful factories have closed down or have been lawfully relocated elsewhere, with the exception of one or two, in which they use special filters. However, he said that the filters are not adequate for pollution prevention, and added that these remaining factories will soon be shut down or relocated, as well.
You can learn how to dive in the city, before going to the beach resorts! Now, during his spare time, Col. Sameh Mesharafa gives diving lessons, right here in Cairo, and teaches diving at the Oasis Diving School in Maadi and other schools. I asked him how could a person learn to dive, in the center of the city away from the sea. He informed me that there are some diving centers in Cairo, and the beginners start with special training in swimming pools. In his diving center, the whole intensive course takes about 3 days: first, the students take five diving lessons in a swimming pool, then they go to Ein El-Sokhna for a one-day 15-meter dive, and finish their course at Sharm El-Sheikh for 15 to 20 meters dives. The successful divers are all given diving certificates, which enables them to dive anywhere in Egypt, and abroad. The certificate is graded in levels 1 to 3 ‘stars’, and one must earn at least a 2-star diving certificate in order to dive. (Fee of this course includes the certificate, and the transportation to Ein El-Sokhna, but understandably, divers have to pay their fares to and back from Sharm El-Sheikh.) As for the diving instructors themselves, they also have grades 1 to 3-star certificates, but their certificates differ from the divers’ certificate, and are much more difficult to achieve. At present, Colonel Mesharafa is a 3-star (highest ranking) diving instructor.
Dive Clubs in Egypt
Colonel Mesharafa stated that there are 650 to 750 dive clubs in all of Egypt, but only 5 in Cairo. As for the Red Sea area: in Sharm El-Sheikh, Dahab, Taba, Nuweiba, 350, and Hurghada, Marsa Allam and Safaga, over 280 dive clubs.
I asked Mesharafa when had he developed his u/w diving talent. He answered that he was already a talented land (above water) photographer, so when he started diving, he loved the beauty he saw underneath, and decided to learn underwater photography. Only two years afterwards, he entered his first competition; the first international competition in Sharm El-Sheikh in 1986, with 70 international contestants. By the way, his favourite colour is turquoise, and he likes to listen to light music, singers Abdel-Halim Hafez, and Anoushka.
He also teaches underwater photographing, for professionals divers. I enquired if his students generally they take diving courses to learn how to dive, or to learn how to photograph. His answer was “yes”, to both. “There are some”, he stated, “who really want to learn underwater photography, but you have to be an extremely good diver to begin with.”
I asked if the sea creatures and fish look the same beneath the water, as when they are photographed, and he answered that if you don’t have a flashlight, and don’t already know the natural colours, then they look different. But once the spotlight or flash bulb depicts them, you see their natural colours. In short, they are the same as seen in photographs.
Photographing in the Nile is different. He tried it, but said that visibility ‘is zero’; after 5 meters the water is dense and murky due to the mud sedimentation. Also, the current is very strong; after three minutes in the water, you find yourself pulled two or three kilometers downstream.
The Red Sea water is different, he said, and the Nile River doesn’t have the same beautiful coloured specimens and sea creatures as in the Red Sea. “You must never dive alone”, he added. There has to be a minimum of two divers; one, the photographer, and the second, as a model (to be included in the photos and scenery) while at the same time to carry the spare flashlight and equipment.
Photography Competition Category:
To participate in international underwater photography competitions, you must produce three types of photos:
1. Wide Angle
3. Marine Life (this may, or may not, include a diver in the scenery)
Each diver has to have at least four films available. Out of the four films, he will select only 6 photos in which to enter the competition. Then the panel of judges will evaluate his selection, along with all the other competitors.
Photography Competitions & Prizes
Sameh Mesharafa entered his first local competition in 1992. He participated in his first international competition in 1996 in Sharm El-Sheikh, which was one of the biggest underwater photography championships. There were about 80 competitors, from various countries, and it did not daunt him that he achieved 24th place for a “close-up” photo. He said that close-up photos are difficult, because there are no ‘zoom’ lenses underwater, therefore the photographers must really get close. At a later date, he achieved 11th place in a competition in Hurghada, which was organized by an Italian association. He won other prizes and reached second place in one and first prize in another. Now, he is the top ceded champion on a national level for underwater photography, and has won prizes consecutively for the past four years, starting in 1998, where he won second prize, for a “close-up” photo. In 1999, he was awarded three prizes for 3 photos: one “close-up”, and two “wide angle” photos. In 2000, he participated in an international championship in Safaga where his group represented Egypt, and the group won 9th place for the world cup, in which 70 countries participated. Col. Mesharafa attended also the the international competition, in December 2002, in Jordan, but we did not discuss the winners, or if he participated in the contests.
Starting Age for Underwater Photography
Colonel Sameh Mesharafa said that you could start at any age to learn how to dive, but preferably not before fourteen. If you are already a good land photographer, he said, then you can also become a good underwater photographer. According to him, any person can enter any type of photography competition, and does not necessarily have to be a member of a Photography Federation. His should hand his request to the Ministry of Culture in Cairo, who will then advise the candidate on the procedures.
Col. Sameh Mesharafa explained that the first thing you need to buy, is the ‘mask’ (like goggles), the fins, and the “B.C.D.” contraption (which is like a jacket that connects to the air tank. When I said, “You mean ‘oxygen’ tank,” he answered, “No, just plain air.”) Of course you need to get the diving suit as well, and a ‘regulator’ (an extension which attaches to the air-tank), an ‘octopus’ (which is a spare regulator with a longer extension). You could by these items, and all other accessories at some of the diving centers in Cairo before leaving to the beaches, (including Mesharafa’s Scuba Fun diving center in Maadi).
Cameras for Beginners & Professionals
The best type of camera, for beginners, is the “Sea & Sea Motor Marine”, which is a reasonably affordable and lightweight camera (Japanese-make that comes with its flash). As for professional and intermediate photographers, Nikon’s specialized series for under water “Nikonos” (Nikonos III, V, RS). The latest model is Nikonos RS, consisting of two flashes and the lenses. It costs (now hold your breaths, ladies and gentlemen)…L.E.40,000 – (the price of a tiny chalet!) There are more expensive models, believe it or not. Needless to say, this is an extremely expensive hobby, so if you’re not very rich, then you have to be really great at underwater photography in order to sell your work somehow. The problem nowadays, say Mesharafa, is that most advertisers just sneak pictures from the internet, which costs them nothing. Thus, less work for the talented divers! And, less money. Also many normal land cameras can be used with watertight housings. Usually most shops don’t keep specialized underwater cameras at stock. However, I believe any authorized Nikon dealer can make a special order, or you could ask a traveling friend to buy it from abroad. You could buy your diving gear from Cairo, before going to the beach resorts, from many shops, and even at some large chain supermarkets, such as the Alfa Supermarket. Or, take a chance a buy directly from Sharm El-Sheikh. There are many shops there for diving gear, especially in Na’ama Bay.
First Steps in Diving
“What is the very first thing you must teach your divers?” I asked, to which he replied: “The first thing one must learn in diving is how to clean the ‘mask’. That is, when water seeps through the mask underwater, one must learn how to remove the water inside without deluging the mask, then how to put it back on dry. The second lesson is how to keep your balance and buoyancy underwater, while at the same time carry your camera and equipment.
Egypt’s Diving Areas
Egyptian diving areas stretch 2,250 kilometers from the Suez Canal in the North to the Yemen in the South, the Red Sea contains more than 1,000 species of fish and has over 2,000 kilometers of fringing reef, making it one of the most bio-diverse seas in the world. Extreme heat in this region results in a very rapid rate of evaporation that results in a high concentration of salt. This makes the Red Sea among the saltiest bodies of water on Earth. Sharm El Sheikh is situated right on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, and marks the point where the Red Sea splits into the gulfs of Suez and Aqaba.
If you encounter a shark, don’t panic! If a shark comes near your body, look back at it! But, be wary if it is face to face, and will show you the narrowest part of its body; i.e. the face and both eyes. The best thing to do is to avoid putting yourself as a prey to the shark. Usually you do that by trying a fast escape, but violent movements and splashing about will create a low frequency in the water, which will attract the shark. It can swim 110 km per hour. If you can swim faster, then attempt the speedy getaway! But, the best thing is to try to swim out of the area very slowly, keeping your eyes focused on the shark. Stay calm and swim calmly. If it comes too near, push it away with any hard object, or even with your foot. This will discourage the attack.
Decompression units are mandatory in all areas of diving. It could mean the difference between life and death. Also, getting the patient there in time is of vital importance. It’s no use having decompression units or hospital facilities, if there isn’t any speedy and efficient way to get there! A few years ago, there was only one Decompression Unit in Sinai (and three others belonging to the Navy). Now, according to Col. Mesharafa, there are at least 7 in Sharm El-Sheikh, about four in Hurghada. Remote Marsa Allam has the latest one, installed nearly four years ago. Dahab and Nuweiba have none, but plans for installing one soon, is in effect.
To conclude the interview, I asked Col. Sameh Mesharafa if he had a choice to do it all over again, and start from the beginning, what would he have chosen to be? He answered with his radiant smile: “I think I would prefer to be simply a diving instructor!”