Written by Alicia Johnson, Centre of Maritime Archaeology and Underwater Cultural Heritage, Alexandria, Egypt
Imagine being underwater and surrounded by thousands of twinkling golden fish (sea goldies), a colourful reef, and a mysterious shipwreck looming in the distance. A white tip shark casually swims by, and your heart skips a beat. Thirty minutes later, you’re climbing up the boat’s ladder and greeted by local dive instructors who help remove your scuba gear, make a cup of instant coffee, and excitedly talk about the amazing marine life you just saw. Leaning against the boat’s railing, feeling the fresh salty breeze dance across your face, sipping coffee, and staring into the hazy landscape as the setting sun illuminates the mountains, you can hardly believe that you’ve had the chance to dive the Red Sea.
You’re in Egypt, where adventure, awe, and history are an intertwined experience.
How does an American woman come to live in Egypt?
Coming to Egypt and living here for over four years was not something I had planned. Since graduating from the College of Charleston in 2011, I’ve been an adrenaline junkie and techie wandering the world with my laptop and camera in hand. After college, I lived on a sailboat for nearly six years and found myself living and diving in places like the Dominican Republic, the Virgin Islands, the Philippines, Indonesia, St. Kitt’s, the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos—wherever I go, I find the water (and the fun). Back in 2017, I had been running charter yachts and living a lifestyle that would make even Dionysus blush. However, when Hurricane Irma obliterated the islands, I found myself in a Mad Max apocalyptic world. A year of chaos and existential depression was just cause to alter the course of my career and pursue my master’s degree and passion for scuba diving.
Wary of the staggering cost of US student loans, I was drawn to a graduate programme in Alexandria at the Centre of Maritime Archaeology and Underwater Cultural Heritage (CMAUCH). The CMAUCH offers a master’s degree in Maritime Archaeology and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to study archaeology in Om El Donia, The Mother of the World.
Years of Latin and life-altering experiences reiterated the wisdom behind Fortis Fortuna iuvat, or “Fortune favours the Brave:” without taking a lot of risks and investing in myself, I might still be gallivanting the Caribbean, rum in hand.
Egypt’s ascent to diving destination
While ancient temples, colossal monuments, and camels are imagery often associated with Egypt; to the east of Cairo’s bustling streets is the other reason people travel to there: the Red Sea. In the 1950s and 60s, the Red Sea gained international recognition thanks to the pioneer of SCUBA diving, Jacques Cousteau. Cousteau’s explorations of shipwrecks and reefs teeming with life captured the world’s attention, with the Red Sea’s rainbow of biodiversity incomparable to anything ever seen by the public .
Egypt’s SCUBA diving industry emerged in the 1960s and 70s following the development of prominent resort destinations such as Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada . Today, PADI ranks Egypt as one of the world’s premiere diving destinations. According to the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, a record high of more than 7 million tourists visited Egypt during the first half of 2023, of which nearly 1.5 million visited the diving destination of Hurghada . During my time in Egypt, I’ve also seen a boom in tourism to lesser-known diving hubs like the Bedouin town of Dahab which is famous for the Blue Hole and its specialty herbs.
Shipwrecks of the Red Sea
Beyond a world of wonderous marine species, historical shipwrecks draw SCUBA divers and maritime archaeologists alike. Egypt’s expansive history of maritime trade is corroborated by copious shipwrecks from numerous civilisations; however, one wreck stands out as a bucket-list item for adventurous divers: Thistlegorm. Sank in 1941 by a German/Nazi Luftwaffe aircraft, PADI ranks Thistlegorm as one of the world’s top wreck dives, and the wreck generates an annual revenue of $5 million for Egypt’s Red Sea . Thistlegorm lives up to her hype. Divers are immersed in a moment of history, swimming the labyrinth of the 128m ship scattered with remnants of Nazi bombings, machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, a motorcycle, and live ammunition.
While the increase of visitors to the Red Sea has provided economic opportunities for the local population, tourism development has come increasingly into conflict with protection and conservation of Red Sea resources. Outlined by the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, historical shipwrecks of the Red Sea have the potential to be economically and culturally enriching; however, Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) sites are a non-renewable resource and unmanaged divers can degrade UCH sites over time .
Considering the Carnatic’s loss of soft corals and Thistlegorm’s recently detached anchor, man-made holes appearing in the hull, recorded objects going missing, and damage caused by direct-to-wreck moorings, I have personally seen what can happen to an unmanaged heritage site: a free-for-all rampage of destruction!
Egypt’s diving community
As I’ve been a dive professional within the Egyptian diving community for several years, I’ve noticed how this community is prideful of its marine environment and tries to be proactive with personal preservation efforts. Aboard the 2022 “Wrecks at Risk” project, an extension of Project Thistlegorm, I saw local dive guides removing old mooring lines from Thistlegorm (endearingly called “The Old Lady” by local instructors). Outreach to involve the dive community is appreciated and divers show great interest in being a part of surveys, site clean-ups, protecting heritage sites, and promoting the beauty of their underwater world to the greater public.
The Wrecks at Risk expedition showcases the importance of involving the local dive community, and we found dive crews and operators are enthusiastic about being actively involved in UCH projects. As academic funding is often limited, I have seen that outreach with the dive community can leverage citizen science (and enthusiasm) to create initiatives for site clean-up and monitoring. Divers take pride in a site for which they feel responsible, and thus UCH sites such as Thistlegorm, Dunraven, or Carnatic stand to be more visited and cared for if the local community is involved in their protection .
A career in diving: Opportunities for Egyptians
Despite Egypt’s reliance on tourism, the country’s tourism sector has faced numerous obstacles in recent decades. Egypt’s 2011 Revolution increased regional volatility and led to the departure of numerous non-Egyptian SCUBA guides; however, in their place, many young Egyptian men gained the opportunity to pursue positions offering improved economic stability. A decade later, Egypt’s place within the SCUBA industry has created a diverse community centred around tourism, local participation, leadership, and business ownership. In a developing country, such as Egypt, recognising the positive economic impact of tourism from heritage and UCH sites allows heritage managers a clearer understanding of public interests and effective approaches to develop heritage management plans .
As of 2023, I have not seen any shipwreck (in Egypt and open to the public) with a site management plan. Sure, there are proposals and ideas, but decisive inaction is the norm. I’ve also heard the frustrations expressed by the dive community regarding problems like pollution, looting, inexperienced divers breaking corals, and problematic mooring systems to access wrecks. While the dive community expresses the desire to see improvements, they do not have the personal capacity to enact changes. In my opinion, academic studies undervalue the importance of public engagement and underestimate the influence that social media can play to preserve historical shipwrecks of the Red Sea and beyond.
The Worldwide Diving Community
Whereas terrene-based cultural heritage sites can appeal to a larger demographic, the dive industry is a billion-dollar-a-year industry comprised of international participants travelling regularly and having a disposable income . Recreational SCUBA diving contains high-value tourists who hold a propensity to support cultural heritage preservation due to their financial background and higher levels of education. Not only can divers afford to support preservation of UCH (park fees, etc…), they often want to see these sites preserved. The diving industry economically supports the local dive community; recognising the economic incentive of preserving UCH sites can facilitate cohesive outreach efforts to mitigate pollution and looting. A holistic approach of considering the needs and wants of all involved stakeholders offers the best future for preservation of UCH.
We must answer: Who cares? What do they care about? When do people care? How can we make people care? And why do they care?
The perks of a commercial background; leveraging capitalism for outreach
Over the years, I have created numerous videos, photographs, and blogs about heritage sites across social media channels, garnering over 250,000 unique views and interactions. If I can show people the beauty of their world, the hope is that they’ll want to visit and protect the sites captured by my lens. Digital storytelling can teach a wider audience about diving and underwater heritage, and connect interested people to blogs, project websites, and site locations. Collaborating with local dive shops and international organisations (such as SSI, PADI, CDWS, etc.) is a cost-effective approach to reach a broader audience, involve the local community, and raise awareness about the importance of UCH to the greater public. Through my experiences, tourism businesses love a techie with a nice camera and a knack for online marketing and video/photography editing. Leveraging my knowledge of social media management has allowed me to offset most of my diving costs, gain access to some beautiful places, and learn invaluable perspectives from those around me. By being a curious person with a dive bag and a camera, I’ve partnered with many dive businesses to create eye-catching, informative content for people interested in visiting Egypt and diving the Red Sea.
As recreational diving gains popularity, Egypt's Blue Economy, driven by SCUBA diving, is emerging as a pivotal force in the country's development. Divers play a crucial role in maritime archaeology and UCH preservation—an often overlooked yet fervent group, as seen with Egypt’s diving community. Collaborative engagement with this community fosters support, awareness, and protective initiatives for historical shipwrecks. Facing bureaucratic and financial limitations, conducting outreach within the dive community proves useful for gathering vital information and safeguarding the Red Sea's archaeological sites. Active involvement can deter looting, enhance cultural heritage appreciation, and provide crucial support for field documentation, monitoring, and surveys. Effective collaboration between government entities, NGOs, maritime archaeologists, and the diving community is key to preserving the invaluable UCH resources of the Red Sea against the threats posed by human activity. Cultivating public recognition and support is achievable through strategic community and social media outreach. If we want people to care about our underwater cultural heritage, we need to show them why. A picture is worth a thousand words and as an underwater photographer, my recommendation is to showcase the world in high definition and infused with a touch of educational humour.
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