Mahmoud Ebdella, dive master on the Red Sea Aggressor, motioned for me to come near on one of our 22 dives that week. A group of pipefish were snaking their way up the coral wall, and another member of the group was strategically placed beneath Ebdella to photograph them. I pointed to David taking a picture, indicating that I didn’t want to get in his way, but Ebdella was adamant that I come closer. Carefully, I inched my way up making sure to not kick any of the other group members bunching in. Ebdella pulled me in close to the wall by my BCD (buoyancy compensator device), patted me on the shoulder, and gracefully swam away. Leaving me to awkwardly back out without finning David in the face. After we surfaced, he told me, “You’ll never see anything if you don’t get close.”
On a break between dives near the end of the week, Ebdella graciously supplied me with an interview on the middle level of the boat. I juggled a cup of coffee, pen, notebook and recording device while the boat rocked back and forth trying its hardest to upend my coffee. Ebdella sat patiently, unperturbed, that permanent smile of his plastered on his face. If he found my floundering amusing, he didn’t show it.
Ebdella grew up in Hurghada, Egypt on the Red Sea. He comes from a family of fishermen and was riased on his father’s boat. As a young man, he worked as a seaman on dive ships. He once asked a dive master to teach him to scuba dive, but the dive master refused because he was not an instructor. Ebdella admitted that one night, alone on the boat while it was docked in the marina, and never having dove before, he geared up and went under.
“I put on the gear and jumped in the water and went straight down, it was dark and all I could hear was the bubbles when I breathed,” Ebdella said. “I said to myself, now you are not afraid, and then I swam very far from the boat.”
His eyes lit up as he described his first diving experience. He said he was comfortable under the water because he had been raised on the ocean and had free-dived his entire life, not to mention had helped numerous divers gear up, and knew how all the equipment worked.
“I survived,” he exclaimed. “I was alive!”
It was later that year in 1993, that he was officially scuba certified. He started guiding in 1995 and rotated between guiding in the summers and teaching in the winters. He also spent some time backpacking Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and Dubai.
Although he’s most at home on the Red Sea. He’s worked with the Red Sea Aggressor for four years and said the best part of the job is getting to be in the sea.
“I love the sea, and it’s [Aggressor] a good company,” he said. “I knew I would learn a lot and have a lot of opportunities.”
Ebdella believes that there is a direct correlation between the decreasing marine life in the sea and Egyptian politics. He said when he was a young boy he and his father would spend the summers fishing.
“At that time, I used to see a lot of fish, schools of parrotfish and barracuda, a lot of manta on the reefs, and birds chasing the tuna, and my father said this is not ten percent of what he used to see,” Ebdella said. “What I see now is ten percent of what I used to see when I was 9 or 10 years old. You can imagine the decrease in marine life and coral in the Red Sea.”
“The coup in 2011 changed the kingdom to a republic,” Ebdella said. “Egypt became very poor and dirty, yet the military became stronger.”
The coup he referred to is the 2011 revolution in which millions of civilians and activists protested to overthrow Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
He said the Egyptian people felt less attachment to the sea and began neglecting it.
“Everyone just kept his house clean, but not a meter in front of his house,” Ebdella said. “It’s not mine, it’s not my country anymore. We lost the feeling of belonging to the country, the sea is decreasing…and the coral began to die.”
Ebdella said before the revolution, HEPCA (Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservancy Association) paid fishermen a summer salary to not fish the sea from June to September to increase the amount of marine life. However, after the revolution they no longer could afford it.
“Starting this year, they don’t allow the fisherman to go out, but don’t give them money,” Ebdella said.
His brother is the supervisor of the dive team at HEPCA. He said management has recently changed, altering a lot of traditional practices by the organization.
Although, keeping the fisherman from fishing during certain parts of the year should theoretically increase marine life, it is financially devastating for families that rely on fishing.
He described the corruption and fragility of the Egyptian government since the coup and said that the people that speak out against the political corruption are put in jail.
He’s also noticed a decrease in divers and tourists.
“In Brothers [reef] there used to be 30-40 boats, and now maybe like 9,” Ebdella said. There’s been numerous events over the last several years keeping tourists and divers away.
“Since the plane crash, Russians aren’t allowed to come to Egypt,” Ebdella said. He explained that Russians and Italians made up the majority of foreign tourists on the Red Sea.
After the explosion of a Russian passenger plane over the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula in 2015, President Vladimir Putin put a travel ban on all air travel between Russia and Egypt. Although, not officially declared as an ISIS attack, speculation has led to categorizing the disaster as a terrorist attack.
“We used to have 10-12 million tourists before 2011, but now we have 3-4 in all of Egypt,” Ebdella said. Egypt’s main source of income has always derived from tourism. The political and economic shifts have directly and indirectly effected the people and the Red Sea.
Despite the obstacles and endangerment facing the sea, Ebdella can still enjoy the Red Sea as a dive master on the Aggressor, and is able to spread the word of conservation to divers from around the world. His family works closely with HEPCA to continue to protect the Red Sea for future generations.
For more information on how to help conserve this historical body of water, visit http://www.hepca.org/.