THE BOOKS SAY THAT THE OCEANIC WHITETIP is the fourth most dangerous shark on the planet. This thought ran through my mind in the moment of suspension between starting my giant stride and actually hitting the water.
I know, too late, but on the plus side there has never been a case of an oceanic whitetip (Carcharhinus longimanus) injuring a diver. On the minus side, we were snorkelling.
I thought fleetingly of knitted chain-mesh shark armour and nice sturdy shark cages, but in the end I had to rely on Peter.
Peter has never read the textbooks. It would have made no difference to him if he had. He was in the Red Sea to see sharks, there was a shark in sight, and he fully intended to see it. Simple, really.
Seconds after hitting the water, we realised that there wasnt a single shark in sight. There were two of them, and they were both 2.5 to 3m in length. Oceanic whitetips only reach 3.5m max, so these were big.
Both were wreathed in pilotfish and cruising just below the surface as if they owned the place, moving through the water with total calm and no discernable effort. As top predators on the planet bar none, we humans are used to animals that give us some respect, but when the sharks came over to take a look at us they were totally indifferent. As far as they were concerned, they did the threatening. And very good they were at it.
We were at Elphinstone and there was a moderate current running, so we were soon a long way from the boat.
I did my best to keep still and not look like any sort of prey species, but Peter was duck-diving and waving his arms around in an attempt to keep both sharks in sight.
He was like the proverbial kid in a sweet shop. I still havent made up my mind if hes fearless or in need of counselling, but I knew that with him around, I was quite safe.
The sharks started by vanishing into the blue for long minutes, then reappearing to make a single pass, but before long they were starting to stay close and circle. Then they were swimming directly for us and turning aside at the last moment.
When one started following Peters fins around, it was time to call a taxi. Well, there wasnt really much point in staying - my memory card was full, and it wasnt the time or place to review my earlier shots and delete some of the dross to free up space, so if he had been attacked, I would have been unable to photograph it.
Time, however, is elastic. The 30 minutes we had already been in the water had flown past, and the three it took for the RIB to arrive were a lot longer. At least there was something to look at.
Back on the boat, someone asked why it was that normal folk leave the water but divers jump in when sharks are sighted This reaction may tell you a lot about divers.
On the other hand, every boat nearby saw both encounters, but each time only our team hit the water, so it may tell you more about us. I certainly noticed that our dive guide stayed aboard, though she hadnt got any bandages out, so it must have been quite safe really.
What made this encounter all the more remarkable was that it was the second time in a week that we had snorkelled with a pair of oceanics. The first pair had been smaller but just as mean-looking, though to be fair sharks dont have much alternative, as they have enough teeth for a TV weathergirl.
This year oceanic whitetip sharks are being spotted far more often in the south Red Sea than they usually are, having displaced resident hammerheads from some sites, according to our dive guide.
Oceanics favour deep water and rarely cruise coral reefs, according to the books, so our encounter on Elphinstone was nothing unusual, but our first sighting had been on a shallow reef in the Deep South, at St Johns.
That afternoon we did a nice out-and-back wall dive along the west side of Elphinstone.
As we were returning to the boat at around 5m, one of the oceanics buzzed us, with two divers in fin-pumping, air-gulping pursuit.
They looked at us and made frantic shark hand signals and pointed into the blue, not pausing in their frantic swimming. They couldnt understand our indifference, but we had already been up close and personal, and we werent about to start a race we knew we couldnt win.