IT HAD BEEN A LOVELY DIVE, very chilled and relaxing. Swimming along the edge of the reef at 12m, we had almost come to the end of our time down there.
Congregating on the white sandy bottom at 5m near our exit point just along the harbour wall in El Quseir, Egypt, we investigated the sand while completing our safety stop.
I had been trying out a new macro fisheye wet lens and had screwed it onto the front of my housing in anticipation of finding something fairly small.
Suddenly I spotted in the corner of my eye a commotion, sand being kicked up in a big cloud. Bursting through with squeaks and whistles, a group of seven bottlenose dolphins surrounded us.
Screaming through our regs to ensure that everyone was aware, we frantically started snapping away with our cameras.
Paul Colley, the eminent underwater photographer, had already begun his ascent with his buddy Dan Kirk. They were a metre from the surface. Dumping all their air, they quickly sank back to the bottom, whooping and screeching like children at this wonderful sight.
My buddy Matt Bacon, ex-Marine and very experienced owner of Fin Divers in Stevenage, flapped around waving and making guttural “wow!” sounds, so excited that all his training went to pot as he bounced around on the bottom, trying to position himself to take a photo.
Circling us, some of the dolphins tried to mimic our kneeling positions on the bottom by digging their tails into the sand, making their bodies hover at a right angle from the seabed.
Then, to prove how superior they thought they were, they would use a little tail-flick to kick up a waft of sand, then come straight towards us shaking their heads as if they were laughing.
OK, so our buoyancy wasn’t all that good as we twisted and turned, trying to keep up with their agile swoops, but there was no need for them to laugh!
Showing off their acrobatic skills, the dolphins would rush to the surface then dash back again centimetres away before spinning round us, making us dizzy.

I HAD NOT HAD TIME TO CHANGE my wet lenses, and didn’t know how long this experience would last, so I started snapping away. Composition and technical lighting skills gone out of the window, I just hoped for the best.
For a full 10 minutes the dolphins played with us (as opposed to us playing with them), choosing with whom to interact and into whose face to kick sand. As quickly as they had arrived, they disappeared into the blue.
Hoping for a reappearance, we hung around for a couple of minutes. Then, realising that our air was almost completely depleted, we headed reluctantly for the surface.
Dan was punching the ocean and whooping, and as I looked around at the other divers they too were mirroring the huge smile on my face.
This had been my first experience of a wild dolphin encounter. I had been diving for more than 25 years waiting for this, coming close on many occasions when we would see dolphins at the surface, only for them to disappear as soon as we got under water. I had almost given up on seeing them in this way.
To have this kind of natural encounter on the animals’ terms made my rst experience even more special.

ONCE AT THE SURFACE, it became clear that few of the other divers had ever experienced a natural wild dolphin encounter either.
I had expected Paul to have witnessed this many times over his long diving career, but his ear-to-ear grin was enough to confirm that he hadn’t.
He also made me feel better by telling me that he had forgotten all his training in underwater photography and snapped away just as I had.
We had been enthralled and bewitched by these creatures, as legendary sailors of old had been by mermaids.
The next day we asked if we could return to the dive-site, as some of our group had missed out on the dive while completing various courses.
Hoping for a similar experience, we followed the previous day’s profile, keeping an eye out into the blue for that tell-tale flick of sand or flash of a sinuous grey body, and straining to hear any clicking and squeaking noises.
Towards the end of the dive, we just knelt in the sand looking towards the open ocean, sure that this shadow here or that movement there could be the dolphins approaching.
With only 10 bar remaining in our tanks we had to admit defeat – they didn’t want to play today.
Good-naturedly blaming the new divers in the group for the no-show, I wondered if it was going to be another 25 years before my next experience.
As it happened, only 13 months later, again in Egypt, I was lucky enough to have two more wild dolphin encounters.
The first of these was in El Gouna, while I was covering the Miss Scuba UK beauty contest. At the aptly named Dolphin House, Colona Divers’ Niklas Funk had told me that dolphins were sighted fairly frequently in this protected underwater shallow bay, but it was quite a large area and the dolphins often left through a channel in the reef to feed in the deeper open waters.
The day had been planned around the girls’ open water training. Moored in the protected turquoise waters, one of the boat-crew spotted dolphins in the distance, this time spinners, jumping joyfully far away from us.
As the course needed to start under water, we left them to play and hoped that they would search us out. Hearing distant clicks and chatter, we prayed for them to come closer, but had no luck.
During our surface interval, the dolphins finally decided to check us out. They swam under and around the boat for only a minute or two, as we frantically donned our fins and snorkels, then disappeared, tantalising us as they reappeared 10 minutes later.
We hoped for the best again on the second dive of the day. Again, we were aware that the dolphins were very close but outside our sight range. They were obviously playing with us, but this was a different game – hide and seek.

ONE OF THE GROUPS finished their open-water skills early and went off to explore the reef. I swam after them. I didn’t have that much air left, having carried out a photo session earlier, so didn’t want to go far, but as we were in only 8m of water I thought a little search for dolphins was in order.
The vis had been vastly reduced by the students, so looking into the blue was difficult. Almost at the end of my dive, on the edge of my vision, I saw familiar shapes approaching me before darting away again. Yes! Although it was only a brief glimpse, I had seen dolphins under water again, in their own environment.
Back on board, I looked out towards the bubbles of the exploring group. Spinning and jumping around them only a few metres away was a large group of dolphins. Damn, if only I had had 20 or 30 more bar I would have been in the midst of them!
I still felt fortunate to have glimpsed them, and enjoyed watching from the surface. Swimming off towards deeper water after a few minutes, the dolphins left behind some extremely happy and very fortunate student divers. It had taken me 25 years, and they hadn’t even qualified as open-water divers yet!
We were lunching on deck before our final dive when the dolphins returned to the boat. Niklas, who had passed on lunch, jumped straight in and swam with them, while others clumsily tried to grab their snorkels and masks.
Instead of braving the coolish water, I grabbed my camera and started to snap from above. Niklas was heading out quickly with the fast-moving dolphins, and I gured that by the time I got in they would be well away from the boat.
Luckily, I was right. The others got nowhere near the dolphins, whereas I had some shots from the surface of Niklas interacting with them.

ONLY 10 DAYS LATER, in Berenice near Hamata in southern Egypt, I had my third experience. Spending most of the week shore-diving on the beautiful healthy reefs, we decided to take a day-trip to dive at Fury Shoals.
A two-hour boat trip south brought us almost to the Sudanese border, just north of St John’s. This impossibly beautiful submerged coral atoll has many dive-sites around its perimeter.
In the centre we could see spinner dolphins in the distance, somersaulting and pirouetting in the protected shallow waters. The entrance to the interior of the atoll was the southernmost point, so it was decided that we would do a dive on the way down to the entrance of this large atoll, at Sataya South.
Enjoying the beauty of the reef, I was constantly on the look-out for friendly mammals. I had been told that the dolphins normally entered the atoll between daybreak and mid-morning to rest after hunting overnight, so I hoped that a few stragglers were dragging their tail-ukes and would pass on the way in.
It seemed we were too late, however, or that remaining dolphins were giving us a wide berth. Surfacing, we could still see them playing in the distance.
Moving around the atoll, the boat manoeuvred to tuck into the furthest internal point of the reef and we moored for an early lunch.
The dolphins had disappeared for a short time, so the captain decided to let us out to explore on the RIB.
Quiet arrangements were made with our dive-guide Alex, and my buddy and I grabbed our dive-gear and threw it on board at the last moment.
Everyone else had only their snorkel gear, but I talked Alex into letting us sit on the bottom at 5m in the middle of the atoll, while the others snorkelled.
Back-rolling into the calm waters, we settled on the bottom, relaxing in the peaceful solitude. Then a cacophony of noise broke out – as a massive group of 60-70 dolphins surrounded us!
Babies, juveniles and adults zoomed past, turning in formation to zoom back again, checking us out briefly before disappearing from sight and sound.
Within a minute or two they were back all around us, the curious babies allowed to get fairly close before being shepherded away. After the third pass, they disappeared and didn’t return.
We felt privileged and in awe of this super-pod of spinners checking us out.
Back at the surface, the snorkellers had tales of close encounters themselves. A lovely lady called Anne had borrowed a GoPro from us after flooding her camera. She was so happy to have experienced for the first time natural interactions with wild dolphins, and was sure she had some amazing images as they had come within arm’s length.
Unfortunately, in her excitement she had pointed the camera the wrong way and taken more than 200 selfies!
After our next dive, our boat captain took us back into the centre of the atoll. Sure that the dolphins had headed back into deeper water, we all donned our snorkel gear to cool off before our long trip back to the marina.
But within minutes more dolphins than we could count had surrounded us. Alex, a freediver, swam near the bottom and pirouetted alongside the dolphins.
Speeding under, to both sides of and even between us, the dolphins delighted in entertaining and playing with us for more than 20 minutes.
What an end to the day, and what an amazing 13 months! After that long wait, my dream had come true – three times.