July 14, 2012 -- It doesn't have the nicest coral formations nor the most fish. But the Blue Hole in the Gulf of Aqaba is a magnet for divers, primarily because of its reputation. Dozens of adventurers have lost their lives here over the years and, when they do, Tarek Omar pulls them back to the surface.
Tarek Omar says that he doesn't know exactly how many bodies he has recovered. "I stopped counting at some point," he says. But he can still remember the names of the first two he pulled up from the depths of the Red Sea, bringing them back onto the Egyptian shore.
"They were Conor O'Regan and Martin Gara. Irish. They were considered cautious divers. Both died here on Nov. 19, 1997. They were only 22 and 23. Sad."
Omar is sitting under an awning on the edge of the desert, drinking tea with milk and looking out over the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba, which wash against the east coast of the Sinai. The nearest settlement, the resort town of Dahab, is 10 kilometers (six miles) to the south.
"I found the bodies at a depth of 102 meters (335 feet)," says Omar. "They were holding each other in an embrace. This is how it must have happened: One of them had problems and kept sinking deeper down. The other wanted to help him. And then both of them lost consciousness. What can you do? Their memorial stone is up there."
He steps out of the shade and walks along a dusty path. Sunburned tourists in life vests are snorkeling in the water. At the end of the cliff-lined bay, Omar stops walking and points to a slab of black marble set into the ground, with the words "In Loving Memory" inscribed onto it. "It's only one of many memorials," he says, and turns around.
"There…," he says, pointing to a white panel in the cliff: "Yuri, a Russian. On April 28, 2000. Terrible story. Was lying at a depth of 115 meters." Nearby is a black-and-red panel. "James, June 1, 2003. At 135 meters. And then here," he says pointing to a gray plaque, "Andrei, another Russian. Aug. 24, 2004. I didn't find the body. At 170 meters, there is a tank and a neoprene suit; it might have been his equipment."
Because It's the Most Dangerous
The dead also include Karl Marx, an Austrian: Jan. 10, 2007. Stefan Felder from Switzerland: Sept. 23, 2008. Madlen, a diving instructor from Sachsenhausen: May 9, 2009. The beach looks like a cemetery.
There are 14 memorial stones dedicated to divers who have lost their lives in the Blue Hole, an opening of about 80 meters in diameter in the roof of the barrier reef. Its walls taper down like the sides of a funnel, but there is an opening. At a depth of 52 meters, an arch opens into a 26-meter-long tunnel that leads through the reef and into the open sea. The floor of the tunnel slopes from a depth of 102 meters down to 120 meters. On the other side, the seafloor drops in increments, first to 130 meters, then to 150, 250, 300 and, finally, to 800 meters.
It is 10 a.m., and 23 SUVs are bumping along the road to the Blue Hole, where they unload guests from Sharm el-Sheikh. A woman in red bikini briefs and flip-flops takes a picture of the memorial site. It's a popular subject.
There are more attractive dive sites than the Blue Hole of Dahab, with more colorful corals, and more fish, shipwrecks, channels and caves. But the Blue Hole is considered to be most famous diving spot in the world -- because it's the most dangerous.
There is no official list, but Omar estimates that more than 130 divers have lost their lives in the hole in the last 15 years. He compares what is happening in the Blue Hole to the madness on Mount Everest.
There is likely no one who knows more about the Blue Hole than Omar. He was the first to explore the hole, touch the bottom and see the bodies on the ocean floor. He still holds the depth record in the area: 209 meters.
The locals in Dahab tell the legend of how the soul of a dead girl lures the divers to her. She is taking revenge on her father, a general who once forced his daughter to drown herself in the Blue Hole. "I know every corner down there, and I haven't seen anything," says Omar. "No monster and no mermaid."
'The Parents Want a Burial'
Omar, 47, born in a village near the border with Libya, is a Bedouin from the Aulad Ali tribe. He has a slim build, gray side-whiskers and friendly eyes. He wears the white jellabiya, a shirt-like robe, along with a turban, sandals and Ray-Ban aviator glasses. Omar owns two mobile phones and an iPad.
He came to Dahab in 1989, looking for a job. In 1992, Omar learned to dive, and he began working as an instructor three years later. Since then, he has undertaken all the missions in the Blue Hole, he says. A "mission" is what Omar calls bringing a dead body to the surface.
He says that he doesn't wait long to recover a body, usually two or three days, but no more than seven. "The parents want a burial." Besides, he adds, the body looks terrible when it remains in the water for too long. Because of the crabs, he says. When that happens, it's better to leave it down below.
Omar squeezes into his neoprene suit ahead of a dive into the hole, but only for fun today. "It isn't difficult to dive in the Blue Hole. On the contrary," he says, "but that's what makes it risky." Many divers underestimate the hole, he says, which quickly turns it into a trap.
The Blue Hole is easy to reach. It doesn't take a boat to get there, and you don't even have to swim out to it. You just hop in. It's about 10 meters from a beach chair to the Blue Hole. The water is warm, there is no current and visibility is good.
When Omar slides down into the water, he floats like an astronaut in space, remaining almost motionless. The light and the colors gradually disappear, first red and later orange and yellow. In the end there is nothing but blue, hence the name.
The light returns at a depth of about 45 meters. It's the most beautiful in the morning, when the sun rises over Saudi Arabia and shines directly through the tunnel into the Blue Hole. It's a mystical sight, one that also attracts divers who shouldn't be down there.
Chasing the 'Magical 100' Dahab was once a fishing village. Today, waiters stand in front of restaurants on the boardwalk, trying to lure vacationers inside. Water pipes gather dust in the junk shops, and hotels and bars sit alongside safari agencies and diving bases. No one knows exactly how many there are. Some 52 are registered, and then there are the diving schools that operate without licenses.
Because of the tough competition, prices are low; diving is a discount business in Dahab. A beginners' course costs €200 ($244), and a guided dive at the local reef goes for €25. Divers who book a package of five dives get a sixth for free.
Omar opened the first center for technical diving in Dahab. The experts among the recreational divers use special gas mixtures, the composition of which is dependent on the depth of their intended dive. It's easy to dive through the tunnel in the Blue Hole with Trimix or Heliox, but not with compressed air.
The critical limit for diving with compressed air is 56 meters. The exit from the tunnel is one meter lower at its upper edge.
To avoid accidents, the Egyptian diving association stipulates that divers cannot dive below 40 meters in the Red Sea with compressed air. In Dahab, however, divers can buy depth. It's easy to find a guide who is willing to surreptitiously take a diver into the tunnel for €100, without asking unnecessary questions.
All it takes is three attempts. The man with the blonde ponytail doesn't want to see the diving certification card or the dive log book in which each dive is documented. He only cares about one thing: "When do we start?"
The man is Russian. The Russians, both guides and ordinary divers, have a bad reputation in Dahab. They are considered careless. "Russian roulette," says Omar.
A Bach Organ Concerto The rule of thumb among divers is that every 10 meters corresponds to a martini, and first-time drinkers quickly get tipsy. At as little as 30 meters, an inexperienced diver can become confused as a result of what's called nitrogen narcosis. When the rising pressure causes too much nitrogen to become dissolved in the bloodstream, divers lose their judgment. There are divers who have been inside the tunnel with compressed air in their tanks, and who swear that they heard a Bach organ concerto. Others report memory lapses or that they felt as if they were stoned.
Just as a drinker develops a tolerance against alcohol at the beginning of his addiction, a diver can also become accustomed to high nitrogen concentrations. But even oxygen eventually becomes harmful underwater, where it is transformed into a toxin that causes dizziness, nausea, cramping and, eventually, unconsciousness.
Omar switches on the computer in his diving school because he wants to show us a YouTube video. "Yuri Lipski. He went diving without his buddy. That alone is crazy. Yuri took along a video camera. I brought it up with the body. I thought the camera was broken, but it still worked. Yuri was filming the whole time. He filmed his own death."
The video lasts seven minutes and 16 seconds. Lipski is diving with compressed air -- 12 liters. He seems to have everything under control at first, but then he starts dropping and dropping. His dive computer, visible in the picture, shows 81.7 meters, then 85.3 meters and, finally, 91.6 meters, when he hits the bottom. Lipski tries to inflate his buoyancy compensator to make himself more buoyant, but it doesn't work. He begins to flounder and kicks up sand. Then the image freezes. Omar turns off the computer.
"Yuri was lying with his face on the ground when I found him," he says, and then he begins to list what went wrong. "First," he says, sticking out his thumb to count, "Yuri was too heavy. Twelve kilograms of lead on his belt, plus the bottle, the camera and the batteries. He holds up his index finger. "Second, his vest burst open. It was already full when he tried to pump air into it. "Third," he says, extending his middle finger, "oxygen poisoning. That's why he was twitching. That was it."
Dive Number 401
Yet divers using compressed air aren't the only ones who lose their lives in the Blue Hole. Technical divers, the ones who are trained to go down as far as 100 meters or more, also make fatal mistakes.
Omar says that technical diving requires discipline, but that there are always tourists in Dahab who party until three in the morning and then go diving in the Blue Hole at 9 a.m. The crazy ones who are determined to get that number into their diving computers -- "the magical 100," with which they hope to impress women at the clubs -- are enough to drive him to despair, he says.
On Nov. 7, 2011, Moscow native Igor Shalo dove down to a depth of 150 meters. According to his log book, he had made 400 dives. He didn't survive dive number 401.
He encountered a Swedish diver on his way down, at 90 meters along the outer wall of the Blue Hole. The Swedish diver says that Shalo's movements were shaky, but that he had signaled that he was okay by making a circle with his thumb and index finger.
Shalo had little experience with decompression dives. He had been at 40, 50, 66, 85 and 106 meters. During a decompression dive, it's important to stop several times while returning to the surface. Divers have to remain at certain depths for certain amounts of time, waiting as their bodies become accustomed to the decreasing pressure, so that they'll be in good shape once they complete their ascent. Igor Shalo, though, was as good as dead when he returned to the surface.
He didn't drop vertically to the depth he was aiming for, instead hitting ground at 120 meters -- his first mistake. Then he dove farther down to 150 meters, staying just above the seafloor -- his second mistake, because it cost him strength, time and air. During his ascent, he went into respiratory distress at 130 meters. Shalo panicked and ascended without stopping, shooting to the surface like a balloon. An eyewitness reports hearing Shalo cry for help.
Just a Gravel Road
The ascent should never be faster than 10 meters per minute. A diver expels nitrogen as the pressure decreases. If he ascends too quickly, the gas forms bubbles in the blood that cause pain in the elbows, knees and shoulders. The bubbles can also clog blood vessels and tissue in the brain, heart, lungs and the spinal cord. The last 10 meters are especially tricky, because the pressure decreases by half, from two to one bar.
"Shalo must have been bubbling like a Pepsi-Cola," says Heikal Tawab, the physician-in-chief at the Hyperbaric Medical Center in Dahab. Divers who ascend too quickly have to be brought there immediately, to its compression chamber. It looks like a submarine and can be used to treat six patients at the same time. Tawab simulates the pressure at a depth of up to 60 meters, and then he gradually reduces the pressure as the patients sit inside, breathing oxygen to suffocate the bubbles.
Tawab is constantly prepared for an emergency, and he never switches off his phone. He saves lives, but sometimes even he can do nothing. In one case, a man had been sitting in the chamber for six hours. Tawab had already brought him to three meters, and he would only have needed another 10 minutes. "Suddenly it went very quickly. I didn't stand a chance."
He is a person who can be furious without even raising his voice. What irritates him the most, he says, is that they often bring him divers who have been dead for half an hour. That's how long it takes by car from the Blue Hole to the compression chamber.
"It's a gravel road. It's about time we built a real road," says Tawab. "And why is there no ambulance at the Blue Hole? Medical care at the site is ridiculous."
Tawab is also a diver, but he has never been in the Blue Hole. "There's no need," he says, pointing out that it's only a matter of time before Tarek Omar will have to pull out another body.
Omar lives on a small street away from the hustle and bustle of Dahab. In front of his terrace is a rusty bench press he uses to stay in shape. Omar points to a certificate, written in five languages, with which Alexander Lipski thanked him for "the dangerous mission to recover the body of my son."
He brings up the bodies because he wants to help, says Omar. "It isn't about money for me. I don't ask for anything. I just charge the cost of the gas." When asked how he finds bodies in the Blue Hole, he responds: "If I were to hide something in your garden, you would also find it pretty quickly."
First, Omar says, he finds out what kind of equipment the dead diver was using. How thick was the neoprene suit? How much lead was he wearing on his belt? He has to know such details to get an idea of how the body sank. A dead person doesn't fall to the bottom like a rock. He asks the dive buddy where he saw his partner last, and at what depth. Then he and his team notify the tourists, telling them that they are about to recover a body, and that they can stay if they want to, but that they should stay away from anything that comes to the surface.
Then Omar jumps into the water, and as soon as he reaches the spot where the diver must have died, he allows his body to drift, as if he too were dead.
Most bodies lie at depths of between 100 and 120 meters. When Omar finds a dead body, he grabs it in his arms or ties it to his own body. He has five minutes to complete the operation. Then he ascends.
Omar says that constantly looking at the body doesn't bother him. He says that he has seen "Night of the Dead," a horror film, and that it was worse. At 40 meters, once he can see the surface, he sends up the body with an air bag.
Because it takes Omar so long to decompress, he remains underwater for up to three hours during one of his missions. By the time he returns to land, the body has already been removed.
It's about 7 p.m., and the wind has died down at the Blue Hole, where the cafés are now empty. Omar climbs up a cliff. The lights of a city in Saudi Arabia flicker in the distance, and the first stars are shining. From above, the Blue Hole now has a hypnotic appeal, a smudge in the turquoise reef that attracts divers like a magnet.
There are still bones on the floor of the Blue Hole, and the family members want them to stay there. But can Omar imagine finding his final resting place in the Blue Hole, remaining in the depths forever, like the diver in the film "The Big Blue?"
He looks down at the hole. He says nothing for a moment. Then he smiles. "No," he says.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan