Blue Hole (Red Sea)
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The Blue Hole is a submarine sinkhole, with a maximum depth within the hole of just over 100 m (328 feet). There is a shallow opening to the sea around 6 m (20 feet) deep, known as "the saddle", and a 26 m (85 feet) long tunnel, known as "the Arch", whose ceiling is at a depth of 55 m (181 feet), and whose bottom falls away as it reaches the seaward side to about 120 m (394 feet). On the seaward side the floor drops steeply to over 1,000 metres (3,300 ft). The hole and the surrounding area have an abundance of coral and reef fish. The Blue Hole is popular for freediving because of the depth directly accessible from shore and the lack of current.
The dive site is reputed to have the highest diver fatality rate for any dive site in the world with estimates of between 130 and 200 fatalities of divers in recent years. The reasons why this site is the most dangerous in the world are not clearly understood, with various explanations given for its high accident rate.
The Blue Hole was historically avoided by Bedouin tribes people who inhabited the area. There was a local Bedouin legend that the Blue Hole is cursed by the ghost of a girl who drowned herself there to escape from an arranged marriage.
The Sinai Peninsula was occupied by Israel from the Six-Day War of 1967 until Israel returned it to Egypt in 1982. During the Israeli occupation, the Blue Hole developed a significant international reputation as a dive site. In 1968 a group of Israeli divers led by Alex Shell were the first to dive the hole with modern scuba diving. During the dive, they noticed the underwater arch. .
Since 1982 the Blue Hole has become very busy with recreational divers and is dived almost every day by recreational divers. Local dive centres take appropriately qualified divers to 30 m (AOW level or CMAS**) at the El Bells or Bells to Blue Hole sites. The Bells entry is from the shore further along from the Blue Hole. At 26 m at the bottom of the Bells is a mini arch that should not be confused with the arch in the Blue Hole itself. The dive is then a wall dive that finishes crossing the Blue Hole saddle at a depth of 7 m. Recreational divers do not get to see the Blue Hole arch when doing the Bells to Blue Hole dive.
The Blue Hole itself is no more dangerous than any other Red Sea dive site but diving through the Arch, a submerged tunnel, which lies within the Blue Hole site, is an extreme dive that has resulted in many accidents and fatalities. The number of Blue Hole fatalities is not recorded; one source estimates 130 divers died during the fifteen-year period from 1997 to 2012, averaging over eight per year, another claims as many as 200. This includes some snorkelling deaths at the surface unrelated to diving the Arch. The majority of diver fatalities were experienced, including highly trained technical divers and diving instructors. The Egyptian Chamber For Diving & Watersports (CDWS) now stations a policeman at the Blue Hole to ensure divers are diving with a certified guide who will make sure safety procedures are followed.
The ceiling of the Arch is 55 m (170 ft) deep, which requires suitable training and equipment as 40 metres is generally considered the limit for recreational diving. The Arch presents little problem for suitably qualified technical divers. The main challenge is gas management because any lingering or errors at this depth, plus the time to negotiate the horizontal section, will need more than a single tank of breathing gas to do safely. If gas is not carefully planned the diver may lack sufficient air for the decompression stops or run out of air altogether.
The main reasons suggested for the accident rate include that the:
- Notoriety of the site attracts divers and presents a challenge that tempts many who lack the necessary experience or qualifications.
- Accessibility of the site and the clear, warm waters of the Red Sea makes the dive look more benign that it is. At over 55 m, and with an overhead environment, the dive requires advanced technical certification, the Tech 60 as a minimum.
- Deceptive entry to the Arch is not easy to find because of the indirect line between the Blue Hole and open water. Divers who miss the entry may inadvertently continue to descend past it, while the floor continues on down to well over 100 m providing no visual depth reference.
- Time taken to pass through the Arch may be underestimated. The tunnel appears shorter than it actually is because of the clarity of the water, the light at the outside end and the lack of reference points; divers report that the tunnel appears to be less than 10 m long but has been measured as 26 m. Moreover, there is frequently a current flowing inward through the arch into the Blue Hole, increasing the time it takes to swim through and increasing gas consumption.
- Depth and the time taken to find and navigate the tunnel inevitably makes this dive a decompression dive requiring possibly lengthy decompression stops on ascent in order to avoid decompression sickness (DCS). Also, the rate of diving gas consumption increases with depth resulting in divers either becoming out of gas or beginning the ascent with insufficient gas to make the decompression stops required.
- Likelihood of nitrogen narcosis is significant at this depth, causing confusion leading to poor judgement in an already demanding situation. Although the effects of nitrogen narcosis may be mitigated by using heliox the Arch is insufficiently deep to warrant its use.
- Temptation to dive on a single gas tank. Theoretically, the Arch can be dived on a single 11 Litre tank, and often has been, but this is dangerously close to the minimum gas requirement for the dive and depends on a relaxed diver with a low gas consumption rate committing no errors or hesitations during the dive. Diving the Arch without a stage tank and without rigorous gas planning has resulted in drowning or DCS.
A notable death was that of Yuri Lipski, a 22-year-old Russian-Israeli diving instructor on 28 April 2000 at a depth of 115 metres after an uncontrolled descent. Yuri carried a video camera, which filmed his death. This has made it the best known death at the site and one of the best known diving deaths in the world. The video shows Yuri in an involuntary and uncontrolled descent, eventually landing on the sea floor at 115 metres where he panics, removes his regulator and tries to fill his buoyancy compensator but is unable to rise. At 115 m he would have been subject to severe nitrogen narcosis, which may have impaired his judgement, induced hallucinations and caused panic and confusion. Lipski had a single tank assumed to be air.
Lipski's body was recovered the following day by Tarek Omar, one of the world's foremost deep-water divers, at the request of Lipski's mother. Omar had earlier twice warned Lipski against attempting the dive. On the bottom, Omar found Lipski's helmet camera, still intact. The video it contained is available on YouTube, entitled "Fatal Diving Accident Caught On Tape". Omar says:
|“||Two days after we recovered his remains and gave [his mother] his belongings and equipment, she came to me asking that I help her disassemble them so she can pack them. The camera should have been damaged or even broken altogether because I had found it at a depth of 115 metres, and it is only designed to sustain 75 metres; but, to my surprise, the camera was still working. We played it and his mother was there. I regret that his mother will have this forever... If I had known the footage existed I’d have flooded it. I think the thing that really upset and saddened me about it was that his mom has it now – she has the footage of her own son drowning.||”|
|— Tarek Omar, |
Documentaries about diver deaths at the Blue Hole
Two television documentaries have been produced about diver deaths at the Blue Hole, investigating the video of the death of Yuri Lipski:
- Sacred Truth, The Blue Hole of Dahab (2004), by Elena Konstantinou and Svetlana Klenova, NTV (Russia)
- Monty Halls and the Divers' Graveyard (2013), by Monty Halls, Channel 5 (UK)
- "The Arch at Blue Hole: Personal experience on diving and guiding at the Blue Hole".
- "Blue hole maps". Archived from the original on March 21, 2008.
- Grossekathöfer, Maik (July 13, 2012). "A Visit to the World's Deadliest Dive Site". Spiegel Online. Retrieved August 27, 2017.
- Top diver’s death casts long shadow over deep beauty of the Blue Hole Edmund Bower, Sunday 27 August 2017, The Guardian
- Monty Halls and the Divers' Graveyard, Channel 5 (UK) television, 9pm to 10pm, Monday 2 December 2013
- "The Bells dive site: Diving from The Bells to Dahab Blue Hole".
- FATAL ATTRACTION Theodora Sutcliffe
- Ghoneim, Niveen (October 20, 2016). "Egyptian Diver Tarek Omar: The Keeper of Dahab's Divers' Cemetery". Cairo Scene. Retrieved August 27, 2017.
- Bower, Edmund (August 27, 2017). "Top diver's death casts long shadow over deep beauty of the Blue Hole". The Guardian. Retrieved August 27, 2017.
- An Elena Konstantinou film “Sacred Truth” aka “Blue Hole” Documentary by Elena Konstantinou (Vimeo), produced for NTV Russia
- Graphic: The Blue Hole in the Gulf of Aqaba. Diagram showing location of the arch, at Spiegel Online.