Once a simple Bedouin fishing village, the small town of Dahab is now one of the most popular diving destinations on the Sinai peninsula. A number of nearby dive sites have earned an international reputation due to their clear blue waters, colourful fish and intricate walls and canyons. Amongst them is the location known as the Blue Hole, a submarine sinkhole with a dark reputation as the most deadly dive site in the world. As many as 200 divers have lost their lives there in recent years, resulting in the grim nickname of ‘the Diver’s Cemetery’.
Long before it became popular with foreign divers, the Blue Hole was habitually avoided by the local Bedouin fishermen that worked along the coast of the Red Sea. Many believed the place to be cursed, haunted by the ghost of a girl who had drowned herself there to escape an arranged marriage.
A distinctive column of deep water, sheltered from coastal tides by a shallow opening to the sea know as ‘the Saddle’, the Blue Hole was first explored by Israeli divers in 1968. During the dive they discovered an underwater opening between the hole and the sea outside, a 26 metre tunnel varying in depth between 55 metres at its ceiling to around 120 metres where it slopes into the Red Sea. Beyond the tunnel, the sea floor falls away rapidly to over a kilometre in depth. This feature of the Blue Hole is now commonly known as ‘The Arch’.
While the majority of the Blue Hole is a safe dive, in calm waters, the Arch appears to have played a key role in making the site so deadly. One estimate by German publication Spiegel Online puts the number of fatalities at 130 between 2007 and 2012. Others put the figure at as many as 200. In many cases, those lost were experienced technical divers.
While there is no consensus regarding why the Blue Hole has proven so deadly, most agree that the length and depth of the Arch makes for a difficult technical dive, requiring careful gas management to complete on a single oxygen tank. Mistakes, as well as any delays, risk a diver having insufficient oxygen to reach the surface safely without risking decompression sickness, or worse, simply running out of air altogether.
A number of other factors may play a role. Located close to a popular diving resort and in clear, warm water, the dive often appears much less dangerous than it really is. The entry to the Arch can also be difficult to find, risking a diver continuing deeper than they are prepared for if they miss the opening. This appears to be a significant contributing factor in a number of deaths, with divers quickly getting into trouble before they have realised the danger and that they are in deeper water than they were expecting. Frighteningly, even when accompanied by experienced guides, a diver in difficulty is often beyond help even when just a few metres too deep.
A lack of reference points within the Arch and the visible light at the far side also leads divers to significantly underestimate the length of the swim required. On average, divers report that they visually estimated the tunnel to be around 10 metres in length, less than half of its true length.
Despite a blanket ban on diving below 40 metres with compressed air in the Red Sea for safety reasons, many tourists report diving guides willing to overlook this rule for a fee. Some even offer ‘safe’ dives down below the Arch for inexperienced clients. As a result, Egyptian authorities have now posted a permanent police presence at the Blue Hole to ensure divers only enter with a certified guide.
The most famous death at the site came in 2000, when 22-year old Russian-Israeli diver Yuri Lipski drowned in the Blue Hole. Attempting the dive on a single tank, Lipski entered an uncontrolled descent to a depth of around 115 metres. He is believed to have suffered severe nitrogen narcosis, an anesthetic effect caused by certain gases at high pressure (similar to the effect of nitrous oxide). As his struggling became more frantic, he accidentally removed his regulator and drowned.
Lipski’s body was recovered by Tarek Omar, one of the world’s best deep divers, the following day. His helmet camera was found to still be functioning, and was found to have recorded the circumstances of his death. The footage was eventually shared online, resulting in the notoriety surrounding Lipski’s death. Due to the potentially distressing nature of the footage, I have chosen not to link to it directly.
As with bodies on Everest, many of the victims of the Blue Hole cannot be safely recovered, and their bodies remain there perpetually. In a 2012 interview, Tarek Omar stated that he had lost count of the number of bodies he has recovered from the Hole, beginning with two young Irish divers in 1997. Hauntingly, he described the pair as locked in an embrace, likely due to one getting into difficulty and dragging down the other when he attempted to come to his aid.