Pharos Dives 1-4

#1

After being rowed from the dock to the boat, we motor over to our first stop in the harbor: an unmarked building where our dive-guide jumps out with copies of our passports. The tangle of colorful fishing boats around us usually have an eye painted at their sterns. Seen all through the Mediterranean, this is an ancient practice started perhaps to ward off the evil eye or to give boats extra sight in voyage. Here in Egypt the eyes are slightly different then elsewhere, they are painted like the eyes of Pharaohs. Despite being in wetsuit and hood, the sunny day is already turning cool. Our guide returns and we head to our next stop: the coast guard. The coast guard is a makeshift shack with carpets hanging over the entrance for shade and privacy. A plastic table and three chairs. A private ‘sheesa-teria,’ one of my companions remarks. Our guide hops off again and takes a seat in one of the chairs, signaling that it will be a while. Next to the coast guard shack are men with fishing poles resting against a six meter long pink-granite stone: part of the door jamb of the Pharos lighthouse, heaved up from the water during one of the archaeological campaigns.

After getting the final go ahead, we motor through the narrow entrance of the harbor formed by two breakwaters. We are now in the wave-ridden open sea, directly across from Qait Bey citadel. The waves are extremely choppy and it seems our small motor boat will tip over. Our guide is in a hurry for us to get out of the boat and straps us into our diving vests and pushes us into the sea. With no time to see if my regulator is working properly, I hit the water  forgetting both my camera and the fact that the water is cold. It’s not a shocking cold and gets absorbed quickly by the wetsuit. Being a little cold is a pleasant distraction from the mild seasickness seeping in. After much effort we make it to the yellow balloon, the rendezvous point for descending. There’s little visibility as we descend. Even though the site is shallow (a mere 6 meters) it seems we are in free-fall for quite some time before we land on a rock. There are thousands of stones strewn on the seafloor but today only one or two can be seen at a time. As we start the tour of the rocks, the swell has a dizzying effect—rhythmically jerking the body a meter back and then two meters forward. Our guide points to different stones using our pre-determined system of gestures: arms crossed in a v-shape with clenched fists means a Pharonic stone; one fist across the chest is a Roman stone; an extended hand turning from left to right means lighthouse; hands on top of a head signaling a crown: Ptolemaic. Two fists down on the thighs: a sphinx. It is hard to notice the difference between the stones as I’m distracted by the growing fear that I will throw-up into my regulator.

Dives #2 & #3

The sea is rough but not nearly as agitated today so I bring my brass lighthouse sculpture underwater for a photo shoot. As our dive-guide predicted, the visibility is really, really bad. Much worse than last time, which was also pretty bad. Again the wall of brown and green clouds and no visible bottom to swim towards. A meter of visibility at the most. Probably less. Luckily our guide is wearing yellow flippers and I’m able to follow him. We loose my companion almost instantly. My guide gestures emphatically that I am to hold onto this rock and not move. How long I wait at the rock I don’t know. Elapsed time is impossible to calculate underwater, perhaps because there is no horizon to measure time passing against. 5 minutes and 30 minutes are indistinguishable from one another.

On my rock, I  think about Honor Frost and Kamal Abu-Saadat, who in the 1960’s mapped this area by hand, using pre-GPS methods of triangulation and string. The accuracy of their maps is mind-boggling as the French archaeological mission of the 1990s discovered when they superimposed their computer-generated maps on top of the handmade ones. My artistic job today of assembling and filming my sculpture underwater is difficult enough, as it keeps toppling from the swell and the pieces fall into the cracks of the remnants of the actual lighthouse, in what becomes comical re-enactment of the real Pharos’ demise. After giving over my sculpture to the dive-guide who is enthusiastically taking over the project, I go shooting up to the surface. Without weight of the solid brass sculpture, I’m underweighted and I struggle to head down to the bottom again as my make-shift underwater production team is so engrossed in the filming, they haven’t noticed my disappearance.

Dive #4

When the sterns of the fishing boats point towards the harbor, this means the wind is coming from the west. The sea is almost flat today and after the routine round of stops and permissions, four hours later we motor past the two breakwaters into open sea. Today conditions are at their best with visibility at about 3 meters, maybe even more. It’ a perfect day to attempt to learn orientation by drawing maps underwater. Today I can differentiate between reefs and rubbish, between the fragments of the lighthouse and the large concrete blocks that were dumped on top to protect the citadel. I can see the full length of the door jamb of the lighthouse, similar in size to the one next to the coast guard shack. With the added visibility, the heaps of stones become forms with personalities: a headless sphinx, the base of a column, a donut, a butterfly.

Using both sides of two slates, I make four maps. My maps are incomprehensible as my wandering eye can’t focus on one stone at a time. Determining the distance between two objects underwater is as ineffable as estimating the time passing. As there are no boats in this area, I resurface every so often to see where I am in relation to the citadel. In the end I pack away my surveying aspirations, in favor of random doodles of rock formations.