Red Sea, Off the Coast of Egypt
By Kate Cypcar
If you enjoy the challenges and adventure of diving, the Red Sea should be your next diving destination. It has one of the richest underwater environments of deep water fish and surface coral, offering a total of over 1,000 species of fish to observe, some 500 species of coral, and thousands of invertebrate reef dwellers. The clear waters also provide unique photographic opportunities to ‘catch’ the fish on film (don’t forget those waterproof cameras). Diving destinations in the Red Sea worth highlighting include the shear drop-offs, sea grass meadows, and coral encrusted wrecks of the shorelines of Dahab, Sharm El-Sheikh, Ras Mohammed National Park, Hurghada, and various locations along the South Coast and Southern Islands. From Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada, you can also hop on a boat for more remote diving opportunities (read on to learn more about live-board diving). Water temperatures vary, so it is best to be prepared. A 3 mm or 5 mm wetsuit is recommended at all times of the year, but something thicker for winter or for a prolonged series of dives may be necessary.
The best diving sites are just outside of town. The most famous – and dangerous – is the Blue Hole, a 220-foot-deep pool in the reef, only a few feet from shore. This dive claims the lives of a number of divers every year due to nitrogen narcosis or improper use of equipment. Dive cautiously and you might be counted among the thousands that do not experience problems. The Canyon is a popular dive, although challenging for the inexperienced diver. From shore, you must snorkel along the reef before diving past a wall of coral to the edge of The Canyon, and into a cavern under the sea bed. This cavern, formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago, is home to hard and soft corals. The dive site named the Huts (also known as Abu Talha) displays huge corals in the shallows, with abundant marine life and unusual formations. This dive is appropriate for all levels and is regularly combined with a drift dive to Abu Helal, 2.5 miles north of Dahab.
Sharm el-Sheikh & Na’ama Bay Area
Ras Nasrany has two sites worth noting: the Light and the Point, where there are 130-foot drop-offs and multitudes of reef and pelagic fish. Close to Ras Nasrany is Gordon Reef, a popular dive site with experienced divers. Here you will find sharks and open-water fish and a wreck on the reef. The nearby Thomas and Woodhouse reefs also provide opportunities for excellent diving, but the strong currents are best maneuvered by advanced divers only. Shark’s Bay is a good shore entry dive for beginners, but with plenty of options for advanced divers too. Shark’s Bay displays a sloping reef and deep canyon offshore and is famous for manta rays. The Tower is south of Na’ama Bay. The wall drops 196 feet into the depths just off shore and is frequented by sea horses and ghost-pipe fish. Its intense colors result in first-rate photography. Ras Um Sid is a prime diving site that ventures to a deep, sloping wall, easily accessible near the lighthouse. The beautiful coral garden consists of colorful fan coral and a great variety of fish. Because the small beach is divided between hotels, non-guest divers must use the path to the left of the lighthouse to access Ras Um Sid.
Ras Mohammed National Park Area
Ras Mohammed is said to be, without a doubt, one of the best diving destinations in the world. There are 20 dive sites within the park, but you must organize dives here through the dive clubs in order to aid in protecting the park’s ecosystem. The Thistlegorm dive displays the British war ship that sank with a full consignment of war supplies after being bombed in WWII. It lies to the northwest of Ras Mohammed, at a depth of 56 to 115 feet. It is best to plan an overnight trip for this dive (better bring the Dramamine), as the commute from Sharm el-Sheikh by boat is 3.5 hours one way. Check diving conditions beforehand because it is often too rough to dive here. Sha’ab Abu Nuhas is a group of submerged islands at the southern entrance to the Straits of Gubal that have a habit of snagging ships including the Carnatic, Giannus D and the Chrisoula K. It is a common site among divers. The three wrecks are a 45-minute boat ride from the point of Ras Mohammed, but can also be visited from Hurghada, about two hours away.
Hurghada & Safaga
The reefs here have taken a beating from the unfettered tourist development of recent years. Conservation efforts are finally in place but the damage appears to have already been done, and veteran divers continue to look for more remote locations. Still some of the best sites around include Fanadir, a popular reef close to Hurghada. Coral gardens lead above a ledge that drops of into the depths. The spot is teeming with many different species of fish, such as stonefish and scorpionfish, and is also visited by dolphins. Umm Qama is a long, thin reef about 1.5 hours north of Hurghada, with a vertical wall plunging down on the east side. Three coral towers just off the wall are clothed in beautiful purple soft coral and surrounded by glassfish. Careless is a mid-sea reef 3 miles north of the Giftun Islands, but is often off-limits because of strong, unpredictable currents. Careless is famous for its plateau leading to a spectacular drop-off. Be careful or you might find yourself lost amidst a forest of coral and swarms of fish, including a group of moray eels. Gamul Sughayar is only 15 minutes from Safaga and the second in a chain of reefs stretching north from Safaga Island. This site is diveable in any weather and famous for a hollow pillar of coral with gorgonian inside.
This part of the coast remains remote, with much of the diving done via liveaboard trips. Elphinstone is a long, fingerlike reef some 12 miles north of Marsa Aam. Its steep reef walls are covered with soft corals, and the strong currents and plentiful fish life make it an ideal hang-out for sharks. Seven species of shark inhabit these waters. An interesting side tidbit of information about Elphinstone: legend has it that a large arch in the reef, between 165 to 230 feet down, contains a sarcophagus of an unknown pharaoh. Adding to the mystery, divers have reported seeing a coral-encrusted rectangular shape at about 197 feet. Shaab Sharm (Gota Sharm) is a large, offshore reef just south of Shaab Samadai. Its steep walls host rich corals and the fish life is excellent, with hammerheads, barracuda, grouper, snapper, and yellowmouth moray eels. Be advised, however, that currents are strong at this dive location. Shaab Marsa Alam is a large reef adjacent to Marsa Alam, and boasts rich coral gardens, with schools of snapper, jacks, goat fish and banners.
Southern (Far) Islands
Adventurous divers look to the Red Sea’s most coveted diving destinations, four islands that make up the Southern Islands. Access to the four islands is strictly regulated and divers must have completed at least 50 dives to even be considered for permits. Permission must be given for each trip and a ranger will most likely accompany the boat to ensure that the rules are being enforced and to monitor the site. Big Brother has a small lighthouse and two wrecks lying on its walls. Currents are strong here, but if you are willing to brave it the soft corals are amazing, and the marine life is rich. Little Brother is a smaller island with a long reef protruding from its northern end. Sharks cruise here in the strong current. Elsewhere there are huge fan corals, caves and overhangs. Head to the waters in the southeast to view pelagic fish, including thresher sharks, silver tips, hammerheads, and grey reef sharks. Zabargad Island is a large mountain emerging from the sea. It is surrounded by a lagoon, which is circled by a reef. Dive here and you won’t be disappointed in its coral and marine life. Rocky Island is a small, stony protrusion just south of Zabargad. Steep walls, reef and pelagic fish, and soft corals highlight the diving experience. Beware of strong currents.
This method of accessing the dive sights permits divers to reach more remote locations in smaller groups. It provides the diver with accommodation and the opportunity for unlimited dives a day with limited travel. Most liveaboard agents extend all year over the northern waters from Sharm el-Sheih and Hurghada to Ras Mohammed, the Gulf of Suez, the Tiran Straits and Port Sudan. In summer they chart south from Marsa Alam to the more isolated reefs and islands. Summer is the best time to dive in the south because the winds and currents are not as strong and the water temperature reaches about 86° F. Boats from Hurghada tend to head north to Abu Nawas and Thistegorm, east to Ras Mohammed, or south to Safaga.