THE ULTIMATE RED SEA
By Bob Whorton
Egypt’s Red Sea Diving Coastline stretches 450 km from the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba in the north all the way to the Sudanese border in the south. This small area of the Red Sea presents the diver with every conceivable aspect of diving; from Wrecks and pristine hard coral reefs, to exceptional wall dives, incredible marine life and soft coral species that are the envy of the World.
Personally, I am bonded by a passion for the Red Sea, its incredible marine life, underwater topography and an affinity for its people.
The Red Sea was formed in two stages, first of all the continent of Africa began to move slowly away from Arabia causing a shallow sea to form with water from the Mediterranean. Due to the rate of evaporation this very small sea would have been almost toxic, very little in the way of marine life could have survived its salinity. The second part of the Red Seas evolution took place when the Great African Rift caused a monumental tear along what is now the eastern Sinai and then south along the central basin swallowing the original sea. This massive displacement of the earth’s crust caused innumerable volcanic eruptions, which formed the basis of the offshore islands along the entire rift valley. At around the same time the waters of the med. were sealed up, Africa was pushed 30 km further from Arabia and the Indian Ocean broke in to fill the massive void bringing with it a myriad of marine life. Marine life in the Red Sea has evolved into subspecies of the original Indian Ocean marine life, many to the point that they have now become totally unique.
The Red Sea gets its name from the colour of its surrounding cliffs and not the colour of its waters!
The two most popular diving areas of the eastern Sinai are centred on Dahab midway along the Gulf of Aqaba, and Sharm El Sheikh at the Southeast corner of the peninsular on which we will concentrate.
Na’ama Bay, north of Sharm El Sheikh (pronounced Shake) like many holiday destinations began its life as a simple fishing village surrounded by date palms. In only ten years Na’ama Bay has evolved in stark contrast to become a thriving holiday metropolis fed by the busy Ras Nasrani Airport 20 minutes away.
Diving the thirty local reefs is catered for by around twenty-five dive centres providing daily guided boat services offering two to three dives per day with lunch cooked onboard and the usual refreshments available.
The local reefs provide easy, laid back diving but all of them can offer limitless surprises in the way of marine life sightings. This area of the Sinai became legendary with divers for the World-Class dive sites of Ras Mohammed and the offshore reefs in the strait of Tiran, both of which demand a higher degree of discipline.
Ras Mohammed is the headland at the very tip of the Sinai, encompassing several incredible diving sites and became the first Egyptian Marine Park in 1989. The two most renowned of the reefs are ‘Shark Reef’ and ‘Jolanda Reef ‘, two coral stacks separated from the main reef by a shallow channel. Shark reef is exposed to varying currents depending on the tidal flow offering effortless drift diving around its steep vertical walls. Shark reef as the name suggests is famous for its shark population drawn in by huge schools of Barracuda, Trevali and Giant Snapper, which in turn feed on the equally large schools of smaller fish. However as diver's have increased the shark's have decreased in proportion. A resident school of Batfish haunts the fringes of the reef providing a visual treat. Sharks local to the reef include ‘Grey’, ‘Black- tailed’, ‘Silky’ and sometimes ‘Hammerheads’ & Oceanic Whitetips. Drifts often combine Shark & Jolanda reef in one dive depending on depth and individual air consumption. Jolanda reef got its name from the ship wrecked here during the 80’s spilling its containers of Bathroom ware into the sloping channel. Its toilets have encouraged the obvious diver poses. Resident fish include Giant Moray, Napoleon Wrasse, Grouper and various Ray species. The coral garden on the south eastern side of the reef is rich in hard and soft coral species surrounded in clouds of small reef fish. Strong currents can catch people by surprise along the inside channel.
Centrally positioned in the straits of Tiran are four reefs rising from a ridge from a depth of 250m that offer exceptional drift diving along some impressive and pretty vertical walls: Namely Gordon, Thomas, Woodhouse and the outstanding Jackson reef. Strong tidal flows have encouraged the extensive growth of coral species making the walls outstandingly pretty and interesting. Small caves and crevices are filled with soft corals, small fish and the nocturnal types that shy away from the sunlight. Several Hawksbill Turtle frequent the walls and reef tops. These reefs are also famous for their large Pelagic sightings such as Hammerheads, Oceanic Whitetips and sometimes even Whale Shark. A certain amount of experience is required to get the maximum enjoyment from these first rate sites. The Straits of Tiran are accessible by day boats and some companies offer live aboard options too, which allow the diver maximum benefit.
The Gulf of Suez
Due to the Suez Canal the Gulf of Suez has been a busy shipping channel for over 100 years. However, not all of these ships navigated the channel successfully, colliding with the subsurface reefs during adverse weather. The most famous of these wrecks are congregated on the Northern edge of Sha’ab Abu Nuhas in the straits of Gubal. Here lie the remains of The Ghianis ‘D’, Carnatic, Chrisola ‘K’ and the Odin to mention just a few. All of these wrecks lie in around 25m of water on a flat sandy seabed and present an easy introduction to wreck diving when the surface conditions are favourable. When Strong currents prevail drift diving the makes it possible to see two or three wrecks during the same dive, but obviously the duration at each is restricted. The most striking of all the wrecks at Abu Nuhas is undoubtedly the sailing/steamer Carnatic, wrecked on the 13th September 1869. The 90m hull of the ship is broken in two lying on its port side clearly revealing the technology of the day in its impressive iron work structure. The long-gone wooden decking leaves exposed the supports like a huge rib cage now covered in a rainbow of hanging soft corals. Superstructure strewn across the seabed has become colonised with hard coral. Marine life is abundant around these wrecks and includes Crocodile Fish, Giant Moray, Grouper and large schools of Trevali and Fusiliers.
The Most Famous wreck in recent years is the 130m ‘Thistlegorm’ located at Sha’ab Ali. This British Troop Supply Freighter was sunk on its mooring on October 6th 1941 by a German light bomber. The wreck lies perfectly upright on a 28-32m sandy seabed with its heavily damaged stern section twisted to starboard. Over the last 6 years literally millions of divers have visited this wreck and it has suffered under the consequence of both pilfering and heavy boats mooring directly onto the superstructure causing untold damage. However a lot does remain and the wreck is well worth a visit to see the military hardware filling the holds. The Thistlegorm is normally well out of reach of day boats, but special live aboard trips leave Hurghada and Sharm on a weekly basis.
The Gulf of Suez still contains some of the best and most pristine Hard Coral sites and I would rate it as a World Heritage Site. The vast lagoons and shallow reefs are home to Manta and Eagle Ray with large pods of Dolphin too.
Just Mention “Red Sea” and Hurghada always springs to mind. It was the original diving capital of the Red Sea long before Sharm El Sheikh was heard of. Hurghada provides unrestricted access to daily two-site diving amongst the inshore and offshore reef systems and is the major pick-up point for long distance live aboard Safaris sailing north, east and south. There is some excellent diving to be found around Hurghada’s classic reefs and drop-offs, catering for new and experienced divers alike. The marine life around the reefs is interesting, varied and can include an inquisitive dolphin. The Old Town and the New combine to provide visitors with everything they could expect to find in any World-Class resort, but with at least 4,000 years of History behind it.
Safaga and Qesier.
As far as Red Sea Resorts go both Safaga and Qesier are relative newcomers to the Tourist industry, only beginning their development during the early 90’s. The two towns are situated 1& 2 hours south respectively by road from Hurghada. As in Hurghada top class resorts and Diving operations have appeared to exploit the wealth of reef systems nearby. Safaga caters more for the day diving fraternity while Qesier is more of base for long distance live aboard vessels heading South. The offshore reefs outside Safaga allow almost identical diving as that in Tiran, Panorama reef being an especially good drift dive taking in its splendid soft coral, hard coral and gorgonia. Abu Kafan and Middle Reef offer the chance too for large pelagic sightings, as well as a myriad of smaller marine life and extensive hard coral gardens.
This Reef is a magical experience and is amongst my favourite sites anywhere in the world. A long narrow reef Elphinstone sits North-Northwest 2km off the coast, East of Abu Dabab. The site is famous for its unique topography that includes a natural archway at 53m below its southern plateau and its resident shark population. Often mistaken for oceanic sharks there are two sizeable ‘Silvertip’ sharks that like to approach divers very closely or swim just below the surface around the boats. Elphinstone’s walls have some impressive coral Growths and an especially large gorgonia on the southern end of the eastern wall. At the northern end of the reef is a narrow plateau that drops in stages down to over 52m where a rock mound stands away from the main reef. It is here during certain times of the day schools of Hammerheads rise from the depths to feed, but depending on the current and time of the year it is possible to see them all around the reef as shallow as 13m!
Elphinstone is a site demanding good diving skills and a cool head to get the best opportunities. The reef is only accessible by live aboard vessel, which has been its saving grace over the years.
Southern Egypt (Safari Heaven)
This is one of the most exciting areas of the world in my learned opinion, an area I regard as Heaven on Earth.
Southern Egypt begins at Fury Shoal, northeast of Ras Banas. Here we have one of the remnants of the Red Seas volcanic past forming a broad deep-water ridge with 11 separate sea mounds rising from it. The reefs atop these mounds are remarkable in their extreme differences; no two are the same, this diversity makes the area so special.
‘Dolphin Reef’ at the extreme south of Fury Shoal combines several aspects of diving on one reef. Wall diving and drifts take place along the Western Wall, laid back diving amongst the unique array of coral rock formations on the edge of the lagoon where sleeping Whitetip sharks can be found beneath deep overhangs. The reef received its popular name from its resident pod of Dolphin; its Egyptian name is ‘Sataya’.
Sha’ab Maksur in the north of the shoal is very similar to Elphinstone in size and shape, having steep walls and a plateau at each end. The southern plateau on Maksur is longer, broader and flatter than the former with some outstanding mounds literally carpeted with beautiful soft corals, sea whips and sea fans. Two hollow mounds give shelter to schools of sweeper. The eastern wall is also a hammerhead haunt on occasions too.
‘Sha’ab Claudio’ is an interesting and fun reef to dive due to its extensive labyrinth of small passageways and grottoes. The cracks in the reef top produce stunning natural lighting effects against the dark rock walls and the white sandy floor.
Abu Galawa reef in the northwest of the shoal is the resting-place for the famous ‘Tugboat’ wreck, which has now become a reef in itself, almost hidden below a hard coral skin, surrounded by a mist of tiny life.
The St. John Reef system is a huge sub-sea plateau rising from the depths of ‘Foul Bay’ just above the Sudanese border. The extensive reef systems are spread out over a 20 square kilometre area, and are the least dived reefs in Egypt. During 1995, 96 & 97 discovery expeditions carried out by ‘Diving World’ vessels ‘Aquasafari’ & 'Zabargad' 14 new reefs were found on the St. John Plateau, which were given Egyptian names by the crew.
“Incredible” would be an understatement; these reefs are literally out of this world, absolutely pristine and totally unique. The marine life is incredible too, sharks are a very common sighting and unaccustomed to divers, as a result they are very inquisitive indeed. One particularly special reef is ‘Erg Gafaar’; unique in the fact that it is shaped like a 3-sided pyramid rising from around 70m to within 3m of the surface. Due to its small coral crown the reef was often passed over unnoticed, but what a discovery. The reef is covered in hard and soft coral species with sea fans spread across the constant currents.
The sea conditions in the Foul Bay area can be quite treacherous; hence the name, which can often make life very uncomfortable onboard a boat, promoting seasickness. A high level of diving experience is recommended too as the reefs are often exposed to strong currents and surface swells.
Offshore Marine Park Islands
After a 3-year closure to diving operations the Egyptian Government (after intense lobbying) reopened the offshore islands with a protective Marine Park Status in March 1999, creating a great deal of excitement.
During this long respite from divers these islands and the marine life have re-naturalised to become better than they ever were. Specially licensed live aboard vessels offer 1 & 2-week voyages to these incredible sites.
Over the last thirty years the two Brother Islands have become synonymous with perfect diving. Nowhere on earth can match the potential of these unassuming volcanic extremities, located 45 nautical miles from the nearest landmass. The Brothers combine every aspect of diving together in one small area: Walls, Plateau, Caves, Wrecks, Beautiful Corals and HUGE Fish.
The bigger of the two islands ‘big brother’ has a permanently manned lighthouse station built in 1880 by the British. With its vertical walls, two large shipwrecks and a splendid plateau big brother is a “must see” destination. The wreck of the Namibia at the northern end of the reef is probably the prettiest wreck in the world, covered entirely in soft corals. The southern plateau offers sightings of Thresher Shark and Silky Shark.
It only takes literally seconds in the water to realise what a fantastic reef Little Brother is, almost like swimming along a rainbow’s edge, reflected in the dense array of spectacular soft corals. The vertical wall along the south west of the reef is covered in hard coral formations producing pretty dramatic overhangs, which in turn create the perfect situation for fan corals and branching black coral bushes.
Daedalus is an isolated, large circular reef rising up from the depths to within a few cm of the surface. A lighthouse station is positioned centrally on the reef with two long jetties out to the reef southern wall. The eight-man crew of the station spends three months at a time on this most exclusive of locations. All the walls around Daedalus drop steeply from the surface on three sides, the southern end of the reef having a large flat fringing plateau at 30m. The Hard corals around the whole reef are extensive in species and distribution making way only for soft coral, sea fans and black coral. On one particular dive here in June this year a hammerhead shark joined us in less than 15m of water. Daedalus enjoys the best visibility in the Egyptian Red Sea.
This has to be one of the most peaceful places on Earth, isolated by 45 miles from the tip of Ras Banas Zabargad’s wildlife and marine life enjoy their isolation. This island is the Red Sea’s main Turtle nesting site, during my last visit I accompanied the Park Ranger to check them out. In all we counted 386 nest pits. We actually saw several Turtles mating in the lagoons too. Underwater, Zabargad offers diversity of topography and spectacular pelagic sightings such as Sailfish, Manta Ray, Tiger Shark, Hammerheads; the list is endless.
This small unassuming island 20 minutes SSE of Zabargad has become legendary due to its large and varied shark population. Since my last visit in 1996 the coral growth around the reefs has increased noticeably, beautifying the ledges still further. As well as the large shark population huge schools of Barracuda, Jack and Snapper congregate just of the reef. There are at least a dozen Napoleon Wrasse here too; they are a highly entertaining group.
The Egyptian Red Sea has something for everyone; divers of all levels can enjoy its unique coral diversity and varied and spectacular marine life. Whatever you want, the Red Sea can deliver it and then some. After thousands of dives here I have not seen it all. One sure thing is that you will never go only once to this ultimate of destinations.
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The Ultimate RED SEA
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