There’s only one way to enjoy a truly beautiful coral reef, and that’s in dazzling, gin-clear water. Coral reefs need clarity in order for their internal algae farms or zooxanthellae to benefit from the correct amount of sunlight, and for that you need clear water. The Red Sea is a true desert sea in that no rivers flood into it; movement of sediment is minimal and plankton blooms are short lived. For divers, this is manna from heaven, a place with vibrant coral, warm water and visibility that reliably hovers around the 30-metre mark or beyond.
When European divers speak of the Red Sea, they are usually referring to Egypt – the most tourist-friendly of all the Red Sea nations, and arguably offering the greatest variety of diving. The dilemma presented to dive travellers in Egypt is – north or south? Northern liveaboard itineraries tend to focus on the Sinai Peninsula and the famous Ras Mohammed National Park, while southern charters focus on the reefs of the Fury Shoal, the offshore islands of Daedalus, Zabargad and Rocky, and the isolated St John’s Reef system. There’s a lot to recommend the northern route but for me, the southern sites are wilder, less predictable. There are sharks, caves, plunging walls covered in soft corals. And the water is the clearest and brightest I have seen anywhere in the world.
If you have booked a southern Egypt liveaboard, you will arrive at the bijou private airport at Marsa Alam and board your vessel at nearby Port Ghaleb. Although there are now plenty of shore-side resorts in the south, the level of tourism is restrained in comparison to Sharm El Sheikh or Hurghada. The airport is seldom crowded and you can usually be on your boat within 45 minutes of landing, ready for a check dive on the beautiful, ancient reef of Abu Dabab.
If your group is match-fit there is a more challenging site just 11 kilometres off the mainland – the offshore reef of Elphinstone, named after a 19th Century British general who was Viceroy of India during the British Admiralty’s original survey of the Red Sea. Elphinstone provides a template for the offshore reefs of Southern Egypt, with its plunging walls and teeming schools of fish.
The reef is about 500 metres long and runs north to south in the open sea. At the north and south are two plateaus, where the edge of the reef drops away in a series of ledges. These ledges are thick with soft corals and patrolled by grouper and lionfish – the water is usually so clear that it’s easy to kid yourself you are still shallow because the ambient light is still strong well below recreational diving depths. On many occasions I’ve looked up from the plateau at 40 metres and been able to make out the tiny figures of divers jumping into the water from their boats at the surface; you can even see the ripples as they hit the water.
Technical divers love the southern plateau because of large underwater arch that cuts through one of the deeper ledges at a depth of 50 to 60 metres. Thanks to the narcosis-fuelled storytelling of some pioneer divers, a myth arose that a sarcophagus of some unknown pharaoh lies at the foot of the arch. I can see how the idea arose – there is indeed a certain man-made symmetry to the big rock inside the arch, and it certainly looks evocative covered in sponges and whip corals. But it’s fairly obvious that it’s just a rock – if you look up at the arch you can see a hole where the rock possibly fell from the ceiling.
The real treasure of Elphinstone is the concentration of marine life it attracts. The north point catches the prevailing current of the Red Sea and is often frequented by schools of trevally and barracuda. The reef ledges are smaller here and the drop-off is more acute; there is a dazzling concentration of lyretail anthias, the beautiful golden-orange basslets that you encounter on all Red Sea reefs. They may be common fish in Egypt, but the sight of a school of anthias billowing against the royal blue of the water is a quintessential sight of the Red Sea, and a fine challenge for underwater photographers.
From October onwards, Elphinstone is visited by oceanic whitetip sharks, which seem to be attracted to the boat traffic. On a given day up to a dozen sharks can be seen patrolling between boats moored over the southern plateau – it seems likely they feed on scraps of food tossed overboard before rules were introduced prohibiting the practice. Now the sharks are habituated and they continue to circle the boats expectantly.
Whatever their reason for visiting Elphinstone, it is a privilege to watch the oceanics cruising between the reef and the liveaboards. They are usually quite relaxed, but you have to treat such an assured predator with respect. Above all, make sure you see them coming – even in 40-metre visibility they have a tendency of sneaking up on you. Sometimes towards the end of afternoon, as the sun sends arcs of dappled light dancing through the water, the sharks’ behaviour becomes more territorial, and they may even bump swimmers. This is the time to get out of the water, especially if there is a fully-grown shark in the mix.
The gentle fury
For a more relaxing experience, head south to the reefs of the Fury Shoal, where you can enjoy some of the Red Sea’s most beautiful coral gardens. Here, the diving is usually current-free, leaving you to explore the coral bommies that litter the sandy seabed. There’s no reason to venture below about 18 metres, so arm yourself with a cylinder of nitrox and enjoy a 90-minute dive searching for lemon gobies and leopard blennies.
The Fury Shoal is a complex mosaic of low-lying reefs; my favourite spots are in the area known as Abu Galawa or ‘Father of Pools’, a reference to the azure water between the reefs. The signature dive involves a visit to the coral-encrusted wreck of a pleasure yacht; followed by a meander into a natural amphitheatre, one of the most breath-taking formations of coral I have ever seen. The wreck is home to a school of glassfish and a red-mouthed grouper that acts both as bodyguard and predator to the school.
Grotto of light
Close by is an easy cavern dive known either as Sha’ab Claude or Sha’ab Claudia, depending on who is giving the brief (it is supposedly named after a long-retired dive guide). Again, it is a hard coral site but the novelty is that you dive it from the inside, as the limestone is veined with passageways and open sections. There are a few segments with overhead environments to give that full-on cavediving atmosphere, but that there are plenty of openings in the ceiling, allowing divers a quick escape to the surface in the event of an emergency and letting ambient light stream into the tunnels.
The pleasure of diving Sha’ab Claude lies in finning around a tight corner to find that the passage opens into an expansive grotto with shimmering shafts of light beaming down from above.
Further south at the St John’s reef, there is a similar network of caverns at Umm Kharerim. These caverns are popular with underwater photographers as there are some impressive soft corals growing inside to contrast with the dark of the caves.
St John’s is in many ways similar to the Fury Shoal, but there’s a greater chance of seeing pelagic fish and sharks. Many of the signature dives here are ‘habili’ formations, great pillars of rock that rise from 50 metres to just below the surface, in many ways similar to the bommies of the Great Barrier Reef or the seamounts of Kimbe Bay, PNG.
My favourite such dive is Habili Gafaar, a narrow pillar of coral frequented by grey reef sharks and manta rays. Even at a depth of 35 metres, the pinnacle is so small you can swim around it in a mater of minutes – the idea is to continue swimming around while ascending the rock. On a good day you can expect to see schools of snapper and bigeye trevally, but the reef itself is worth your attention, as it is festooned soft corals and home to moray eels and innumerable blennies. St John’s is strictly a liveaboard only destination, and there is a real feeling of being on the threshold of the known world – to the south there is just the border with Sudan, which presents a different adventure altogether.
For the ultimate offshore Egyptian experience, join a liveaboard tour scheduled to visit Daedalus Island, 87 kilometres east of Marsa Alam and the most isolated of the islands. It’s probably the best place in Egypt to find scalloped hammerhead sharks, but sightings are sporadic, with a 50/50 (at best!) chance of sighting the elusive elasmobranchs. The sharks live deep in the blue, but out here in the middle of the Red Sea visibility is superb, so you can see them from some distance.
There are fewer hammerheads in the Red Sea than you would find in the Eastern Pacific, but they tend to be more inquisitive, and swimming out into the blue can yield some close encounters. That said, you have to be careful not to get caught in the currents that stream along the centre of the Red Sea – if you get lost out here there are not many boats to find you. I advise staying close to the reef and enjoying its sumptuous array of soft and hard corals, including a cascading coral that looks just like an elephant’s head in profile. There’re also an impressive colony of anemones populated with Clark’s anemonefish, a typically feisty symbiotic partner.
The sheer isolation of Daedalus has lent it a certain cachet; it is visited by liveaboards on the long distance route popularly known as ‘Simply the Best’, which also takes in Elphinstone and the Brother Islands to the north.
The Brothers are a couple of small islands in the Middle of the Red Sea; they are a bit too far north to truly be regarded as ‘Southern’ Egypt, but it has to be said the diving there is truly world class, with sheer walls and a chance of seeing thresher sharks. On the northern point of Big Brother there is the wreck of a 19th Century cargo freighter that sits with its bow ground into the reef top and the stern at 60 metres. The ship sits right at the point where current flow over the reef, and the coral cover and fish life is simply amazing – it’s quite hard work dropping in at the optimum point, but the wreck is simply one of the world’s greatest dives.
The Red Sea is an unpredictable destination, with its own subtle rhythms and seasons. You can find big animals and schooling fish or swim through wrecks from different eras. But it’s always difficult to predict exactly what you are going to see. The one constant is the clarity of the water – even on ‘bad viz’ day, you know you’re going to see a long way.
This article was featured in SD OCEAN PLANET (Issue 8/2014).
By Simon Rogerson
Simon is the editor of SCUBA magazine, the official publication of the British Sub-Aqua Club. Previously he was editor of DIVE magazine, and has worked as a professional diving journalist for 15 years. He was named Editor of the Year in the 2005 PPA Awards. Simon is first and foremost a writer, but took up underwater photography as a challenging way of recording his dives. Besides scuba he writes on diving and natural history for a number of world-class publications. Simon is the co-author, with John McIntyre, of the guidebook, Dive Red Sea.