Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
ISRAEL & JORDAN
by Jack Jackson
SITUATED ALONGSIDE EACH OTHER AT THE top of what the charts call the Gulf of Aqaba, but the Israelis call the Gulf of Eilat, the waters of Israel and Jordan are sheltered and almost invariably calm. Visibility is often spoilt near the ports. Most dive sites are accessible from shore, though diving from boats is necessary for one site in Israel and is becoming popular in Jordan. The two countries cooperate in running marine parks, and dive operators in Israel and Jordan run safaris that cover sites in both countries. The weather allows for diving all year round, though the water is colder than that off the southern Sinai. There can be heavy rain and even snow for a few days in winter.
The tiny region of Israel bordering the Gulf was one of the first areas to offer diving tourism in the Red Sea. It went on to become the diving classroom of the world, with many competing dive schools and a high standard of tuition. Each of its dive sites is different, ranging from shallow coral gardens to drift dives, wall dives, multilevel dives, wreck diving and night diving. There is almost no current and some areas have sea grasses. More importantly, the fish are very tame – a bonus for photographers. Dolphin Reef is undoubtedly the top diving and snorkelling attraction.
Reefs along Eilat’s 7km (4-mile) coastline are among the most heavily dived in the world, with about 250,000 dives each year, most of them by relatively inexperienced divers. Signs of wear and tear have begun to show, so strict laws have been passed that state how close divers may get to coral.
Between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Jordan has 27km (17 miles) of coastline but has not seen the pressure of diver numbers experienced by Israel. There is some damage to the marine environment around the port in the north, but south of this the reefs are in good condition. Among many good dive sites, two artificial reefs, the Cedar Pride and the Russian Tank, are popular.
Lone Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) are the species of dolphins most likely to seek out interaction with divers, snorkellers and swimmers. However, lone males can become aggressive.
There are not that many dive operators in Aqaba, but they cannot agree on the names of many dive sites. They use different names and some sites are divided into two, each with a different name.
1 DOLPHIN REEF
Dolphin Reef, which has an area of 10,000 sq m (107,000 sq ft) averaging 12m (40ft) deep, is fully enclosed with buoyed nets. It is situated 1km (0.6 miles) south of Eilat and is home to a group of Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). The dolphins often jump the net to freedom, returning later with fresh propeller scars on their backs. The enclosure contains a wooden wreck and reef fish, including Cobia and large, habituated stingrays rescued from fishermen. Sea lions from an adjacent, smaller enclosure regularly jump the net to join in the fun.
A member of the staff must accompany all participants. Snorkellers enter the enclosure over the net, but divers enter through a sliding curtain facing the shore at the bottom. The dolphins sense the noise of this curtain being opened and immediately appear at high speed with lots of clicking and shrieking. Once they have done a quick inspection of the newcomers, and searched the accompanying staff for titbits of food, they go back to their boisterous play, occasionally preying on reef fish hiding in the sand. On the first dive of the day the sand has not yet been stirred up and the dolphins, having had no human contact overnight, tend to be more curious.
2 SUFA (STORM)
The scuttled 46m (150ft) Israeli missile boat Sufa (Storm) lies 2km (1 mile) south of Dolphin Reef, 300m (330yd) north of Aqua-Sport dive centre. She lies upright in 30m (100ft), with the top of the mast at 15m (50ft). Dangerous areas have been sealed off. The bridge, missile launcher and engine are accessible and corals, particularly soft corals, are beginning to colonize the wreck.
3 YATUSH (MOSQUITO)
Immediately in front of the Aqua-Sport dive centre, 400m (440yd) south of the Sufa wreck, is the small Yatush (Mosquito) gunboat wreck. She is lying at an angle at the bottom of a drop-off with the stern in 33m (110ft) of water and the bow in 25m (80ft). The boat’s aluminium construction means that corals have been slower to settle and grow, but the fish life is good and includes fair-sized groupers.
4 CORAL BEACH
Coral Beach, 200m (656ft) south of the Yatush wreck, slopes gently to 10m (33ft) before dropping more steeply to 40m (130ft). Entry is at the north edge of the nature reserve fence. The topography is coral patches on sand and the fish life is surprisingly good.
5 MOSES ROCK
Just south of Coral Beach, also in the nature reserve, Moses Rock is one of the best-known sites at Eilat. A large coral head in 9m (30ft) of water near the drop-off, it is a microcosm of Eilat’s prolific reef life and popular with photographers. Divers searching hard will find almost everything here, including different species of moray eels. The gentle slope down to the coral head is good snorkelling and there are many sponges and anemones further out.
6 JAPANESE GARDENS
Near the Underwater Observatory, south of Coral Beach, the Japanese Gardens are considered to be one of Eilat’s best dive sites and are now only accessible by dive boat. There is the usual gently sloping reef to 10–15m (33–50ft), then a steeper drop-off to beyond 40m (130ft), with pagoda-like Acropora table corals, soft corals and prolific fish life benefiting from nature reserve regulations. There is a limit on the number of divers allowed here at any one time and they should be careful of the yellow submarine that works from beside the observatory. Barracuda, jacks, stingrays and turtles are common. There are crocodile-fish and frogfish. Anthias, called goldfish in Israel, hover over stony corals.
Mushroom Coral colonies, in the adult form, are not attached to any substrate so they are usually found below the depth of any strong wave action.
Tasselled Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis oxycephalus) change their colour to be camouflaged against the substrate so that they can lie in wait for passing prey.
Manta Rays (Manta birostris) are a common sight throughout the Red Sea. On clear, sunny days they are often seen feeding on the surface when the plankton rises in the afternoon.
7 THE POWER STATION
Just south of Aqaba, the Power Station has a gentle slope of sand and stony coral to 15m (50ft), then a drop to a narrow ledge at 40m (130ft), before dropping into the depths where pelagic fish abound. Shore divers enter the water at the northern end, but boat divers can moor closer to the southern end where, at 25m (80ft), anemones grow on the branches of black corals. Barracuda and Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse cruise the drop-off, while in the shallows are anthias, angelfish, butter-flyfish, parrotfish and moray eels.
8 FIRST BAY
Opposite the Club Murjan Dive Centre, at First Bay, the reef slopes gently to 15m (50ft) and then more steeply, but the 6–8m (20–25ft) range is best. A garden of Acropora and Porites corals almost reaches the surface and the fish life is good. South of the coral garden Cazar Reef has black corals and macro fish life including frogfish and pipefish.
9 ABDULLAH REEF AND 10 BLACK ROCK
South of First Bay and Cazar Reef, offshore of the government camp site, Prince (now King) Abdullah (Abdallah) Reef and Black Rock offer good diving. The camp site controls entry, so many dive operators ignore this area.
King Abdullah Reef slopes gently as sand with coral patches to beyond 30m (100ft), with moray eels, angelfish, butterflyfish, goatfish, trig gerfish, anthias, Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays and Clown Coris (Coris aygula). At the southern edge of the government camp site, Black Rock is a similar slope with the added attraction of the chance to see turtles.
11 CEDAR PRIDE
A little more than 2km (1 mile) south of the container port, 4km (2 miles) north of the Royal Diving Centre, the 74m (243ft) freighter Cedar Pride was cleaned up and purposely sunk for divers in November 1985. She now lies on her port side at 25m (80ft), across two raised sections of the seabed so that there is a swim-through between them under the wreck at 27m (89ft). There are lots of colourful soft corals draped around the wreck, prolific fish life including Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse, large snappers and groupers and sea horses. Some penetration is not too difficult for experienced divers. The wreck is too large to fully appreciate in one dive and is an excellent night dive. South of the Cedar Pride, Hussein Reef 12 has another gently sloping profile broken by coral heads with abundant fish life.
GORGONIAN SEA FANS
About 3km (2 miles) north of the Royal Diving Centre there are several dive sites close together. Gorgonian I 13 is named after the huge solitary Gorgonian Sea Fan at 16m (52ft). South of Gorgonian I, Gorgonian II 14 has two Gorgonian Sea Fans, one at 20m (65ft) and the other at 30m (100ft). To the west of Gorgonian II, Seven Sisters are seven coral pinnacles at 8–9m (25–30ft). To the south, Oliver’s Canyon 15 is a canyon leading to a drop-off at 40m (130ft). The shallows have the shell of a Russian Tank 16 purposely sunk and prepared for divers. All these sites have excellent fish life including anthias, angelfish, parrotfish, moray eels, frogfish, crocodilefish, scorpionfish, Lyretail Groupers and stonefish, shoals of squid and many invertebrates including nudibranchs. Even turtles can be seen.
There are several dive sites in Big Bay. Blue Coral 17, 2km (1 mile) north of the Royal Diving Centre, is named after a species of blue-tinged lacy coral found there. The reef slopes beyond 40m (130ft), but most of the interest is much shallower with good stony and soft corals. South of Blue Coral, Moon Valley 18 is a gentle undulating slope interspersed with valleys of sand, hence the name. The best corals are in the deeper water. Sometimes called Long Swim 19, the distance from Moon Valley to the Royal Diving Centre is 700m (770yd). Although patchy, the coral is generally in good condition and the fish life good. The reef drops below 30m (100ft), but most divers stay shallow because of the distance they have to cover. There are moray eels, parrotfish, many species of wrasse, pufferfish, lionfish, scorpionfish, stonefish and shoals of fusiliers.
20 THE AQUARIUM
The northern house reef at the Royal Diving Centre is called The Aquarium. The reef descends to 37m (120ft) with good marine life, including table corals draped with soft corals and great fish life. South of the jetty The (Coral) Gardens 21 have stronger currents than those usually found in Jordanian waters. The gently sloping reef of sand with coral heads descending to 25m (80ft) is populated with pipefish, sea horses and shoals of Red Sea Bannerfish and anthias, while black coral are found deeper down.
22 SAUDI BORDER
Approximately 300m (330yd) north of the Saudi Arabian border, 4km (2.5 miles) south of the Royal Diving Centre, the dive site called Saudi Border is one of the most popular in Jordan. The reef slopes to 12m (40ft) and then descends over a steep drop-off to more than 40m (130ft). The corals are spectacular. Divers can expect to see large Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse and turtles, which are common. Whitetip Reef Sharks are seen occasionally and Manta Rays appear in the spring. The drop-off is nearly 850m (930yd) long.
The arid, rocky coastline of Râs Muhammad is in stark contrast to the colourful world beneath the surface of the sea. Sharks are still found here, but are now accustomed to divers and stay deep.
Bluff Point on Sha’b ’Ali has a solar-powered navigation light. Live-aboard boats such as the S/Y Poolster can hang off from the point in the wind.
by Jack Jackson
WITH GOVERNMENT HELP NORTHERN EGYPT has been developed extensively as a winter-sun destination for European holiday-makers with conveniently located airports and cheap charter flights. Initially, enterprising operators bought blocks of tickets for these flights and sold them on to divers. Nowadays divers have become a major source of revenue, and civil strife in nearby regions has forced prices down even further. As a result, northern Egypt has become the cheapest and busiest package diving destination in the world. However, while temperatures on land are more comfortable in winter, those diving on offshore reefs will find the temperatures more comfortable and the wind less of a problem in summer.
This region consists of the Gulf of Aqaba, which connects with the main Red Sea through the Strait of Tiran, and the coastlines, islands and reefs either side of the Strait of Gubal in the Gulf of Suez. It is part of the great geological fault known as the East African Rift Valley System. The movement of Africa away from Arabia began some 55 million years ago and the Gulf of Suez, which is 24–36km (15–35 miles) wide and shallow, opened up about 30 million years ago. However, the Gulf of Aqaba, which is 24km (15 miles) wide and 1676m (5500ft) deep, is only 3 to 4 million years old and is still parting at around 15mm (0.6in) per year.
The Gulf of Aqaba lies in a pronounced cleft between hills rising abruptly to about 600m (2000ft). Navigation is difficult at the narrow entrance of the Strait of Tiran where four reefs – Jackson, Woodhouse, Thomas and Gordon – rise out of the depths between the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula and Tiran Island, causing strong currents. The area is also subject to sudden squalls.
Linked to the Mediterranean Sea since 1869 by the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Suez is one of the world’s most important shipping routes. Shipwrecks have occurred along the southern approaches to the Suez Canal ever since it was constructed, but the majority of ship and aircraft wrecks date from World War II when ships at anchor, waiting to proceed north through the canal, were attacked by German aircraft based in the Mediterranean. Poor navigation, bad weather and insurance fraud have resulted in more shipwrecks since then.
Winds and currents in the Egyptian section of the Gulf of Aqaba can be strong and if the surface current is running in the opposite direction to that of the wind, the waves can be large. However, because of the depth, bad weather does not have much effect on visibility, which remains good. The landmass of the Sinai Peninsula shelters the dive sites on the coast of Southern Sinai and those north of the Strait of Gubal. The wind usually blows from the north and strong currents flow either way, but generally one side of the Sinai Peninsula will have diving conditions that are acceptable. Nevertheless, the Gulf of Suez is shallow and sandy, so inclement weather can reduce visibility drastically. The Strait of Gubal itself and the sites south and west of it are exposed to the full force of the prevailing winds.
Water temperatures in winter can be cold and, due to the wind-chill factor after a dive in a wet suit, some divers prefer dry suits. There are restrictions on sport diving in the Gulf of Suez due to numerous oilfields.
Along the northern part of the Egyptian Gulf of Aqaba, the diving is a slightly upmarket version of what it was like in the 1970s, with the advantage of avoiding the crowds further south. The sites from the Israeli border to Nuweiba and Dahab are treated as shore dives; some require access by four-wheel drive vehicle and in a few instances camels are used, though this is just for the experience and not essential. Shore diving is partly necessary due to the difficulty in anchoring boats along an oft-sheer north-south coastline in the prevailing north winds. Underwater there is a mixture of sandy slopes, drop-offs and coral gardens with plenty of reef fish. There are few pelagic species along the shore, but species as large as Whale Sharks pass by offshore and have been seen as far north as Jordan.
Nuweiba has become a busy port with top quality hotels and resorts strung out along the coast. Further south Dahab still has its sleepy, hippy ambience that attracts independent travellers, but there are top quality hotels and dive packages for those who want them.
Near the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, the coast from Râs Nusrâni through Na’ama Bay (Merset et ’At) and the once sleepy little port of Sharm el Sheikh has seen massive development. Sand and cement blown into the water from building construction has smothered some of the nearby corals. Some of the easier dive sites are suffering as a result of their accessibility to novice divers. However, in general the better dive sites accessed from here are very good. Shore diving used to be popular here, but nowadays fleets of day boats head out for nearby dive sites every morning, while live-aboard boats head further afield. Good at any time of year with lots of pelagic species in the spring and early summer, the diving on the reefs in the Strait of Tiran and Râs Muhammad Marine National Park is exceptional as large shoals of fish gather to spawn. The sharks that attracted divers in the 1970s are still there, but they have become accustomed to divers and are no longer curious about them. Whitetip Reef Sharks are common and if divers pick a site with strong currents and go deep in the early morning, larger sharks such as Grey Reef and Hammerhead Sharks are usually found. Along the inshore reefs west of Râs Muhammad there are regular sightings of Variegated (Leopard) Sharks.
Due to strong currents, the reefs in the Strait of Tiran are very healthy. Stony and soft corals attract reef and pelagic fish, including the Anthias (Fairy Basslets) seen here.
In good weather, day boats and live-aboard boats from Na’ama Bay and Sharm el Sheikh sail as far northwest as Shag Rock and Sha’b ’Ali for excellent reefs and wrecks. Live-aboard boats cross the Strait of Gubal to join those from El Gouna and Hurghada operating in the Tawîla and Shadwân channels and on the many wrecks at Sha’b Abu Nuhâs.
On the main Egyptian coast, Hurghada has seen the worst of resort development, with little or no town planning and too many winter-sun and dive resorts packed closely together. El Gouna 20km (12 miles) to the north has been developed more aesthetically. Most of the dive sites are more than 30 minutes offshore, but the area is heavily dived. In 1992 local operators formed the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Agency (HEPCA). With help in funding from USAID, the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency and the Red Sea Governorate, HEPCA has been fixing mooring buoys to all dive sites in order to reduce anchor damage.
As the dive sites south and west of the Strait of Gubal get the full force of the prevailing northerly winds on windy days, sailing in the smaller day boats can be rough. Local operators tend to look at the weather each morning before deciding which dive sites to visit.
NORTHERN SINAI – DAHAB
At Dahab the best-known site is Blue Hole 1, 8km (5 miles) to the north. The sloping reef outside has good stony corals and fish life, but the vertical shaft known as the Blue Hole is notorious for divers coming to grief by descending too deep. The best dive is The Canyon 2, just north of the town, with shoals of Sweepers milling around inside and outside a narrow cleft, which goes down from 20m (65ft) to 30m (100ft).
Dividing the Strait of Tiran northeast of Râs Nusrâni, the offshore reefs of Jackson, Woodhouse, Thomas and Gordon rise from deep water with strong currents, excellent diving and several wrecks to the west. Jackson Reef 3 has the high-and-dry wreck of the Lara and probably has the best diving of the four. With stunning walls and prolific marine life, it is treated as a drift dive. Woodhouse 4 has no shelter and can only be dived in good weather. Thomas Reef 5 is spectacular and Gordon 6 has the high-and-dry wreck of the Loullia and a sheltered plateau from 10m (33ft) to 24m (79ft) at the southern end.
Twobar Anemonefish (Amphiprion bicinctus), also known as clownfish, and Threespot Dascyllus (Dascyllus trimaculatus), also known as Domino Damselfish, often share large anemones.
The wreck of the barge at Bluff Point is regularly used for both day and night dives by divers on live-aboard boats. The area offers comfortable, sheltered anchorage.
There are a number of wrecks at Râs Muhammad Marine National Park 7 and the Strait of Gubal. West-southwest of the Thistlegorm 8, Shag Rock 9 at the southern end of Sha’b ’Ali 10 has the high-and-dry wreck of a fishing boat. On the western side is the SS Kingston. A World War II Dornier bomber lies at 27m (90ft) to the northeast.
Across the Strait of Gubal, the two Gûbâl Islands and Sha’b Gûbâl have at least five wrecks. Bluff Point 12, the northeast point of Gûbâl Saghîra (little Gûbâl), shelters an overnight anchorage for live-aboards with the remnants of a barge at 12m (40ft) suitable for night dives. Northeast of Sha’b Gûbâl, the stern wreckage of SS Ulysses 11 is at 28m (92ft). West of Gûbâl Kebîra (Large Gûbâl), in the Tawîla Channel, the World War II wreck of the SS Rosalie Möller 13 sits upright on the sand with her bow at 39m (130ft) and her rudder at 45m (150ft). With strong currents, poor visibility and the depth she should only be dived in good weather.
14 SHA’B ABU NUHÂS
North of Shaker Island (Shadwân), close to the main shipping lane, the treacherous reef of Sha’b Abu Nuhâs is famous for having the largest grouping of shipwrecks at divable depths on a single reef in the Red Sea.
There are at least seven wrecks, some piled on top of one another, so that it is difficult to separate them out and there is confusion over the exact identity of some wreckage. Some of the wrecks are due to navigational errors or bad weather. Others, however, are probably insurance frauds because their listed cargo is missing. Along the northwest face, the Giannis D is near the western corner, the Carnatic is near the centre, while near the eastern corner the Chrisoula K is next to the earlier wreck of the Marcus and further to the east is the wreck of the Olden. In contrast to the other wrecks in this locality, the Carnatic has over 100 years of coral growth.
EL GOUNA AND HURGHADA
Most of El Gouna’s and Hurghada’s dive sites are accessed by boat, with the nearby reefs of the Giftûn (Gifâtîn) Islands 15 and Abu Ramada 16 providing most of them. All are now marine parks. Live-aboards access reefs and islands south of the Strait of Gubal and the Offshore Marine Park Islands, The Brothers, Dædalus, Gezîret Zabargad and Rocky Islet, from here.
The top of Dædalus Reef from the top of the British-built lighthouse, showing the jetty used to transport supplies and a live-aboard boat hanging off in the wind.
The British-built lighthouse at Dædalus Reef, showing the railway lines on the jetty that are used to convey supplies on a trolley. The jetty is in a poor state of repair.