SOUTH EGYPT - Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson

Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)


by Jack Jackson

THE SOUTH EGYPTIAN RED SEA HAS A wonderful collection of coral reefs in warm water with great visibility, but the offshore reefs can have strong currents. There has been very little coral bleaching. As one heads south from Port Safâga the fringing and near-shore reefs have not suffered the construction sediment or diver pressure that has occurred further north. The diving is as good as it was at Sharm el Sheikh in the early 1970s, with healthy corals, big fish and shoals of pelagics and brightly coloured reef fish. Whale Sharks swim by frequently and sharks and dolphins are relatively common, particularly around offshore reefs. Turtles can be found anywhere and even nest on quiet beaches such as those at Gezîret Zabargad.

The fringing reefs tend to be coral, sloping down to sand. Where coral pinnacles rise from the seabed some have sea-grass beds where Dugongs have been seen. The offshore reefs, whose drop-offs rise from deep water, obstruct strong currents causing nutrient-rich upwellings that feed a luxuriant marine life and this attracts pelagic fish.


Off Port Safâga the reefs seaward of Gezîret Safâga (Safâga Island) are exposed to the full force of the prevailing wind, so day boats only dive on them in good weather, but live-aboard boats dive them regularly. In strong winds, smaller boats find shelter along the fringing reefs. This area can be cold in winter.

Until recently the area south of El Quseir was only accessible to divers on live-aboard boats or from a few eco-camps around Marsa ’Alam. Now there are hotels and resorts all along the new asphalt road to Marsa Wadi Lahami. Fortunately, they are well strung out. An airport has been built north of Marsa ’Alam. There is almost 100km (62 miles) of divable fringing reef and in good weather day boats from the operations furthest north can reach the sharks at Elphinstone Reef and those furthest south can cover Fury Shoal.

Well offshore are the reefs of The Brothers Islands, Dædalus, Gezîret Zabargad, Rocky Islet and Saint John. Mostly marine parks, these live-aboard-only destinations have the best diving in Egypt. For weather reasons, trips are only offered in summer and even then some may be cancelled for safety reasons. There are strict controls on live-aboards and rules for their diving staff. There are supposed to be controls on the number of boats with permits to visit The Brothers at any one time, but some boats have had to cut short their visits because all the fixed moorings were in use.

Easily dived shipwrecks have been found off Hyndman reefs, Abu Galawa, Big Brother Island and Gezîret Zabargad. Most operators offer Nitrox or recreational technical diving.


East-northeast of Port Safâga, 8km (5 miles) east of Gezîret Safâga (Safâga Island), Panorama Reef is a large circular reef with walls dropping to over 200m (656ft). Its dive sites are as good as the best at Râs Muhammad. There are several around the reef with caves and overhangs, stony corals, Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals, Black Coral, sharks, turtles, dolphins, and Egyptian reef fish (there are small differences in the fish life between Egypt and Sudan, more noticeable in Yemen and Djibouti). The East Face has Gorgonian Sea Fans and a huge Anemone City with clownfish.


East-southeast of Port Safâga, Middle Reef is another with brilliant diving. The northern end slopes to 30m (100ft) and then drops into the depths as a wall. The east side has some anchor damage, but like the west side, has Acropora, Porites and lettuce corals, while the south side has caves, tunnels and gullies. Fish life includes sharks, jacks, groupers, Hump-head (Napoleon) Wrasse and sweetlips.


South of Middle Reef, east-southeast of Port Safâga, is Abu Gafan (Abu Kafan) which has possibly the best diving off Safâga. A narrow, 300m (980ft) reef, with walls dropping below 100m (330ft) and plateaus at the north and south ends, it has great stony and soft corals, turtles and reef fish. It is normal to judge the current, enter the water on the side with the current and swim round the reef to be picked up on the lee side. Keep an eye on the open water for dolphins and hammerhead sharks.


East of Hyndman Reefs, southeast of Port Safâga, Sha’b Shear (Shi’b Shear) is an elongated reef with a shallow lagoon at its south side and coral gardens on its east and west ends. Acropora corals, Porites corals, fire corals, Gorgonian Sea Fans and Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals abound. Turtles, jacks, groupers, tuna, fusiliers, goatfish, snappers, parrotfish, triggerfish, rabbitfish, surgeonfish, angelfish, soldierfish, squirrelfish, bigeyes, butterflyfish and Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays are common.


There are several sites on Hyndman Reefs. Just south of the largest of these is the wreck of the Salem Express. The 115m (377ft) roll-on/roll-off ferry hit a small reef and sank quickly with great loss of life in December 1991. She now lies on her starboard side in 30m (100ft) of water with her port side at 12m (40ft). The authorities have sealed the ship’s interior, but there are personal effects scattered everywhere. The wreck is better lit in the mornings.


The S-insignia on one of the funnels of the Salem Express, which sank with great loss of life on Hyndman Reefs. The ship was en route from Jeddah to Port Safâga and had almost reached its destination when it struck the reef.


Endemic to the Red Sea, the exquisite Butterflyfish (Chaetodon austriacus), which can grow to a size of 13cm (5in), is one of several that have an eye hidden in a mask, as well as stripes, to confuse predators.


The wreck of the tug Tienstin on Sha’b Abu Galawa has some amazing stony coral growth for the time that she has been underwater. Part of the wreck can be snorkelled.


Beit Goha, 20km (12 miles) north of El Quseir, is one of the plethora of good shore dives in this region. Generally an elaborate coral garden at around 10m (33ft), it drops to 30m (100ft) on the seaward side of the reef.


The Brothers (El Akhawein), 52km (32 miles) east-northeast of El Quseir, are two isolated islands rising out of deep water. Big Brother 7 has a lighthouse at the centre of the southwest face and is only about 400m (1310ft) long, but it dwarfs Little Brother 8 a kilometre (half a mile) to the southeast. As part of the Offshore Marine Park islands only the fixed moorings can be used. Big Brother offers excellent wall diving along the southern side of the reef, with strong currents promoting the growth of spectacular soft corals and frequent sightings of big pelagics. It also has two wrecks at its northern tip. The 173m (568ft) SS Numidia, which sank in 1901, lies at the northernmost tip, starting at 9m (30ft) with the stern lying at 80m (260ft). Only 100m (330ft) south of the Numidia lies the 75m (250ft) SS Aida II, which sank in 1957. The bow section is unrecognizable, but the stern lies from 30m (100ft) to 65m (210ft) and the rest is scattered over the reef. The strong currents have produced great soft corals on these wrecks, while at Little Brother they have produced some of the most colourful Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals in the Red Sea. The Brothers attract several species of sharks, including Scalloped Hammerheads, Silvertip and Oceanic Whitetip.


Elphinstone Reef (Sha’b Abu Hamra) is an elongated reef in the middle of nowhere, 9km (6 miles) off the coast below Marsa Abu Dabbâb, with sharks all around it. The plateau at 20-25m (65-80ft) on the south point has Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks and Oceanic Whitetip Sharks. Down in the depths of nitrogen narcosis a legend has grown around a rectangular section of reef that some claim to be a sarcophagus and subsequently dubbed The Tomb of the Pharaoh.


Dædalus Reef (Abu el Kîzân) is another isolated reef rising from deep water, 160km (100 miles) south-southeast of The Brothers, 83km (51 miles) off Marsa ’Alam. It has a lighthouse and is famous for sharks, especially Thresher Sharks. The north side has the region’s best selection of pelagic fish and the reef has more of the colourful reef fish than The Brothers. Unique to Dædalus Reef are inquisitive cornetfish and a cave at 18m (60ft) on the southwest corner with aggressive lionfish.

Either side of Marsa ’Alam there are 100km (62 miles) of fringing reef with an underwater topography of coral and coral pinnacles sloping down to sand at 30-40m (100-130ft). Two such reefs are in front of the Kahramana Resort Hotel at Blondie Beach north of Marsa ’Alam, and Sha’b Marsa ’Alam itself.


Off El Sharm, 16km (10 miles) north of Gezîrat Wadi Gimâl, Sha’b Sharm is one of many good inshore sites in the area. A horseshoe-shaped seamount with steep drop-offs, the most popular site is at the southern end where a gentle slope descends from 15m (50ft) to 30m (100ft) before dropping into the depths. There can be a strong current.


Fury Shoal is an expanse of reefs 17km (11 miles) north-northwest of Râs Banâs. The largest of these is often called Dolphin Reef. In general there is good diving everywhere, many shoals of reef fish, lone Whitetip Sharks and huge anemones. The reef’s outer edge has a reputation for dolphins and larger sharks. Part of Fury Shoal, Abu Galawa has the wreck of the tugboat Tienstin leaning on the south side of the reef at its western end. Listing to starboard, the bow of the wreck is on the reef and breaks the surface while the stern is on sand at 18m (60ft). The western-style toilet and the holds harbour shoals of sweepers. The propeller is still attached and the hull has a prolific growth of stony and soft coral, including some large Porites.


Situated 46km (28 miles) southeast of Râs Banâs, the larger island of Gezîret Zabargad, with its 234m (770ft) peak, was called Topazos in ancient times and more recently Saint John’s Island. It is no longer inhabited, but its olivine mines were excavated for 3500 years. Live-aboard boats use the island as an overnight anchorage for forays to Rocky Islet. The island is a ship graveyard with the Neptuna, a Swiss-run diving live-aboard that sank in April 1981, an unidentified Russian freighter on the western side of the south bay and the Maidan, a British steamship that sank in 1923.


Rocky Islet, consisting of steep, bare rock rising from very deep water about 6km (3 miles) southeast of Gezîret Zabargad, has a reputation for sharks and large pelagics. The northern face is open to the full force of the prevailing wind, so divers are dropped here, then swim east round to the calmer waters of the south face to be picked up. The narrow sandy shelf that surrounds the islet is widest at its eastern end where, at 25m (80ft) on the southeast corner, it has become the place for observing sharks among a wide selection of pelagics.


Just north of the Sudanese border, 26km (16 miles) southwest of Rocky Islet, Saint John’s Reef covers a huge area with many coral heads that are separate dive sites. Some have plateaus as shallow as 8m (25ft) while others slope below 70m (230ft) with stony corals, soft corals, Gorgonian Sea Fans and Sea Whips, shoals of barracuda, tuna, batfish, sweetlips, snappers and jacks and the ever-present sharks.



The small boat jetty, inner lagoon and the top of the reef at Sanganeb - one of the favourite sites of underwater film pioneer Hans Hass.


Traditional Egyptian cargo boats, called sambuks, in Port Sudan harbour. Sharks are found at the entrance to the harbour and nearby Wingate Reef shelters the Umbria wreck.