Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Jack Jackson
THE SUDANESE RED SEA HAS A COLLECTION of healthy coral reefs, many of which rise steeply from deep water. The water is warm, visibility is great and there has been very little coral bleaching. Sudanese waters are currently difficult to reach due to unreliable flights, minimal infrastructure and political unease. Sites north of Port Sudan have the best diving and largest species diversity in the Red Sea.
Sudan was one of the first countries to ban spear-fishing and there are so many shallow reefs that large-scale commercial fishing has never been practical except for prawns in the sandy areas south of Port Sudan. Sudan has the deepest and warmest waters found anywhere in the Red Sea, with depths reaching over 3000m (9800ft) between Port Sudan and Jeddah. Isolated coral atolls and pinnacles rise vertically from very deep water to touch the surface, giving great wall diving among prolific marine life, healthy corals, good visibility and large fish, including shoals of Bumphead Parrotfish, which are rarely found north of the Sudanese/Egyptian border.
Four dive sites - the South Point of Sha’b Rumi, the North and Southwest Points of Sanganeb and the Umbria wreck - are among the finest in the world, but your dive guide must know where to enter the water for the best results. It is equally important to begin diving early in the morning. Winter winds can be strong. The summer, while hot on land, is comfortable, if humid, offshore. August is best avoided as heavy rain in the nearby Ethiopian highlands produces south winds and haboobs. These are violent squalls of Force 8 or more with dense sandstorms that, even well offshore, can reduce above-water visibility to a few metres in minutes.
Nowadays, most tourist diving in the Sudan is offshore by live-aboard boat. The boats working from Port Sudan are mostly Italian, but not exclusively so. Before booking a Sudanese diving vacation it is imperative to talk to someone who has been there for the purpose of diving, because some operators’ advertising material contains charts, facts and local names that are incorrect. Wrong information and impossible itineraries are signs that they do not know the area.
South of Port Sudan the sea becomes progressively more shallow with a sandy bottom, so the diving is not as good. There are hundreds of sites in the Suakin Group, including North Jumna Shoal, Hindi Gider, Sha’b ’Anbar, Masamirit and Karam Masamirit.
Slightly less popular are Pfeiffer Reef and Qita el Banna in the north and in the south, Protector Reef, Dahrat Ghab and Dahrat ’Abid, which have high-and-dry wrecks and Preserver Reef, which does not. There are Tiger Sharks off the entrance to Port Sudan and huge ones on Green Reef. For the adventurous, the effort to reach Sudanese diving is worth it.
1 ELBA REEF
On the Egyptian/Sudanese political boundary 18km (11 miles) east-northeast of Marsa Umbeila, Elba Reef has the Levanso (Levanzo) wreck. The shallow parts of the wreck are easily dived, but the drop-off continues well beyond 50m (165ft) with lots of big fish and sharks.
2 PFEIFFER REEF
Situated 15km (9 miles) southeast of Marsa Halaka, Pfeiffer Reef slopes to a plateau at 40m (130ft) before dropping off into the depths. As with every other deep reef in this region, there are sharks deeper down. East of Muhammad Qol, Mesharifa has Manta Rays gathering to mate in August.
3 ABINGTON, 4 ANGAROSH 5 MERLO REEFS
About 22km (14 miles) southeast of Râs Abu Shagara, Abington, Angarosh and Merlo Reefs teem with inquisitive sharks among the prolific marine life.
6 QITA EL BANNĀ
Qita el Bannā, 18km (11 miles) south-southwest of Angarosh, is similar to Abington, Angarosh and Merlo Reefs, with sheer walls, great corals, teeming fish and plenty of sharks. Most of the diving is deep, but there are good shallow areas.
7 BLUE BELT
There are numerous reefs in this area, but the reefs near Marsa ’Arūs (Arous) and Port Sudan are most popular because they can be reached by inflatable as well as live-aboard boats. East of Marsa Arakiyai, 65km (40 miles) north of Port Sudan, lies the large reef of Sha’b Su’ādi where the main attraction is the wreck of the 2545-tonne freighter Blue Belt. Wrongly called the Blue Bell in some guides, the Blue Belt went aground on Sha’b Su’adi in December 1977 and when two tugs from Port Sudan pulled her off too energetically, she overturned and sank. Carrying Toyota vehicles and spares, she is known locally as the Toyota wreck. Today she lies upside down with the top of the bow on sand at 15m (50ft) and the rest of the ship over the drop-off descending steeply into the depths at 65m. Penetration requires care because the vessel is upside down, which forces divers to go deep again at the end of the dive to get back out. Vehicles spilled from the deck onto sand at 15m (50ft) make a good dive. Much of the shallow stony coral has been killed by fuel oil leaking from the ship.
One of the Toyota trucks that spilled from the deck of the Blue Belt as she turned over. Pulled over and sunk in December 1977, she is known locally as the Toyota wreck.
SHA’B RUMI (ROMAN REEF)
East of Marsa ’Arūs, 40km (25 miles) north-northeast of Port Sudan, Sha’b Rumi (Roman Reef) is a large reef with its longest sides parallel to the prevailing north-to-south current. On the west side there are two entrances to its lagoon and, lying on a ledge at 9m (30ft) just outside the southern entrance, are the remains of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Conshelf II 8 experiment of 1963 (see p78). The largest of the remains is the onion-shaped submersible hangar. Its portholes have gone, but the roof holds an air pocket of divers’ exhaust gases in which they can converse. East of the hangar lie the cables that ran to the utility ship Rosaldo in the lagoon and just to the north of the hangar is the tool shed. Further north, abreast of the lagoon entrance, three multicoloured fish pens covered in Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals move around in rough seas, while over the drop-off a shark cage is the only remnant of the deep habitat at 27m (89ft).
Inconsiderate divers have broken off some of the table corals on the hangar, but the site is still full of nostalgia and makes an excellent night dive. The memorial casket under the submarine hangar has an inscription dedicated to a German diver who died here in 1973. The narrow lagoon entrance leads to safe anchorage and the best time to dive the site is very early morning. Sharks are rare, except deep over the drop-off, but turtles and dolphins are common.
With the eastern side of Sha’b Rumi more contorted than on the west, the current is slowed down more. When the currents meet off the narrow South Point 9, they are travelling at different speeds, producing whirlpools and upwellings full of nutrients that attract large shoals of fish. These in turn attract large numbers of sharks. In the shelter of the wall, over a sandy plateau sloping from 20m (66ft) to 36m (118ft), the marine life is prolific, with massive shoals of fish, and there can be 50 sharks circling in the early morning. Large Silvertip Sharks, aggressive Silky Sharks, Grey Reef and smaller Whitetip Reef Sharks are common, while Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks shoal over the drop-off. A German film crew placed the tiny shark cage here in 1975.
About 30km (20 miles) northeast of Port Sudan, and marked by a lighthouse at its southern end, the large atoll of Sanganeb is famous for a profusion of 23 top dive sites. The North Point 10 is exposed to the prevailing north winds and currents, so it can only be dived in good weather and is best dived in the early morning when it is calm. The point drops off in steps with a healthy reef table at 5m (16ft); a sandy platform pointing north with a raised lip at 20m (65ft); and a much larger sandy plateau protruding 100m (330ft) further north and shelving from 50m to 60m (165ft to 200ft). The platform with the raised lip often has a Manta Ray. The upper reef table is carpeted with stony corals, soft corals and gorgonians, while the reef fish are dense and varied. The deeper plateau has large numbers of pelagics, including a huge shoal of barracuda circling in a tightly-knit ball, and shoals of Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks. In the early morning Grey Reef Sharks are found resting on the sand. Visibility is good enough for divers to observe these creatures from the outer reef wall, without having to go deep.
Endemic to the Red Sea and the western Gulf of Aden, Red Sea Bannerfish (Heniochus intermedius) shoal as juveniles and sometimes as adults. This shoal is on Sha’b Rumi Reef.
This 3m (10ft) coral pinnacle on the southwest plateau of Sanganeb has colourful Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals. The anthias (fairy basslets) are resident, while the Emperor Angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator) is just passing.
On the east side of the North Point there is an obvious separate large coral head and south of it there are two very deep wrecks. The shallowest of these is a large old wooden vessel covered in whip corals, but its highest point is at 70m (230ft). Some 20m (65ft) north of the coral head, divers can descend to a small sloping shelf at 45m (150ft), which overlooks a gully to the east. Grey Reef Sharks, Whitetip Reef Sharks and shoals of over 40 Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks cruise this gully. In April shoals of Blackspotted Grunts congregate here in small caves. Many live-aboards avoid this dive because they cannot anchor, but some hold off the reef and others make the long journey from the lagoons by inflatable. On a good day this is possibly the best dive in the world.
Sanganeb’s East Face 11 is several kilometres long and has to be treated as several north-south drift dives. A sheer wall throughout its length, it drops vertically to 90m (300ft) before shelving off into the depths. There are signs of at least two large wrecks having dragged along it. Opposite Sanganeb’s outer lagoon there is a large anchor and wreckage, and opposite the inner lagoon there are the metallic remains - engine, gearbox and tanks - of a wooden wreck. It lies at 10m (33ft) within a curve in the reef that gives shelter from the current. It is possible for clever coxwains to anchor small boats here. Being beside a large area of deep water, this face combines the best of reef life with pelagic creatures: stonefish, Torpedo (Electric) Rays, snake eels, surgeonfish, angelfish and butterflyfish are found in the shallows. Sharks, including Variegated (Leopard) Sharks, inhabit the deeper water while sailfish, turtles, Manta Rays, Bottlenose Dolphins and pilot whales regularly pass by.
A diver surveys the captain’s bathroom on the Umbria. Scuttled in 1940 and lying in sheltered water inside Wingate Reefs, this well-lit wreck has abundant marine life and is very popular with underwater photographers.
The remains of a wooden live-aboard lie near where most live-aboard boats anchor in the outer lagoon. Named either White Elephant or Saida III, depending on whether the Austrian/Italian owner was chartering or smuggling, it slowly sank where it was after the owner had mysteriously disappeared. Now it makes a good night dive.
People often camp around the lighthouse from where they can dive the south wall, which is about a kilometre (half a mile) long and 70m (230ft) deep, or the Southwest Point from the south jetty. At night Spiny Lobsters, Spanish Dancer Nudibranchs, Sea Hares, Banded Coral Shrimps, snake eels, octopuses, Basket Stars and Tun Shells are on show. This end of the reef is sheltered from all but August’s south winds, and when winter’s north winds are very strong, shoals of up to nine Manta Rays congregate here.
At the Southwest Point 12 the upper reef wall has prolific marine life, including shoals of Sailfin Surgeonfish, unicornfish and barracuda, shoals of Blackspotted Grunts congregate around the caverns in April. Below the reef wall, a wide sandy plateau slopes gently from 20m to 36m (65ft to 118ft), while protruding southwest for 100m (330ft). On the south and west of this plateau the drop-off descends at around 60-70° into deep water so divers can peer over the edge at the sharks below. But to the north there is only a slope. Grey Reef and Scalloped Hammerhead sharks patrol the southern edge of this plateau, lone Silvertip or Tiger Sharks are sometimes encountered and Leopard (Variegated) Sharks have been seen where it joins the south wall.
Every combination of Red Sea pelagic and reef fish is found among the stony corals, soft corals, Gorgonian Sea Fans and Sea Whips on the plateau including Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays, large Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse and many huge Brownmarbled Groupers.
13 UMBRIA WRECK
At the northern end of the main ship’s anchorage for Port Sudan, the 155m (509ft) cargo/passenger vessel Umbria is sheltered by Wingate Reefs and can be dived in any weather. There is no current, but lots of light, great visibility and prolific marine life. Scuttled at anchor in June 1940, she was first dived recreationally by Hans Hass in 1949. The Umbria lies at an angle on her port side, with her starboard davits breaking the surface. The port propeller is buried in the coral, but the starboard propeller is in clear water at 15m (50ft). The stern rests on coral at 20m (65ft), while the bow rests on sand at 36m (120ft). Most of the ship is easily penetrated. The holds are open and ordnance, wine bottles, batteries and Kilner jars are scattered around. Many sacks are no longer supported so divers require good buoyancy control to avoid dislodging them. Entering the engine room and kitchen are more difficult, and care should be taken not to disturb the silt. The engines are intact and an outboard motor is clamped to the engine room wall. It is one of the world’s best dives and one of the most photogenic wrecks.
Around the ship’s anchorage, Wingate Reefs are in shallow water, but have good marine life including Tiger Sharks, Blacktip Reef Sharks, dolphins and congregations of Manta Rays during the worst winter winds.
SOUTH SUĀKIN GROUP
South of Port Sudan, Towartit Reefs and some of the hundreds of low-lying islets and reefs in the Suākin Group south-southeast of Port Sudan (including North Jumna Shoal, Hindi Gider, Sha’b ’Anbar and Masamirit), tend to be popular with Italian live-aboard boats and form a sheltered anchorage for local fishermen. Over relatively shallow water, with slopes rather than drop-offs, the marine life is just as good as that further north, but visibility is relatively poor. Lone Grey Reef Sharks, Whitetip Reef Sharks, Nurse Sharks and Variegated (Leopard) Sharks are common; large Tiger Sharks and whales are seen.
Between Port Sudan and Suakin many of the reefs near the shore were used as sheltered anchorages for ships waiting to enter Port Sudan Harbour. Unfortunately they were damaged by bored ship’s crews ripping up tons of stony coral with crowbars.
North Jumna Shoal (the most northerly islet in the Suakin Group), Hindi Gider and Sha’b ’Anbar (east-southeast of Port Sudan) have quite good fish life. Hindi Gider 14 (known locally as Hind Kadam) is an islet with a sand cay 55km (34 miles) east-northeast of Suakin harbour. It has an automatic navigational light and huge Osprey nests. The depths drop well beyond 50m (165ft).
Grey Reef Sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) are the commonest sharks in Sudanese waters. At one time the name Blacktail Shark (C. wheeleri) was used in the northern Red Sea, but they are now considered Grey Reef Sharks.
About 16km (10 miles) south-southeast of Hindi Gider, Protector Reef is a large reef with a rusting wreck on its northern fringe and a gentle slope down to a drop-off at 20m (65ft) at the southern end. A little south-southwest of Protector Reef, Preserver Reef has a steep drop-off at its southern end.
15 MASAMIRIT ISLET
Masamirit Islet, 174km (108 miles) southeast of Port Sudan, has a steep drop-off on the east side. There is a plateau at 25-30m (80-100ft) at its northern end. This plateau has many coral heads and it is a good place from which divers can observe the deeper reef life swimming by below.
16 KARAM MASAMIRIT
Just southeast of Masamirit, Karam Masamirit has deeper drop-offs. The north and south ends slope down to the edges of these drop-offs at around 25m (80ft), where divers can again peer over the edge at the pelagics, including sharks, below. Eagle Rays and Hump-head (Napoleon) Wrasse are quite common.
17 DAHRAT GHAB
About 28km (17 miles) south-southeast of Masamirit, Dahrat Ghab, is another islet fringed by a good reef. But the southern tip probably has the best diving with a separate ridge from 22m (72ft) from where divers can look over the drop-off.
18 DAHRAT ’ABĪD
The southernmost islet in the Suākin Group, Dahrat ’Abid, has the remains of a wreck on top of the reef and shoals of reef fish. In the shallows there are good soft corals. The depths provide good opportunities for divers to see pelagics swimming past, including Grey Reef Sharks, Whitetip Reef Sharks, Thresher Sharks and Silvertip Sharks. This is the last reef to have a reasonable drop-off as boats go south.
An artist’s reconstruction of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Conshelf II experiment of 1963 at Sha’b Rumi, an attempt at establishing a scientific colony on the continental shelf. A 24m (80ft) bridge was built from the support ship Rosaldo anchored in the lagoon, across Roman Reef to the jumping-off ladder above the sunken village. The upper level carried pedestrians and the lower carried power cables, compressed air hoses, television and phone lines. The Starfish House cutaway shows the crew’s sleeping quarters, the laboratory and the central living area with a bank of television monitors and a kitchen. One of the divers is shown handling Claude, the parrot, which they tried unsuccessfully to interest in the parrotfish in the window. The Diving Saucer Hangar had an open entry port below, the water kept out by air compressed to 2 atmospheres. An overhead four-ton winch lifted the Diving Saucer into the hangar. A removable plywood floor was placed over the 3m (10ft) hatch for the mechanics to walk on. Between the hangar and Starfish House the cook is depicted feeding the triggerfish that had become habituated and could be attracted by tapping on the Starfish House window. The fish was able to identify the cook from among identically clad divers. Next to him is a fish pen, one of five geodesic cages of metal frame and varicoloured Plexi glas where specimens, captured unharmed in the divers’ hands, were kept. In the Wet (tool) Shed they stored submarine scooters, fish traps, geological tools, builder’s supplies and anything else that water could not damage. Fish were trapped and placed in water-filled plastic bags, with a shot of compressed air from the diver’s mouthpiece to buoy the bag. The bags were tied to the Wet Shed to be sorted later and transported to the Oceanographic Institute in Monaco. Deep Cabin was moored against a coral escarpment. Communication cables connected it to Starfish House from where the occupants could be monitored via television. It was occupied for a week by two ‘oceanauts’ who lived in a room 2m (7ft) across, pressurized to 3½ atmospheres. The open hatch was protected by a shark-proof grille. Divers also explored in the Diving Saucer.
Powder-blue Surgeonfish (Acanthurus leucosternon) sometimes occur in large feeding aggregations that can overwhelm any territorial damselfish guarding their ‘private’ algae.