Bordered by seven desert countries, the Red Sea is a narrow, nearly landlocked gash of water that sits at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and the Middle East. For decades, the northern Red Sea off Egypt has been to European divers what Cozumel and the Cayman Islands have been to North Americans--close-to-home destinations with world-class diving. Now that Americans are increasingly venturing to the Red Sea, there's a boom of new luxury resorts and live-aboards rising to meet the demand.
In one sense, dive tourism here has been 40 million years in the making. It began when shifting tectonic plates split the Arabian Peninsula from what is now North Africa and allowed water from the Indian Ocean to rush into the gap. The rift is still expanding--a half inch every year--slowly widening a sea that's currently 1,200 miles long, 200 miles wide and 10,000 feet deep in some places.
Today, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean exchange very little water. In relative isolation, the Red Sea has developed a higher-than-normal salinity and its own endemic twists on Indo-Pacific marine life. It also contains the northernmost fully developed reef system on the planet and boasts a diversity of 1,000 species of marine life.
The lack of fresh water flowing into the sea, as well as intense evaporation caused by the arid climate and steady winds, causes the Red Sea to be saltier than most oceans. As a result, you'll need to add a few pounds to your weight belt to overcome increased buoyancy. The water here is also cooler than you would expect, peaking at 80F in the summer and dropping to the 60Fs in winter, so you'll need extra neoprene too, maybe a dry suit for winter. Visibility varies by location and with seasons, but on average you can expect an honest 100 feet.
Except for an estimated 50 days of flat water every year, the Red Sea is choppy, though summer months bring the calmest weather. Currents vary by location, but count on drift diving on exposed seamounts and pinnacles.
Depending on which part of the Egyptian Red Sea you visit, you can dive shallow patch reefs, deep walls and shipwrecks, but for many divers, the best diving is found on coral ergs. Seamounts, pinnacles or bommies by other names, these coral mountains rise to within feet of the surface, offering shallow coral gardens swarmed by tropical fish and deep coral walls tended by massive pelagics.
The Sinai Peninsula/Sharm El Sheikh
This mountainous desert peninsula jutting into the northern Red Sea is one odd piece of real estate.
Once the domain of the nomadic Bedouin people, the Sinai and its history have been scarred by the wars fought to control this barren but strategically important terrain between the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba. A nascent dive industry took hold in the 1960s under Israeli occupation and has blossomed in the peaceful years since the historic Camp David Accord gave the territory back to Egypt.
Sinai is the center of Red Sea diving for one, narrow reason: Ras Mohammed. The thin strip of land that juts out from the tip of the peninsula is named for a wind-carved cliff that is said to resemble the Islamic prophet. Divers know it as the most popular collection of wall diving sites in the Red Sea, thanks to the sheer desert cliffs that plunge vertically into the water here.
The reefs here were declared a no-touch, no-take national park in 1983 (the rules are strictly enforced) and since then the park has been expanded north into the Gulf of Aqaba to include popular reefs all the way to Na'ama Bay and the village of Dahab. While there is some shore diving along shallow reefs in this region, the best wall sites are usually dived by boat.
Straits of Tiran
Plateauing just beneath the surface, a series of four seamounts forms a natural pinch point to the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba. Exposed to the currents sweeping through the deep, narrow channel, the hard and soft corals here grow prolifically, attracting all manner of marine life. If there is one place in the Red Sea where you are still virtually guaranteed to see sharks, it's here off Jackson, Woodhouse, Thomas and Gordon reefs. Accessible by day boats from the Sinai or by live-aboards, these reefs are considered some of the finest advanced dives in the Red Sea. Just be prepared for strong currents and extreme depths.
Straits of Gubal
Ships have traversed the Red Sea for centuries, and many have fallen victim to the coral pinnacles that lie just beneath the surface. Nowhere is this more true than in the Straits of Gubal, the Red Sea's wreck alley at the entrance to the Gulf of Suez. Six large, modern wrecks are accessible by day boats from Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada, though the best way to see them is by live-aboard.
The most famous wreck here is the Thistlegorm, a World War II freighter sunk by a German bomber before it could deliver its cargo of military hardware including jeeps, tanks and motorcycles. The encrusted ship and its cargo are a photogenic dive reminiscent of the wrecks in Truk Lagoon.
Exposed at the northern end of the sea, the strait is one of the choppiest areas in the Red Sea, but it's rarely too rough to dive. You can also make reef dives on nearby islands and coral pinnacles including Abu Nuhas--which features three of the most famous Gubal wrecks--Giannis D, the Carnatic and the Chrisoula K.
Hurghada is the boomtown of Egyptian tourism, a Middle-Eastern Cancun in the making. The well-developed infrastructure includes more than 70 dive shops offering the full range of services from resort courses to tri-mix. From Hurghada, day boats ply the Giftun Islands, which offer shallow coral gardens and deep canyons. A sandy bottom supports rays and the occasional shark, including whitetip reef, gray reef and hammerheads, as well as the occasional whale shark.
Hurghada provides central access to Sharm El Sheikh and the Straits of Gubal as well as southern itineraries to offshore seamounts and the Brothers Islands. Smaller villages of Safaga and Quseir are miniature versions of Hurghada with their own resorts and dive shops.
The Brothers Islands
Live-aboards were invented to reach off-the-chart spots like the Brothers Islands. The pair of exposed coral peaks come screaming to the surface from a depth of 230 feet. Pristine and loaded with fish and sharks, the steep reefs are said to be the best diving in the Red Sea. A lighthouse, built on the larger of the two islands in the late 1800s, is still in operation by the Egyptian military and the soldiers stationed there are said to welcome visitors (especially if they bring gifts of food and cigarettes).
The Importance of "Baksheesh"
Baksheesh is an Arabic word you'll learn quickly in Egypt. It can mean a gift or alms, but most commonly it means a tip. Although tipping is expected more frequently here than in the West, amounts are typically smaller. Guidebooks recommend you pay doormen and baggage handlers 25 to 50 piasters (50 piasters is half an Egyptian pound) per bag. Guides should get one to five pounds per hour depending on the service. For other services, tip the usual percentage of the bill. Some hotel and airline employees may refuse tips, but it's best to offer. Conversely, many other tourism employees--especially cabbies--aren't shy about asking for baksheesh. Also be aware that a 12 percent service charge is added automatically to most restaurant bills. Tip additional amounts only to reward exceptional service.
Crime and Safety in Egypt
Tourism is a vital industry to Egypt. Heavily armed security troops are highly visible at airports and major tourist sites as a deterrent to terrorism. Most travelers will find no anti-Western sentiment among Egyptians. Crimes against tourists tend to be economic crimes of opportunity such as pickpocketing or theft. Use the same precautions you would traveling anywhere to safeguard yourself and valuables. Unescorted women are vulnerable to sexual harassment and verbal abuse. For the latest updates on potential safety risks, consult the U.S. State Department's Consular Information Sheet and Travel Warnings on the web at http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_1764.html or by calling the fax on demand system at (202) 647-3000.
Dive In: The Red Sea
Documents: Tourists require a valid passport, sufficient funds for expenses during their stay, and an onward/return ticket.
Customs and Immigration: Upon arrival in Cairo, all visitors must purchase a visa for US$15, cash only. Note that the international airport is a different terminal than the domestic terminal used for flights to either Hurghada or Sharm El Sheikh. It is confusing and sometimes a hassle to get from one airport to another. Groups should definitely use a ground agent to facilitate luggage handling and airport transfers in Cairo, and individuals should keep some cash on hand for tips. There is no departure tax.
Water Conditions: The Red Sea is much like the Florida Keys in terms of water temperature and seasonal conditions: The summer is typically warm and calm, and the seas can be rough and cool in the wintertime. In fact, in January and February the water temperature can drop into the low 60Fs, and most experienced Red Sea divers wear 7mm wetsuits or even dry suits. The summer water temperature should be between 82 and 86 degrees and the seas mostly calm. If there is wind to contend with, it tends to begin blowing in the early morning and usually subsides substantially by the afternoon. Expect 100-foot water clarity to be the norm, although in the summer plankton blooms sometimes occur.
Red Sea Marine Life
Red Sea bannerfish
These beauties come in black with yellow stripes and sport a pronounced dorsal fin. They travel in pairs or small schools and make great photo subjects.
The most aptly named fish in the Red Sea is a species of surgeonfish with a joust-like horn growing from its head. There are long- and short-horned varieties. Both are found on the edge of drop-offs.
Jewel fairy basslet
The generic term "goldfish" comes from these tiny tropicals that shimmer in the bright, sunlit water of shallow reefs. Look for them in enormous schools..
This overgrown parrotfish can reach lengths of six feet. Named for the hat-like hump on its forehead, they are found on deeper Red Sea reefs.