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Egyptian Treasures: Uncovering the Wonders of the Red Sea and the Nile

For thousands of years, Egyptians built boats on the Nile, hauled them across the desert, and set sail for parts unknown. That history might be one reason they’re so passionate today about protecting the northern Red Sea—one of the best places to dive on the planet.
By Mary Frances Emmons | Authored On December 3, 2019
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Egyptian Treasures: Uncovering the Wonders of the Red Sea and the Nile

Ancient Egyptians abhorred chaos. The culture that pretty much invented civilization along the banks of the Nile 5,000 years ago did so to ensure order. Stability produced astonishing monuments that attracted travelers such as Herodotus, a Greek historian who in around 450 B.C. found Egypt a land where restaurants, hotels and tour guides were not a new idea. (Egyptians pretty much invented tourism too.)

They didn’t invent marine parks. But when it comes to defending their seas—pressured by the plagues of marine debris and coastal development as well as the very real danger of being loved to death by millions of tourists and hundreds of thousands of mostly European divers every year—modern Egyptians are as intent as their forebears.

Ras Mohammed National Park Underwater

Ras Mohammed National Park

Tobias Friedrich

We’re approaching our first dive at Ras Mohammed National Park, on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, where Africa meets the Middle East. Low coastal cliffs of granite and basalt glow golden in the morning sun; higher, more distant mountains soar in shades of red and chocolate brown, contrasting with the gleaming white minarets and boats of Sharm El Sheikh, just beyond the park. “From now, we have proper diving,” says Adel el Beialy, co-cruise director of Red Sea Aggressor II, with evident satisfaction.

El Beialy warns us to expect enforcement—no touching, no taking. Rangers don scuba to capture misbehaving divers on video; violators can be banned from the park. Fifteen pairs of eyes widen; you can almost see each diver—two-thirds of them 20-and 30-somethings new to the sport—resolving not to be “that guy.”

When we submerge at Ras Ghozlani, one of more than a dozen sites in the park, it’s clear why they’re so vigilant. In a region popular with dayboats and liveaboards, the hard-coral coverage is extraordinary.

We drop in on an easy drift; the viz is limitless. (The Red Sea has virtually no natural runoff.) In the sapphire water, we spy all of the usual reef fish, but the star is the coral. From 50 feet to the surface, it’s a solid cliff of coral, coral, coral. And it’s not just inside the park. At nearby Beacon Rock, we drop to one of the prettiest sloping reefs anywhere, with healthy hard coral from the surface to around 70 feet. Everywhere is fishy as can be, layered with clouds of salmon-orange anthias. A small, free-swimming moray undulates across the white-sand seafloor like a champion belly dancer—all curves, no straight lines. We romp down the reef, stopping to play with the anthias—they’re not shy, perhaps believing themselves safe in their hordes— butters, angels, and broomtail and Napoleon wrasse.

For divers better acquainted with less-healthy seas, the breadth of Red Sea coral amazes. A 2008 study found about a quarter of surveyed Red Sea sites had coverage of up to 70 percent, numbers more commonly associated with Indo-Pacific Coral Triangle diving.

Egypt Temples and Shipwrecks

From left: Giannis D offers divers a playground inside and out; Hatshepsut's temple, near the Valley of Kings.

Scott Johnson/Tobias Friedrich

DIVING THROUGH TIME

Boats and Egypt go way back. “Egypt is the gift of the Nile,” Herodotus wrote; in a country that is 90 percent desert, the river was, and still is, lifeblood and highway. Boats ferried dead souls to the underworld; in this world, they floated the stones for those extraordinary monuments. Departed pharaohs crossed the sky twice a day in a “solar boat.” A 4,500-year-old example—almost the exact length and beam of Red Sea Aggressor II—was unearthed next to the Great Pyramid of Giza. Even the sun god Ra crossed the sky daily in a boat made of papyrus reeds.

Egyptians also were perhaps the first to explore the Red Sea. Pharaohs built navies on the Nile, then disassembled entire fleets and hauled them across the desert to be reassembled near Hurghada. Today that burgeoning resort town is shipyard and port to many of the region’s dive boats, including Egyptian-built, 138-foot Red Sea Aggressor II. Formed in 1992 by the local dive industry, the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association works to ensure a sustainable future for boating and diving, installing and maintaining more than 1,000 moorings and training local captains in their use.

Luxor Temple Egypt

Luxor Temple

Reinhard Dirscherl

Where man has taken to the sea for eons, wrecks are a given—those of the northern Red Sea are some of the world’s most famous. Thistlegorm, sunk in the Suez Canal in 1941 by German bombers, stands out. “You don’t feel like you are diving,” el Beialy says. “You feel like you are walking through a museum.”

We’re lucky on our first plunge—although several liveaboards are moored to the wreck, there are few divers below. At more than 400 feet long, Thistlegorm is massive. The newbies are wide-eyed but eager, and closely follow our briefing and their training. Our luck gets better: Contrary winds mean we will stay put, for a total of four dives here. Our first penetration comes after dinner: “This will be the best night dive ever in your life,” el Beialy promises.

Nothing can prepare you for the sheer amount of stuff packed into Thistlegorm—the motorcycles alone must number in the hundreds, most still stacked in crates.

“The bikes, the cargo, the history...oh, man. The mystery of it. I feel like Indiana Jones! It takes you back in time.”

The first thing we see are decomposing rubber boots—it’s a relief to recall only nine men died here. Still, as you advance into holds full of smashed and twisted trucks and equipment—along with some so intact, you could almost drive them away—it feels like something terrible happened here.

The next morning we do the same route at 5:30 a.m., when creeping dawn adds an eerie quality. On our last visit, we follow a chain of footlong links forward to the anchor, at about 90 feet, then ascend to the bow, where I’m surprised at the fish life; it’s Grand Central Station.

Minds are blown. “The bikes, the cargo, the history...oh, man,” says Sid Nagabhyrava, 33, of Hyderabad, India, one of the new divers aboard. “The mystery of it. I feel like Indiana Jones! It takes you back in time.”

Chrisoula K Shipwreck Egypt

Three wrecks at the Abu Nuhas reef — Chrisoula K (pictured above) and nearby Carnatic and *Giannis D *— have many easy entry and exit points.

Tobias Friedrich

BETTER AND BETTER

“Do you know why we do a back roll from the Zodiac?” el Beialy asked a day earlier, briefing us on Jackson Reef, one of four in the Straits of Tiran named for British cartographers who produced the region’s first charts. “Because if you go forward, you stay in the boat!”

We groan and laugh and head for the RIBs. The reef does not disappoint, with anthias everywhere, a wriggling orange wall 50 feet high, dense enough to obscure my buddy, and schools of fusiliers running laps around us. Shark and Yolanda followed; scattered toilets from a wreck that slid to the deep decades ago still captivate divers. But it’s the wrecks of Abu Nuhas reef, not far from Hurghada, that capture my heart.

Although more than a century separates their sinkings—in 1981 and 1869, respectively—Chrisoula K and nearby Carnatic are wrecks of great beauty, and accessible. Chrisoula K—known as the Tile Wreck, for its cargo—has large openings that let in natural light, crossed by beams that rise like the ribs of a leviathan. Carnatic’s remains display an open-weave pattern, like a basket or a jungle gym. Both are intriguing within and without, and the surrounding coral is almost mind-bogglingly pretty.

But the pièce de résistance is Giannis D, north of Carnatic. As soon as we descend, it’s obvious this too is a beautiful wreck, and full of life, from coral to schooling fish and a couple of baitballs. Listing at 45 degrees to port, its detached stern creates a disorienting playground for divers—if M.C. Escher had designed a wreck dive, it might look like Giannis D. Following narrow catwalks, divers pass in opposing directions, and nothing is really vertical—only your bubbles confirm which way is up. But exits are many, to cerulean seas and limitless viz that beckons you over the enormous debris field and toward the nearby bow.

“It’s a labyrinth,” marvels Edi Stieben, a young German naval officer who’s one of those new divers. “Like an Oktoberfest fun house.”

Shipwrecks in Egypt

Coral coverage on Chrisoula K — like many sites in the northern Red Sea is extraordinary.

Tobias Friedrich

JOURNEY TO PUNT

To Americans, desert can mean any barren bit. In Egypt, desert means sand, whipped into pyramid-shaped peaks everywhere you look. From our van, we hardly spy a living blade; we could be crossing the moon.

We’ve left Hurghada for a four-hour ride to Luxor, where we’ll board Aggressor Nile Queen, a new venture for Aggressor Adventures, which is branching out with a safari lodge in Sri Lanka, a Nile river cruise, and plans for more river cruises in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

We pass a statue of Cleopatra, and our guide rolls his eyes. Poster child for invasion—she was in fact Greek—hers is a legend trotted out for tourists. Ask about female pharaohs, and one name is repeated again and again: Hatshepsut, who ruled from 1473 to 1458 B.C.

Her greatest monument is at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Deir el-Bahari, adjacent to the Valley of the Kings. Her most interesting legacy, for divers: She was a pharaoh who understood the importance of travel—and the sea. Hatshepsut’s “Voyage to Punt” still fascinates scholars nearly 3,500 years later, not least because no one knows where Punt was. (Somalia is a popular guess.) There’s no doubt how her expedition reached it: by the Red Sea, probably departing from near Safaga, south of Hurghada. Stone reliefs document the voyage in detail on the walls of her strikingly modern-looking temple; any Red Sea diver will recognize turtles, rays, dugongs and all kinds of pelagic fish.

Aggressor Nile Queen also takes us through time, but to a different era, the mid-19th century, when Europeans and Americans such as Mark Twain were just “discovering” Egypt, sailing for weeks on similar dahabiyas, which offer a more intimate experience than Nile cruise ships. Agatha Christie would have been right at home on Nile Queen— she set Death on the Nile on a similar ship—with its polished hardwoods, antique furnishings, silver sconces, white linens and huge windows with Moorish screens. It’s as close to Cleopatra as I’m going to get, and I’m entranced by the yacht, the service, the daily tours of antiquities and the up-close views of life along the Nile.

We have the good fortune to be sailing on Shaman-Nessim, an ancient celebration of spring. Everyone is on or in the fast-moving river, so clear that I can see my toes on the white-sand bottom. A gaily painted little boat pulls alongside us, and suddenly tablecloths and wall hangings are flying over the railing as our companions bargain with the boatman. A joyful call and response of greeting and waving to those onshore goes on all day, until we can hardly raise our arms.

"Who’s to say Egyptians won’t lead the way to a future where there’s space for all living things under the sun and sea?"

NOW AND FOREVER

As impressive as the Nile monuments we visit is the heroic effort to conserve them. That effort, and its success, reminds me of our last Red Sea dive. Dolphin House is only an hour’s ride from Hurghada, and popular with dayboats and snorkelers—it’s a party scene. But I’m astonished once again as we descend to picture-perfect coral bommies scattered across crystalline sands, each one bursting with flittering, finning, vibrating life, all thriving under the bright Egyptian sun.

Suddenly I am filled with hope. If coral and its attendant communities can thrive here, in such close proximity to man, why not elsewhere too? Egyptians brought the world great wonders, and have shown they can care for them; HEPCA’s conservation also has brought about many successes, from slowing unregulated coastal growth to a ban on shark fishing. Who’s to say Egyptians won’t lead the way to a future where there’s space for all living things under the sun and sea?

RED SEA AGGRESSOR NEED TO KNOW:

Red Sea Aggressor II Liveaboard

Red Sea Aggressor II

Courtesy Aggressor Adventures

When to Go: Red Sea Aggressor II, based out of Hurghada, dives the northern Red Sea March through December. Summer brings a greater chance of seeing pelagics, particularly around the Straits of Tiran, although air temps can be very warm—routinely in the 100s. Winter can be windy.

Dive Conditions: Water temps are in the low 80s in summer, dropping to the mid-70s at the coldest times of year, when a 5 mm fullsuit or heavier, with hood and extra garments, can be necessary for comfortable repetitive diving. Visibility—which can hit 100 feet in any season—is best in winter.

Recommended Training: Peak Performance Buoyancy

Operator: Aggressor Adventures operates Red Sea Aggressor II, a 138-foot yacht with a 26-foot beam; 11 state- rooms accommodate 22 divers attended by 12 staff members, who will eagerly wait on you if you let them, greeting you after a dive with sweet dates and a warm face cloth, or sahlab, a creamy pudding drink laced with mango and served warm. The dive deck is huge and bilevel; even with 19 divers, it never felt crowded. All dives are from the mothership or two RIBs. Between dives, relax on the cushioned and partially covered upper deck; an even higher, lounge-strewn top deck has tall sides that block wind. The chefs make the region’s vegetarian fare seem rich and decadent; American favorites—from steak and potatoes to chicken and rice—round out every menu.

Price Tag: Staterooms start at $999 per person, not including port, marine park and visa fees. Rates vary throughout the year, check aggressor.com for specials.

Travel Tip: Start times might seem awfully early, but you’ll be glad when yours is the first van in the parking lot at the Valley of the Kings in the cool of the morning, or you are among the first divers of the day on Thistlegorm.


AGGRESSOR NILE QUEEN: NEED TO KNOW

Aggressor Nile Queen Boat

Aggressor Nile Queen

Courtesy Aggressor Adventures

When to Go: Aggressor Nile Queen makes five-night, six-day runs from Luxor to Aswan year-round. (It’s scheduled to be in dry dock January through mid-February 2021.) The four-hour van transfer from Hurghada to Luxor gives you an up-close view of the eastern Sahara desert.

Conditions: Cooler months mean high season, and bigger crowds at the antiquities, although Aggressor Nile Queen does a super job timing its arrival in ports to be out of sync with the big river cruise ships. (On a late April cruise, we had some temples almost entirely to ourselves.) Summer routinely brings temperatures in the 100s, although river breezes—and individually controlled stateroom air conditioning—keep things comfortable aboard.

Operator: Aggressor Nile Queen is a new venture for Aggressor Adventures. The traditional wooden split-level dahabiya-style yacht is a 155-foot sailing vessel with a 25-foot beam that is mostly towed upriver by an attendant tug. The yacht has eight state- rooms that can accommodate 16, tended by a crew of 14. Meals emphasize fresh, local ingredients—the mild white-meat Nile perch, a staple from pharaonic times, is to die for—and are served alfresco on the large, covered central deck; a hot tub is situated on the stern deck. Both decks have lounges and seating areas where you can relax and watch the Nile slide by. A candlelit “Bedouin barbecue” staged on a rural riverbank one evening felt very Out of Africa; games and dancing afterward offered a chance to learn more about the lives and culture of the Egyptian crew.

Price Tag: Deluxe staterooms start at $1,100 per person in 2021; find deals and introductory offers at aggressor.com.

Travel Tip: Americans frequently ask about security in the Middle East; virtually all tourist sites had scanners and other Western-style security in evidence, and the Egyptians we met invariably went out of their way to make us feel safe and welcome.