Red Sea Revisited
By Andrew Woodburn
Divers know about the Red Sea before many even sign up for their first dive courses. Great visibility, wall diving, warm waters and affordability make this area one of the most visited destinations. So what has changed to warrant yet another visit?
Well a few things happened which prompted me to re-look this destination. Firstly, the Arab spring started here, resulting in Egypt becoming the centre of the world for a period of time, with political turmoil, elections and many changes to work through. This evolution is still on-going. The global and European financial crises also meant dive tourism has dropped dramatically, world oil prices are soaring, global warming is visible and… I now have a two-year-old. (This on some days can be as significant as all the rest combined)! This meant that although I have been visiting Egypt for 20 years, I hadn’t visited for quite a while. How does one do a live-aboard dive holiday with a two year old?
DiveSite hadn’t done much on this destination so together we came up with new ways to approach this area. The standard Egyptian live-aboard was out. This option hadn’t really changed much over the years; get on a boat, disappear for a week with a dive group, get back to shore and fly home, brilliant, but pretty removed from daily Egypt. We decided on two shore-based holidays.
Option 1: Base yourself in Sharm-El Sheik
I called up my old friend Safwat from Wild and Blu safaris who helped me devise a programme covering traditional shore based diving from the famous Sharm-el-Sheik, followed by a little secret my wife found 21 years ago when she lived in Egypt.
I feared the ‘infamous’ Cairo airport, which used to be a dog show with random porters grabbing bags, unpleasant customs and security staff and a back-breaking walk across a potholed car park to the domestic terminal. I was pleasantly surprised and my fears were unfounded, the new Cairo airport is a dream come true for travellers. Egypt Air also rose to the occasion by not quibbling over excess baggage; gear for baby, diving and photography, plus our clothing made up a lot of kilograms. They wrapped all our bags in plastic for free pre check-in, the captain himself allowed my large case of camera equipment to be stored in his lock-up on board and the Egyptian embassy dished out free visas in three days.
On arrival in Sharm-el-Sheik we were taxied to the Novoltel 5 star hotel. The hotel is cool and easy going, a good mix of modern resort and Egyptian oasis. There’s a perfect pool for mom and baby and a walkway from one end of Naama bay to the other. The buffet-style eating offered food that a hungry two year old would want and the themed evenings allowed my wife and I to enjoy a variety of good meals. The hotel has a flat sandy beach with plenty of sun loungers. When I was younger I had a negative idea of this kind of holiday but it does work very well for a family. From a diving perspective, it is an easy ten-minute walk along the beach path to the Naama jetty (brace yourself for what feels like chaos). Take your passport along since Saudi Arabia is on the other side of the Straits of Tiran, you will also need a park permit, which costs a few dollars, to dive in the reserves. Luckily all the dive operators will pick you up in the front of the hotel if walking is not an option with heavy gear. I suggest choosing a single dive operator (Wild and Blu can help with this) with whom to leave your kit so there is no need to carry your equipment around between diving days. This will also help with costs, pre-booking all your dives (a package) works out cheaper than booking dives one by one.
I decided to enjoy a mixture of diving and family time, which meant one day diving alternating with a family day. It’s not possible to do just one dive a day off the Red Sea style dive boats. They leave the jetty at a leisurely 9am and only get back around 4pm. The departure time makes for a change, I am used to the crack of dawn starts off the beach to Aliwal Shoal.
The dive boats have also changed the way they operate, the number of divers has dropped dramatically, so the boats take both snorkelling and diving groups. This seemed odd to me at first, but it does mean cheaper and more frequent trips to the various reefs. It also meant that I had an interesting mix of people to talk to, from well-travelled divers to young Egyptians who could barely speak English, keen to tell me about all the changes in their country. I took the time to engage with them and was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the conversation. I dived for three days and chose a different set of reefs on each day; the dive charter does this for you, so a week in Sharm can yield a different reef dive every day. The water started out pretty green for the Red Sea but over the course of the week it returned to near perfect on some sites depending on the wind and current.
I visited the three top areas for diving. The Ras Mohammed National Park, which includes Jack Fish Alley, a swim through, and wall dive, probably one of the most famous in the area. The Straits of Tiran (Laguna and Jackson) offers numerous reef sites, plus interesting sites on the trip back closer to Sharm. I also booked a single day safari to the Thistlegorm, including another visit to Ras Mohammed on the way home. After having dived many of these sites over the last 18 years (I have been going to Egypt since 1994) this land based trip was illuminating since I had abandoned Sharm-el Sheikh for live-aboard holidays a long time ago. Now is the perfect time to visit Sharm-el Sheik, the dive tourist numbers are right down and so are the prices, something to consider if you are taking non-divers with you. If you get seasick and can’t stomach the thought of living on a moving boat for days on end, the shore-based trip may be your saviour.
I was surprised by dive sites like Ras-um-Sid with its huge fan corals bigger than a diver and the resident school of barracuda that were quite comfortable with divers. This site was one of many that divers thought unreachable unless they paid large sums to get on a live-aboard safari. The Canyon, off Thomas reef in the Straits of Tiran, was majestic to see from 30 metres as we drifted by, knowing we had dropped some technical divers off 30 minutes before to penetrate it down to 60 metres. We later met up with them on their deco stop. The dive sites are in better health than I remembered them being 15 years ago when crowds of Japanese and French divers were crashing around damaging everything in sight. The surface scenery, with dramatic mountains reflecting reds, yellows, oranges and browns hovering over the deep blue ocean is always a beautiful picture while you soak up the sun on the aft deck on the way back to port. The real impression though, besides big wall diving, is the fantastic soft corals. Soft corals occur here and there in South Africa but the sheer volume and variety on these dives is astounding, take a torch and take the time to stop and inspect the clusters of soft corals as you would a bunch of flowers in bloom. Their detail, colour, and the critters living in them are impressive, whether on a reef, a wreck or a random mooring they always provide a splash of colour.
If getting on a boat is still too intimidating or time consuming for you, the house reef in Naama bay is a real gem, dived right off the beach, it offers a large resident Napoleon Wrasse and often eagle rays fly by on the sand bar beyond. I was lucky enough to dive it with a South African dive master Jules from Camel divers. The two of us saw a huge turtle grazing on the sea grass in less than three metres of water, it was very happy for us to dive right alongside. Camel Divers also run day trips starting at the crack of dawn to the Thistlegorm wreck. This gives land-based divers a chance to get to the wreck regarded by many as a once-in-a-lifetime dive. In the past this dive was only available on dive safaris and live-aboard trips. I recommend adding this dive on to your list of things to do. It really is worth the effort. Nitrox certification will allow you to make the most of the two wreck dives and the Shark Point dive on the way home.
I found Egypt by land to be friendly, family orientated and affordable. The upheaval that the country has been through has only had a positive effect on the dive sites; fewer divers and boats have lead to better reef health. We never had any food related health issues; something Egypt had a reputation for in the past. Overall I noticed a quietness or calm about the place that provided for a very relaxed visit, although this may not be the case in the peak summer months of July and August. If you and your family are looking for a week long holiday with some diving, then re-think Sharm-el- Sheikh and the Red Sea, you will be pleasantly surprised.
Andrew was assisted by Safwat at Wild and Blu. They stayed at the Novotel Beach Hotel and dived through various dive operators including Camel dive centre, www.wildandblu.com or +27 86 110 1945.
Option 2: Reed huts and Bedouin tents
The departure lounge at the airport in Sharm-el Sheihk is just a two hour drive down the coast on the Gulf of Aqaba from the town of Basata, but there seems to be 100 years of difference in terms of development. I have just spent a week in a reed shack with no power or running water, dining in a central Bedouin style tent. This eco resort is about 20 minutes drive from a town called Nuweiba, between Dahab and the Israeli border at Taba. The resort is a stone’s throw from the Red Sea and one can sit on cushions in the central tent and watch the children run around on the beach in front of you.
This resort combines the best of the old ways and the new. Sherif El Ghamrawy, the founder, explained how they recycle everything from plastic water bottles, down to the organic waste from dinner left-overs. It is fed to the animals who turn it into manure for the gardens and brick making. All this doesn’t mean I can’t have a chocolate out of the fridge or freshly baked cheese bread from the local baker. This is a unique experience run on the trust system where I write down what I take and then settle the bill by credit card at the end.
I have come up here primarily to experience some of the new or unknown diving at this end of the gulf. So what is different about the diving? Firstly, all the dives are shore entries, which is very rare for the Red Sea and secondly, I was one of only a handful of divers visiting the area.
I did four dives, two in the town of Nuweiba and two more to the north and south of town. Myself, and my dive guide Kirsten, based ourselves out of an old Ford Suburban which we left with the doors unlocked, parked at the dive site five metres from the water’s edge. It felt like the ocean was all mine, and the dive sites weren’t as crowded as those further south. The downside is that there are still some challenges with pollution in the area since it is a working port town. I did see the odd plastic bag or cardboard box but overall this didn’t detract from my experience. In fact, quite the opposite. The corals were more vibrant than some of the dives I had done further south. The pink, blue and yellow staghorn corals seemed to glow with health.
The shore entries meant that I got to see distinct zones of the environment from stony entry points to sandy slopes, sea grass beds, shallow reef blocks right down to deep canyons. This diversity made for really interesting scenery changes, particularly on ascents and safety stops. If you are a fan of closed heel fins like I am it may be a good idea to consider booties for the sharp stones.
I was traveling with my family so I only dived two out of the five days, which made for a good mix of relaxation and beach time mixed with diving. On my beach days I snorkelled off Basata, which is probably the best snorkelling I have ever done. It lies just off the beach in water no deeper than five metres. Clean, white sand with coral bommies rising to one metre off the surface, no currents and crystal clear water makes this the perfect place to introduce kids to snorkelling or fearful swimmers to the awesome ocean. Each evening I would go snorkelling and walking out on the sandbar I would find the same lion fish hunting in knee-deep water. I would float watching him doing his thing. He drifted head down, fins outstretched on the incoming tide looking for crabs, and mini baitfish that had washed out on the receding tide.
The dive that impressed me the most was Angelfish Canyons, which has a superb shallow start and finish, with a descent down a deep canyon bottoming out at 40 metres under a huge hard coral dome with a short swim through. We cruised along the sand, seeing pinnacles rising on the wall until we ascended to a shallower depth, entered a second canyon and encountered a shy but observable Napoleon wrasse. Staying down nearly into deco time meant the shallow swim to the exit point over clean white sand with coral bommies bristling with orange fire coral and Goldies was a great safety stop.
The next was a pair of dives; Pipeline and MFO buoy (multi forces observation) which are about 1 km apart and situated between the port and the dive centre. Whilst both are based around man-made structures, the soft coral growth is truly impressive for shallow dives. The corals flourish in the current and the approach to both sites off the sandy beach is easy and pleasant, as is the return swim. From MFO one can swim directly back from the buoy to the beach. The buoy was set up with chains that were too short for the water depth so the buoy has been completely submerged. The entire system of blocks, chains and buoy are completely festooned with colourful corals waving in the current. Lion fish reside here, hunting the small silver fish swirling around the structure. Diving this site feels like flying around a skyscraper and taking a torch really brings it to life.
The Red Sea Scuba diving college dive centre is well run by a German couple but is hard to find, so make sure you have their number, you may need to call for directions. Although the town of Nuweiba is a classic, half built Egyptian affair with not much going for it, it still makes for an interesting excursion. If the Hilton is more your style then Nuweiba has one, but if you want personal dive sites and a different Egyptian experience plus a truly relaxing family adventure, I suggest going the Basata route.
How to get there
Arrange a taxi from Basata for 300LE to collect you in Sharm-el Sheikh.
Basata accepts credit cards but you will need cash for the rest, Egyptian pounds are the tender and available from ATMs in Nuweiba.
Make sure to request either an ocean front reed hut or a more traditional room with shower and toilet.
Source: The Dive Site