Local dive sites
along the coast of Sharm-el-Sheikh between Tiran Island and Ras Mohammed national park. Most of them are good for beginners as the current is usually absent or weak, and there are sandy areas and not deep plateaus with gardens of soft coral.
The generic name ‘Local Dives’ (due to their closeness to Sharm) covers all the shore diving sites north and south of Naama Bay between the Strait of Tiran and the town of Sharm el Sheikh. Naama Bay, still a desert at the end of the eighties, is now a famous international tourist resort.
This splendid bay was originally called Marsa el-Aat, situated at the outlet of Wadi el-Aat. Naama Bay has one of the two jetties that diving boats usually embark from; the other one, Travco Marina, is situated to the southwest in the bay of Sharm el Sheikh, known locally as Sharm el-Maya, or the ‘bay of the harbor’ due to the large tourist port which is also present.
You reach the different local dive sites from Naama Bay following a boat ride that may take anywhere from 10 to 70 minutes. North of Naama Bay there are nine diving spots on a 7.5-mile stretch of coast.
Ras Ghamila, the furthest away lies almost directly opposite Gordon Reef; Ras Nasrani is on a level to the international airport; the others, within a short distance of each other, are Ras Bob, White Knight, Shark’s Bay, Far Garden, Fiddle Garden, Middle Garden and Near Garden (corresponding to the northerly tip of Naama Bay). South of Naama Bay is further nine diving sites:
Sodfa, Tower, Pinky Wall, Amphoras, Turtle Bay, Paradise, Ras Umm Sid, Temple, and Ras Katy
Generally speaking, besides their vicinity to Naama Bay, these diving sites have other features in common due to their position, sheltered from waves and strong currents, and to the configuration of the fringing reef, which has found an ideal ecosystem for its growth along this stretch of the coast.
Diving here can be enjoyed by divers at all levels and, in good conditions, you can observe many genera of madrepores (hard corals), innumerable varieties of Alcyonarians (soft corals), and an almost complete range of fish life, from the small anthias to the large Napoleon fish (Cheilinus undulatus), multi-colored butterflyfish and angelfish to parrotfish, triggerfish to surgeonfish.
Delightful Cape’ or Ras Ghamila in Arabic is the most northern of the local dive sites and separates a shallow, sandy lagoon from the sea. The end of the dive site is marked by a green beacon, the starboard side of the Enterprise Passage, with its corresponding red beacon sitting atop nearby Gordon Reef.
Ras Ghamila is made as a drift dive, usually starting immediately at the end of the Conrad Resort. The end of the dive site is marked by a green beacon, the starboard side of the Enterprise Passage, which has its corresponding port-side marker atop Gordon Reef. Obviously, the current can run in the opposite direction, so a current check is advised before starting the dive.
The topography of the site is very simple with a relatively shallow fringe reef (10-15m), and a large, extensive sandy plateau that ranges in a depth of 14m – 26m. The plateau is covered with coral heads, porite corals, pinnacles, and numerous large sea fans (it has the largest number of sea fans of all the dive sites around Sharm).
The dive is very straightforward, especially when the current is running north to Aqaba, as it simply pushes you along to the green beacon allowing you to “sit back” and smell the roses. If possible, venture into the gorgonian garden as the sea fans here are very beautiful, and there’s the chance to come upon fantail rays resting on the sandy floor, turtles sheltering under the pinnacles, as well as pelagic visitors to the area such as tunas, trevallies, and even sharks.
Strait of Tiran
“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.
” Jacques Yves Cousteau
The Strait of Tiran lying at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba and is delimited to the west by the coast of the Sinai and to the east by the Island of Tiran.
In the middle of this canal are four coral reefs lying in a NE-SW direction that was named after the 19th-century English cartographers who drew the first nautical map of the region – Jackson Reef, Woodhouse Reef, Thomas Reef, and Gordon Reef.
These reefs divide the strait into two canals: to the east is the so-called Grafton Passage, which is used exclusively by ships going northwards, while to the west is the Enterprise Passage for ships heading south.
East of the island of Tiran and the nearby island of Sanafir – both part of Saudi Arabia but granted to Egypt for military defense – the configuration of the canal floor makes navigation impossible.
On a level with the Strait of Tiran, the Gulf of Aqaba passes from an average width of 10-12 to 2.4 miles, while the floor ranges from a depth of 1,270 meters to only 71 meters in the Grafton Passage and 250 meters in the Enterprise Passage.
This particular configuration of the strait reduces deep water exchange between the Gulf of Aqaba and the rest of the Red Sea on the one hand, causing an increase in salinity and temperature, while on the other hand, it gives rise to an increase in the speed of the tidal currents and the average height of the waves moved by the wind which, channeled by the tall mountains of the Sinai and Saudi Arabia, is in turn subject to acceleration.
The peculiar topographical arrangement of these reefs and the presence of prevailing winds coming from the north, which are stronger in the morning and calmer in the afternoon, means their western and northern sides (or “outside”) are much more exposed to the action of the waves than the eastern and southern ones, which are “inside” and sheltered. The strong currents characterizing the Strait of Tiran transport great quantities of plankton and other nutrient material every day, thus supplying a great deal of food to the corals and hence to the reef fish, which in turn are eaten by the large pelagic predators such as barracuda, jackfish, tuna and above all sharks, which are always present in this zone.
Consequently, scuba divers in the waters of Tiran are sure to see not only an infinite number of corals but also rich fauna, both reef and pelagic. However, they must always be careful of the wind, tides, and currents here, which will condition the time, place, and type of dive.
Further north (approximately 7 miles from Naama Bay) there is the wreck of the Million Hope, the second largest diveable wreck in the Red Sea.
Jackson Reef is another jewel in the Red Sea’s metaphorical crown; it is very rare to find a guest who doesn’t enjoy this site, divers and snorkelers alike.
The site is the most northern of the reefs sitting in the middle of the Strait of Tiran and, as with the other four reefs here, subjected to large water movements.
That’s good though, for the reef if not those who have yet to find their sea legs, as it means an abundance of food particles in the water and, accordingly, a very beautiful, colorful, vibrant reef with a large diversity of fish and corals.
Jackson Reef can be dived as both a drift dive and a mooring dive; there are several fixed moorings on the top of the reef.
Something all water users should know; a boat will tie to the reef and then another boat will tie to the first boat, and then yet another will tie to the second boat, etc., this means that should the boat be tied to the reef decide to move, all the boats tied on will also start maneuvering.
Therefore, anyone entering the water should swim to the reef on the surface before beginning their activities, whether it is diving or snorkeling.
Divers should also surface against the reef (which should be done on practically all dives anyway) and then swim back to the boat, again on the surface.
Jackson has two very beautiful coral gardens on the east and west corners of the reef.
Usually, but not always, the west side is made as a mooring dive and the east as a drift dive. Also on the east corner, there is a red beacon marking the port side of the Grafton Passage, which generally marks the endpoint when drift diving on the east corner. However, when conditions are calm, it is quite possible to drift outside either on the east or west side of the reef but only as part of a dive plan.
On the top side of the reef, and making Jackson reef easily identifiable, is the remains of a Cypriot vessel, the Lara, which ran aground here in 1981.
The area of the sea immediately in front of the wreck is usually of greater interest to divers though, as this is a very good place to see hammerheads in the blue, especially in the summer and autumn.
RAS MOHAMED NATIONAL PARK
South of Sharm el Sheikh the coast is totally deserted, with no shelter, for more than a mile, up to the small bay named Marsa Ghozlani where the Ras Mohammed National Park begins. This is followed by another bay, Marsa Bareika, which is larger and deeper.
It penetrates the land for 2.8 miles, forming the Ras Mohammed peninsula, which extends southeastwards into the Red Sea for almost 5 miles and separates the Gulf of Aqaba from the Gulf of Suez.
The eastern coast of the Ras Mohammed peninsula is composed of a tall fossil coral reef that is interrupted for a few dozen meters by the only accessible beach in the area, Aqaba Beach, and ends at the Ras Mohammed headland – ‘Mohammed’s Cape’ in Arabic because its profile is like the bearded one of the Prophet.
The rocky spur is about 60 meters high; on top of it is the Shark Observatory balcony.
On the southern side of the peninsula, there are three beaches -Shark Observatory Beach, Main Beach, and Yolanda Beach – the sandy, shallow Hidden Bay, the mouth of which is almost completely blocked by a long coral reef that divides the peninsula of Ras Mohammed into two rocky land spits.
A shallow channel forms a small island called Mangrove Island on the western side with a small beacon.
On the sides of the channel grow numerous mangroves (Avicennia marina), which represent an important ecosystem.
Mangroves are special plants, quite rare in the Sinai, and thanks to their incredible root system they are able to filter nutrients from the seawater, expelling salt crystals through their leaves.
The western side of the peninsula is low and sandy, and its primary attraction is the only mooring, which is well sheltered, in the area on a level with the half-submerged remains of an old jetty known as The Quay.
Due to its geographic position the Ras Mohammed peninsula is a privileged area distinguished for the strong, massive currents that transport large quantities of plankton and other food that give rise to an extraordinary growth of hard and soft corals and attract large schools of both reef and pelagic marine fauna.
The classic diving sites begin at the northern and southern-most tip of Marsa Bareika, respectively known as Ras Ghozlani and Ras Za’atar, and continue along the eastern coast with Ras Burg, Jackfish Alley, Eel Garden and Shark Observatory (also known as Ras Mohammed Wall), and at the southern end of the peninsula with Anemone City, Shark Reef, and Yolanda Reef.
Ras Ghozlani is situated on the northern tip of a large bay, Marsa Bareika, in the Ras Mohammed National Park.
A relatively newly designated diving site, Ghozlani was originally off-limits to diving and boat activity as the northern beaches inside Marsa Bareika are used by turtles for nesting grounds.
It was initially believed that diving would be to the detriment of the turtle's nesting habits and their hatchlings.
However, it was later decided that, as long as diving activities in the vicinity were restricted to the outside of Marsa Bareika, that diving would have no effect on the nesting grounds.
Consequently dives at Ghozlani, as well as Ras Za’atar which lays on the southern tip of Marsa Bareika, are all made on the outer sides of the reefs and, as there are no moorings, as drift dives.
Ghozlani’s topography is typical of Sharm el-Sheikh, with a gorgeous fringe reef (8-15m), a sandy plateau (with numerous coral heads & large pinnacles), that slopes gently and then the drop-off (22-26m) lined with very beautiful pinnacles, table corals and sea fans. The dive usually begins in front of a large, sandy canyon.
At the top of the canyon in the fringing reef is a small system of caves & swim-throughs that are suitable for recreational divers.
After the caves, the dive usually then follows the drop-off, as you slalom between some impressive pinnacles and sea fans, and over some seriously large table corals.
Once you reach about 100 bars or approximately 25 minutes into the dive, start making your way up over the sandy plateau where you’ll find an old mooring chain and a plateau that is littered with anemones.
After this point, the plateau becomes very expansive and slopes down well beyond recreational diving limits – this is the corner of Ghozlani.
The pinnacles here are some of the best in the Red Sea, and that is a great shame as from this point the area is off-limits and you need to turn the dive around.
Ras Ghozlani is usually a gentle drift dive with a current that is rarely strong and is best dived, after a current check, in the morning when the sunlight falls directly onto the reef.
The body’s blood runs slow and deep at 4 am. Outside it’s cold and dark and the sun will not show itself for another couple of hours. Most people, the sensible ones at least, are still in bed, wrapped in their duvets, wrapped in the arms of loved ones, wrapped in the bliss of sleep and dreams. And yet across Sharm, numerous guests are shuffling bleary-eyed to their hotel lobbies, breakfast boxes in hand and the feeling that somewhere someone is having a laugh at their expense.
Why are people forsaking their beauty sleep and the warmth of their beds then? Easy. To dive the SS Thistlegorm.
Laying at 30 meters in the Strait of Gubal and forty kilometers as the crow flies from Sharm el-Sheikh (hence the early start), this British merchant navy ship has become, in a relatively short time, an icon of diving in the Red Sea, and is without doubt Egypt’s most famous wreck, if not one of the world’s most famous.
A Short History
The Thistlegorm belonged to the Albyn Line Company, a Scottish shipping company. The Albyn Line launched a total of 18 ships in their Thistle series (the thistle is the national flower of Scotland and the reason why the Albyn Line took the thistle as their company’s logo) and each was given a Gaelic suffix such as the Thistleroy (Roy meaning red) and Thistlegorm (gorm meaning blue).
Launched on 9th April 1940, this three-cylinder, triple expansion steamship, capable of reaching an output of 1,850 Hp and an approximate speed of 10.5 knots was assigned transport duties of war materials for the Allied Forces at the beginning of World War II. To protect herself from attacks, she was fitted with a 4.7-inch light anti-aircraft gun and a 40 mm machine gun.
In May 1941, the Thistlegorm, with a crew of 39 men under the command of Captain William Ellis, left the port of Glasgow in Scotland and headed toward Alexandria in Egypt as part of a 16-ship convoy taking much-needed supplies to the British 8th Army stationed in Egypt and eastern Libya (at the time known as Cyrenaica). Prior to this voyage, the Thistlegorm had successfully completed three journeys (to the U.S., Argentina, and Antilles respectively) but this voyage would prove to be her last and final voyage.
Due to the Axis forces controlling most of the Mediterranean and, more importantly, the Strait of Gibraltar, the safest route for a convoy to travel to Egypt from Britain was around Africa, stopping at Cape Town and Aden to load water, food, and fuel, before powering north through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal. The convoy successfully completed the first two stages of their journey and was sailing north through the Red Sea when they received orders to cast anchors in the Strait of Gubal and await their turn to pass through the Suez Canal which had been temporarily obstructed by a ship that had struck a sea mine. Approximately two weeks before her sinking, the Thistlegorm anchored in the lee of a large reef (Sha’ab Ali), a place designated as Safe Anchorage F and, until this point, considered a safe berth.
By chance, during the night of 5th/6th October two German Heinkel HE 111 bombers spotted the convoy and targeted the Thistlegorm as she was the largest ship in the convoy. At 0:35 on the 6th of October, they attacked the ship dropping two 2-ton bombs on her fourth hold, near the engine room, and where the ammunition was stored. The explosion was powerful, and violent, exploding most of the munitions on board and one of the ship's boilers. At 1:30, having been split in two, the Thistlegorm sank to the floor, finally coming to rest upright and, with the exception of the stern portion, on an even keel. HMS Carlisle, which was anchored next to the Thistlegorm, was able to save most of the crew but four crewmen and 5 Royal Navy Gunners (the youngest being only 17 years old) perished in the attack.
Discovery of the wreck
In March 1955 while on his way to the Indian Ocean to carry out a scientific mission on board his famous ship, the Calypso, Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau discovered the wreck of the Thistlegorm, identifying the wreck from the ship’s bell. Despite the bomb-damaged, the divers from the Calypso found most of the cargo on the ship intact and using one of the first underwater movie cameras documented their amazing discovery. These scenes would later appear in the famous documentary, Le Monde du Silence (“The World of Silence”), which Cousteau produced and co-directed with Louis Malle. Photographs and a long article in National Geographic were printed in 1956 and, briefly, the Thistlegorm became an item of wonder before, again, passing into obscurity.
Rediscovery of the wreck
The wreck was rediscovered in 1974 after an Israeli diver was taken there by a local Bedouin fisherman, but news of the discovery was kept secret and only known to a closed circle of divers. In 1992, Roger Winter started taking the first tourists to the wreck and in the same year, an article was published in the Italian diver magazine Aqua, followed shortly by an article in the British diver magazine, Diver. With these two publications, the word was out about this amazing wreck laying at rest in the Red Sea and the SS Thistlegorm rapidly became one of the most famous and sought-after wrecks in the world.
I am absolutely enraptured by the atmosphere of a wreck. A dead ship is the house of a tremendous amount of life – fish and plants. The mixture of life and death is mysterious, even religious. There is the same sense of peace and mood that you feel on entering a cathedral.
Jacques Yves Cousteau
Dahab lies 80 kilometers north of Sharm el-Sheikh, and many of its visitors claim, with some justification, that it has a more relaxed and calm atmosphere than Sharm el-Sheikh.
Dahab is divided into a southern part, El-Qura Bay, and a northern part, Assalah Bay. El-Qura Bay, sheltered from waves and an almost constant northern wind, is very popular with windsurfers as it provides them with ideal conditions for their sport.
Assalah Bay, three kilometers to the north of El-Qura Bay, was once the original Bedouin village, and from it came the tourist center most guests associate now as ‘Dahab’. Assalah Bay is divided into two parts: Mashraba in the south and Masbat in the north is bordered by a beach of fine, golden-colored sand.
It is believed that this golden sand is where the name Dahab originated from as ‘Dahab’ means ‘Gold’ in the local language. Unlike Sharm el-Sheikh, where most of the diving is made from boats, Dahab’s dive sites are all readily accessible from the shore and dive boats are rare.
Recently the area has started to see more liveaboards as liveaboard operators have started to include it in their itineraries.
Dahab’s dive sites are divided into two groups: north of Assalah Bay (which includes the famous ‘Blue Hole/ El Bells’ and ‘The Canyon’), and to the south of El-Qura Bay.
The Blue Hole is one of Egypt’s more infamous dive sites on account of the high number of fatalities there.
Situated 12 km north of Dahab and 1.5 km from The Canyon, which is more famous than infamous, the Blue Hole is, strangely enough, a large hole in the reef – 150m wide and 110m deep.
The Blue Hole is connected to the sea via a 26m sea tunnel with a ceiling depth of 52m. For recreational divers, the Blue Hole itself is of little interest – its walls are rather barren, with a few hard corals (probably due to sunlight only being able to penetrate the hole to about 15-20m) – but it is a different story for technical divers, who seem to swarm the Hole like flies on a camel.
The Blue Hole, like Sharm el-Sheikh’s dive site Tower, offers ideal conditions for freediving, especially for training and competitions.
Okay, so if the Blue Hole is of little interest to recreational divers, why dive there? A good question – there’s a very nice drift dive available here starting from the nearby dive site El Bells which is 250m north of the Blue Hole.
El Bells is a 30m chimney in the reef, open to the sea, with cavities that widen and narrow in the shape of bells. Access is gained via an opening in the reef plate and you just descend, usually in a head-down position, through the bells.
At 30m the Bells finish and at this point you should then start swimming south with the reef on your right, ascending very, very slowly while exploring a beautiful wall that plummets into the blue. After approximately 30 minutes of swimming, at a depth of 7-8m, is a saddle that allows access into the Blue Hole.
The reef on the saddle and the immediate area is very vibrant with a lot of marine life; if you have enough air, it is worth exploring a little further past the saddle but be cautious of strong currents.
SHA'AB ABU NUHAS
The wreck of the Carnatic is situated immediately to the east of the Ghiannis D. and lies almost parallel to the Greek cargo vessel.
The Carnatic was an elegant British vessel, built in 1862 by the London shipyard Samuda Bros, she measured 89.9 meters long and 11.6 meters wide with a tonnage of 1,776 and belonged to the first generation of those ‘steamers’ with mixed propulsion, i.e. sail and steam.
The engine was fuelled by a boiler in the center of the hull, with a 4-cylinder engine that supplied the vessel with a power of 2,422 HP. TheCarnatic, operated by P&O (Peninsular and Orient), serviced the Suez-Bombay route and sometimes went as far as China.
Weighing anchor in Suez on the 12th September 1869 on her way to Bombay, the Carnatic ran aground on the reef of Abu Nuhas on the night of the 12th-13th September despite good weather conditions: the inquiry of the Board of Trade in London revealed that a strong current caused the ship to deviate from her route.
Apart from 34 passengers and 176 crew members on board, the Carnatic was transporting cotton bales, the mail destined for British troops in India, and a cargo of the finest bottles of wine and soda water, still visible until a few years ago.
One of the holds also contained 40,000 sterling in gold that was retrieved at the beginning of November 1869: but the legend lives on that some of the bullion still remains inside the hold … Despite the impact, Captain Philip Buton Jones did not deem the situation to be dangerous for the passengers and crew, so all stayed on board waiting for assistance from another P&O liner called Sumatra that was operating the same route.
Unfortunately, on the 14th of September, the water level inside the hull rose suddenly and the situation became worse in the following hours as the wind rose and the waves grew. At 11 am, the captain gave the order to abandon the ship but the Carnaticsuddenly snapped into two sections, taking with her 31 lives. Parts of the hull were left on the reef for a couple of months until after a strong storm it glided to the seabed at a depth of 27 meters and shattered into a third section.