IN DEPTH | Aqaba
Jordan, a country with a relatively small stretch of Red Sea coastline, but one which holds a great many secrets for those who care to step away from the crowd
In the past, some divers have made the mistake of regarding Jordan as a diving backwater, but its true value is only now becoming evident. The kingdom owns just 14 miles of Red Sea coastline, stretching south from the port of Aqaba to the border with Saudi Arabia. Compared with some of the other Red Sea destinations, it’s a tiny strip of real estate, yet there’s a surprising diversity in these waters, with coral gardens, deep walls, wrecks and exotic creatures that will delight underwater photographers.
Jordan has been described as a 20th-century creation in an ancient cradle of history. All over the country there are remnants of great civilisations, from the spectacular Graeco-Roman ruins of Jerash, to the spectacle of Petra, an ornate city carved into sandstone hills by the mysterious Nabataeans around the 6th-century BC. Today, Jordan exists as a constitutional monarchy, presided over by a king who is positive towards to westerners in general, and scuba divers in particular. King Abdullah II is a keen diver, and has encouraged the growth of scuba tourism in Jordan.
If you go to Jordan, you will be made to feel special. The people of Aqaba are among the friendliest you will meet anywhere in the world, though they can be reserved. The atmosphere is far more genteel than in the typical mass-market Egyptian resort centres, though you can enjoy a cool beer in many of the town’s hotels and restaurants.
As with anywhere in the Middle East, there is a risk of terrorist activity, but the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises caution rather than avoidance.
Diving takes place either from dayboats based in Aqaba, or as shore dives after a drive down the coast. Two of the best sites – the wreck of the Cedar Pride and Kiwi Reef – can both be done as simple shore dives.
In many ways, Aqaba is the Red Sea’s most complete holiday destination. In addition to its array of dive sites, it is the perfect place to base yourself for an exploration of some of the country’s land-based adventures, such as the city of Petra and the landscapes of Wadi Rum. Jordan has emerged as a serious option for those who want to enjoy easy diving with the possibility of exploring some unique places on land.
NEED TO KNOW:
Summer water temperature > 26–27ºc
Average visibility > 35–40m
gloves AND knives are not permitted
The Cedar Pride wreck is one of Jordan’s most popular and celebrated dives. A former Lebanese freighter, the ship sustained extensive damage during a fire in 1982. Following a request from King Abdullah, the
ill-fated vessel was deliberately sunk approximately 50m offshore as an artificial reef for divers. Lying on its port side at a maximum depth of 28m across two reefs, the wreckage has been colonised by numerous hard and soft corals.
Marked by a surface buoy, the Cedar Pride can be dived from boat or shore. The uppermost starboard side is at 10m, and so provides a great site for both novice and experienced divers alike. The wreck is largely intact and around 80m in length with the most interesting diving on the seaward side, where you can see the deck and superstructure. The outstanding feature is the crow’s nest, which is covered with a profusion of colourful soft corals and stands out against the clear blue water. As you continue further towards the hull, you pass mushroom ventilation shafts and the main mast. Here in the deeper water, the soft corals are more dispersed but are replaced by hard corals and schools of fish, including the odd barracuda. As you swim back along the uppermost starboard side, you can find plenty of hard corals and small animals that have made their home on the hull, including anemones, table corals and clusters of acropora.
This makes for an excellent night dive. The deck is smothered with lots of critters, including urchins, shrimps, Spanish dancers and soft coral crabs.
Discovered by a New Zealander in 1996, Kiwi Reef is accessed easily from the shore. The reef slopes gently down over seagrass beds towards the main reef system at a depth of around 20m. It’s definitely worth taking a good look in the seagrass, as you will find lots of life here. Tiny shrimps, pipefish and juvenile fish hide within the relative safety of the grass blades.
The main reef itself is a series of small pinnacles and coral heads interspersed by small sandy patches. It’s an ideal place for underwater photographers, as it is bursting with life – the dilemma is deciding where to point your camera. Moray eels are the chief residents, with giant, yellowmouth, undulate and peppered eels all making appearances. Scorpionfish are also well represented, including devil scorpionfish which lurch across the sandy bed. The occasional octopus also peers out from the rocky outcrops, and squat cleaning shrimps wait patiently at their stations.
Brightly coloured nudibranchs decorate the sponges, and Spanish dancers with resident shrimps hiding within their gills are also plentiful. Beyond the coral heads, you will see crocodilefish lying in wait and torpedo rays hunting.
Technical divers discovered the wreck of the Taiyong in 2004. It’s a large crane barge that was once used to offload ships in Aqaba. Located on the edge of the marine park (see map), the barge is 36m in length with its main feature, the crane, measuring 27m. The barge lies on its starboard side and the crane slopes steeply down to 57m. The depth of the Taiyong means that this dive is only suitable for technically trained divers.
The uppermost port side of the wreck is at around 35m, where you can see large, encrusted tyres, once used as fenders, dangling from the bow. Swimming along the superstructure you can find the winches and holds as the crane looms out of the haze in front of you.
Colonised by black corals and gorgonians, the crane is the most attractive feature as it plummets dramatically down into the deep water, where longnose hawkfish peer out at you at a depth of 50m. The Taiyong does not attract as much life as the Cedar Pride, but is nevertheless an atmospheric dive and well worth a visit.
The Tank and Oliver’s Canyon
You couldn’t dive in Aqaba and miss the tank. This is a fun dive and not to be missed. Sunk as an artificial reef in 1999 by the Royal Jordanian Ecological Society, this M40 anti-aircraft vehicle is covered with marine life. The tank was sunk in order to ease the pressure on the country’s fragile reef systems, taking on a more peaceful and ecological role since its retirement from the Royal Jordanian army. Feisty peppered morays peek out from between the rusty tracks and several lionfish also live here. Lying in just 6m of water, this dive site is easily accessed from the shore and is ideal for novice divers. With both hard and soft corals already vying for space on the tank’s hatches, this promises to become a haven for local critters.
Most divers hang around the tank as a safety stop after exploring one of the nearby reefs. Oliver’s Canyon reef system begins at 12m, with a gully that drops down to a maximum depth of 30m. On the reef top, you will find several table corals and two pinnacles that are smothered with corals and invertebrate life. Scorpionfish, crocodilefish and even frogfish are regular patrons.
With an easy shore access just outside Club Murjan, the Alcazar’s watersports club, the Eel Garden offers a number of surprises. As well as the obligatory garden eels, this site is home to an assortment of other interesting critters. Crossing the sand and heading left from the shore, there are several coral heads hosting yellow-mouthed morays and anemones. A seagrass bed offers a hiding place for many young fish and eels, but keep an eye open for the numerous scorpionfish and lionfish that can be found here.
However, the most outstanding feature is the pinnacle at just 7m. This is truly a photographer’s paradise. Surrounded by anthias and black corals, the pinnacle is a busy cleaning station managed by a giant moray and manned by his team of banded boxer shrimp. Look carefully, because a galaxy of creatures can be seen here including frogfish and harlequin shrimp.
If you dive this site at night, you are likely to see resident toadfish and the red swimming crabs that hide within the pinnacle’s recesses during the day.
Aqaba can be reached in a number of ways, depending upon your budget, flexibility and nearest airport. Direct flights to Aqaba run regularly from London Gatwick. There are also plenty of options for those wishing to fly into the capital Amman, which is a four-hour drive south, or a short internal flight to Aqaba.
Some prefer to take advantage of low-cost flights to Israel’s Ovda airport or Eilat. The peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in October 1994 opened up two new border crossings between the two countries. The Sheikh Hussein Bridge is at the north of the Jordan Valley, and the Wadi Araba crossing is in the south near Aqaba
and Eilat. Each of these entry points is open from 8am until 11pm from Sunday through Thursday, and until 2pm on Fridays and Saturdays. They are closed on most Jordanian and Israeli holidays. Eilat is just across the border, while Ovda is about 90 minutes’ drive from Aqaba. It is worth noting that having an Israeli stamp in your passport may present problems when planning to travel to other Arabic countries, such as Sudan.
A visa and a passport valid for more than six months are required to enter Jordan. Visitors may obtain a visa upon arrival for a fee of about £10 at most international ports of entry.
WHat to pack
In this part of the world the sun is strong and high in UV rays, so take plenty of sunscreen. Your first-aid kit should contain all the usual items, including some kind of sea-sting treatment. Mosquito bites are not dangerous here, but repellent will help you to avoid continuous scratching.
An upset tummy is probably the only health problem you’re likely to encounter in Jordan. It’s important to bring plenty of oral rehydration solutions and a packet of tablets to ease discomfort, such as Imodium.
You will only need light summer clothing for Aqaba, although in the winter months it’s a good idea to bring a warm top to take the chill off a night breeze. Check weather conditions at any topside attractions you plan to visit before you go. Women in Jordan are not required to wear headscarves or face covers, but keep in mind the relative conservatism of Middle Eastern societies and avoid wandering around town in your swimwear.
Where to stay
Aqaba has a number of luxury tourist hotels, as well as a full range of less expensive options. The overall standard of accommodation is high; even in mid-range rooms you will generally find TV, air conditioning and even a refrigerator.
The three-star Alcazar Hotel in the main centre is a popular choice for divers as the Sea Star dive shop is on site. It also has its own private beach club ten minutes’ bus ride away. Basic, but friendly.
If you plan to get away from the bustle of the town centre, the four-star Coral Bay Hotel is a good option. This is part of the Royal Diving Club.
For five-star treatments, the Mövenpick Aqaba and Intercontinental Aqaba are next to each other. and just a few minutes walk from the centre.
Tour operators offer excursions to Petra, Wadi Rum, Jerash and the Dead Sea at extra cost.
Petra is by far Jordan’s most spectacular tourist site. Nabataean Arab inhabitants carved the ‘rose city’ (so named because of Petra’s red coloured sandstone) in soft sandstone more than 2,000 years ago. The Petra basin comprises nearly 100 square km of rippled limestone mounds and sandstone heights. Since the city was ‘rediscovered’ for tourists in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, more than 800 individual monuments have been identified. It is certainly worth at least a two-day stint.
Wadi Rum was once famously described by TE Lawrence as ‘vast, echoing and God-like’. It is certainly considered by many as one of the most stunning deserts in the world.
The area takes its name from the grandiose network of wadis (valleys), which for many centuries has offered the easiest passage to the nomadic Bedouin and to trading caravans travelling throughout the Arabian peninsula. The Bedouin village of Rum, situated 45km north of Aqaba, is the main starting point for visits to the desert. Options for exploring Wadi Rum include 4x4 vehicles and camel caravans. One of the best ways to experience Wadi Rum is by hiking on foot and camping, but this will take a good few days out of your trip.
One of the most well-preserved Roman-era towns in the world, Jerash is often described as the ‘Pompeii of the East’. Situated 40km north of Amman, Graeco-Roman Jerash was first built by the remnants of the Hellenistic legions of Alexander the Great in the 2nd-century BC. After the Roman General Pompey conquered Jordan in 63BC, Jerash flourished as a provincial trading city.
Aqaba enjoys warm weather year-round. In the winter, even when the capital Amman chills at 5ºC, the water temperature in Aqaba remains around the 20ºC mark. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit, as the summer heat often reaches a sweltering 40ºC.
The water temperature varies only slightly throughout the year. It drops to its lowest in the months of January and February, but will rarely reach below 20ºC at these times. A well-insulated semi-drysuit or membrane drysuit is recommended for the coldest months. Water temperatures rise to around 26–27ºC in the summer, when a 3mm suit is probably all that is required.
Visibility typically stays around 35–40m. However, during plankton blooms around April and May, visibility can dip as low as 10–15m. It is not uncommon for visibility to exceed 50m in the summer.
Coral is what diving in Jordan is all about. Despite their close proximity to a range of pollutants, such as shipping traffic and land litter, the reefs here are in great condition. Aqaba has avoided all the deterioration problems experienced by its neighbour, Eilat. Jordan’s reefs vary greatly in structure. Slopes, walls, flats and drop-offs are all easily accessible from the stretch of beach that runs from Aqaba to the border of Saudi Arabia. It also has three wrecks, including a deep option, offers excellent night dives and is an ideal destination for new divers and underwater photographers. Those looking for more demanding underwater terrain would be better advised to buy a ticket to the Egyptian or Sudanese Red Sea. However, if it’s unforgettable topside attractions combined with good diving that you want from your holiday, Jordan is an ideal choice.