Red Sea's finest - dive Saudi Arabia's untouched reefs
It is difficult to comprehend the enormity of Saudi Arabia; a country that covers four fifths of the Arabian Peninsula. The lifeless desert of the inland Empty Quarter is larger than France, Belgium and the Netherlands combined. However, the regions around cities of Yanbu, Jizan and Jeddah – the latter’s international airport serves as a gateway to the holy city of Mecca – have a number of coastal resorts that offer well-developed hotels and established dive clubs.
With hundreds of kilometres of water between these cities, most of the reefs and coastline are unexplored. This lends itself perfectly to the liveaboard, but even then, you will only explore a fraction of the coastline. While there is still no official protection of reefs in Saudi Arabia, there is little large-scale commercial fishing, so even the reefs near the cities remain of a high standard. Plus, there are many dive sites still to be discovered for the recreational diver.
Dream Divers is an established liveaboard operator in Saudi Arabia. Owned by a Saudi prince, it operates two large dive boats and a smaller vessel out of Jeddah. The boats spend the summer months in the Yanbu region north of Jeddah and the winter months in the Farasan Bank area to the south. The boats are well maintained and provide good food and accommodation. Nelson, the resident divemaster, is part of the dive-scene furniture in Saudi, having dived there for 23 years – the past five years with Dream Divers. The routine is fairly standard: pre-breakfast, mid-morning and afternoon dives, as well as spectacular dives every night. While the liveaboard travels with a RIB, the dive sites lend themselves to diving straight from the boat.
Our dive operator was Massimo, owner of La Compagnia del Mar Rosso, who has lived, travelled and dived in the Red Sea for most of his life. In recent years, he has spent time exploring and charting new sites in some of the more remote parts of the Red Sea and has documented around 150 new sites over the past four years. Although his company is based in Italy, it also arranges charters and holidays for other Europeans. Massimo’s local knowledge of uncharted dive sites makes diving with him an exceptional experience.
Our liveaboard trip took place during the handover week from the summer to the winter season in November. This one-way voyage from Yanbu to Jeddah was a chance to visit some remote dive sites, most of which were discovered just last year and have been dived by only a handful of people. These reefs are inaccessible for day trips; even by liveaboard, the opportunity to dive here is limited to a few times a year around the season changeover or on special charters. We saw no more than a handful of vessels, none of which were dive boats.
The first three days of diving took place in the Seven Reefs area and then south to Sha’ab Suflani (this is as far south as the normal Yanbu liveaboard trip goes). The high water temperatures and changing currents during November meant that many of the pelagic species had already started their migration south; although reef, tiger and hammerhead sharks are still about, they are fewer in number than at other times of the year. The quality of hard and soft coral is amazing in both condition and diversity. The same is true for the variety of fish, which I reckon surpasses other Red Sea dive locations – including Sudan.
During the night of day three, we set off on a five-hour sail south, taking us to approximately halfway between Yanbu and Jeddah. The diving is special here, particularly when you know you are one of only a few trips to have dived this region. The pristine and diverse reefs, huge schools of reef fish and barracuda, eels, rays and hammerheads are overwhelming.
The dive sites here – Maria, Mary Ann, Pora and Noura, often named after the girlfriends of people on the boat of the expeditions – are recent discoveries, offering excellent quality and diverse currents, terrain and fish species. Maria Reef consists of strong currents and a narrow plateau, enormous pinnacles with ample space for soft and hard corals, a variety of anemones, and large shoals of jacks and groupers. High visibility and bright sun on the pinnacles casts shadows across the reef, creating an eerie environment. The current not only means that divers travel around different sides of a pinnacle and end their dive at the opposite ends of the reef, it also provides ideal conditions for finding hammerheads.
Noura is a different dive with a much steeper wall and only a small plateau area. It provides wall diving with a good drift and the opportunity to encounter more pelagic species. Inquisitive mantas are common, circling and looping around the divers. Huge seafans line the reef slope continuously at 40m, arranged like avalanche breakers on an Alpine mountainside. Large morays, anemones and nudibranchs are a few of the impressive sights.
On one pre-breakfast dive at Noura, there was an intrigued hammerhead at 40m performing sentinel duties. After a few minutes, he was joined by another 20 or so hammerheads, which paid little attention to the ensuing video and photo frenzy.
Pora was something different altogether. First discovered in August 2007, it has a less deep, vertical wall than Noura, and initially appears like any other reef. Then, at the end of the dive, you enter a whole new world – a metropolis of anemones. An area of the wall about 15m wide and 20m high is inhabited by anemones of countless varieties, providing possibly the most enjoyable safety stop ever. Only after the cameras ran out of juice and looked round did we realise that several curious mantas had been watching us while we were snapping the anemones.
With ample doses of all Red Sea species, Saudi Arabia offers a rare opportunity to truly feel as though you are discovering a reef for the first time. The corals are pristine and the visibility is second to none, making it a fantastic place for fisheye photography. Although the sharks were few in number when we dived, the abundance of coral, rays and fish compensated for this. All in all, this holy region of Saudi Arabia could yet become a Mecca for divers as well as for pilgrims.
NEED TO KNOW
Water temperatures are generally about 25–35°C. Although air temperatures in Saudi Arabia are known to reach an incredible 48°C in the summer, coastal temperatures are a little more moderate with higher humidity. Jeddah’s temperature hovers around 29–37°C throughout the year and the city has an average annual rainfall of just 61mm.
In many ways, the culture and laws of Saudi Arabia – in particular, those surrounding women and religion – are alien to Westerners, so it is important to understand them to avoid problems. There is ample advice on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website (www.fco.gov.uk).
Permission to enter Saudi Arabia can be difficult to obtain, despite the 2000 introduction of tourist visas. Foreigners entering the kingdom must have a sponsor to vouch for them and their conduct (Saudi Airlines provides this for Western travellers in prearranged groups). Visa applications are convoluted and can be made through the Saudi Embassy (www.mofa.gov.sa)
Saudi Airlines (www.saudiairlines.com) offers daily direct flights to King Abdulaziz International airport in Jeddah from London Heathrow. UK-based BMI (www.flybmi.com) also flies direct up to four times a week (depending on the time of year) from London Heathrow.
Summer liveaboard trips normally start and end at Jeddah, with a coach transfer to and from the airport. However, on this occasion, DIVE’s trip was a one-way voyage departing from Yanbu – the eight-hour flight into Jeddah was followed by a coach trip 350km up the coast to Yanbu.