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Southern Egypt secrets

 

The St John’s area is renowned for its habili reefs, but there’s more to this area than the spectacular coral walls. Here are two classic dives…


Many of southern Egypt’s dive sites are now opening up to shore-based operations with fast day boats, but the reef system of St John’s is strictly for liveaboards operating out of Marsa Alam or Port Ghalib. When you’re this far south, the big question is whether to book onto a liveaboard that takes in the southern offshore islands – Elphinstone, Daedalus, Zabargad and Rocky – or to focus exclusively on St John’s. 

In my opinion, there’s nothing to choose between these two itineraries: both offer dramatic corals walls and a good chance of big fish action. Some liveaboard companies offer an option to cover St John’s and the offshore islands, but there’s a lot of motoring around and you don’t get as much flexibility in terms of choosing sites.

In some ways, St John’s is the most remote of them all, a 14-square-mile patchwork of pristine coral and plentiful fish, 30 miles from Sudan. 

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Habili Gafaar

If you are visiting St John’s, there are a few sites that are simply unmissable, and Habili Gafaar is one of them. As with most of the dives in this area, it’s a coral pinnacle, but this one is much thinner. At the surface, it is just 20m by 15m, and although it thickens out as you go deeper, you can still swim all the way around it at 35m. 

It’s a relatively simple dive. Once your support boat has dropped you off, it’s simply a question of descending to your target depth, then gradually ascending while swimming around the pinnacle. Dive guides say this reef has the greatest concentration of schooling fish in southern Egypt, with an emphasis on snapper, barracuda and trevally. 

In the past, Habili Gafaar has also been a hotspot for hammerhead shark sightings, but hammerheads are notoriously capricious, so there’s a chance, but never a guarantee. You’re as likely to see an oceanic whitetip or a silvertip shark here as anywhere else in the ‘Deep South’, but my advice is not to neglect the reef itself, which has excellent coral and plenty of soldierfish sheltering in the various overhangs. This one is definitely in my Red Sea top ten.

 

Dangerous Reef (Gotta gibli)
The classic St John’s dive sites tend to be habilis (Arabic for reefs that do not break the surface). The other great habili dive in this area is probably Habili Ali, southwest of the Habili Gafaar and a favourite for manta sightings. However, you do tend to get a little jaded diving these sites, which are more or less identical in terms of their topography. So I thought I’d choose something different for our second dive. 

Dangerous Reef (known locally as Gotta Gibli) is inappropriately named. Perhaps someone thought it would be boring to write ‘safest reef for miles’ on their chart, but at least it would have been true. This reef forms a horseshoe shape that rises to the surface and offers excellent shelter for liveaboards. 

So in contrast to the habili dives of this area, you get a white sand bottom at 23m instead of a wall plunging into the blue. The sea bed here is interspersed with little pinnacles that are rich in coral and host all the typical marine fauna of southern Egypt – coral trout, damselfish, lionfish and schools of anthias occur in great numbers, while the sand below is home to blue-spotted stingrays and crocodilefish. There is also a little cave system that starts at 7–8m and offers a relaxing introduction to overhead-environment diving. It’s not as extensive as the caverns at Umm Kharerim to the north, but it certainly provides the dive with added interest. 

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Aside from the fish, this reef is dominated by huge Acropora corals that must be hundreds of years old. All this coral provides a food source for herds of grazing bumphead parrotfish, the biggest member of the parrotfish family, which use their tough beaks to break off lumps of coral. See all that lovely white sand below you? Most of that came out as parrotfish poop. The parrotfish are visitors during the summer months, when they swim up from Sudanese waters.

Liveaboards tend to moor up in the lagoon on the southern side, which is protected from the prevailing winds and currents. It’s an ideal setting for night dives, and the reef takes on a completely different character after dark. Basket stars unfurl in the darkness; octopus and cuttlefish ghost the fringes of the reef in search of prey; and Spanish dancers emerge from daytime hiding to hunt. 

Maybe it’s not the most spectacular dive, but it has many different points of interest, and you’ll find yourself wishing your gas would last longer. When you’re hanging up your wetsuit and looking forward to dinner and a beer, I guarantee you’ll have a smile on your face.

 

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