It’s the British diver’s favourite overseas jaunt and with visitor numbers low there are bargains to be had
Classic Red Sea tropical reefs, teeming with life in a year-round sunny climate a five-hour flight away at recession-friendly holiday prices – Sharm El Sheikh is an enticing option for British divers looking to get the most for their money.
Sharm El Sheikh was developed as a direct result of the pioneering adventures of a handful of divers off its near-empty desert landscape around 30 years ago. Over the years, as the Red Sea town on the southernmost point of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has grown, so has its tourist market. Diversifying greatly from its traditional diving roots, it has transformed into a fully matured sun seekers’ resort. These days the numerous flights from major airports in the UK to Sharm are packed with a mix of holiday makers, such as families, sun worshippers and a few clubbers. The town’s facilities have expanded greatly to accommodate the needs of this diverse crowd. The resort even has its own ice rink and shopping malls – a world away from its days as a dusty, remote Bedouin fishing port.
Competition for tourists does have its obvious benefits. You can tailor a holiday to meet most needs and budgets as there’s so much to choose from, although it is definitely advisable to book accommodation before you arrive. From basic bed-and-breakfast options to five-star spa resorts, Sharm has it covered. With the expansion of hotels along the coast, it also means it’s still possible to get away from the bright lights and clubs of Naama Bay and Soho Square and stay in the quieter areas of Hadaba, Shark Bay or Nabq.
Despite the instability of the political revolution in the country in spring 2011, all the major Red Sea holiday resorts have remained free of any trouble and no travel restrictions have been put in place for British holidaymakers at any point. Sharm has remained calm and all tourist facilities continued to operate as normal, even at the very height of the uprising.
Nevertheless, tourism has been hit hard across Egypt, and many of Sharm’s hotels are still reporting extremely low occupancy.
On the flip side, the sudden and dramatic downturn in visitor figures since the revolution has encouraged a growing number of experienced divers back to town – particularly those who had been previously put off by mass tourism. They have been rediscovering renowned dive sites, such as Ras Mohammed National Park, the Straits of Tiran and the world-famous Thistlegorm wreck in relative peace and quiet. Long-term resident dive guides in Sharm say diving visitors over the last 12 months have enjoyed the Red Sea as it was ten years ago – with less diver and boat traffic, a healthy revival of reefs and an increased number of shark, dolphin and ray sightings.
To try to combat the drop in tourism since the beginning of 2011, many tour operators are also continuing to offer excellent combination packages for accommodation, flights and diving to Red Sea resorts. It’s worth checking out what dive centres have to offer on diving deals as well. Centres generally pick you up from wherever you are staying each day and, if you are boat diving, will also transport you to Sharks Bay, Naama Bay or Travco jetties Most dive operations in Sharm have access to a house reef for training and guided dives a few times per day and the variety of dive sites suits all levels of divers, from entry-level to technical.
The classic dives
When it comes to Ras Mohammed National Park’s most famous underwater spot, dive guides are not lying when they say Shark Reef is one of the best dives in the world – it’s a site that deserves this accolade. Shark Reef is located at the very tip of the Sinai Peninsula where deep water wells up, carrying rich nutrients that result in vibrant coral growth and a concentration of rich marine life, from tiny critters to ocean giants.
It’s possible to dive three reefs in one here – current, experience and air consumption allowing. The best dive starts with the huge variety of anemonefish at the aptly named Anemone City, then across the blue to Shark Reef’s dramatic wall and finishing at the incredible coral garden of Yolanda. The dive site Yolanda was named after a cargo ship that crashed here and left a bizarre assortment of baths, toilets, shower curtains and even a car along the reef.
Any regular Shark Reef visitor will tell you that no two dives are the same on this site, particularly in the summer months when the surrounding blue water is a hive of activity. From May to September there are many hundreds of schooling fish, including Bohar snapper, batfish, jackfish and barracuda. If you’re really lucky, you will witness the two weeks of the year when thousands of baby parrotfish frantically swarm across the reef with hunting tuna in hot pursuit.
Other blue-chip sites found at Ras Mohammed include Shark Observatory and Jackfish Alley. The upturned wreck of the Dunraven is in the far west fringes of the marine park and is usually limited to early morning boat trips.
The Straits of Tiran are in the most northern waters of the Sharm El Sheikh coast. Although military regulations restrict diving near Tiran Island itself, there is plenty of diving action around the four main reefs of Jackson, Woodhouse, Thomas and Gordon. Together these four sites form one huge reef system in a body of sea approximately 1,000m wide. This creates a bottleneck effect in the water and the complex mix of deep water upwelling through narrow channels brings waves of nutrients in which coral gardens thrive.
The largest of the four, Jackson Reef, was described by Jacques Cousteau as one of the most spectacular reefs he had ever dived when he first explored the area in the 1950s – the reason why you tend to see so many diving bubbles on this site. If you’re lucky enough to catch it on a quiet day and conditions allow, it’s hard to argue with the great scuba pioneer on this one. The coral garden, particularly on the western
side of the reef on the saddle between Jackson and Woodhouse Reef is breathtakingly beautiful and teeming with life, everything from the classic Red Sea orange anthias to turtles. Strong currents, most profuse on the edge of the reef, attract an abundance of pelagic fish. On calm days in summer, boats are able to access the north side of the reef. Although far from guaranteed, the chance to see
the resident school of scalloped hammerheads is worth a gamble dive in the blue.
The world-famous Thistlegorm wreck is a must on any visit to Sharm. The 126m-long 4,898-tonne vessel lies virtually intact on the sea floor at a maximum depth of 30m. Part of a convoy carrying ordnance supply for the Allied forces to North Africa, SS Thistlegorm was attacked and sunk by German bombers at Shaab Ali on 6 October 1941. The vessel was carrying a vast array of cargo, including Bedford trucks, motorbikes and armoured cars.
It takes at least two dives to explore the outside and inside of
its structure. Life attracted to the coral-encrusted wreck includes groupers, moray eels, batfish, anthias and lionfish. Be prepared for a very early start to the day (usually between 4.30 and 5.30am), as it takes around three hours to get to the dive site by boat.
Despite mass tourist development and large numbers of sea users, the local reefs of Sharm El Sheikh, from Ras Katy to Ras Nasrani, serve up some good quality diving. Many centres offer half-day options on local reef boat trips for those who prefer a little more relaxed approach to diving on their holiday. The best of the local sites are usually offered as an extra dive for most dayboat trips returning from Ras Mohammed or Tiran.
As most Sharm aficionados will tell you, third dives during the summer months (May to September) on local sites are not to be missed, as it’s in these areas where you will hear about divers seeing the ‘big stuff’ such as juvenile giant manta rays, whale sharks, dolphins, as well as other equally impressive passing pelagics.
Ras Umm Sid is a popular local site just south of Naama Bay. Although accessible by shore, it’s mostly dived by boat. It’s well known for its huge forest of fan corals descending to the depths of the steep reef wall. It’s close to the drop off where the current generally picks up and often attracts larger animals, including manta and eagle rays in the high season. In shallow areas, the coral cover is excellent with a particularly beautiful pinnacle covered in glassfish at around 14m.
Further south you’ll find sites such as Ras Katy. A site often wrongly dismissed as just a first day ‘check dive’ for daily and liveaboard trips out of Sharm El Sheikh, Ras Katy is a beautiful shallow reef. It’s worth taking the time to explore its coral pinnacles teeming with macro life. It’s not uncommon in the warmer months to see passing rays and even the odd lone hammerhead or whale shark at the drop off.
Most of the dive centres situated in the centre of Naama Bay conduct training and night dives off the main beach. Despite having the greatest concentration of people of any area in Sharm, the reef here tends to throw up quite a few surprises. Sightings of huge feathertail stingrays, cruising eagle rays and grazing turtles are quite common. For photographers able to access the northern end of the beach with a dive guide, it is worth heading out to the tiny wreck near the drop off. It is little dived, but is more commonly known among resident guides as the ‘barge.’ Encrusted in colourful coral and a haven for Red Sea reef life, such as glassfish, it offers plenty of photographic opportunities. Although shallow, at around 7m to 8m, good air consumption is essential as it is a fairly long fin across the sea grass and coral pinnacles to get there.
Further north, heading up towards the Straits of Tiran, you’ll find what is generally considered the best of local reefs. Ras Nasrani is a fantastic drift dive along a steep wall to a ledge where passing pelagics are often seen. You’ll find vibrant and healthy hard and soft coral cover, including clusters of large porites as you drift with the current along the ledge and across the shallow garden.
Ras Gamila is another excellent reef in this area. This vast, but fairly shallow, sandy plateau is peppered with beautiful coral pinnacles covered in life and spectacular glassfish displays. Although this can be dived by shore, with the newly opened Ocean College centre at the Sensatori Hotel, currents can be quite strong here.
There has been a rapid growth in technical diving in the Red Sea in the last few years, most notably among regular visitors who want to extend their range to explore the little dived areas around Ras Mohammed and the Straits of Tiran.
The major centres in Sharm all have excellent reputations for technical training and guide extended range dives, such as deep and cave. The best of the deeper sites are around the 50m to 70m range, although some go down the technical route to enjoy longer bottom times on sites such as the 30m-deep Thistlegorm.
Highlights for technical divers include: the Canyon at Thomas Reef, which starts at a depth of around 35m; the wreck of the Lara off the back of Jackson Reef where deeper divers regularly enjoy the best of the hammerhead shark encounters; Jackfish Alley’s satellite reef and Shark Observatory in the Ras Mohammed National Park as hotspots for high energy pelagic action. A full list of legal diving operations can be found listed alphabetically at http://cdws.travel/diving/centres
NEED TO KNOW
Sharm El Sheikh International Airport is around a five-hour flight from the
UK. There are lots of flights running from the UK’s major airports each week.
If you fancy a bit of fine dining head to some of the high-end hotels, such as Four Seasons, Hyatt and Jolie Ville Golf Resort. For something a little more relaxed, but still to an excellent standard you have quite a few options in Naama Bay. The collection of restaurants on the Camel Hotel complex are very popular, particularly the Tandoori Indian restaurant (advisable to book in advance). If you don’t like to miss your traditional Sunday roast while diving in the desert, the Tavern Bar has all-you-can-eat English fare each week (book no later than Sunday afternoon for an early or late sitting).
If you like Italian food with great views, it’s worth checking out the Reef Beach restaurant which overlooks the sea and Tiran Island in the Il Mercato area (next door to the Shores Aloha Hotel).
Old Sharm is still serving up great seafood at its fish restaurants. While Sinai Star and Fares offer great food, the cost has gone up. Be clear with the waiter on pricing when it comes to choosing your own selection from the counter, particularly at Fares. Safsafa is generally considered the best among residents.
In Naama Bay, Camel recently updated its main bar, where punters can watch sports events, drink cocktails or join in the karaoke night. For a quieter evening, there is the Terrace Bar or the chilled out tunes and cushions of the Roof Bar to enjoy. Tavern in the main centre and Pirates Bar at the Hilton are still popular with divers, particularly Brits. In the Aida area you will find T2 British-themed pub and in Hadaba, the Champions Bar. Both serve food, show all the biggest sporting events and have indoor and outdoor areas.
If you’re taking a taxi, agree a price beforehand. Rates start from around ten Egyptian pounds (approx £1.20 sterling) for short journeys, 20 to 25 for journeys such as Naama to Old Sharm. Don’t be shy to ask the driver to slow down if he’s going too fast. Always make sure you get in a licensed white and blue taxi, unless they are privately arranged by hotels and dive centres.
Topside, the resort has a huge mix of activities, from wakeboarding and water parks to desert safari tours. Families are well catered for, particularly in the all-inclusive resorts.