If Egypt is off your list this year - here are some other solutions to getting your Red Sea fix
As the flight restrictions to Sharm-El-Sheikh are extended, and tourism to Egypt continues to plummet as a result, there are a number of other countries bordering the Red Sea that divers might consider as alternatives. Israel and Jordan both have well-established tourist destinations, but Sudan and Djibouti also offer highly regarded diving, despite not being top of the list of countries that spring to mind as possible destinations. Granted, media focus on these countries is often as negative as it is in Egypt – if not more so – but current FCO advice to all of these locations is green where it matters. There are travel warnings to certain parts of each country, and some – how shall I put this diplomatically – “cultural sensitivities” to be aware of, however we’re divers, not politicians, and once you’re out at sea on a boat… that’s a whole different world.
The UK FCO advice for Israel, Jordan, Djibouti, and Sudan and Saudi warn against travel to particular areas of each country but the tourist areas of Eilat (Israel), Aqaba (Jordan), Djibouti city (Djibouti, obviously) and Port Sudan are where the resorts are located, and are considered safe to visit. Visa requirements vary – see the relevant section for more information – as does adherence to the “local laws and customs” as detailed on the FCO website.
Eilat is a popular tourist resort on the southern coast of Israel, right at the very northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, the body of water that extends along the eastern coast of the Sinai Peninsula, emptying into the Red Sea proper through the straights of Tiran back down in Sharm-El Sheikh.
Eilat is closely bordered by Egypt to the west and Jordan to the East, and it must be stressed that news reports about 'trouble at the Israeli-Egpytian border' are talking about the northern end of the border, about 250km away from Eilat. Outside of the diving, it’s a fairly typical resort location with plenty of hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and typical tourist activities, and with its arid climate and mountainous landscape, perhaps not so dissimilar from the more familiar Egyptian resorts.
Most of the diving is conducted from shore, with an easily accessible reef rapidly dropping from the shallows down into the blue. Like most of the Red Sea, visibility averages 25m all year round, but unlike other locations, calm waters and very little in the way of currents make the reefs around Eilat perfectly suited to divers of all levels, from beginner to Deep-Tec.
Water temperature is a little cooler than down south, ranging from 18 – 26ºC, with air temperatures meaning the winter months are a little chilly, but with summer temperatures regularly pushing past 40°C.
Under the water, the reef is filled with the same wonderfully diverse and colourful species of coral and critters as the Red Sea in general, but larger pelagics are occasional visitors. The Satil and Sun Boat are two notable wrecks in the area, relatively small but easily accessible for most divers. All in all, a vibrant, easy location in which to dive, if not as spectacular as the more southerly reefs.
How to get there
The closest airport is Ovda, from which Eilat is approximately 45 minutes by road. Currently only Monarch fly direct from the UK and only from London, but other carriers – including easyJet – fly to Tel Aviv, from where you can catch a short connecting flight, or take a four-hour road transfer to the resort. British passport holders do not need a visa to enter, however due to some Arabic countries still refusing to recognise Israel, having an Israeli stamp in your passport means that you will be refused entry to those countries. Jordan, Egypt and Djibouti are not affected, but Sudan is. This shouldn’t be an issue for new visitors, as Israeli authorities nowadays issue an immigration card instead of stamping passports, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you have visited in the past, and plan to dive in Sudan at a later date.
Geographically located 'just down the road' from Eilat, Aqaba is home to a well-established resort in Jordan’s only coastal city.
Tourism has been driven down by the fact that Jordan shares borders with Syria and Iraq as well as Israel, and of course it is just across the water from Egypt. Jordan has remained apart from the conflict, with the exception of the Syrian Border, more than 600 kilometres away.
The diving is similar to Eilat in that the conditions are generally calm with clear water and little in the way of current, but perhaps a little more dramatic in terms of topographical variation. Water temperature similarly range between 18 – 26°C, and many sites are easily accessible from the shore, although the dive centres also run daily boat trips.
The reefs are as consistently vibrant as the rest of the Red Sea, but one advantage that Aqaba has over both Eilat and Sharm is the condition of the reef due to a much lower level of dive tourism than other Red Sea resorts.
For the wreck lovers, Aqaba is home to the Cedar Pride, a Lebanese ship deliberately sunk as an artificial reef in 1985, and widely regarded as one of the most beautiful in the Red Sea. Lying in 25m of calm, clear water and accessible from shore or by boat, it is suitable for all levels of divers – as is one of the Red Sea’s oddest wrecks – known only as 'The Tank'. Because that’s what it is….
Back on land, all the usual amenities of a beach resort are to be found, but without the noise and tackiness of some of the more populous resort towns. There are restaurants and hotels, cafes and bars, but no nightclubs. It is more expensive than Sharm or Eilat, however, visitors to Aqaba are generally happy to pay a little extra to get away from the crowds, and perhaps feel as if they really are on an 'exclusive' beach holiday.
We a special Aqaba section – you can find it here: divemagazine.co.uk/destinations/aqaba
How to get there
There are no direct flights to Aqaba from the UK, however Turkish airlines fly several times a week from Istanbul, to which there are plenty of flights from all over Europe. Direct flights from the UK with British Airways and Royal Jordanian are available to the capital of Amman, with plenty of taxis and a regular bus service to Aqaba, approximately four hours away. Many travellers also like to stop and explore the UNESCO World heritage site at Petra. Transfers between Eilat and Aqaba are also readily available.
Visas can be purchased on arrival at the airports, however although there are no travel restrictions between Israel and Jordan, the FCO reports that visas will not be issued at the South Border crossing, so if you plan to visit Israel first, you will need to get a Jordanian visa in advance.
Before you completely dismiss this part of the article out of hand, a brief bit of politics: South Sudan, which has been at war with itself since it gained independence in 2011, is not Sudan. Darfur is a region in Western Sudan which has seen some of the bloodiest conflict in modern history, but both are around 500 miles from the coastal city of Port Sudan and the rather unimaginatively titled 'Red Sea Resort' just to the north. Trip reviews describe the Sudanese people as some of the most genuinely warm and welcoming people on the African continent – and if it makes you feel more comfortable, the best way to dive Sudan is by liveaboard, departing from either Port Sudan, or Marsa Alam in Egypt.
Why would you dive in Sudanese waters? Well, if it helps at all, Jacques Cousteau loved it so much he decided to build an underwater habitat there (Conshelf II, which you can dive) and it’s one of the best places in the world to see hammerhead sharks – as in hundreds and hundreds of schooling hammerhead sharks.
The wreck of the Umbria, an Italian WWII supply ship scuttled by the captain to prevent it falling into British hands, is often compared to the Thistlegorm, only better, if that’s even possible! And the reefs themselves remain pristine due to the lack of tourism – in part, of course – due to many years of conflict. Sharks are not just special, occasional visitors, but common – and proof is easy to find on YouTube.
Water temperatures in the Southern Red Sea are warmer than the north, ranging from 22 – 30°C, but the conditions are not always suitable for beginners, with some liveaboard itineraries asking for a minimum of 200 dives before visiting. It doesn’t come cheap, with package prices starting from around £2,400 per person – but that includes flights, hotels, and 10 days’ diving, although there will be extra charges for visas and entry permits.
How to get there
You are, of course free to make your own travel arrangements either to Port Ghaleb (Marsa Alam, Egypt), or Port Sudan. Thomson fly direct to Marsa Alam from Gatwick, although there are more carriers (easyJet, Monarch) to Hurghada, with a three-hour transfer to Marsa Alam by land. There don’t seem to be any direct flights to Port Sudan from the UK, but transfers via Cairo or Dubai are possible. You will need a pre-arranged visa to enter Sudan, and will be refused entry if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport. The easiest way is to book a package tour – British tour operator RegalDive will do everything for you, minimising any inconvenience;as will Blue O Two.
Two words: whale sharks.
Djibouti is situated at the entrance to the Red Sea, Bab El Mandab – The Gate of Tears. Between October and February every year, a massive plankton bloom occurs in the region’s waters, particularly in an area known as the Ghoubet Al-Kharab – The Devil’s Cauldron. Although they are commonly sighted throughout the year, the whale sharks – particularly juveniles – gather in numbers to take advantage of the plentiful food supply, and don’t forget that 'juvenile' whale sharks are still up to 7 or 8m in length. Other pelagic plankton feeders such as manta rays are also regularly seen in the area, as well as a number of other species of shark, along with dolphins and – less frequently – pilot whales.
Even more so than Sudan, Djibouti is not a regular holiday destination, meaning the reefs are almost untouched and visitors describe not just the health of the coral but the sheer abundance of its marine inhabitants.
In terms of safety, Djibouti is home to the largest American military base in Africa, along with a French military presence also. Reports of Somali pirates in the area have been highlighted in the last few years, but they are, by and large, concentrated in the open sea at the Eastern end of the Gulf of Aden, far beyond the range of any dive boats, and certainly not under the watchful eye of American pilots.
There is a resort of sorts, comprising a handful of hotels and a few dive centres, from where daily boat excursions can be arranged for diving and snorkelling, but for divers, the best way to explore the waters of Djibouti is by liveaboard. There aren’t very many operating in the area due to the lack of demand, but the few that are come highly recommended.
How to get there
Air France operates to Djibouti but only from France; otherwise it’s Turkish Airlines via Istanbul or Ethiopian Air via Addis Ababa. The FCO advises that visa on arrival is at the discretion of Djiboutian immigration and it’s therefore better to get your visa in advance, although various trip reports suggest that the biggest inconvenience was waiting in line at an airport that is – well – not quite up to European standards (including Gatwick!), but better safe than sorry.
As with Sudan, RegalDive offer package tours which includes flights, accommodation and diving, partnered with Dolphin Excursions – currently the only PADI Gold Palm rated dive centre in the region.
Dolphin Excursions: http://dolphin-excursions.com/
Regal Dive Djibouti: http://www.regal-diving.co.uk/djibouti-liveaboards