Crowley's guide to exploring the Red Sea by liveaboard
If you want to experience some of the most spectacular reefs the world has to offer and travel to the Red Sea this year avoiding any Foreign Office travel restrictions, this is the time to get yourself on a liveaboard.
They are the best, and sometimes the only way to experience such hallowed sites such as The Brothers, Elphinstone and St John’s, and they offer a range of diving options – from general all-purpose diving to specialist wreck or ‘tech’ adventures. The standard itineraries are broadly split into North and South, with the northern routes departing from, and returning to, Hurghada; the most southerly routes involving a round-trip from Port Ghalib in Marsa Alam, and others departing from one and arriving at the other. When it comes to deciding where to go, divers really are spoiled for choice, so this is just a brief overview of what you can expect, with some pointers to get you started.
Before you go
Most liveaboard operators can cater to all types of diver regardless of experience, but local regulations impose a minimum number of dives at certain sites meaning that a relative novice may be able to participate in some dives, but not others. The Red Sea can throw up some pretty harsh conditions both above and below the water, especially when you’re far from the shore. With that in mind, a general rule of thumb would be to have at least 20 dives (some itineraries will require more) and an Advanced Open Water (or equivalent) certification under your weight belt. If you’re prone to sea-sickness, then you may find a week on the water with long, overnight voyages in heavy swell particularly uncomfortable.
Liveaboards can be expensive but a quick search throws up a price of £599 for a package that includes flights, transfers, all diving and full board on the boat. For the traveller on a tighter budget and timescale, round-trips out of Hurghada are the best option, but for those with a bit more time and budget and who don’t mind the extra travelling, an itinerary involving Marsa Alam affords divers the opportunity to explore some of the most pristine reefs in the Egyptian Red Sea.
It’s worth mentioning that in the current economic climate, there are ‘cowboy’ operators touting cheap deals, so if you see something too good to be true, then it probably is. Stick with reputable operators, some of whom are listed at the end of this article.
There are standard routes which most liveaboard operators will stick to – with titles such as ‘Wrecks and Reefs’ and ‘Deep South’ – and which will be broadly similar whomever you choose to dive with. The operators will do their best to fulfil the advertised itineraries, but bear in mind that there may be some variation depending on weather conditions and available time. The crews and guides will do their best, but some particular spots can never be guaranteed.
If you want to visit Sharm dive sites without actually travelling to Sharm, then the Northern routes out of Hurghada will suit you best. Almost all of the available trips to the north will include a visit to Shark and Yolanda reef in Ras Mohamed National Park and the world famous wreck of the SS Thistlegorm.
Some may also visit the Strait of Tiran, but all provide experiences that you just can’t get during a day trips from shore. For wreck enthusiasts, we recommend the 'Northern Wrecks and Reefs' itinerary which includes the Thistlegorm, Dunraven, Carnatic and Giannis D, along with stops in Ras Mohamed. You may even get the chance to night dive on the wrecks – an eerie, but wonderful experience that no shore-based operator can offer.
Another recommendation is the ‘North and Brothers’ route. The two islands that form the Brothers are highly regarded not only for their spectacular coral but being – as they are – in the middle of nowhere, they are one of the best locations in the Red Sea for seeing larger wildlife. Grey and white-tip reef sharks are fairly common all around the Red Sea and are often found at the Brothers, along with hammerheads in the summer months and thresher sharks later in the year.
Little Brother is prone to strong currents and big swell, but Big Brother is known as a good place to spot the magnificent oceanic whitetip from September onwards. The wrecks of the Numidia and Aida are also popular highlights. Most, if not all, of the Northern itineraries are Hurghada-Hurghada round trips.
The Southern routes cover big name locations such as The Brothers, Elphinstone, Daedalus, Fury Shoal and St John’s, with a plethora of dive sites in between, but due to the distances involved it’s not possible to cover all of these locations in a single trip.
As with the Northern routes, a variety of itineraries are available with some of the most popular being 'Simply the Best' and 'Deep South'. Simply the Best covers The Brothers, Elphinstone and Daedalus, with some itineraries involving a round trip from Hurghada, and others sailing between Hurghada and Port Ghalib. To make the best of the Southern Egyptian Red Sea, however, it’s best to book a trip which departs from and returns to Port Ghalib. The Deep South itinerary covers Elphinstone, Fury Shoal and St Johns and is suitable for all divers – a similar itinerary will also visit Daedalus but requires more experience in order to participate.
The dive sites themselves are too many to mention in a single article, but to give a brief overview of the main locations:
- Daedalus is a huge reef located around 80km from shore which offers many different dive spots and – unlike the Brothers – somewhere to dive can be found regardless of the sea conditions, although underwater the currents can be quite exciting. It’s a good place to find pelagics, with one special highlight being large schools of scalloped hammerheads in the summer months, and regular sightings of thresher sharks at cleaning stations.
- Elphinstone is renowned as another hotspot for the oceanic whitetip – and not just the occasional sighting, but where several sharks will gather and pass by the dive team for a closer inspection. Not for the faint hearted!
- Fury Shoal is a very versatile location, full of beautiful coral gardens and shallow lagoons. It like travelling through a complete guide to the different types of Red Sea reefs.
- St John’s has an awesome variety of walls, coral gardens and caves packed into a fairly small area making it suitable for divers of all experience levels, with the reduced travel time between sites making it a little easier for those that haven’t found their sea legs. The remote location and pristine reefs make it an ideal place to see the best that the Egyptian Red Sea has to offer – from macro to massive. In the winter months, although the weather can make St John’s inaccessible, it is a particularly good place to witness the sardine run, with sharks and dolphins working together to corral the sardines into bait balls which they then begin to hunt.
When to Go
It’s the Red Sea, so anytime is a good time to go, but the winter months mean cool water, cold winds, and rough seas. Prices are often a bit less expensive, but it means that weather dependent locations such as The Brothers, Daedalus and St Johns are less accessible, although the Northern sites remain relatively unaffected. Late summer onwards is the best time to see big fish, with September and October generally being regarded as the best time for shark spotting.
How to get there
Direct flights from the UK are available to both Hurghada and Marsa Alam but the situation is nothing if not fluid. EasyJet currently only have flights to Hurghada from Gatwick, however Thomas Cook fly direct from Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Gatwick Thomson appear to be the only UK airline currently flying to Marsa Alam and again, only from Gatwick. Plenty of indirect flights are available to both resorts; the easiest – but most expensive – being to travel via Cairo and catch an internal EgyptAir flight.
Road transfer between the resorts takes about three hours and is easily arranged through the liveaboard operators – it will more than likely be part of the package if the boat departs from one port and returns to the other.
Blue O Two comes top of the list – partly due to Anders’ experience as one of their lead guides, and also because of their excellent reputation. They offer all-inclusive packages (including flights) and you can find them at: www.blueotwo.com.
Emperor Divers is another big name with a superb reputation and a favourite amongst British divers. They do not offer inclusive flights but they do offer an excellent service: www.emperordivers.com
Regal Dive offer all-inclusive liveaboard packages: www.regal-diving.co.uk
Tornado Marine Fleet: www.tornadomarinefleet.com
Sea Serpent Fleet: www.seaserpentfleet.com
Tech Liveaboards: Some operators will cater to tech divers on demand, but others offer specialist tech and rebreather safaris. Blue O Two, Emperor and Tornado Marine (as listed above) can do this, and you can also check out specialist tech and rebreather operators Tekstreme and TekDeep at www.tekstremediving.com and www.tekdeep.com respectively.
• Anders 'Samaka' Jälmsjö, is a long-term guide at Blue O Two, one of the Red Sea’s premier liveaboard companies. Samaka is the Arabic word for fish – and there’s a very good reason the boat crews gave him that nickname! You can check out his website at www.aziab.com for more Red Sea information and dive site descriptions.