The Things British Divers Have Been Missing While the FCO Dithered
For the past four years, the UK government has steadfastly refused to lift its travel advice against 'all but essential travel through Sharm el Sheikh airport' - an effective ban in all but name on direct flights to the Red Sea's most popular resort.
Many British divers have continued to make the trip thanks to a range of indirect flights available from a variety of international operators, but the extra cost and duration of the journey made it inconvenient for all but the most dedicated divers. Now that the UK government's travel advisory has been rescinded, it's time to start planning the next dive vacation to our favourite Red Sea resort. In case anybody needed reminding, here are just a few of the things that made Sharm such a popular scuba diving destination.
Ras Mohammed National Park
Top of many divers' favourite dive spots, the reefs of Ras Mohammed National Park extend from Ras Ghozlani, past the large bay of Marsa Bareika to the wall and corner of Ras Za'atar, through the famous sandy road and extensive plateau of Jackfish Alley, the slopes of Eel Garden and the nooks and crannies of Shark Observatory, the tentacled carpets of Anemone City to the staggeringly magnificent pinnacles of Shark and Yolanda. Although hovering over one of Yolanda's toilets might be a highlight for some divers, there is little to compare to the sheer exuberance of life present on the 800m-deep wall of Shark Reef and the vibrant coral gardens of Yolanda. When the current is right, drifting through the blue from Anemone City to Shark Reef adds a whole new dimension to the dive, and when the current is wrong, diving the reefs in reverse means you can explore parts you don't often see going in the other direction.
Gordon, Thomas, Woodhouse and Jackson, the four island reefs that lie between the Sinai Peninsula and the island of Tiran are prone to some exciting currents, which bring with them the nutrients that make the coral so rich, and also make for the best drift dives around Sharm. The boat ride out can often be a little rock and roll but it's worth the effort every time, with divers often encountering three different species of dolphin during the journey as spinners and bottlenose dolphins ride the bows of the dive boats and Risso's dolphins display their flukes in unison. The coral gardens are spectacular on all four reefs and always filled with life, and many divers consider Jackson to be the best dive in Sharm. When conditions are just so, there's a chance to visit the infamous Jackson Outside and meet the scalloped hammerheads that school there.
The world's finest diving wreck, the SS Thistlegorm was a Second World War freighter sunk at Sha'ab Ali just off the tip of the Sinai Peninsula in 1941. Although time and diving have taken their toll, the ship remains loaded with cars, trucks, guns, munitions, the remains of two steam locomotives and, of course, the famous motorcycles. It's an early morning start but a journey that few will ever forget. When it's done right, visiting Thistlegorm is much more than just a wreck dive, it's a journey into history and the tragedy of war. The elderly Dunraven, the massive Million Hope and infrequently visited Kormoran are all enjoyable recreational wreck dives for those who like a bit of metal with their diving.
Sharm can sometimes be a bit too full of hustle and bustle, and Dahab - around 90 minutes by taxi from Sharm - is a great place to visit for a bit of chillaxing. There's some great diving to be had at the likes of the Canyon and the Blue Hole and afterwards, you can enjoy a deco beer or a coffee with a shisha in a Bedouin retreat, or one of the many café bars along the seafront. Most of the diving is from shore, so no long day trips out on boats with rough seas, leaving plenty of time to soak up Dahab's friendly atmosphere. A great place to see a little bit of the real Egypt, and also camels. If you like camels, you will love Dahab!
There's a lot of life along the Red Sea's reefs, and the deep waters of the Gulf of Aqaba lend themselves well to the presence of pelagic critters. If there has been a silver lining to the decline in dive tourism over the last few years, it's the amount and variety of big fish that have been seen along Sharm's reefs. Grey and whitetip reef sharks, threshers, whale sharks and even tigers have put in appearances on a regular basis, judging by the reams of Facebook posts from the dive centres. All the usual Red Sea suspects - turtles, giant morays, lionfish, lionfish, lionfish, stonefish, scorpionfish, lionfish, Napoleon wrasse, marauding titan triggerfish, giant trevallies, huge dogtooth tuna (and also lionfish) - are as plentiful as always. If you like really small things, there's plenty of macro life to be found out there as well.
The Red Sea's dive industry has long been a leading example of how to do diving properly. Operators, instructors and guides are overseen by an experienced local regulatory body and the infrastructure behind the business has been built over more than forty years, and is still seeking to improve. The Red Sea has escaped the ravages of coral bleaching, and recent initiatives such as the adoption of Green Fins environmental standards and severely restricting the areas where 'intro dives' can take place add to the drive to preserve some of the world's richest coral reefs.
Sharm El Sheikh was among the most popular destinations in the world for scuba diver training, particularly for British divers. The accessibility of the resort from around the UK, combined with logistically comprehensive package holidays meant that once you made a booking, all you had to do was get yourself to the airport and back. Many of the dive centres conduct diver training from the shore rather than a swimming pool, with conditions that are easy for beginners to get to grips with but at the same time present the novice with currents, depth and varying sea conditions. This is not exclusive to Sharm, of course, with many divers and students heading to Hurghada, El Gouna, Marsa Alam and other resorts on the Egyptian mainland - which are all fantastic, but there's something special about Sharm El Sheikh. It's where it all started for Red Sea scuba diving - and now, for British divers at least - it's time to start again.