Dive Site | Ras Mohamed National Park
In 1983, 97 square kilometers of the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula was designated by the Egyptian government as the protected National Park of Ras Mohamed. The name stems from the word Ras, Arabic for headland, or cape, and the fact that at a certain time of day, when viewed from the right angle, the cliffs which we know today as Shark Observatory appear to form the outline of a face that is widely regarded as the face of the prophet Mohamed. Since then, the park has been extended to cover approximately 480 sq km, of which around 75 per cent is underwater.
The entire Sinai peninsula had previously been regarded as a protected area during the period of Israeli occupation during which the sprawling resort, which is known as Sharm El Sheikh today, was little more than a couple of hotels, a road or two (of sorts), and a diving paradise. The Israelis recruited members of the Bedouin tribes that inhabit the local desert as park rangers in return for the preservation of their traditional fishing rights.
Following the return of Sinai to Egypt, well-known marine biologist Dr Eugenie Clarke ('The Shark Lady') and the Egyptian photographer and diver Ayman Taher (son of the famous artist of the same name), together with early pioneers of the dive industry (now large companies such as Camel Dive Club and Sinai Divers) who recognised the potential for development in Sharm El Sheikh, pushed to ensure that the environment would be preserved for future generations of tourists. While their efforts were not in vain, the massive growth of Sharm since the early 2000s has seen some of the reefs that lie along the coastline of the resort almost completely destroyed in places due to careless and uncaring construction work.
Today, the park of Ras Mohamed stretches from the Qad Ibn Haddan lighthouse in the Gulf of Suez to include the Sharm coastline as far north as Tiran with its famous island reefs – the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba – where the park borders with the Nabq Protected Area.
The national park includes the mountainous desert interior which seems completely barren but is in fact home to a number of larger creatures, including the Dorcas gazelle (Ras Ghozlani means Cape of the Gazelle), the Nubian ibex and the red fox. Sadly, the gazelle and ibex have been hunted almost to extinction – by the very same tribes that were once hired to protect them – and driven into the interior by the increased human presence nearer the coast.
Avian inhabitants of the park include heron and osprey, and white stork stop for a brief respite during their annual migration to mainland Africa. Different types of snakes, lizards and spiders can also be found.
The raised shoreline of much of the southern tip of Sinai is formed from the fossilized remains of the ancient coral reef, raised out of the water due to seismic activity caused by the fact that the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea lie along a rift between the African and Arabian tectonic plates.
Underwater, the southern tip of the Sinai is the meeting point for three very different bodies of water. To the west, separating the peninsula from mainland Egypt, lies the shallow Gulf of Suez which has a maximum depth of 250m compared to the 1.7km deep gulf of Aqaba to the East that empties into the Red Sea proper – over 2km deep in places and superheated at depth by volcanic activity – through the very narrow, very shallow Strait of Tiran.
The resultant strange and unpredictable currents conspire to drive these three forces together in the submerged part of Ras Mohamed. Water rich in nutrients is driven to the surface to support an ecosystem which ranges from the microscopic all the way to pelagic giants such as whale sharks. Approximately 200 species of coral and around 1,200 species of assorted fish, elasmobranchs, invertebrates and the occasional turtle exist within its boundaries.
Park rules include no touching, no feeding, no taking, and the use of muck-sticks or 'lobster-ticklers' has been forbidden. Contrary to popular belief, the wearing of knives and gloves is permitted, although knives should only be used to cut fishing line. Visitors pay a €5 per day entry fee and need a full visa to visit, as opposed to the free entry stamp; the visa can be purchased on arrival.
Unfortunately, the rules governing touching and taking have been consistently broken over the years by incompetent or ignorant divers (and guides, it has to be said), and the no taking rule has been broken by people seeking only financial gain through illegal fishing – and although the snappers still gather en masse outside Shark Reef every summer, the sharks that used to hunt them do not. As any visitor will know, the reef itself remains spectacular, and since building is forbidden south of Sharm El Mina (better known as Travco harbour), there is little in the way of damage from coastal development.
The future of the park remains uncertain, because Egypt as a nation has been in turmoil since the Revoultion of January 2011, but there is a very vocal group of people who wish to ensure that the beauty of the marine environment is preserved, and in the long run, it will be more financially lucrative to ensure that this remains so.
Having said that, the decrease in tourism has for sure had a positive influence on the reef, long absent hammerheads have started to come back to Tiran and the barracudas at shark & Yolanda reef are making a welcomed return, although not in the numbers they were present before Sharm was developed.
Ras Mohamed is a spectacular contrast between the desolate appearance of the desert mountain interior and the immensely rich and colourful underwater ecosystem that continues to thrive there. It contains one of the most important and impressive coral reef structures on the planet, and you have to go a long, long way to find better diving.