Egypt has been a favourite of scuba divers for the better part of half a century thanks to its proximity to the Red Sea, which runs along the entirety of Egypt’s eastern coastline. First brought to the world’s attention by Hans and Lotte Haas’ award-winning black-and-white documentary Adventures in the Red Sea, and later popularised by Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s 1956 full-colour documentary The Silent World, the Egyptian Red Sea is now regarded as one of the best scuba diving destinations on the planet.
The clear blue waters of the Red Sea, a product of increased salinity due to high evaporation over the desert and very little in the way of rainfall, hosts 1,200 species of fish and more than 200 species of coral. The narrow straits of Bab El Mandab far to the south, which connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, allows much in the way of species crossover, yet almost 20 per cent of the Red Sea’s residents are endemic.
Much of Egypt’s dive tourism over the years has centred around large resorts such as Hurghada on the mainland and Sharm El Sheikh, situated on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, but there are plenty of options for dive tourists, and many people forget that Egypt’s northern coastline lies along the shores of the Mediterranean. Here are ten of the best places to scuba dive in Egypt
With most of the diving focused around Egypt’s Red Sea resorts, it’s easy to forget that the northern coastline lies along the shores of the Mediterranean, and scuba diving in Alexandria affords visitors to the chance to dive into Egypt’s historical past. From the remains of Cleopatra’s palace around the sunken island of Antirhodos and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. to more modern historical artefacts from the Napoleonic Battle of the Nile and the Second World War. Visitors can also dive the clear waters of the Siwa Oasis, a three-hour safari through the desert in which old Roman ruins are located. This is not a dive spot for bright coral and fishes – there’s little of either, the water is often murky and the temperatures much cooler, but for scuba diving history buffs looking for a new adventure, the ancient city of Alexandria and its rich history may well be something worth dipping your toes into.
How to get there: direct flights to Alexandria are available from the likes of Turkey, Dubai and Greece but there are few other options from most of Europe. A better alternative is to fly into Cairo and take the 2.5-hour bus ride to Alexandria
Big Brother and Little Brother are two island reefs approximately 70km distant from the port town of El Quseir, and only accessible by liveaboard. They are some of the best dive sites in the Red Sea as their distance and the surrounding currents make the reefs suitable for advanced divers only. However, for those prepared to brave the ever-changing conditions, the results are spectacular, especially for lovers of big fish, as sharks and other large pelagics are regularly spotted at various times of the year.
Big Brother is around 400m in length with deep-sided walls, all manner of hard and soft corals are in abundance, and wreck enthusiasts will love the Numidia, sunk in 1901 and the Aida, sunk in 1956.
Little Brother, around 500m from its partner, is often home to schooling hammerheads, thresher sharks and oceanic whitetips, along with an equally spectacular array of coral formations.
How to get there: The brothers form part of a range of different liveaboard itineraries, with some spending more time around the reefs than others, some departing from Hurghada and others from Port Ghalib (Marsa Alam). Direct flights are possible to both locations (Hurghada more so than Marsa Alam), but the liveaboard operators will usually arrange all flights and transfers based around the itinerary.
Dahab is one of Egypt’s best-loved destinations, a wonderful mixture of great scuba diving in a chilled and laid-back atmosphere, popular with the backpacking community and a relaxed contrast to the overwhelmingly touristy Sharm El Sheikh, 80km to the south. Almost all of the diving is easily accessible from the shore, including the extremely popular Blue Hole, best dived from El Bells, a narrow (but easy) entry to the exterior wall, and the Canyon, a deep rock crevice in a gently-sloping reef interspersed with small coral bommies and huge numbers of fish. Big stuff passes by only infrequently but there’s plenty to see, and chilling in the Bedouin cafés is a relaxing way to spend your surface interval. The central area of Masbat is full of beach-front bars and restaurants (in a good way) and comfortable budget accommodations, with bigger hotels just south in Mashraba. Day trips to visit Tiran, Ras Mohamed and the Thistlegorm are available, if you don’t mind an early start.
How to get there: Fly into Sharm and take an inexpensive taxi to Dahab. The ride is approximately 1.5 hours through some magnificent desert scenery, your accommodation or dive centre will be happy to arrange transfers.
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El Gouna is a privately-developed, purpose-built resort, located approximately 25km north of Hurghada. There’s very little in the way of an ‘authentic’ Egypt here, but it has been very well designed with a range of boutique hotels, spas and private villas available for rent. The resort is popular for kitesurfing and boasts an 18-hole golf course, all set in an environment that is a lot more tranquil than the hustle and bustle of Hurghada. Visitors can enjoy the freedom to walk around without constantly being hassled to buy souvenirs, and the nightlife is a lot more subdued than some of the more garish elements of Sharm. The waterfront at Abu Tig is a wonderful place to spend an evening, with some excellent restaurants. El Gouna is a favourite amongst wreck divers for its proximity to Sha’ab Abu Nuhas, where lie the famous wrecks of the Chisola K, Carnatic and Giannis D, among others. Sha’ab El Erg and Dolphin House, less frequently visited by the day boats from Hurghada, is home to a large pod of dolphins and encounters are common.
How to get there: Direct flights to Hurghada are available from most European countries, and transfers to El Gouna will be arranged by your hotel or accommodation
El Quseir is an ancient town of some 5,000 years, once one of the most important ports in Egypt due to its proximity to the Nile. Lying approximately halfway between Hurghada to the north and Marsa Alam to the south, El Quseir has remained relatively unaffected by the huge growth in tourism that formed the resorts of Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh. Much of the diving is from shore, with plenty of shallow locations for entry-level divers and training, but divers with certification beyond entry-level will find more to enjoy. Large pelagics are only occasional visitors, but the unspoilt and vibrant reefs are filled with all of the popular Red Sea denizens, from the ubiquitous lionfish and blue-spotted ribbontail rays to sea snakes and guitarfish. Divers wanting to find bigger stuff can take day boats to the legendary Elphinstone reef, famous for frequent encounters with oceanic whitetips in the latter half of the year, or explore the haunting wreck of the Salem Express. Visits to see the 4,000-year-old rock inscriptions at Wadi Hammamat, or the ruins of the ancient port of Myos Hormos round out a trip to the historical destination.
How to get there: Direct flights to either Hurghada or Marsa Alam. There are fewer flights to Marsa Alam, but as the airport is around 20km north of the city, transfer times to El Quseir are reduced to approximately one hour. Flights to Hurghada are far more frequent, with a transfer time of around 1 hour 45 minutes.
Once a small fishing village, since regular tourism began in the 1980s, Hurghada has grown to be the largest resort on the Egyptian mainland and is now considered to be one of the best locations for scuba diving in Egypt. It is an exceedingly good location for entry-level diving and dive courses, with many of the reefs located in easily accessible, shallow, sheltered environments, yet teeming with the Red Sea’s rich marine life. More advanced divers will feel equally at home, with deeper sites and stronger currents. The Giftun islands are popular with divers of all abilities, and, like El Gouna just a short drive to the north, the proximity of Sha’ab Abu Nuhas and its wrecks is popular with wreck divers from beginner level to advanced tech. Day trips to the SS Thiistlegorm are widely available, as are trips to the much deeper Rosalie Moller which, unlike Thistlegorm, is rarely visited from Sharm. Hurghada is also the foremost departure point for Red Sea liveaboards, with a range of itineraries to almost all of the Red Sea’s reefs and wrecks available.
How to get there: Regular, direct flights to Hurghada are available year-round from most of Europe. Alternative routes involve flying to Cairo and catching an internal flight to Hurghada.
Marsa Alam is home to some excellent Red Sea diving in a location that is growing steadily in popularity since the international airport opened in 2003, but is still relatively undeveloped when compared to the scale of Hurghada and Sharm. Daily diving is from shore or boat, so it’s a great option for people who don’t like spending all day at sea, but still want to visit some of the best dive spots in the area. Marsa Abu Dabab is a particular highlight, famous for the resident population of dugong, one of the few places in the Red Sea that these animals can still be seen on a daily dive excursion. Marsa Alam is another great place to depart for day trips to Elphinstone to spot sharks, including the hammerheads that often school around the north plateau. Port Ghalib, around 60km to the north is the departure point for many liveaboards heading towards the deep south of the Red Sea, and Marsa Alam the airport of choice where possible.
How to get there: Direct flights to Marsa Alam are available but much more limited schedule than to Hurghada, which may be a better alternative for the schedule but means an extra 3 hours’ transfer by road. Flying via Cairo and taking an internal flight is also an option, but may add an extra day to the travel time. Package prices via tour operators are the best option.
Safaga is located around 70km south of Hurghada, a popular scuba diving destination famous for wall dives, beautiful coral gardens and the wreck of the Salem Express, a passenger ferry that sank in 1991 with the loss of an estimated 470 lives. The dives at Ras Abu Soma are considered to be some of the best in the region, along with the Tobia reefs, also known as the ‘Seven Pinnacles’. All sites easily available by boat, with some shore-based diving depending on whether or not you stay in Safaga itself or the nearby Soma Bay. Perhaps the most famous dive site in the region, Panorama Reef, is home to spectacular 200m deep walls and perfect for drift diving, huge hard and soft coral formations and sightings of grey reef sharks, barracuda and schooling jacks. Abu Kafan provides a similar, even more, spectacular experience, and Middle Reef is home to some of the most luxurious coral gardens in the region. The Salem Express is considered to be one of the best wreck dives in the world, a well-respected but sombre dive, with the hull now encrusted in coral. Makadi Bay, around 30km to the north, is also an excellent choice, offering a half-way house between the dive sites of Hurghada and Safaga, but not as well known to tourists.
ST JOHN’S AND THE DEEP SOUTH
The most unspoiled and pristine reefs in the Egyptian Red Sea, the Deep South contains such famous names as St John’s, Zabargad and Rocky Island, all accessible only by liveaboard. St John’s ranges from fairly easy diving to much more dramatic drop-offs and currents, home to the richest coral gardens in the Red Sea, spectacular gorgonian forests and some of the most plentiful and biodiverse wildlife in the region including sharks and large schools of pelagic fish such as jacks and tuna. Further out to sea, the strong currents around Rocky Island and its neighbour, Zabargad, allow experienced divers to experience some thrilling drift dives, with regular sightings of manta, hammerheads, Silvertips and dolphins. The long chain of reefs known as Fury Shoal, often a part of deep south liveaboard itineraries, has become accessible by day boats thanks to new developments in the town of Hamata, providing access to some of these pristine reefs without the need for a liveaboard, albeit a long (180km) trek south by road from Marsa Alam.
How to get there: Departure to the deep south is most often from Port Ghalib, with the closest airport being Marsa Alam. As with other destinations, it’s often easier to fly to Hurghada and make the three-hour road trip to Port Ghalib, but liveaboard operators generally fulfil the travel requirements.
SHARM EL SHEIKH
Sharm El Sheikh is, for many people, considered to be the best place in Egypt for scuba diving, and has probably contributed more to the European dive business than any other resort in the world. Situated at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, the deep gulf of Aqaba, shallow Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea proper all come together at Shark and Yolanda reef, the region’s most famous and most frequently dived hotspot in the national park of Ras Mohamed. Sharm has an excellent mixture of easy to challenging dives, suitable for both entry-level training, and fast drifts along the island reefs in the Straits of Tiran. Although some shore diving is available, most diving is conducted by boat in order to explore the best of the reefs and one of the world’s most famous wrecks, the SS Thistlegorm. Following the drop in tourism after the 2015 Russian airline disaster, the reefs have rebounded with large schools of fish returning to the area, and pelagic species such as whale sharks and manta rays spotted on a regular basis.
How to get there: Direct flights to Sharm are available from most European countries; for those who might have been hibernating over the winter. direct flights from the UK resumed in October 2019 and there are now plenty of options available.
NEED TO KNOW
When to go:
Diving in Egypt is year-round, but the best time of year to visit is from late July to early December, depending on location, with water temperature rising to over 30°C in August and September. The water temperature drops significantly between January and April, dropping to around 18°C in Dahab, and even cooler on Alexandria’s Mediterranean shores (it even snows there from time to time), although the deep south remains a more tolerable 23°C on average. Incessant winter wind makes long trousers and fleeces essential, especially if you are out at sea. High seas during these months can affect liveaboard itineraries.
Based on the current (February 2020) UK FCO travel advice, there are no travel advisories to any of the mainland resorts, nor the South Sinai resort (including the airport) of Sharm El Sheikh. The UK’s FCO currently advises against ‘all but essential travel’ to Dahab, Nuweiba and Taba, but there are no reports of problems associated with any of these active resorts. Visitors from other countries should check their own government’s travel advice, but it’s worth noting that a widely reported November 2019 Gallup Poll ranked Egypt the 8th safest country in the world.
Visitors are required to purchase a visa to enter Egypt. These can be purchased on arrival in the airport and the current fee is US $25. Free entry stamps are available for visitors who plan to stay in Sharm, Dahab, Nuweiba or Taba for up to 15 days but note that this does not cover the national park of Ras Mohamed (including the Thistlegorm and Dunraven wrecks). All divers visiting Sharm (and Dahab, just in case) are advised to purchase the visa. There is a popular myth that travellers who have previously visited Israel and have an Israeli stamp in their passports will be denied access. The decision, technically, is up to the immigration officer on the day, but highly unlikely that European visitors will be denied entry.
Almost all of the dive centres in Egypt are established, professional and safe, but there are a small number of operators who have tried to take advantage of regional uncertainty and offer cut-price diving to the unsuspecting traveller. The Chamber of Diving and Watersports (CDWS) is Egypt’s governing body for scuba diving and all dive centres must be properly accredited for operation. The CDWS website has a complete list of accredited dive centres and a blacklist for those that aren’t.