Egypt has good diving in the Red Sea. Large resorts along its western, African shore are Hurghada, Safaga, El Quseir and Marsa Alam. The other resort area is the Sinai peninsula with Sharm-el-Sheikh, Dahab and less-developed Nuweiba and Taba. It's a year-round destination, but is especially popular with Europeans in winter; in summer the desert heat is fierce. The diving is good for all ranges of ability, from beginners to tekky stuff. Cheap internal flights and long-distance taxis mean that diving in Egypt can easily be combined with seeing the antiquities of Cairo, Luxor and elsewhere.
Diving in most resorts is by boat, as the dive sites lie some way out to sea; the main exception is Dahab where you wade in straight from shore. The chief resorts are also bases for liveaboard cruises, to reach the many wrecks and reefs beyond the range of day-boats.
It's also possible to dive Egypt's Mediterranean coast off Alexandria. Important archaeological discoveries are being made here, but it's colder and for the average recreational diver there's less to see.
There is no recreational diving in Lake Nasser (above Aswan) or the muddy Nile, where crocodiles lie in wait.
The Red Sea is bordered by desert, thinly populated with little industry or agriculture, and no rivers. That means its waters are clear, with little silt or pollution, and not prone to the algal blooms that cloud cooler seas. Local divemasters pull long faces if underwater visibility here drops below 20 m, an infinity to most visitors. Tidally the water see-saws around a midpoint at Jeddah, which has zero tides, while the south and north ends (eg Hurghada and Sinai) have at most a metre of tidal range. On some of the more exposed wrecks and reefs you may have to dive around the tidal slack, but it's usual only relevant to planning the direction of a drift. The wind however can have more effect on currents, especially when it blows lengthwise along the sea to create a "fetch", heaping the water at one end until it escapes back. The wind also makes conditions choppy, so the boat lurches around, and dive entry and exit become tricky.
The desert in summer is blisteringly hot by day and warm by night. In winter it's usually shirt-sleeve weather by day but cold at night, especially when the notorious shamal blows down from the north; you may not realise how sunburned you're getting. A 3 mm wetsuit or skin is enough for summer diving, mostly to protect against scuffs and stings from the coral. In winter a chunky 5-7 mm full-length wetsuit with hood is ideal, though you may be able to dispense with the overjacket. Those diving week upon week or going deep should consider using a drysuit. The Red Sea is more saline than the open ocean so for weights, always start with 2 kilo / 5 pounds more than you'd normally wear.
The eco-system is a very long coral reef running parallel to the entire coast of the Red Sea. It's mostly a few miles offshore, or at least the attractive parts - areas close to a resort may have been stripped by coral-hunters. These reefs were lightly damaged by the 2014-16 global bleaching event and it appears that Red Sea corals are relatively tolerant of heating (and some in the Persian Gulf even more so). Some reefs are well offshore and have wrecked unwary vessels, which have quickly become colonised as reefs themselves, as have those deeper wrecks that may have been war casualties.
The marine ecology is Tropical Indo-Pacific. Clouds of antheas hug the reef, tetras sparkle amidst the rocks. Pufferfish, scorpions and moray eels (some gigantic) are seen on most dives. Turtles and sea horses prefer to dwell in the sea-grass meadows. Bigger stuff includes tarpon and tuna; dolphins may accompany the boat ride. Sharks are uncommon but there have been fatal attacks: there was a spate in 2010, and the most recent death was of a swimmer at Marsa Alam in 2018.
Dive resorts and sites in Sinai
- 1 Sharm el-Sheikh is a well-developed resort. Its airport has many direct flights from Europe and it has many hotels and other amenities. It's also the hub for reaching the string of smaller resorts along the coast: Dahab, Nuweiba, Taba Heights and Taba. Most visitors do not need a visa for this beach resort strip, which they do for the rest of Egypt including the African coast resorts. Most diving at Sharm is a few miles offshore, in Ras Muhammad to the south at the entrance to the Gulf of Suez, or in Strait of Tiran to the east at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. Thistlegorm is a famous wreck reached by day-boats from Sharm. Local dives close to town around Naama Bay are in the "Mickey Mouse" category: third dives, use up the fumes in your tank, the boat broke down, or someone flunked a training dive and was busted back to beginners.
- Ras Muhammad is a national marine park 12 km south of Sharm; there's a park fee for divers. The currents are distinctly stiffer here as the sea rounds the tip of Sinai. Marsa Bareika is a small bay inlet, and Marsa Ghozlani is a very small inlet across from the park visitors center. Yolanda Reef and Shark Reef lie off the southernmost promontory. Coral reef, of the fringing and hermatypic types, hug the shoreline. More than 220 species of coral are found in the area, 125 of them soft coral. The area is home to more than 1000 species of fish, 40 species of star fish, 25 species of sea urchins, over 100 species of mollusc and 150 species of crustaceans. Green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) are often seen.
- SS Thistlegorm lies in the Gulf of Suez west of Sharm, sunk by a German air raid in Oct 1941. By that stage of the war Allied shipping couldn't use the east Med, so supplies to Allied forces in Egypt sailed all the way round the Cape then up the Red Sea, to wait in designated "safe anchorages" before unloading at Suez. But once Crete fell to Germany, the anchorages came within range of the Luftwaffe and ceased to be safe. Thistlegorm is best known for the collection of military trucks, motorbikes and other hardware in her holds: this was specifically RAF kit, everything you'd need to set up an air force base in Egypt. The deepest parts of the wreck lie at 30 m so this is a standard and popular recreational dive. Indeed the number of divers, and of dive boats mooring up, is causing the wreck's rapid disintegration.
- Strait of Tiran west of Sharm is the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, with some small islands, and reefs that have caused wrecks. There are grandiose plans to build a bridge across the Strait to link Egypt and Saudi Arabia: that could close down the area to diving but no-one expects it to happen, ever. Jackson Reef and Thomas Reef are two popular spots.
- 2 Dahab is a small mellow town, with shore diving including the famous Blue Hole. It's also a famous place for doing nothing, just watching the colours change over the sea and mountains. The Blue Hole is a standard, safe recreational dive: you fin across it looking down at the sunlight glimmering through the tunnel far below, and then (because frankly the coral within the Hole is poor) you exit over a shallow lip to the more interesting scenery outside in the open sea. But many deaths have occurred when people were tempted to go a little deeper to look into the tunnel, not quite admitting to themselves that they aimed to swim through. But it's much deeper and longer than it looks - it's a tunnel not an archway, and its course lures you deeper still.
- 3 Nuweiba is a port for reaching Jordan. So it's a significant town but the tourist infrastructure is little developed; a string of budget beach camps and small hotels line the highway. Diving here is from shore.
- Taba Heights and Taba likewise have shore diving but development has stalled due to the long slump in tourist numbers in Sinai. Taba has ambitions to be the Tijuana of Egypt, with a duty-free casino strip next to the border with Eilat in Israel, but it's quaint rather than raucous.
Dive resorts and sites on the African Coast
- 4 Hurghada is the best-developed resort on this coast. It has flights from Europe and Cairo, a wide range of tourist facilities, and many dive operators.
- El Gouna 20 km north is effectively a satellite resort of Hurghada.
- Reefs north of Giftun Island reached in less than an hour from either resort are Abu Galawa, Abu Nugar, Um Gammar and El Fanadir, with Sha'ab el Erg a little further out.
- Shadwan Island is 30 km off El Gouna, so it can be reached in a couple of hours by day-boat from there, with a longer haul from Hurghada or even Sharm. But day-boats seldom visit and this area is mostly the preserve of liveaboards. The big attraction is Sha'b Abu Nuhas, the coral reef northwest of the island which has sunk several vessels. Four wrecks are dived: Carnatic, Kimon M, Chrisoula K and Ghiannis D.
- - SS Carnatic was a steam clipper (ie it also had sails) wrecked in 1869 en route to India; 31 passengers and crew were lost as the captain was tardy in abandoning ship. The cargo of copper and gold was quickly salvaged, and led to the name of the reef, which in Arabic means "father of copper". Carnatic lies on its port side broken into a bow and stern section; it's richly colonised, fairly open and maximum depth is 28 m.
- - Kimon M was a freighter lost in 1978 with a cargo of lentils for India. It slid down the reef so its bows are in 10 m (and just a jumble of metal from the impact) while the decks are vertical and the intact stern goes down to 25-30 m. Access holes have been cut in the hull.
- - Chrisoula K was a freighter lost in 1981 with a cargo of tiles for Jeddah, which remain unsalvaged. The bows for many years were visible above surface but have now succumbed to wave action. The wreck sits in 25-28 m with an upright forward section and the rear twisted to lie on its starboard side.
- - Giannis D was a freighter lost in 1983 carrying timber for Jeddah and Yemen. It lies in 3 pieces at 10-25 m at a rakish angle, part-buried in the sand. The mast reaches up to 5 m and makes a good safety stop.
- Rosalie Moller further north was sunk by an air raid in 1941 shortly after Thistlegorm. The ship, which was carrying coal to Alexandria, sits upright in 40-45 m - deep for recreational diving but well suited to nitrox.
- 5 Safaga (also known as Bur Safaga and Port Sarfaga) is 53 km south of Hurghada. Safaga Island shelters the town, which is industrial. To its south is the port, which ships out phosphates from the nearby mines. To the north, the hotel and beach strip straggles for 15 km along Soma Bay. Another 5 km north of Soma headland, the little cove of Sharm el Naga can be shore dived but is more of a snorkeling spot.
- - Reefs of Safaga are reached by a short boat ride or by shore diving. They include Ras Abu Soma, the Tobia group, the Gamul sites, Abu Kafan, and the walls of Panorama Reef.
- - Salem Express was an accident-prone ferry which in 1991 became Egypt's worst maritime disaster. It was crowded with pilgrims returning from Mecca via Jeddah: the captain took a shortcut near Panorama Reef but in bad weather missed his course and struck the reef. The impact wrenched open the ro-ro bow visor, water rushed in and the ship sank quickly. The official death toll was 470, but navy divers recovered some 850 bodies before been forced to abandon the operation, so an unknown number still lie below. Think carefully whether you want to dive here. The wreck lies on its starboard side in 32 m.
- 6 El Quseir (with more alternate spellings than you'd think possible) is a large port midway between Hurghada and Marsa Alam. It's the closest stretch of coast to the Nile, which bends east near Qena, so El Quseir has been a port for 5000 years. There are many miles of coral reef, with the standout being Elphinstone. This is 12 km offshore, a 700 m long reef wall going down to 40 m. Currents can be strong so it's a drift dive and not for beginners, but one of the likelier places to see sharks and other big beasts.
- Brothers Reef (or "El Ikhwa") are a pair of islets 67 km east of El Quseir; only liveaboards come this far. The larger islet has a lighthouse, which didn't prevent the wrecking of Numidia in 1901 and Aida in 1957. It's a high energy site, only for the experienced, where you're likely to see oceanic whitetip and hammerhead sharks.
- 7 Marsa Alam is a large resort with an international airport (which is 60 km north, by the new resort of Port Ghalib). There are dive sites at barrier coral reefs along the coast and offshore where spinner dolphins, dugongs and hammerhead sharks can be seen.
- "Dolphin Reef" is the name loosely given to two separate sites. Samadai Reef is 11 km southeast of Marsa Alam. It's a horseshoe 1.4 km long enclosing a sheltered lagoon of 6-7 m depth, so it's ideal for snorkeling with the spinner dolphins but a bit shallow and crowded from a diving perspective. Sataya Reef is further out northeast of town and has fewer visitors; it's part of the extensive Fury Shoals. You're likely to see sharks here, as well as dolphins and the usual reef life.
- Daedalus Reef (or "Abu Kizan") is 90 km out from Marsa Alam so only liveaboards visit. A lighthouse perches on an artificial islet in the centre of the reef. Pelagics such as hammerhead sharks patrol the area.
- Berenice is a small resort with diving 110 km south of Marsa Alam near the headland of Ras Banas. It's little developed and most divers come on liveaboards to reach the shoals of St John, Zabargad, Daedalus and Rocky Island. (How do they think up these names? Every barren sun-baked lump projecting from the Red Sea is rocky except for this one, which is sandy.) The area has very few visitors and feels a world away from the busy northern resorts.
- The Halayib Triangle starts another 100 km south at the village of Shalateen - this territory is disputed between Egypt and Sudan. The road dead-ends at Halayib village and amazingly in the 21st century, there is no highway at all between these two big countries. Safari-type tourism is allowed in the Triangle only by Egyptian military permission - de facto they control the area - and there are no land-based dive operations here. Dive boats however ply the seas and with the correct paperwork may continue into Sudan.
First of all remember A-B-C: airway, breathing, circulation. A high proportion of people on a dive boat will be first-aid trained and eager to help, so the casualty risks being trampled under a stampede. The dive marshal or boat skipper needs to coordinate this ruckus into an organised response.
Always channel any appeal for emergency assistance through your diver operator (or ashore, your accommodation). They'll know which services are worth calling and which are useless. They can also call assistance from nearby boats, eg for patient transport, or for loan of an oxygen cylinder as their own becomes depleted.
Similarly, always make an early call to your medical insurance emergency number. They're plugged into the global DAN network and can make a sensible initial remote assessment: "treat the patient not the bend". They've seen too many examples of casualties been driven past a competent local hospital to reach some distant, flaky "recompression chamber" that fails to recognise an obvious diabetic coma. For that reason they don't publish locations of chambers, whose status often changes. If other approaches fail, call the worldwide DAN emergency centre on +1-919-684-9111.
Training, dive operators and technical back-up: see individual resort pages.
Other countries around the Red Sea have similar marine life but are very different in what they offer in diving facilities and as general resorts:
- Aqaba in Jordan is a good next choice, well-developed with a 15 km shore diving coastline, and only an hour's drive from fabulous Petra.
- Saudi Arabia is talking the right talk about developing for diving and non-religious tourism, but remains difficult.
- Sudan is a troubled country with poor land facilities (not even a road to Egypt), but its waters are visited by Egyptian liveaboards.
- Eilat in Israel has only 7 km of coastline, half of it with dive sites, and feels cramped and tame by comparison. Only come this way to reach inland attractions such as Jerusalem.
- Egypt - keep coming back! That's what many Europeans do, either to a favourite resort or to explore new areas.