Report on a Classic Destination:
Diving the Red Sea
by Carl Roessler
During the decades between 1973 and 1997 I made dive cruises in the Red Sea nearly every year. From Jordan, Israel and Egypt in the North to the Sudan and Eritrea in the South, I was fortunate enough to experience this amazing sea in its Golden Age.
For most of the years I traveled the Red Sea its reefs were untouched, sharks were plentiful and each reef seemed more bountiful than the last.
The Red Sea has distinct seasons for each sector, and it pays to use the Spring and Fall months strategically to find warm, clear water that is superb for photographically.
The northern Red Sea includes the coast of the Sinai desert culminating in the promontory (and world-famed dive site) Ras Muhammad., the current-swept reefs of the Tiran Straits and a series of spectacular shipwrecks including the Dunraven, the Aida, the Carnatic and the Thistlegorm.
My own favorite sites were further South between The Brothers Islands (site of the Aida) and the offshore reefs of the Sudan. Along that Sudanese coast is one of the great wreck dives anywhere, the Blue Bell (also called The Toyota Wreck because when she overturned Toyota cars and trucks were scattered everywhere)..Another fabulous wreck is the Umbria, right outside Port Sudan.
As for reef diving, Jacques Cousteau used sites at Sha’ab Rumi and Sanganeb Reef North of Port Sudan for the filming of his 1962 film The Silent World. Groups who traveled with me marveled at the first filmed shark cage, the parking garage for the mini-sub called the Sea Flea and the remains of the world’s first underwater habitat on a sandy sea floor 164 feet below the surface.
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The best Red Sea reefs are actually huge mountain-tops rising from very deep water right to the surface. These are steep-sided formations, gently brushed by currents and almost always offering incredibly clear water for photography.
The corals, including huge beds of fire coral, are often obscured by huge schools of orange fairy basslets Anthias squammipinnus ; indeed, this is one of the signature images of diving in the Red Sea. There is an enormous range of colorful fish and invertebrate species for amateur and professional photographers alike—as well as sharks, for those who love them as I do.
On one cruise, I had sixteen divers on a big live-aboard out of Port Sudan. The Captain had on my exploration visit shown me a fabulous shark-feeding site. I told him that when I brought the first group, we would feed the sharks for two days, but then the divers would want to move on to other sites.
I brought the first group a few months later, and off we cruised to see the sharks. After four full days of sharks four times each day, the Captain came to me with a scornful look on his face and said, “Uh—what was that about them wanting to move on from the sharks?”
Whether we were diving with huge morays, massive pink or yellow soft coral colonies, dainty butterflyfish, rays, turtles, or a host of other marine creatures, the Red Sea has long been the most colorful place I have ever seen for photography.
The Red Sea is not the easiest place to have adventures. It is, to say the least, a place of unstable politics and religion; every once in a while, unexpected things just happen. I have slept in a hotel in Khartoum which Osama bin Laden had used, had fabulous diving when the 1991Gulf War was only 90 days from it’s opening bombardments, suffered a thousand-mile bus ride across the desert after an airline went on strike, was kidnapped and held hostage at gunpoint for two days—and in each case, the underwater photographs from eacht trip were among the best I had ever taken.
Dive destinations come and sometimes go, but the great champions retain their special allure. The Red Sea is one of those places to which I will always go at the drop of a hat. It has earned my respect and affection with decades of world-class subjects.
Now, if the countries in the Middle East could just become more peaceful…
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