Egypt is one of the best diving destinations in the world. The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba are rich in sea life and home to a wonderful array of dive sites, with plenty of options for both novices and experts alike: remarkably preserved World War II wrecks, coral reefs filled with dolphins, rainbow-coloured anemone gardens, and shallow bays visited by turtles are just a few of the sites you can explore. The Sinai and Red Sea Coast chapters have detailed information on dive sites and recommended dive companies, as well as tips on safety and environmental issues.
The Red Sea’s stable climate, shallow tides and exceptionally high salinity provide perfect conditions for unusually brilliant corals and sponges – a revelation if you have previously dived in such places as Hawaii or the Caribbean, whose reefs will forever after seem dull by comparison. Created by generations of miniscule polyps depositing their limestone exoskeletons on the remains of their ancestors, coral reefs can grow by 4–5cm a year. Beside hard corals such as brain and fire coral, which have a rigid outer skeleton, the Red Sea hosts an abundance of soft corals, including whip coral and sea fans. Because most types of coral need a moderate amount of warm sunlight to flourish, the most spectacular formations are found within 30m of the surface.
Most Red Sea reefs are of the fringing type, with a shallow lagoon just offshore, whose warm water and rubble-strewn bottom attracts starfish and sea slugs. Clams and sea urchins hide in crevices, and schools of damselfish and butterflyfish flit about. Its seaward boundary is the reef flat, whose crest is usually a barren, rough-surfaced shelf, while deeper areas are rich in flora and fauna. Beyond is a coral-encrusted slope, leading to a drop-off like the edge of a cliff. Flatter areas may be dotted with coral pillars or knolls. Lower down, the coral is sparser, and you may find sandy terraces overgrown with seagrass, sustaining sea horses and pipefish. Beyond the drop-off lies open water.
Some of the Red Sea’s most colourful and endearing species are easy to spot in the shallows, where the sunlight is brightest. Among the commonest are beak-mouthed parrotfish and exotic-looking pennantfish, whose long dorsal fins end in filaments.
Wherever stinging anemones cling to the reef, you’ll see clownfish (or anemone fish). Angelfish are usually found close to the coral, while clouds of gold and vermillion anthias gather around coral heads and fans. Slopes and fore reefs are the habitat of snappers, goatfish and wrasses (the largest of these, the Napoleon Wrasse, can dwarf a person).
In deeper waters you may see sharks, including whitetip reef sharks, grey reef sharks and (occasionally) scalloped hammerheads. Spotted reef stingrays are often seen on the sandy bottom of the sea. Turtles are among the most thrilling species to encounter underwater; the Red Sea has several species, including green turtles and hawksbill turtles. Dolphin encounters are possible too, and those lucky enough to come across a pod of bottlenose or spinner dolphins on a dive are likely to count it among the highlights of their trip.