Some of the world’s best diving and snorkelling is packed along the 20km or so of coastline between Aqaba and the Saudi border. If you’ve never been snorkelling before Aqaba is an easier, and more instantly attractive, place to start than nearby Eilat (Israel) or Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt), with the reef shelving gently directly from the beach, cutting out the need for boat entries. Diving beginners can go down accompanied by an instructor at any of more than a dozen dive sites.
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The major advantages of diving here are the condition of the coral, especially below the 6m line, and the excellent biodiversity. Aqaba was a relatively slow and careful starter in dive tourism, and so has managed to avoid severe deterioration of the reefs. It’s also quiet: compared to the Sinai’s two million annual dives, and Eilat’s 750,000, Aqaba sees fewer than 20,000 dives a year. Work by local environmental NGOs – principally the Royal Marine Conservation Society – is raising awareness of conservation issues. Almost 9km of Aqaba’s south coast is protected as the Aqaba Marine Park, which extends 350m offshore and 50m inland.
With the impending demolition of the town-centre port, and construction of a new industrial port complex beside the Saudi border, expect major changes to dive sites and access in years to come.
What to expect
Wherever you choose to dive or snorkel, wide fields of near-perfect soft corals stretch off into the startlingly clear blue water, huge heads of stony corals growing literally as big as a house. Fish life is also thrillingly diverse, with endless species of small and large multicoloured swimmers goggling back at you from all sides. Butterflyfish, angelfish, parrotfish and groupers are all common, as are shoals of damselfish, jewelfish and even moray eels. Experienced divers should not miss the chance to go down at night. All the dive centres listed below offer one-off dives, boat dives, PADI courses and more. Small groups could book ahead for a trip in a fancier craft, such as the submarine boat Neptune or the wooden Phoenician-style vessel Alissar.
It can be dangerous to fly, or climb to altitude, soon after diving. If you’re driving from Aqaba (at sea level) up to Wadi Rum (at 950m), Petra (1100m) or Amman (800m), allow eight hours on land in Aqaba after diving to let your body adjust. The sea-level drive to the Dead Sea is fine. If you’re flying out of Aqaba, give yourself at least eighteen hours on land before departure.
Aqaba’s South Coast hosts more than a dozen dive sites, although, confusingly, different dive centres use different names, and sometimes divide one site into two or more areas (Dive Aqaba, for instance, lists more than thirty sites, including several technical dives in deep water). Always consult a dive centre in advance about the latest conditions; the account below – which runs from north to south – is not meant to be exhaustive.
Just south of the Marine Science Station’s fenced-off area is First Bay, with the popular Cazar Reef directly offshore from Club Murjan beach beside the gently sloping Eel Garden. South is the King Abdullah Reef, which extends for several hundred metres offshore and is good for snorkelling as well as diving; close by is the steeply sloping Black Rock, with a wide variety of massive hard corals and the added attraction of occasional turtle sightings.
About 4km north of the Royal Diving Club and barely 50m from the shore lies the wreck of the Cedar Pride, a Lebanese cargo ship sunk here in 1986 as an artificial reef. Lying in 30m of water, it’s now covered in soft corals. Very close by is the gently undulating Japanese Gardens, colourful and good for snorkellers.
A little further south are the unmissable Gorgonion I and II, the reef gently inclining down to 30m or so with spectacular fish life and perfectly preserved coral growth of all kinds stretching off to all sides. The Canyon has a shallow slope leading off for several hundred metres to a drop-off plunging over 45m, the whole slope split from the shallows outwards by a steep-sided ravine; its neighbour, the New Canyon, hosts an old field tank, sunk here to create a barrier to encourage reef growth. Blue Coral, named for a bluish lacework coral found here, is a little south.
Just north of a fenced-off nature reserve, Moon Valley offers an undulating reef framed by sandy beds, and is also the entry point for the Long Swim, taking divers or experienced snorkellers 700m south beyond the reserve fence to the Royal Diving Club jetty, past patches of dense coral interspersed with sandy valleys. From the jetty itself, the Aquarium (to the north) and the Garden (to the south) are both superb for divers and novice snorkellers alike.
Coral reefs are formed of millions of individual creatures called polyps, which come together to create a single, compound organism. The various species of polyp produce hard external skeletons, which remain intact after the polyp dies; sand and other detritus fills up holes and cracks, and the reef is built up little by little, with new corals growing on the surface of the stony mass. Some coral colonies are several centuries old. To avoid damaging the reefs:
- Never stand on the coral – any kind of pressure can damage or kill the outermost polyps. If you opt for a boat dive, make certain that the captain ties up to one of the mooring buoys already in place all round Aqaba, and doesn’t just drop anchor onto the reef. If he claims that his selected site has no buoy, then insist that you be taken instead to a site that does have one.
- Don’t enter the sea from the beach – the reef begins directly from the shallows. Instead, use jetties or boat entries.
- Never break the coral – snapping off a particularly colourful bit of coral not only kills that section of the reef, it’s also pointless: after a few days out of water, all coral turns grey.
- Avoid kicking up sand – clouds of grit settling on the reef can smother the outermost polyps.
- Don’t litter, feed the fish or buy marine souvenirs, such as corals, shells or starfish.
Independent dive centres
Aqaba has at least a dozen dive centres – more, if you include the dive operations attached to the big hotels. The tourist office can supply a full list and contact information; this is a selection of the better-known ones.
Small, flexible team with a great reputation, also with its own beachside accommodation.
A professional approach and long-standing local experience.
Leading centre that is known for its outstanding service and expertise from a knowledgeable Jordanian–British team.
Friendly, well-respected operation, also with its own little hotel in the South Beach area.
A slick and innovative company, part of the local Sindbad group.
Well-regarded family-run operation on South Beach, with onsite hotel to boot.
Pioneer dive centre, revamped and still a market leader, located beside the reefs for snorkelling directly from their jetty.
Welcoming, accomplished and well regarded operation with the personal touch.
Long-established dive centre with professional local and British staff, which works closely with local tour company Above And Below (no longer linked with the Alcazar hotel).