Known as the underwater 'Garden of Eden', the subtropical waters and rainbow reefs of the Red Sea are home to an astonishing array of marine life. From above the sea, the region's lunar-like landscapes and stark mountains seem to harbour very little wildlife. But peek beneath the waves and you will find an enchanting underwater world where green turtles, blue-spotted rays, parrotfish, lion fish, moray eels, clown fish, seahorses and octopi roam colourful coral gardens.
If you are taking a holiday to Egypt's Red Sea resorts of Sharm el Sheikh, Dahab or Marsa Alam, or soaking up the sun on the glittering beaches of Aqaba in Jordan or Eilat in Israel, then going on a snorkelling or dive trip is an experience not-to-be-missed.
Flowing into a deep rift valley between the continents of Africa and Asia, the Red Sea has more than 1,000 types of resident fish and is brimful of species exclusive to the area, including beautiful masked butterfly fish and Arabian angel fish. Tourists will find a clutch of dive centres in resorts around the region where it is easy to arrange an expedition with an expert guide or hire some snorkelling equipment to explore the shallow coastal reefs yourself.
Alternatively, take the plunge from one of the many boats that take travellers on day trips to offshore reefs. With countless dive and snorkel sites to choose from, it can be difficult to choose where to go, so here's our selection of the seven top spots to experience the wonders of this underwater paradise.
The Blue Hole, Dahab, Egypt
One of the world's most famous dive sites, the Blue Hole near Dahab on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is the ideal spot to get a snapshot of the region's extraordinary underwater diversity. A circular break in the reef shelf that rims the golden coast, this aquamarine natural wonder is protected from the outer ocean by a dense coral wall and is easily accessible via a jetty from the shore. Perfect for snorkelers, novice and advanced divers alike, there's plenty to see close to the surface, while its plunging depths lure many divers to discover the deeper secrets of this geological marvel.
Picking across the rocks north of the site, trained divers can also enter the Blue Hole by making a 30-metre vertical descent through the chimney-like 'Bells' and swimming along the outer reef. With clear azure waters and an astonishing mix of colourful marine life, this underwater drop-off plunges to more than 100 metres or more and adds another dimension to an already outstanding experience. The Blue Hole's legendary 'Arch' – a 28-metre-long tunnel leading out to the open ocean – located around 50 metres down, has been the subject of much derring-do amongst the dive community. Reaching it should only be attempted with specialist training and equipment.
Ras Muhammad National Park, Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt
Created to conserve the astonishingly rich ecosystem of the northern Red Sea, Ras Muhammad National Park is an idyllic underwater haven for marine life including everything from colourful soft corals and nudibranchs to rare hawksbill turtles and hammerhead sharks. Situated at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, miles of pristine coral reef and flourishing submarine gardens support a plethora of species.
Diving and snorkelling in the area is mainly done from boats drifting alongside the drop-off, as shallow coral makes it difficult to enter the water from the shore. Giant gorgonians branch towards the surface like underwater trees, while table corals grow big enough to host a banquet, and soft corals in myriad colours give the impression that the sea is in full bloom. Marine life here is both dense and diverse with schools of colourful fish drifting along the reef drop-off and larger visitors such as sharks, rays and turtles a common sight.
Pharaoh's Island, Taba, Egypt
The perfect snorkelling destination, Pharaoh's island, on the border between Israel and Egypt, is surrounded by a shallow reef teeming with marine life. This sand and granite islet, not far from the coast, was once used by Salah El-Din's troops to control trade from Asia and is crowned by a 12th-century crusader fortress. But the real interest lies beneath its shores. Small colourful fish dart in and out of the corals, moray eels lurk in the crevices, pipefish sidle up alongside the boat, and eagle and blue-spotted rays are often seen hovering above the sandy sea bed. Boat trips to the island leave regularly from Eilat and Taba, mooring in the deeper water so that passengers can don a mask and snorkel, dive into the warm, calm and clear waters and explore this sub-aquatic paradise.
Satil wreck, Israel
Bobbing down beneath the shoreline near Coral Beach in Eilat and the water is almost gin-clear. A school of harmless half-moon jellyfish drift in a gentle current. Beyond, the coral and reed-dotted seabed slopes down to 30 metres or more. Swimming into the deep blue, a large shape looms in the distance and finally a former missile boat, about 45 metres long, comes into view. It's always curious to see manmade objects intended for the surface resting beneath the ocean, and it certainly makes for an exciting dive experience.
This is an easy wreck dive – a 30-metre shore dive with usually good visibility and gentle currents – perfect for novice divers to get a taste for wreck discovery. The boat is well preserved and divers can explore the structure, swim into its hull and launch from its deck over the ocean floor like a flying frog, which may induce a sense of vertigo. Peering into portholes, divers can spot resident angelfish and lionfish, while pipefish and groupers weave around the bridge. Reaching up toward the surface, a coral-encrusted mast circled by countless pretty fish resembles a fairytale tree of life.
Japanese Garden, Aqaba, Jordan
An underwater technicoloured playground, the Japanese Garden is one of the best places to appreciate the beauty of the Red Sea's reefs. Its location close to the surface means enough sunlight reaches the site to show off an array of bright colours – red, purple, orange and yellow corals in all shapes and sizes create a colourful patchwork blanket that is a wonder to behold. Hawksbill turtles are regular visitors, while blue-spotted rays and scorpion fish linger on the sand between the inner and fringing reefs. Butterfly and angel fish flit around the underwater flora, while shoals of glass fish and fusiliers add yet more magic to the scene. Popular with snorkelers and divers alike, the site is easily accessed from Aqaba's golden shores.
Elphinstone Reef, Marsa Alam, Egypt
This legendary dive spot features a series of impossibly beautiful underwater plateaus rising up into a pinnacle in the open ocean near Marsa Alam. Clouds of colourful fish swirl around coral-covered slopes and reef walls, while giant fans and gorgonians reach towards the sun-dappled surface. Fast-flowing currents attract all manner of large visitors – reef sharks, hammerheads, oceanic white tips and bottlenose dolphins, as well as tuna and barracuda. Giant moray eels peer out from holes in the reef, while stern-looking Napoleon fish patrol the area. Accessed via a short zodiac ride from the shore or from moored safari boats, strong currents mean this site can be slightly tricky to swim to, but once there, it's more than worth the trip.
SS Thistlegorm wreck, Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt
One for the more seasoned divers, exploring this massive former British navy merchant ship is an eerie and exciting experience that's difficult to beat. Sunk by German bombers during World War II, the wreck was discovered by famous marine adventurer Jacque Cousteau in the 1950s. It has since developed into a popular recreational dive site, with boats ferrying divers to the location from nearby Sharm el Sheikh. Lying at a depth of around 30 metres, the wreck is chock-full of equipment intended for the Allies. Clustered around the coral-encrusted structure, army boots, motorcycles, rifles, armoured trucks and even a few steam locomotives loom ghost-like out of the blue. There are few underwater places with such historic and thrilling appeal.
A site for shore eyes
From thrilling wreck sites to dream-like coral gardens, the Red Sea is one of the world's best destinations for underwater exploration. If you are visiting the region, taking a dive or snorkelling excursion is sure to be a highlight of the trip.
The Blue Hole, easily accessed from resorts along the Egyptian Sinai's shores, including Sharm el Sheikh, Dahab and Taba, is perhaps the best all-round spot for snorkelling and diving. The enclosed coastal reef and gentle, clear water is perfect for snorkellers and inexperienced divers, and the outer reef and underwater 'Arch' offer an exciting twist for more experienced sub-aqua adventurers.
As celebrated marine biologist and explorer William Beebe once said:
"I can only think of one experience that might exceed in interest a few hours spent under the water, and that would be a journey to Mars."