Ras Mohammed national park
“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” Jacques Yves Cousteau
South of Sharm el Sheikh the coast is totally deserted, with no shelter, for more than a mile, up to the small bay named Marsa Ghozlani where the Ras Mohammed National Park begins. This is followed by another bay, Marsa Bareika, which is larger and deeper.
It penetrates the land for 2.8 miles, forming theRas Mohammed peninsula, which extends south-eastwards into the Red Sea for almost 5 miles and separates the Gulf of Aqaba from the Gulf of Suez.
The eastern coast of the Ras Mohammed peninsula is composed of a tall fossil coral reef that is interrupted for a few dozen meters by the only accessible beach in the area, Aqaba Beach, and ends at the Ras Mohammed headland – ‘Mohammed’s Cape’ in Arabic, because its profile is like the bearded one of the Prophet.
The rocky spur is about 60 meters high; on top of it is the Shark Observatory balcony.
On the southern side of the peninsula there are three beaches -Shark Observatory Beach, Main Beach and Yolanda Beach – the sandy, shallow Hidden Bay, the mouth of which is almost completely blocked by a long coral reef that divides the peninsula of Ras Mohammed into two rocky land spits.
A shallow channel forms a small island called Mangrove Island on the western side with a small beacon.
On the sides of the channel grow numerous mangroves (Avicennia marina), which represent an important ecosystem.
Mangroves are special plants, quite rare in the Sinai, and thanks to their incredible root system they are able to filter nutrients from the seawater, expelling salt crystals through their leaves.
The western side of the peninsula is low and sandy, and its primary attraction is the only mooring, which is well sheltered, in the area on a level with the half-submerged remains of an old jetty known as The Quay.
Due to its geographic position the Ras Mohammed peninsula is a privileged area distinguished for the strong, massive currents that transport large quantities of plankton and other food that give rise to an extraordinary growth of hard and soft corals and attract large schools of both reef and pelagic marine fauna.
The classic diving sites begin at the northern and southern-most tip of Marsa Bareika, respectively known as Ras Ghozlani and Ras Za’atar, and continue along the eastern coast with Ras Burg, Jackfish Alley, Eel Garden and Shark Observatory (also known as Ras Mohammed Wall), and at the southern end of the peninsula with Anemone City, Shark Reef and Yolanda Reef.
Ras Ghozlani is situated on the northern tip of a large bay, Marsa Bareika, in the Ras Mohammed National Park.
A relatively newly designated diving site, Ghozlani was originally off-limits to diving and boat activity as the northern beaches inside Marsa Bareika are used by turtles for nesting grounds.
It was initially believed that diving would be to the detriment of the turtles nesting habits and their hatchlings.
However, it was later decided that, as long as diving activities in the vicinity were restricted to the outside of Marsa Bareika, that diving would have no effect on the nesting grounds.
Consequently dives at Ghozlani, as well as Ras Za’atar which lays on the southern tip of Marsa Bareika, are all made on the outer sides of the reefs and, as there are no moorings, as drift dives.
Ghozlani’s topography is typical of Sharm el-Sheikh, with a gorgeous fringe reef (8-15m), a sandy plateau (with numerous coral heads & large pinnacles), that slopes gently and then the drop-off (22-26m) lined with very beautiful pinnacles, table corals and sea fans. The dive usually begins in front of a large, sandy canyon.
At the top of the canyon in the fringing reef is a small system of caves & swim throughs which are suitable for recreational divers.
After the caves the dive usually then follows the drop-off, as you slalom between some impressive pinnacles and sea fans, and over some seriously large table corals.
Once you reach about 100 bar, or approximately 25 minutes in to the dive, start making your way up over the sandy plateau where you’ll find an old mooring chain and a plateau that is littered with anemones.
After this point, the plateau becomes very expansive and slopes down well beyond recreational diving limits – this is the corner of Ghozlani.
The pinnacles here are some of the best in the Red Sea, and that is a great shame as from this point the area is off-limits and you need to turn the dive around.
Ras Ghozlani is usually a gentle drift dive with a current that is rarely strong and is best dived, after a current check, in the morning when the sunlight falls directly on to the reef.
Ras Za’atar is situated on the southern tip of a large bay, Marsa Bareika, in the Ras Mohammed National Park.
As there are no moorings at Za’atar dives are made as drift dives, and are made on the outer slopes of the reef as the inside is off-limits to diving and boat activity. Za’atar is Arabic for a group of spices closely related to oregano.
Why this site is so named appears to be a mystery with no readily available explanation. Maybe the healthy growth of alcyonaria corals here reminded someone of a bunch of herbs? Who knows? We don’t.
The dive itself is a wall dive, usually starting at a large crevice that can be seen on the shoreline. At 21m a pinnacle crowned with a table coral and decorated with a sea fan can be found. In the sea fan you will find, apart from banded boxer shrimps, long nose hawkfish.
Continuing the dive with the reef wall on your left shoulder, you’ll find a lovely wall decorated with the aforementioned alcyonaria and more sea fans. The best depth range to explore the wall is 10-15m as here the colorful corals are in abundance and at this depth you can explore the various chimneys, overhangs, clefts and cut-ins that litter the reef.
Once past the tip of the wall, the reef starts to slope down to a coral plateau (25m) with many coral pinnacles, table corals and sea fans. Out in the blue you can usually find sub-nosed unicornfish, trevallies, tuna, and barracuda. During the summer it is quite common to also find here eaglerays and mantas.
Almost 10 years after Ras Burg was touted as a new site in the Ras Mohammed National Park we’re still wondering why? Ras Burg (Arabic for ‘Tower Cape’) is a drift dive, starting at a fossilized coral pinnacle that towers over the water and which gives the site its name.
The main feature of interest here is a chimney, reminiscent of the those at Ras Za’atar, with a vast number of gorgonians,sponges and soft corals.
The entry to the chimney is narrow and ideally the site should only be dived by small groups of divers (4 divers maximum).
After the chimney, the dive continues along the reef wall which is Okay, but just Okay, and why you would want to dive it rather than its neighbor’s wall, Ras Za’atar, or, further south, the wall of Shark Observatory is, frankly, a mystery.
Jackfish Alley, unsurprisingly, derives it name from a wide, sandy ‘road’ or alley that runs parallel with the fringe reef on one side and a satellite reef on the other, which is frequented by jackfish and other predators including trevallies, tuna and barracudas.
The start of the dive is easy to locate owing to white markings on the the cliff face.
After entering the water, at 6m, you immediately find an entrance to a large cave which penetrates the reef for about 40m. On the left side of the cave, approximately 9m deep and 5m in to the cave, there is an exit back to the outside of the reef which you should follow.
Heading south, with the reef on your right you’ll come to large sloping, sandy plateau with a large coral head in its center. On the right of the sandy plateau there is a vertical cave with an entrance at 14m and a wide exit at 6m.
At the back of the cave are a thriving colony of pigmy sweepers and hatchet fish, and there are cracks in the ceiling of the reef that allow sunbeams to penetrate the cave with a disco glitter ball-like effect. On the left side of the sandy plateau is another coral head, slightly smaller than the one standing on the plateau, which is often heavily populated by glassfish. After the glassfish pinnacle there is an large coral plateau (14m), rich in hard corals, which, if you keep the fringe reef on your right, leads to the aforementioned sandy alley which is sided by two very rich reefs.
A word of warning, the alley is home to numerous titan triggerfish which during the nesting season (late July to early September) can make a diver’s trek down the alley rather ‘interesting’. Another dive available at Jackfish Alley is along its drop-off.
The dive starts over Jackfish’s canyon; as this is open water divers must enter the water quickly and descend to 5m as soon as possible to avoid any dangers poised by boats. The dive then proceeds by simply keeping the drop-off on your left where you’ll often see large numbers of trevallies, spangled emperors, red-toothed triggerfish, tuna and barracudas. To the right of the drop-off is a large, coral plateau with very few pinnacles or coral heads, but an abundance of soft corals – ideal munching ground for turtles.
This coral plateau eventually gives way to yet another plateau, even more expansive and deeper (45-50m), with a great many pinnacles and where you have the chance to see large pelagic predators with sharp, pointy teeth.
The plateau rises on the west to form a large bank which runs parallel to the alley of Jackfish, this area is known as the Fisherman’s Banks. At your halfway mark (either air or dive time) you should turn west and head back to the reef to finish your dive against the fringing reef wall; If for any reason you are unable to return to the reef, you should deploy a SMB, again to avoid any dangers poised by boats and to alert them that divers will be surfacing away from the reef.
Eel Garden, south of Jackfish Alley and immediately before Shark Observatory, is situated in front of a small, sandy beach.
The site is accessible via the shore but, as it involves traversing over the fringe reef, should be done so when the tide is high and only when the sea is calm. The best option though is via boat.
As its name suggests, this site offers the chance to observe Garden Eels (gorgasia silnen) as it is comprised mainly of a large colony of these eels on a large, sandy slope that starts at 6m with a small cave and drops to below 30m. Also on the sandy slope is usually numerous cowfishes.
After observing the eels and cowfish, the dive continues along the reef wall, usually in a southern direction, which is covered in hard and soft corals. Almost directly in front of eel garden (approximately 30m from the shore) is a submerged reef and canyon. The canyon starts at 28m and has some impressive sea fans on the outside of the entrance.
The reef is usually full of marine life, often with pelagic predators cruising around it. After the visiting the reef, you should head west to return to Eel Garden. Due to it’s depth, the submerged reef is really more suited for technical divers or advanced nitrox divers.
However, it can be dived by recreational divers but they should pay close attention to their no-decompression limits as well as their pressure gauges (obviously).
Sharks & Yolanda Reef
Shark Reef is the Red Sea’s most famous, most popular dive site. It is easy to understand why, especially if you have dived there in the summer, with its rich and varied corals, impressive wall, drop-offs, and an abundance of reef & pelagic fish.
Due to its geographic location, the Sinai Peninsula enjoys a rich source of plankton and other food stuffs that are transported to the area by the strong and massive currents of the Red Sea. Due to their geographic location, the Shark & Yolanda reefs being at the very tip of the peninsula, it is advisably that only experienced drift divers dive here as the currents can be strong, very strong.
You can also have large surface swells, especially in the winter, that make exiting the water rather tricky. Having said that, on a bad day Shark Reef is a great dive, on a good day Shark Reef blows your mind. The eastern side of Shark Reef is a vertical wall that descends to a depth of over 700 meters. Keeping the wall on your right shoulder, you skirt around a coral outcropping with small caves, and an amazing array of, mostly soft, corals.
If you keep an eye on the blue you have the chance, especially in the summer, of seeing large shoals of twin-spot snappers, longfin spadefish, orbicular spadefish, various trevallies and bluespine unicornfish. After you have finished at Shark Reef, still keeping the reef on your right shoulder, you come to a saddle that connects Shark Reef to Yolanda Reef.
At the top of the saddle you find a sandy plateau of about 8m which extends behind both Shark & Yolanda, separating the reefs from the fringe plate. There are a lot of soft corals on this plateau, and it is common to find turtles, especially hawksbill turtles, dining in this area.
There is also a resident female juvenile green turtle whom has been gracing the area with her presence for the last three or four years. Crossing the saddle can be difficult especially when the currents are moving from the back of the reef to the outside of the reef causing strong down currents in this area. Once you have crossed the saddle, you come to Yolanda Reef. Yolanda reef is a beautiful and rich coral garden.
Once you have crossed the coral garden, at a depth of approximately 20m you find the remains of a loading derrick from the Cypriot cargo vessel, the Yolanda, which ran aground on the western side of the reef in 1980. The ship was carrying, amongst over items, a large consignment of bathtubs and water closets (toilets).
In 1987 during a violent storm the ship sunk into the blue and now rests between 160m – 200m (approx.) leaving behind large portions of her cargo scattered on the reef and in particular on a second saddle, this one connecting Yolanda with the Satellite Reef, or Turtle Rock. Continuing across the saddle of Yolanda you come to yet another reef, admittedly much smaller than the first two, often called Satellite Reef, occasionally Turtle Rock.
Here you find another beautiful coral garden which, at the back, has a very friendly depth of 5m enabling you to complete your safety stop in a pretty spot with still plenty to explore. Shark & Yolanda is a truly amazing place, and that is without even mentioning Anemone City, another reef that can be included during a dive here.
The Red Sea is a corridor of marvels – the happiest hours of my diving experience have been spent there
Jacques Yves Cousteau Oceanographer