Strait of Tiran
“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” Jacques Yves Cousteau
The Strait of Tiran lies at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba and is delimited to the west by the coast of the Sinai and to the east by the Island of Tiran.
In the middle of this canal are four coral reefs lying in a NE-SW direction that were named after the 19th-century English cartographers who drew the first nautical map of the region – Jackson Reef, Woodhouse Reef, Thomas Reef and Gordon Reef.
These reefs divide the strait into two canals: to the east is the so-called Grafton Passage, which is used exclusively by ships going northwards, while to the west is the Enterprise Passage for ships heading south.
East of the island of Tiran and the nearby island of Sanafir – both part of Saudi Arabia but granted to Egypt for military defence – the configuration of the canal floor makes navigation impossible.
On a level with the Strait of Tiran, the Gulf of Aqaba passes from an average width of 10-12 to 2.4 miles, while the floor ranges from a depth of 1,270 meters to only 71 meters in the Grafton Passage and 250 meters in the Enterprise Passage.
This particular configuration of the strait reduces deep water exchange between the Gulf of Aqaba and the rest of the Red Sea on the one hand, causing an increase of salinity and temperature, while on the other hand it gives rise to an increase in the speed of the tidal currents and the average height of the waves moved by the wind which, chanelled by the tall mountains of the Sinai and Saudi Arabia, is in turn subject to acceleration.
The peculiar topographical arrangement of these reefs and the presence of prevailing winds coming from the north, which are stronger in the morning and calmer in the afternoon, means their western and northern sides (or “outside”) are much more exposed to the action of the waves than the eastern and southern ones, which are “inside” and sheltered. The strong currents characterizing the Strait of Tiran transport great quantities of plankton and other nutrient material every day, thus supplying a great deal of food to the corals and hence to the reef fish, which in turn are eaten by the large pelagic predators such as barracuda, jackfish, tuna and above all sharks, which are always present in this zone.
Consequently, scuba divers in the waters of Tiran are sure to see not only an infinite number of corals but also rich fauna, both reef and pelagic. However, they must always be careful of the wind, tides and currents here, which will condition the time, place and type of dive.
Further north (approximatelty 7 miles from Naama Bay) there is the wreck of the Million Hope, the second largest diveable wreck in the Red Sea.
Jackson reef is another jewel in the Red Sea’s metaphorical crown; it is very rare to find a guest who doesn’t enjoy this site, divers and snorkelers alike.
The site is the most northern of the reefs sitting in the middle of the Strait of Tiran and, as with the other four reefs here, subjected to large water movements.
That’s good though, for the reef if not those who have yet to find their sea legs, as it means an abundance of food particles in the water and, accordingly, a very beautiful, colorful, vibrant reef with a large diversity of fish and corals.
Jackson reef can be dived as both a drift dive or a mooring dive; there are several fixed moorings on the top of the reef.
Something all water users should know; a boat will tie to the reef and then another boat will tie to the first boat, and then yet another will tie to the second boat etc., this means that, should the boat tied to the reef decide to move, all the boats tied on will also start maneuvering.
Therefore, anyone entering the water should swim to the reef on the surface before beginning their activities, whether it is diving or snorkeling.
Divers should also surface against the reef (which should be done on practically all dives anyway) and then swim back to the boat, again on the surface.
Jackson has two very beautiful coral gardens on the east and west corners of the reef.
Usually, but not always, the west side is made as a mooring dive and the east as a drift dive. Also on the east corner, there is a red beacon marking the portside of the Grafton Passage, which generally marks the end point when drift diving on the east corner. However, when conditions are calm, it is quite possible to drift outside either on the east or west side of the reef but only as part of a dive plan.
On the topside of the reef, and making Jackson reef easily identifiable, is the remains of a Cypriot vessel, the Lara, which ran aground here in 1981.
The area of sea immediately in front of the wreck is usually of greater interest to divers though, as this is a very good place to see hammerheads in the blue, especially in the summer and autumn.
At almost a mile in length, Woodhouse reef is one of the longest reefs around Sharm el-Sheikh.
The reef, apart from being long, is also very narrow and offers little to no shelter for boats.
Compounded by the fact that this site has no moorings, Woodhouse has to be dived as a drift dive, preferably in the morning when the sunlight falls directly on the reef.
The most interesting part of the reef is the northern portion of the east side where a canyon opens out at 30m.
The canyon runs parallel to the reef until it reaches a sandy ledge, where the reef opens out on to a sandy road with a beautiful coral plateau (14m – 24m) against the drop-off.
After the sandy road, and this is generally where you should normally end the dive, you come to a saddle that links Woodhouse reef with Jackson reef.
The saddle can be crossed but you should only do so when if i) you have planned to do so with your guide and entered the water close to Woodhouse’s sandy road, ii) conditions are very calm and, iii) you are an experienced diver (this area is known as the ‘washing machine’ due to turbulences and vortices created by the current hitting the two reefs simultaneously).
Gomaa Reef There is a submerged reef (shallowest point being 22m) at the end of Woodhouse, named ‘Gomaa Reef’, which is possible to dive in very calm conditions by starting the dive at the sandy road of Woodhouse (after making a current check and ensuring the current is flowing north).
Gomaa runs in a northerly direction, eventually dropping down to meet the sea floor at approximately 50m.
Once the reef starts to drop, you should cut east across the blue water to either the inside or outside of Jackson reef, preferbaly deploying a SMB to indicate your direction of travel to your boat.
Gomaa is a very pristine reef as it is rarely dived due to the depth involved and required sea conditions, and offers the opportunity to see large pelagic fish and rays but it should be attempted only be experienced divers as the currents can be very challenging and the portion of blue water can be very disorienting for a relatively new diver.
You should also only dive this site if you are carrying a surface marker as there is the risk of being swept out to open water.
Gordon reef, in the Strait of Tiran, is the furthest west of the Tiran reefs, the closest to the Sinai, and the largest of the 5 reefs that lay in the middle of the Strait.
The reef was named after the 19th-century cartographers who drew the first nautical map of the region, as was Thomas, Woodhouse & Jackson reefs. The reef is readily identifiable by the remains of a large Panamanian cargo ship, the Loullia, that ran aground on the northwest edge of the reef in September 1981.
The ship was carrying a large cargo of barrels containing a tar/bitumen-like substance; after the ship ran aground these barrels floated around the reef whilst taking on water before sinking and can be found almost everywhere on the reef, but the highest concentration is to be found on the eastern side of the reef.
On the southern side of the reef is a large, relatively shallow sandy plateau with several mooring points making Gordon a very popular site for snorkelers as well as divers. Gordon is the largest of the 5 reefs in the Strait of Tiran and it is not possible to cover the whole reef on a single dive so there are two fundamentally different dives available to explore the reef.
The first dive, on the eastern side, is best made as a drift dive, although it can be made as a mooring dive.
Starting at one of the more easterly shamanduras, the dive follows the drop-off. Along the edge of the drop-off you will encounter large shoals of red-toothed triggerfish, schooling bannerfish and numerous types of groupers.
After approximately 15 minutes of finning, you come to a very large debris field of bitumen barrels covered in soft pink and white corals; some of the barrels still contain a tar-like substance and, unless you wish to upset everyone on the boat, you should keep your fingers to yourself.
Some of the barrels are empty and make ideal ‘caves’ for moray eels so are worth looking in to (excuse the pun). Once past the barrels, still continuing north, the sandy plateau becomes more extended, with coral growth mostly restricted to the drop-off region.
At this point you should close to the reef wall to begin your safety stop. The current here can be very strong and your guide may turn the dive around shortly after the barrels.
Occasionally, when conditions are very calm, you may continue past the north corner of the reef to the outside of the reef and finish the dive in front of the wreck of the Louilla.
The second dive, which explores the southern portion of the reef is, again, best made as a drift dive or semi-drift dive.
Starting at one of the more westerly moorings (close to the red beacon on the southeast point of the reef), the dive heads in a southernly direction over a coral plateau (8m).
The coral plateau soon drops down and you find yourself in a large valley, 40m wide, with a depth of between 30-40m, and the top of the reefs either side at approximately 10-12m.
Keeping your depth midwater (you don’t need to go deep on this dive – yet), head in a westerly direction, almost straight down the middle of the valley while scanning the site for the white tip reef sharks that have chosen this spot for their home.
There are often large numbers of dogtooth tunas, as well as various trevallies, and large numbers of schooling bannerfish here also.
At the end of the valley, turn north and head to a shallower water.
The reef composition eventually becomes predominately fire corals and you will see a large pile of wreckage comprising cables and metal bars, from which you should head west and finish the dive near the remains of an old beacon.
You should not venture past the remains of the old beacon unless conditions are calm and your boat’s captain says it is Okay to do so.
You should also be aware that the current on the southern corner can be very strong, and only healthy, experienced drift divers with good air consumption should make this dive.
Built in Japan as a bulk carrier with additional facilities for transporting vehicles, the Million Hope was launched as the ‘Ryusei Maru’ in 1972.
She displaced 26,181 tonnes gross, measured 174.6m by 24.8m, and had a draught of 10m. The ship’s five cargo holds were served by four massive cranes, positioned forward of the bridge. Two six-cylinder diesel engines gave her a top speed of 17 knots.
Six weeks before the ship sank she was bought by the Aksonas Shipping Company of Limassol, Cyprus for £1.36 million, was renamed ‘Million Hope’ and insured for a total of £4.1 million. On her final voyage the vessel set sail from Aqaba on 19 June 1996 bound for Taiwan with a cargo of potash and phosphates.
On 20 June the vessel was approaching the Strait of Tiran when a fire broke out and raged through the superstructure.
Out of control, the ship went headfirst into a reef near Nabq, seven miles north of Sharm El Sheikh The Million Hope is one of the youngest wrecks in the Egyptian Red Sea and the second largest of the diveable wrecks (beaten only by the Siris at 29,400 tonnes).
It has for the most part been overlooked as a dive location, perhaps because it is only partially underwater, and is off the regular itineraries.
No water, no life. No blue, no green.
Sylvia Earle Oceanographer