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Diving the Straits of Tiran, Red Sea

Anyone who has ever been to Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt will probably have made at least one dive in the Straits of Tiran.

Located between the Sinai Peninsula and the Islands of Tiran and Sanafir, the 18-mile-wide Straits of Tiran separate the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. They have long played a strategic role in regional conflicts. There is a Bedouin legend that a Saudi princess, Sanafir, fell in love with a man called Tiran. When her father found out he forbid their love and exiled them to two separate islands. Tiran bravely jumped into the water to swim to his love on the other island. Unfortunately sharks ate him, and this is how the two islands got their names. It is said on windy days you can still hear the Princess calling her love. It is also considered one of the possible locations for Moses’ parting of the Red Sea — not many dive sites can offer you such a rich array of back stories.

There are many great dive centers in Sharm representing most training agencies. I had spent a three-dive day on the boats of Red Sea College, which offers excellent facilities and enthusiastic professional staff. Any dive trip to Tiran starts with a boat trip of around 1 and 1/2 hours from Sharm (though I would also recommend an early morning speedboat or liveaboard trip). Four coral reefs make up the dive site, which features unpredictable currents and steep drop offs. Good dive skills, especially buoyancy control are pre-requisites, although we could say that of all dives. In return, these sites offer amazing viz and deeper dives than in some of Sharm’s other dive spots. Fish and coral life is also amazing, with turtles and sharks regularly present at some of the sites.

Straits of Tiran Dive Sites

Starting in the south and going north, the four reefs are as follows: Gordon, Woodhouse, Thomas and Jackson. They are named after  19th-century British cartographers.  The four coral reefs are all visible from the surface. You can see them from a distance due to the large wreck of the Loullia. This Swedish-built freighter, originally named Antonia, ran aground on one of the reefs in September, 1981. It is now a popular landmark for visiting divers/snorkelers. There is also the smaller, less-intact wreck of the Lara on another reef, which itself has an interesting story of intrigue and fraud.

Gordon Reef
The southernmost reef of the four and nearest to Sharm, Gordon Reef has a different topography than the others. This site has both a shallow plateau area and drop-offs. Divers can do the site as a mooring or a drift dive. This reef also features the aforementioned Loullia wreck, perched on its northern edge, but sadly since it remains above the water, there’s no wreck diving. Generally boats moor on the southern plateau with a maximum 26 foot (8 m) depth. Dives then head east to the drop-off, beginning at around 53 feet (16 m). Currents along the southern edge of Gordon are never that strong. But divers should be aware that they can cut across the plateau. There is a small eel garden to the north.

Thomas Reef
The most popular reef of the four, Thomas is also the smallest. Depending on the conditions, you’ll do this dive as a drift since there are usually strong currents on the southern and northern ends of the reef. The walls, with large plateaus at around 82 feet, (25 m) on the southeastern side, can feature sleeping sharks in the sandy areas. There is also a fence of gorgonian fans.

Qualified tec divers can also explore Thomas Canyon, which is suitable for all tec levels. Starting at 115 feet (35 m) at a narrow entrance with a number of arches created by fallen boulders, the canyon is 262 feet (80 m) long and the deepest point is around 295 feet (90 m).

Woodhouse Reef
Woodhouse is the longest reef here and tends to be dived as a drift dive from south to north. Starting in the south there is a wall to about 98 feet (30 m) with coral growth all the way down from the surface. It slowly peters out into a slope towards the bottom.  There is also a canyon at the halfway point, 82 feet (25 m), where you will start to notice the current strengthen. This is generally where the dive also ends unless conditions permit. If so, the dive can be extended into the Washing Machine — so called due to the very strong currents in all directions.

Jackson Reef
Jackson is the last reef, furthest north in the Straits of Tiran, and my favorite of the four. Here the dives are from moorings on the southern side, sheltered from the currents and sometimes large swell. At the mooring there is a 131-foot (40 m) wall. You’ll descend to your planned depth heading west with the reef on your right shoulder. Jackson Reef has some of the best corals in the area and an abundance of small fish. I’ve also seen turtles, large eels, large tuna and, best of all, an octopus perched on some coral.

Once you reach the western shoulder, you’ll feel the current strengthen. It’s time to turn around and head back to the boat. In late summer and early fall, when conditions permit diving the backside of Jackson, you may see schooling scalloped hammerheads. Tec divers can also dive the remains of the Lara on the northern side, weather very much depending.