The charm of Sharm

Escape to the Red Sea and submerge yourself in a world where bonds give way to break waters and the most pressing engagement is which dive site to inspect first.

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By  Matthew Southwell Published  April 4, 2005

|~||~||~|To anyone standing on its shore and gazing out across its waters, the Red Sea may seem somewhat of a misnomer. Its blueness is eternal and its beauty beyond belief. It is where the desert meets the ocean, and it holds Asia and Africa apart with its rolling waves. At its most northerly point is the Sinai Peninsula, which stretches over 1000 miles south to join the Indian Ocean, between Ethiopia and Yemen. But speak to any serious diver in the world and such geographical factoids mean little. To them, the Red Sea means one thing: Sharm El-Sheikh and the Thistlegorm. The sunken World War II vessel, which started life as a merchant navy ship before being press-ganged into naval service and subsequently sunk by German bombers, is an eerie underwater museum, replete with everything the British army in North Africa required for its campaign. Trucks, motorbikes, plane wings and engines, trains, Wellington boots and waders lie alongside ammunition and armoured vehicles. And, despite the thousands of divers it attracts every year, the mystery of the wreck remains and it is easy to imagine the morbid fascination Jacques Cousteau must have felt when he first discovered the Thistlegorm in the 1950s. Yet Sharm El-Sheikh is so much more than a World War II wreck. Although there are other long sunken ships in the area, such as the Ulysses, the Aida, the Million Hope and the Numidia, the Red Sea is not just a resting place for manmade machinery. It is also home to 250 species of madrepores and soft corals, such as the purple and yellow Dendronephthya and Xeniids. While the world’s other marquee dive sites, such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, have suffered from over diving and too much tourism, the majority of reefs in the Red Sea are still in pristine condition and can be enjoyed in their full splendour. Such wondrous coral also attract a magnificent range of fish. In addition to Red Sea favourites such as Angelfish, Blackspotted Grunts, Goatfish, Lion Fish, Parrotfish, Triggerfish and Spine Porcupine Fish, there is an abundance of rays, sharks, turtles and dolphins. Again, the Red Sea’s relative immaturity as a global dive site benefits those visiting Sharm El-Sheikh today, as fish stocks are high. While diving is the number one attraction in Sharm - the town is full of dive operators ready to show you these underwater wonders - it has other things going for it too. There are small, intimate hotels with modern designs, as well as larger hotel complexes belonging to international chains, with all the amenities one would expect of a tourist centre, including casinos, discos and nightclubs, golf courses and health facilities. In fact, with diving and snorkelling, windsurfing and other water sports, horse and camel riding, and desert safaris, it is almost impossible to get bored. Na’ama Beach is the main centre for tourist activities, with most hotels boasting their own private beaches with comfortable amenities such as chairs, shades and bars. Nearby Shark’s Bay is a growing resort community with more and more to offer. For those who love to shop, the Sharm El-Sheikh mall provides stores with both foreign and local products, including jewellery, leather goods, clothing, pottery and books, while those with a more historical bent could do worse than to take a trip to the region’s historic sights. These include the beautiful St Catherine’s Monastery, deep in the heart of the Sinai Mountains and home to the Burning Bush. Sharm’s nightlife scene has also come of age in the last year and those not wishing to retire early ahead of the next day’s diving can expect to spend their evening bar-hopping around the Na’ama Bay area. Sha’ab Ali (Thistlegorm Wreck) Sharm el-Sheikh’s most famous dive site is located on the north side of the Straits of Gubal in the Gulf of Suez. The Thistlegorm Wreck, which was sunk by German bombers, first gained fame when Jacques Cousteau wrote about it in his 1950s book on the Red Sea. However, the actual location remained a mystery until it was rediscovered by a group of divers in 1992. Umm Qamar Meaning Mother of the Moon in Arabic, Umm Qamar has a steeply sloping wall profile and boasts a number of caves and cavelets, one of which is absolutely packed with glassfish. Although coral cover is patchy, the fish life is more interesting as the reef attracts a large number of pelagics. Sharks are often spotted, as are barracuda, jacks and trumpetfish. Alternatives The Alternatives takes its name from the fact tour operators use the site as an alternative option should other, more exposed sites be inaccessible. Although this may make the site seem like a second choice, the Alternatives actually offers a good range of hard coral species and spectacular soft corals such as the purple and yellow Dendronephthya and Xeniids. Fish life is abundant and the numerous sand patches support lots of bluespotted and blackspotted stingrays, and leopard sharks. Siyul Kebira This site extends east and west around the island of Siyul Kebir. The reef has an extremely varied profile, with an undulating reef face split by furrows, sandy wadis and big valleys, hollows and depressions. The reef is composed of dense coral patches and exuberant fish life. Siyul Seghira Despite its name, which means Little Siyul in Arabic, this is the largest reef in the immediate area. It is home to luxuriant and tightly packed coral, while fish life is also dense and varied as the open water area nearby draws its fair share of pelagic species. Dive schools Each of the main hotels in Sharm El Sheikh houses a diving school. In addition, there are a number of accredited independent operators offering courses and trips in town (see www.padi.com).||**||

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