Diving and Photographing the Arabian Red Sea: 7 Reasons to Dive in Saudi Arabia
People are always taken aback when I tell them I’ve spent the better part of the last 4 years working as a marine scientist in Saudi Arabia. “There’s an ocean in Saudi Arabia??” is a common first response. Or, “I thought it was a desert.”
I can confirm that, yes, in fact, there is an ocean in Saudi Arabia; and you should see it during your lifetime.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia possesses about 1800 km of coastline, almost the entire eastern coastline of the Red Sea. Along that coastline stretches one of the longest continuous living reef systems in the world – nearly 4,000 km – and one of the world’s most vibrant underwater ecosystems.
Here are 7 reasons to visit the Red Sea reefs of Saudi Arabia.
1. Red Sea Endemic Species
Endemic species are those that only occur in one place, and the Red Sea has an enormously high percentage of endemic coral reef inhabitants. Some research suggests that as many as 20% of Red Sea species occur nowhere else in the world.
The high rates of endemism in this region result from isolation from the rest of the Indian Ocean through geologic time.
There is only a narrow, shallow connection between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in the south (Bab al-Mandab Strait) and this connection at different times over thousands of years dried up and refilled, cutting off the Red Sea from the rest of the ocean.
This allowed Red Sea species to evolve and become distinct from their cut-off relatives, and now presents an incredible opportunity to study and observe some of the most unique organisms on the planet.
2. Undiscovered Gems
The Red Sea as a whole is not “undiscovered.” In fact some of the earliest coral reef expeditions sailed through Red Sea waters, hundreds of years ago.
Many type specimens of coral reef species that occur across the tropics were collected and named in the Red Sea.
But most of the scientific and recreational activity in the Red Sea has concentrated in the Egyptian, Sudanese, Israeli, and Jordanian coastlines, with Egypt being the most visited.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has not allowed many visitors into its waters. When I first moved to Saudi Arabia, tourist visas did not even exist! Only in the last few years it has become possible to get a Saudi tourist visa at all.
The lack of coastal tourism in the area means that in many parts of the Saudi Arabian Red Sea, the coral reefs have barely been dived. Some reefs in more remote parts of the country have likely never been dived at all.
Every year, new Red Species are discovered; few places are left in the world where this is still possible.
3. The Coral Reefs Themselves
This is reason #1, in my opinion. The coral reefs of the Saudi Arabian Red Sea are fantastic.
Despite the Red Sea’s very high sea temperatures (in the summer, approaching 35 C in the shallow flats…) the coral reefs in the region are generally healthy and diverse.
If you like coral, then this area should be high on your list. There are between 300 and 400 known coral species in the Red Sea, and the Saudi Arabian coast boasts some of the healthiest reefs of any part of the entire sea.
And you won’t find many of the species here that you might in other parts of the Indo Pacific – the reefs have a noticeably different feel to them compared to places like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, etc
And that’s a good thing. This is again thanks to the endemic nature of the area; it’s special to dive in a place where the reef inhabitants are found there, and only there.
The only downside of the reefs in this part of the Red Sea is a lack of big reef predators, likely due to fishing pressure over the last few decades.
There are still sharks, many rays, Napoleon wrasses, barracudas, etc., but they aren’t as densely populated as in, say, Sudan or Egypt.
New initiatives in Saudi Arabia are aimed at restoring these populations through new Marine Protected Areas.
4. Whale Sharks and Sea Turtles
The Saudi Arabian Red Sea is home to probably the world’s most interesting whale shark aggregation. This is a fact that usually surprises divers unfamiliar with the region.
But in the south of the country, whale sharks congregate each spring to feed on plankton that bloom in the spring currents.
And, unlike in other whale shark hotspots, there aren’t dozens of boats congregating around one animal.
Likewise, sea turtles frequent the entire coastline of Saudi Arabia, and you’re sure to see them in the popular reefs.
You may even come across a nesting sea turtle, as both green sea turtles and hawksbills nest in the area. Both of these species are endangered or critically endangered, and you should never disturb or approach nesting animals.
5. “Desert Seas”
This area is often referred to as a “Desert Sea”, because, well, it’s basically in a desert. This makes for some incredibly unique, and beautiful landscape settings and animals.
It’s not unusual to see meandering camels walk through the shallows on a surface interval near shore.
Even more surprising is observing a flock of flamingos wading in the sands near the reef in some lagoons – flamingos migrate through the area during some seasons.
In unpopulated coastal areas, the desert atmosphere makes for some incredible star gazing as well; clear views of the milky way moving across the sky above the sea are worth staying up late into the night for.
Camels, sand dunes, stargazing, flamingos, and coral reefs…what?
6. Mangroves and Seagrass
I think mangroves are one of the most underrated ocean habitats to visit and photograph. Divers often disregard mangrove forests because their usually to shallow to really dive in.
But even a snorkel in a mangrove system can be a breathtaking experience.
There are two main species of Red Sea mangroves: red mangroves and white mangroves.
White mangroves are characterized by many short stubby “branches” that stick out of the water, sheltering blue-spotted rays, juvenile fish, crustaceans and more. Migratory birds like kingfishers and bee-eaters frequent the forests at different times during the year.
The most impressive mangrove in the Red Sea is the red mangrove. Unlike the white mangrove, red mangroves have tall prop roots, which set the scene for some beautiful splitshot photographs. These mangroves are said to have “one foot on land, and one foot in the sea.”
Small sharks, juvenile fish, cuttlefish, rays, and other species use these roots for protection; they are known as “nurseries.”
Similarly, in some places you can find seagrass meadows, which are also important nursery habitats for coral reef species.
If you’re incredibly lucky, you may even find a Saudi Arabian dugong grazing on seagrass; there is a very small, unstudied population of Saudi Arabian dugongs in the northern part of the country.
7. Red Sea Clownfish
This point is heavily biased. My graduate thesis focused on Red Sea clownfish, and my academic work continues to focus on these charismatic critters. But what is not to love about them?
The Red Sea has 7 different species of host sea anemones, but only one species of clownfish, and an endemic Red Sea species at that. In other words, if you want to see the Red Sea Clownfish (or, Two-Band Clownfish, Amphiprion bicinctus) outside of an aquarium, the Red Sea is your only option.
If you’re diving between November and March, watch pairs of clownfish closely. During these months, many pairs are protecting clutches of eggs; a male clownfish tending to a patch of eggs just under the tentacles of a sea anemone is a joy to see.
This concludes my top 7 reasons to visit and dive the Arabian Red Sea. What other reasons do you need??