How to Plan an Underwater Photography Trip to Egypt
Egypt’s Red Sea is one of the most vibrant and diverse diving locations in the world. Not only does it have a rich cultural history and stunning desert landscape to explore on land but, beneath the surface, you can discover lush coral gardens, sharks, shipwrecks, dolphins, and even the elusive dugong.
This stretch of coastline boasts more than 800 species of fish, at least 10% of which are endemic to the Red Sea, making it an underwater photographer’s dream. The enormous variety of marine life available to photograph can make it overwhelming when choosing a location to visit, so here are a few things to think about.
1. Choosing your location
The Northern Red Sea generally has the calmest water conditions and reasonably shallow dive sites. It’s a good place to start if you’re a fairly green underwater photographer, or are looking for somewhere to find your feet.
That being said, there is enough variation here to keep the most experienced photographer snap-happy, with the vast majority of Egypt’s famous shipwrecks resting here (including the SS Thistlegorm). Two of Egypt’s most popular (but slightly more touristy) diving resorts are here too: Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada.
For uncrowded dives and a more personal diving experience, I would recommend choosing one of the smaller diving camps along the coastline, such as Marsa Nakari or Marsa Shagra.
Although these camps slip off the back of Wadi el Gamal National Park and are far more isolated, they give you the opportunity to be the first person in the water every morning, and allow you to really take the time and space you need to explore the stunning house reefs.
Of course, there are a plethora of liveaboard opportunities also available across the Red Sea, if you want a more inclusive dive trip. These range widely in price and duration but give you the chance to dive this location all year round, as well as offering more exclusive access to larger marine life and isolated reefs in southern Egypt.
2. When to visit Egypt
From March to May is generally considered the best time for diving in Egypt’s Red Sea. However, as these are peak times, it does mean that destinations and dive sites can be very crowded. Here is a rundown of what to expect at other times of the year.
December to February
This is wintertime in Egypt. Water temperature is fairly chilly, at an average of 22 degrees Celsius. Water visibility is at its best at this time of year but, being the windy season in the Red Sea, surface conditions can be quite rough and choppy. This is the best time of year to spot an oceanic whitetip shark!
March to May
This is your best chance at running into a whale shark in the Northern Red Sea, and both water and air temperatures are warm and comfortable. However, bear in mind that this is the high season and dive sites can be very busy.
June to August
This is the low season for dive sites and temperatures can be quite a struggle, with an average of around 30 to 45 degrees Celsius at midday. However, this can be an ideal time to get a good deal on a liveaboard or diving holiday. As a bonus, the warmer temperatures force hammerhead sharks into Egyptian waters from further south.
September to November
Air and water temperatures are comfortable this time of year, and it’s the perfect season to catch a glimpse of thresher sharks in the Northern Red Sea and manta rays in the south. This time of year can still be busy but, if you book at smaller dive centres, it won’t be too hard to get away from the crowds.
3. Equipment to bring to Egypt
It’s no secret that packing for an underwater photography trip can be a heavy affair, with your kit often leaving no room or weight for personal items and extra clothes. It’s a really good idea to research your airline before booking flights, as many will offer you extra checked baggage if you display your diving certification upon check-in.
Turkish Airlines currently allows one set of diving equipment per person without any additional fees to Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh, and Thomson Airways will offer you an extra 5kg of luggage allowance.
Read more: What Equipment Do You Need for Underwater Photography?
By rule of thumb, I always bring my camera equipment in a carry-on Pelican case or backpack. This simplifies the process of getting through baggage checks, as well as making sure that all cameras and lenses are properly packed and in my hands.
If you opt for a Pelican case, don’t make the same mistake as I did: make sure that it has some wheels! This will be invaluable during airport transfers.
Essential back-up items that you won’t be able to replace on the road, such as sync cords and fibre-optic cables are a must, but shave down on how many lenses you take. I rarely travel with more than two lenses at the moment (one wide-angle, and one macro for diving trips). It’s good to have choices, but three is usually surplus to requirement.
It’s important to remember to bring a small cleaning kit, which I usually stow within my underwater housing. Sand, dust, and salt water can all do a number on your O rings and seals if you don’t regularly clean and maintain them.
Whilst it’s fantastic to have your own gear with you, you can hire diving equipment at a relatively low cost in every diving resort in Egypt. With this in mind, take a minute to price whether it’s worth taking your full gear with you, and what you can do without.
Depending on the time of year you are travelling, your regular diving gear might be surplus to requirements in the warmer climate anyway. However, one item that is a must for me is my trusty Cressi Calibro diving mask.
As a photographer, a comfy mask with good visibility is a priority. You won’t have a spare hand to keep clearing a leaky or ill-fitting mask whilst diving with an underwater housing.
4. Reef recommendations
There are so many fantastic diving sites to visit across Egypt, which are all uniquely wonderful in their own way. It’s a good idea to think carefully about what you want to photograph before deciding which part of Egypt to travel to, as certain areas are better known for specific wildlife.
Sharks and large wildlife
If you are wanting to specifically dive with larger wildlife such as sharks, the best time to see them in Marsa Alam or Jackson Reef in the Straits of Tiran is from July to September.
If you are travelling in winter, the best place to see sharks is in the Elphinstone Reef from October to January. Elphinstone Reef has the additional benefit of offering really spectacular wall diving at any time of year.
There is an abundance of macro life on many of the house reefs that would keep any macro photographer happy, but a personal favourite is Abu Dabbab. The majority of divers travel here to catch a glimpse of the elusive dugong, or the many sea turtles that feed on seagrass in its shallow bay.
For this reason the house reef is often left alone, and is usually quiet and teeming with marine life during the off season.
Read more: A Guide to Underwater Macro Photography
Sha’ab Claudia is well-known for its intricate canyon system, with swim-throughs and impressive rock formations. You can find a variety of marine life here, such as nudibranchs, snappers, and blue spotted rays.
Another popular dive site in this area is Sha’ab Samadai, also known as Dolphin House. Many divers travel here to get a chance to swim and dive with spinner dolphins, which has had detrimental effects on their population. So much so, that restrictions have been put in place to limit the number of visitors that can dive here.
I personally recommend coming here, not for the spinner dolphins, but for a series of reef pinnacles and swim-through canyons nearby. These offer spectacular photograph opportunities whilst having no impact on the local wildlife.
Always be sure to check that advertised tours are responsible when it comes to the wellbeing of local wildlife, as this is not necessarily always the rule of thumb.
The best place to visit beginner friendly shipwrecks is undoubtedly Hurghada. El Mina and the Salem Express both lie in shallow waters here, making them perfect for first-time wreck divers.
A little further afield, you can find Abu Nuhas reef which has seven more shipwrecks, four of which rest in calm and shallow waters.
5. How to plan your journey
The three primary airports for flying into Egypt are Marsa Alam International, Hurghada International, and Sharm El Sheikh International.
It’s fairly easy to find direct flights to these airports from Europe, but there is also the option to fly into Cairo and take a domestic flight closer to your destination, as road transfers can be long and uncomfortable, especially during summer.
The majority of popular diving sites will offer transfers to and from these airports, so that you can be picked up upon arrival. The more rural diving resorts that don’t offer this will often help you find a trusted taxi service to book before you arrive.
There are four main departure ports for liveaboard diving trips within Egypt. These leave from Marsa Alam, Hurghada, Safaga Port, and Sharm El Sheikh.
Wherever and whenever you decide to visit, you’ll be sure to find a wide variety of photo opportunities in the Egyptian Red Sea.
Remember to stay safe and look after the marine parks that you visit. I highly recommend a reef-friendly suncream (such as ThinkSport or Stream2Sea) at any time of year, as a small first step towards protecting the local marine life.