By Rob L. Wagner
4 September 2015
JEDDAH – Any diver possessing a Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) licence and a sense of adventure can spout off a list of top dive sites around the world. Kona Mantas in Hawaii comes to mind, as does Cod Hole at the Great Barrier Reef and Elephant Head Rock on the Similan Islands off Thailand.
Rarely making the top ten, or even the top 50, lists of best worldwide dive spots is the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia. Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt often gets a nod but Saudi Arabia is turning out to be the best-kept secret in the diving world.
It comes as no surprise. Saudi Arabia is notoriously difficult to get into. One can’t simply obtain a visa at the airport but must be invited and usually have business in the kingdom.
That’s changing as the country is beginning to offer tourist visas, usually to large groups and more likely from South and East Asia. But Westerners have discovered that, with a little pluck and persistence, they, too, can dive in the Red Sea if they book their trip through a Saudi-approved tour agency.
The diving scene has mushroomed over the past decade as experienced underwater enthusiasts have drifted away from Jeddah, long the central dive location, to venture to Yanbu to the north and the Farasan Islands to the south.
“We get a lot of people up here in Yanbu,” said Ahmed Al-Saidi, manager at Dream Diver in Yanbu.
It’s no wonder. Of the Red Sea’s 1,932-kilometre Saudi coastline, much of it featuring coral reefs, Yanbu offers perhaps the most pristine dive venues in the country.
Yanbu is an industrial town of nearly 300,000 residents with a reputation that rests on petrochemical production. As recently as 2010 it had little to offer domestic and foreign tourists. That changed, however, as private, family-friendly resorts began to pop up and provide diving lessons and excursions. One can still drive several miles between the handful of resorts dotting the coast but the real plus is the waters are virgin territory.
The Seven Sisters coral reef chain off the coast of Yanbu is perhaps the cleanest and most visually stunning venue in the kingdom. Marker No. 39 on the southern area of the chain features hard and soft corals and is populated with squirrelfish, pick handle barracuda and red snapper. Marker No 41 features bigeye, dogtooth and bonito tuna while Marker No. 32 is a soft coral reef that tantalises divers with its vibrant colours. It’s an underwater photographer’s paradise.
All-day excursions with two separate dives generally start at about $100 per person with open-water lessons starting at about $470 per person, Saidi said. Many dive shops, including Dream Diver, offer advanced courses in deep-sea, rescue and maintenance diving.
Fitzpatrick, 38, an American expatriate, said he has been diving for about ten years.
“I earned my PADI certifications in Jeddah and had been diving there for some time before I came to Yanbu,” he said. “Believe me, Yanbu is the place to be. I still dive in Jeddah but Yanbu is a special treat.”
Yassir Sayti, who operates a dive excursion service at Al Ahlam Marina north of Yanbu, said he has seen an increase in Jeddawis exploring Yanbu’s dive sites. “The divers want something different and Jeddah is familiar to everybody,” he said.
Expat and Saudi divers have expressed frustration with water conditions in Jeddah. Pollution remains a problem with the southern portion of the Jeddah coastline polluted with domestic waste and the northern areas with domestic waste and petrol spills. Along the entire coast are nearly 200 species of coral with some damaged due to pollution.
In addition, overfishing — an estimated 8,000-10,000 fishing boats operate in the waters — have depleted some species, especially sharks. Yet the region’s large reef habitat and the relatively low coastal population give Saudis hope that the Jeddah waters will recover. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology’s Red Sea Center and Reef Ecology Lab have made significant progress in identifying problem areas to implement plans for cleanup.
Although Jeddah remains the most popular and accessible dive sites, the southern region also provides abundant locations. About 210 kilometres south of Jeddah and 40 kilometres off the Jizan-Yemen Highway is the Farasan Banks, not to be confused with the Farasan Islands. The banks have depths reaching 500 metres to the east and west of the islands and as shallow as 10-40 metres on some plateaus.
At Farasan Islands, a group of coral islands, about 79 species of coral exist along with nesting areas for the hawksbill sea turtle and the green turtle.
By opening the country to foreign tourists, Saudi Arabia can promote its roses in Taif, its history at Mada’in Saleh, and the richness of the Hejaz and Najdi cultures. But for the adventure bound, diving at Yanbu, Jeddah or Jizan is virtually uncharted territory.
How to Get There:
Direct flights from London to Jeddah aboard Saudi Arabia Airlines start at about $700. Non-Saudi citizens must have a visa to enter the country. From Jeddah, Yanbu and the Farasan Islands are accessible by bus or car rental. There are daily flights from Jeddah to Yanbu.
When to Go:
Scuba diving is a year-round activity but late fall and early winter offer the best conditions.
Before You Go:
Contact a Saudi-approved tour agency to help secure proper documentation for the trip. Among the approved agencies are Zahid Travel Group (zahidtravel.com) and Al Mousim Travel and Tours (almousim.com.sa) of Riyadh.
When You Get There:
There are numerous dive shops that offer lessons and PADI certification starting at about $470 per person. If you are certified, then daily dive excursions start at about $100.
There may be rental fees for equipment, depending on the dive shop. Dream Diver (dreamdiver. net) among other shops, offer dives at several locations along the coast.