Dahab stole my heart above the surface, but what about under the sea? The whole reason we’d planned our Sharm El Sheikh liveaboard was we’d heard a rumor that the coral reefs and amount of sea life there would outshine anything we’d see up in Dahab. Still, the dive scene in Dahab was legendary — how wrong could so many people be? (I mean honestly, this is a question I ask myself on a regular basis and it turns out, they can be really really wrong.)
We set off to find out what the deal was with diving in Dahab.
All great dive experiences start with a great dive center, and we felt like we’d hit the jackpot when we found H2O Divers Dahab. This female-owned dive center has branches that specialize in all of Dahab’s highlights: recreational diving, technical diving, and freediving.
H2O’s big claim to fame is that they were the team that supported World Record holder Ahmed Gabr in his jaw-dropping dive to 332.35 meters in 2014. That’s a wow-factor for sure, but I found myself drawn to them for their commitment to the environment, their girl-power inspiring team, the diversity of courses they offer, and, let’s get really real here, how cute their dive shop is.
I don’t want to say that most dive shops tend to be disorganized trash heaps, but most dive shops tend to be disorganized trash heaps. So when you find one that’s clean, organized, brightly painted, has a dope locker system and gear drying room, and even has some fun murals sprinkled throughout?
Just sign on as a customer for life immediately.
After chatting to H2O owner Alex (such a fab name, I know — only greatness could ensue) about our dive experiences and preferences, she set us up with Jenny Lord, a mega-talented tech diver superstar who is attempting the world record for woman’s deepest dive and also happens to know her way around a camera.
Jenny didn’t mess around — we were heading straight to the world famous Blue Hole.
The Blue Hole is a short pickup ride north of Dahab proper, and since our sweet Airbnb was enroute, they happily picked us up on the way so we didn’t have to trudge to the dive shop. This kind of flexible, personalized service is par for the course in Dahab, where dive groups are small and service is off the charts.
We arrived to a bustling oasis that seemed like a scene from Aladdin ready to shoot for a live-action remake. Thatch-roof cafes and sun loungers lined the waterfront, camels rested at the shoreline, and neoprene-clad sea-seekers gingerly stepped into the water, eventually disappearing below the surface.
Some may recognize the name The Blue Hole for the tragic diver deaths that have occurred here, a legacy that’s impossible to forget when walking by the memorials left for just some of those that have been lost.
What has made the Blue Hole so deadly? Easy — The Arch. The Arch is a stunningly beautiful, 85 foot long passage at 184 feet deep, well below the recreational diving limits. My friends who have been through it rank it as one of the most beautiful dives in the world — but caution they would never attempt it without proper training, technical dive gear, and an experienced dive team. Unfortunately, there’s a chain reaction when one diver successfully completes the dive on a single tank, one local divemaster explained to me. They’ll tell one of their friends who then does it, who then tells another friend who then does it, and soon it seems normal to dive The Arch without proper training and on a single air tank. But someone down the chain won’t be so lucky.
Thankfully, the Blue Hole is becoming safer and safer to dive thanks to increased awareness of the dangers of unqualified Arch attempts, and stronger guidelines for how and when to attempt the Arch enforced by the local dive community.
Also thankfully? You don’t need to go anywhere near The Arch to enjoy the beauty of the Blue Hole. Our own dive plan was to enter at a nearby dive site called Bells, and meander across the wall over to the Blue Hole, where we’d cross over a shallow saddle and exit the dive.
The plan reminded me of a gorgeous dive I’d done in Malta, years ago, where we entered through one spectacular dive site and exited through another — the famous Azure Window, may it rest in peace.
I’d never heard of Bells, but I was about to become a huge fan. To me, the highlight of the dive site is the entry. After gracefully waddling down to a shallow pool — I’d bought dive boots for the first time ever specifically for Dahab’s many shore entries — we slipped into a chimney-like passage and dropped vertically down to a hundred feet, where we emerged into an endless blue.
We started making our way along the wall, which dropped down over 650 feet, keeping our eyes peeled for black coral and sea fans.
I perked up when Jenny signaled that the Elephant Ear coral she’d talked about in our briefing was straight ahead. I’m always inexplicably excited when something that has been discussed in the briefing appears in front of me, like it’s some kind of magic trick.
I’ll never forget the time a divemaster in the Philippines was describing a swim-through we’d do in broken English, and said something along the lines of, “and then we come out, and see shark!” Yeah right, I thought, but then underwater, we emerged from the swim-through, and came face to face with a beautiful little white tip just doing her thing. I’d whipped my head back to look at the divemaster, sure he’d performed some sort of sorcery.
Which kind of makes sense when you’re talking about a wild animal. Why I’m so dazzled when a dive guide manages to accurately predict a sighting of, say, a school-bus sized coral formation or the untouched contents of a hundred-year-old shipwreck, is beyond me. I guess I’m easily impressed.
So you can only imagine my freak-out level when Jenny’s next prediction came to fruition: Bluestreak cleaner wrasse appeared, eager to nibble on our ears and other sensitive exposed extremities. I’d been delighted when Jenny explained, during the briefing, that she’d take out her regulator, and let the little guys swim into her mouth for a free dental cleaning. Needless to say, we followed suit.
I’ve never laughed so hard underwater!
Silly cleaner wrasse or not, I always have fun underwater with my Kit Kat — cue an “awwwww.” I’m so grateful for women in my life like Kat, who are always up for a diving adventure!
Eventually, we reached the Blue Hole. While Jenny warned us the Blue Hole was being loved to death in terms of coral damage, I was happy to reach the shallower depths since I was back to shooting with natural light after flooding my strobe on the liveaboard.
No, the coral health and the fish volume couldn’t compete with what we’d seen in say, Ras Mohammed National Park off Sharm El Sheikh. But the topography, the fun little sightings, and the laid-back nature of Bells and Blue Hole won us way over nonetheless.
We headed back to shore for lunch.
The welcome we received in Jenny’s cafe of choice was on the level we’d come familiar with, since entering Sinai. One of the things I couldn’t help but marvel at in Dahab, and in Sinai at large, was the warm and overwhelming hospitality of the Bedouin people. In all my travels, I haven’t ever experienced anything else like it. The years have been harsh for tourism to this area, though recently, travelers have finally begun to return. And those who do have some incredible generosity awaiting them.
The proprietor came over to make sure we’d loved our lunch followed by the free local dessert he’d surprised us with, and refused payment for. “You want something else? You look tired! Maybe you stay here and rest, I go do the dive for you.” He laughed, then stopped suddenly, struck by a better idea. “Or maybe you stay here, I bring the fish here and we fill the restaurant with water, we bring dive site to you!” He laughed again, pantomiming diving through the cafe. We all cracked up, but I didn’t doubt for a second he’d do it if the laws of physics allowed.
Next up, we loaded back into our truck — helped by the incredibly kind and generous H2O driver who appeared to have attended the same hospitality school as our cafe owner — and headed over to The Canyon.
The Dahab Canyon is a considered an essential for all cave and cavern enthusiasts — which, ever since taking the PADI Cavern Diver course, I certainly consider myself to be.
Jenny warned in our briefing that the amount of time we’d spend in the canyon itself would depend on how many distractions we found on the way there, and what our dive computers had to say about our resulting decompression time.
The distractions turned out to be plentiful. We entered through a shallow, sandy lagoon with perfect visibility, making our way into a beautiful coral garden bursting with life. We marveled over perfectly placed butterfly fish, oohed and ahhed over unfazed pufferfish, and squealed into our regulator over a curious, playful octopus.
Eventually we made our way to the canyon itself. We had just enough time to experience the freedom of the vertical drop, marvel at the perfect heart-shape of the canyon entrance from below, play in the light beams, and poke around in a glassfish-filled dome before our computers chimed in that it was time to ascend.
I wasn’t disappointed — by now I was confident I’d be back someday to explore further.
And there was so much more to explore above the canyon. I took a moment to admire our bubbles dancing their way out of the cavern and wriggling their way to the surface, distracted only by the sight of a plump grouper nestled comfortably into a coral hammock.
I was smitten. And full of curiosity for all the other surprises Dahab has hidden on its dive map. Already, I was bursting with excitement to return and explore more with my new H2O Divers Dahab dive family.
So, how did our very brief peek at Dahab diving compare to our experience diving in Sharm El Shiekh? Admittedly, we had very limited time in both, but I did a ton of research prior to our trip and spoke to dozens of divers, so I feel qualified to share these thoughts.
Overall, Sharm has a greater diversity of dive sites with advanced wrecks, shallow reefs, steep walls, the works. While some resorts have house reefs, most diving is done by boat. Dahab, on the other hand, does have some great reef dives, but is more known for interesting underwater topography and shore diving — thought there are boat diving options like the sites at Gabr el Bint, which I can’t wait to explore in the future.
In general, the further up the Gulf of Aqaba you go, conventional wisdom says, the less fish and healthy coral you’ll find. Ergo, Eilat and Aqaba are going to pale in comparison to Sharm, in those respects. I found that to be true.
But remember, The Red Sea is world famous as one of the greatest dive destinations on the planet. Even in second place for under-the-sea, Dahab still blew us totally away. And, frankly, in terms of above-the-surface atmosphere, it’s not even a contest. Dahab rules, Sharm El Sheikh drools. Okay, that’s a little harsh — sorry, I just love rhymes — but if you’re at all factoring in the general vibe, Dahab is where I’ll be spending the majority of my trips in the future, with a few days in Sharm to enjoy the diversity of the dive sites there.
And thankfully, since I was far from ready to say goodbye, we had one more diving adventure to go in Egypt.
Next up: my incredible final days in Egypt at Ras Abu Galum…
Many thanks to H2O Divers Dahab for hosting me. As always, you receive my honest thoughts and opinions regardless of who is footing the bill. Also many thanks to Jenny Lord for her beautiful photos of Kat and I in this post — I loved playing dive model for a bit!