The unspoilt corals, spectacular scenery and psychedelic fish of the Red Sea in Egypt are a draw for thousands of divers every year. Jo Willey faces her fear of the deep to see exactly what all the fuss is about
It may be just five hours from London but Sharm el Sheikh on the Red Sea is like a different planet. Its underwater “gardens” and coral reefs are spectacular and have helped to make it the world’s most popular diving resort.
The Red Sea is so named because of the deep red cliffs and rocks of the surrounding desert. Taking the plunge is like entering your very own aquarium: there are more than 40 miles of reefs, as well as Ras Mohammed National Marine Park – one of Egypt’s greatest natural treasures.
I stayed at the stunning five-star Grand Rotana Resort & Spa in quiet Sharks Bay. It is set in 31 hectares of tropical park with 2,000 palms and has its own private beach with large terraces stretching down to the sea.
The Camel Dive Club was the launching pad for our forays out across the Straits of Tiran. After a 6am wake-up call on my first morning, three other novices and I joined a small group of certified divers for our introduction to the big deep.
Moving away from the stark desert coastline, I was soon enjoying the breeze and blazing sunshine. I was struck by the beauty of the coral reefs, appearing like a shock of pale turquoise. But there was also the clear reminder of the perils that reefs can cause for sailors as we passed tombstone shipwrecks now little more than masses of twisted metal.
We anchored just off Jackson Reef, where I began to conquer my fears. Wearing fins, goggles and snorkel I cautiously peered over the back of the boat. Encouraged by our dive guide, Vicky Hall, I flippered my way down, to be greeted by an underwater paradise.
The “coral garden” sprung up from the sandy sea floor like a rugged mountain range, with huge cliff edges of coral of every shape, size and colour.
Tightly-packed brain coral, seafan in red and orange, finger coral and a host of tiny animals and marine life all revealed themselves, the components of a spectacular underwater eco-system.
Shoals of psychedelic fish darted about below, the more curious coming for a closer look. I certainly managed to find Nemo – and a lot of his friends, including parrotfish, blue saffin tang, cornetfish and bannerfish.
After this, there was no way I was going to pass on the 20-minute try dive. We headed to South Laguna; a sheltered coral area ideal for introductory dives because of its calm and sheltered conditions.
Following a detailed safety briefing, a 6kg lead weight belt was attached to me and PADI instructor Vicky placed an air tank on my back. Before I knew it, we were under the water.
At first I was anxious to return to the surface but I persevered and soon began to enjoy the experience. Vicky helped me to concentrate on regulating my breathing and suddenly we were 20ft under the sea.
From here, taking in more mesmerising underwater sights, I felt proud to have finally plucked up the courage to take the plunge.
GETTING THERE:GB Airways (0870 850 9850/www.gbairways.com) offers return flights from Gatwick to Sharm el Sheik from £250.First Choice (0871 664 9014/www.firstchoice.co.uk) offers seven nights B&B at the Grand Rotana Resort &Spa (www.rotana.com) from £459pp (two sharing), including return flights from Gatwick.Introductory dives with Camel Dive Club (www.cameldive.com) cost from £45pp, including equipment hire, and can be arranged through the hotel.Egyptian State Tourist Office: 020 7493 5283/www.egypt.travel