Adventures: Red Sea versus Great Barrier Reef - where is the world's best diving?

In the scuba diving world there are two great challenges - to become extremely frugal in air usage and to complete the world's greatest dive. The first goal is easily recognised - you've made it when you always have air left when your diving buddies are running low. The second is so vague (and so desirable) that it's the main topic of diver conversations around the world.

One thing you can be sure of: whenever you surface from a superb dive, someone on board will tell you of a distant dive that's better. For most Australians Queensland's Great Barrier Reef is the ultimate divers' wonderland. The only sea serpents in Paradise are those who say "well the Reef is pretty good but you should dive the Red Sea."

Recently, I had a chance to dive the Red Sea. I mentioned to a dive shop owner that I was there to compare it with the Great Barrier Reef. He replied "that's the great debate, isn't it? Some say one and some the other - I think it comes down to personal likes and dislikes. I'd simply say that the two areas are miles ahead of anywhere else and after that it just down to conditions on the day."

I was at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm-el-Sheikh (universally known as "Sharm") at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai is that triangle of land wedged between the eastern side of Africa and the Middle East. This is the wilderness where Moses and the Israelites wandered - Mt Sinai, a few hours from Sharm, is where God gave him the Ten Commandments. It's one of the ugliest pieces of real estate in the world, a barren and harsh world of rocks, steep mountains and dirt devoid of a blade of grass. One understands how the expression "God forsaken" arose.

That's what makes Sharm such a surprise. It's a modern resort town that has far more in common with Surfers Paradise than it does with Egypt. A decade ago it didn't exist. There were just a few tents full of hardy, pioneering divers and Egyptian troops who tended to ask the divers for passports as they emerged from the water, presumably having swum across from Saudi Arabia. A few years before that, the Sinai was part of Israel.

Consider Sharm today, a beach front strip of upmarket hotels along Na'ama Bay: Marriott, Novotel, Hilton et al, a casino, some 50 souvenir shops and innumerable tour operators selling everything from dune buggy rides and camel safaris to day tours to Petra. The next bay around has Hilton and Intercontinental hotels. There are a total of 240 dive boats here. Last October, during a European holiday, every boat was booked out. With an average of 12 divers per boat, there were almost 3000 divers in the water each day. There wasn't a spare snorkel in town.

I arrived in Sharm from Jordan and had become accustomed to seeing most women completely covered from wrist to ankle. The instant transition to seeing what Italian women regard as adequate cover for the beach left me breathless. I'd been away from Australian for two weeks and the expanse of near naked flesh was a shock. I can understand how the Bedouin who come to the resorts seeking work take a full three months to adjust.

With some surprise, I found that on the first comparison - the resorts themselves - Sharm is better than any Reef resort. There's good accommodation, a great range of restaurants, and over 20 dive operators in strong competition. And, the deciding point, the nearest coral is only a few minutes away by boat.

Next I had to select a dive operator. That wasn't the hard choice I feared. Sharm has a lot of nearby dive sites, including ones around Tiran Island, where Moses is said to have parted the Red Sea. However, one site is legendary: that's Ras Muhammed, one of the world's most famous dive locations. It's right at the very tip of the Sinai, about an hour by boat south of town. Everyone wants to dive here but there's simply not enough room. So there's a roster - I found Camel Dive Club was rostered on from 12.30 to 2 the next day.

We were just one of a procession of vessels leaving the dock as the sun shone down from a cloudless sky. Our first dive was at Ras Zattar on the western side of Ras Muhammed. It was quite a deep dive at 30 metres and there was a fair current. As an introduction to Red Sea diving it was not auspicious: the coral was mainly beige and there weren't many fish. A highlight was following a turtle along the wall. On the other hand, I couldn't fault Camel Dive: the equipment was new and well maintained, the briefings comprehensive - even lunch was good. My dive master was Anton Segal from Texas had been here long enough to have extensive local knowledge.

It was with a feeling of great anticipation that we approached Ras Muhammed after lunch. I knew the statistics: the Red Sea has some 1000 species of fish and 150 types of coral. By comparison, the Great Barrier Reef has some 300 species of hard coral and over 100 soft corals, plus more than 1500 species of fish. However, the Red Sea has a distinctly high saline content and its isolation has given rise to many endemic species. But that doesn't always translate into a great dive. This time it did.

Ras Muhammed is the dive with everything. It consists of a wall rising to a shallow platform with two bommies (Shark Reef and Yolander Reef) and a shipwreck on it. We did it as a drift dive, being dropped in open water and soon reaching the 800 metre-deep wall covered in sea fans and soft corals with lots of little grottos to explore. In April there were few large fish but that was more than compensated by one corner at about 15 metres that was covered in mauve soft coral that was a massive housing commission for myriad small red fish with blue eyes.

Jolander Reef takes it's name from a ship that sank here in 1980. Its cargo was mainly toilet bowls and they litter the sea floor. As a wreck, it's not spectacular but eels live in the litter and the site becomes another element in the spectacle this dive provides. The adjoining reef is a visual feast of corals, fans and fish.

As a single dive, Ras Muhammed is spectacular and must be on the list of one of the world's great dives. But, overall, is the Red Sea better than the Great Barrier Reef? I'd say not - it has less species and generally less intensity of experience. But for a different diving experience - and for the one remarkable dive site of Ras Muhammed - it should be on every diver's wish list.

Then again, I was told recently that the corals of Papua New Guinea were far more spectacular than anything on the Great Barrier Reef. The quest continues.

Best time to visit

RS: There are many more fish around the reefs during the summer months (from now through August) but the days are debilitatingly hot.

GBR: Right now is the best time of the year in Queensland. While summer is hot and wet, you're more likely to find clear days and cool evenings from now until October.

Best way to get there

RS: From Sydney via Singapore on Egyptair (tel: 232 6677) fares to Cairo begin at $1600 return, then you take a bus to Sharm-el-Sheikh.

Best way to travel

RS: Ya'lla Tours in Sydney, (5th Floor, 428 George St, Sydney, tel 233 5288) can make arrangements for you with Camel Dive Club in Egypt. It will also provide driver and guide if required.

RS: From Sydney via Singapore on Egyptair (tel: 232 6677) fares to Cairo begin at $1600 return, then you take a bus to Sharm-el-Sheikh.

GBR: There are many flights a day to the Whitsundays and Cairns and good package deals are available.

Best experience:

RS: chatting to the Bedouin boat captains, diving Ras Muhammed's amazing wall then coming upon the wreck.

GBR: walking into the water and finding yourself in a magical world of colour and movement where every square centimetre has another beautiful, bizarre resident. Finding yourself in a squadron of manta rays.

Best nearby attraction:

RS: Petra

GBR: Daintree

Best way to travel

RS: Ya'lla Tours in Sydney, tel 233 5288, can make arrangements for you with Camel Dive Club in Egypt. It will also provide driver and guide if required.

GBR: It's best if you stay on the reef itself. That can be at a island resort like Heron Island or Lady Elliot Island or on a liveaboard such as Nimrod III. More information from your nearest Queensland Travel Centre tel. 13 1801.

Best next step

RS: Ya'lla Tours recently sent representatives over to talk to the Red Sea dive operators. It has systems in place for any diver who wishes to make the most of the Red Sea. Call 233 5288.

GBR: Getting to the Great Barrier Reef is as easy as driving north for a couple of days then booking on a day cruise. Many choose Queensland's warm waters to attain their open water dive certificates. The Queensland Travel Centre has details.

Dive the Dead Sea? Forget it.

The other great swimming experience in the neighbourhood is swimming on the Dead Sea between Jordan and Israel. It's shore is not just the lowest dry point on the earth's surface (407 metres below sea level) but water is bizarre. While the salinity of most oceans is about three per cent, the Dead Sea is 25 per cent salt. Even cuts and scratches you haven't noticed sting and you'll certainly feel it if you've shaved that day. The water is surprisingly cold and so thick and salty it almost tastes sweet. A friend with more accuracy than good taste suggested that it's like swimming in your own phlegm.

It's hard to walk into the Dead Sea. By the time you're waist deep, you're starting to float. I first thought it would be perfect for swimming records because you lie on the water, not in it. Then I discovered that it's very hard to submerge your feet to kick. The photographs you see of people lying on the water reading books aren't rigged - that's about all you can do. The best way to describe the sensation of swimming in the Dead Sea is that it's like lying on a half-inflated air bed. Attempting to roll onto your back can have you spinning uncontrollably. Most people only stay in the water for about 10 minutes - even after the stinging fades it's not a very pleasant experience.

"Help, I'm drowning" is the line you're least likely to hear at this beach resort. As for diving, I doubt if you'd descend wearing a string of VWs as weights. The Dead Sea is purely a surface experience. Strangely, there's talk that several large resorts are to be built down here. I don't see why they'd bother - it's an interesting experience for an afternoon but the nature of the water precludes it from ever being a popular beach resort.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd