Bursting with life but not with other divers, the humble erg offers what Mark Webster reckons is the best way to chill out in the Red Sea
Stunning as the diving in the Red Sea can be, how many divers find that their forays are becoming something of a procession, as everyone rushes to see the same sights? If you're after big pelagic action, for instance, you narrow your choice of sites to those that offer adjacent deep water, such as the walls at Ras Mohammed, Tiran, Panorama and Daedalus reef. So do most other divers. Similarly, wreck enthusiasts must make for a limited list of recognised locations, albeit a list that is slowly expanding. If, however, your main interest is in the coral reef and its inhabitants, you do have the option of wandering off the beaten track and seeking those concentrated pockets of life to be found on isolated coral pinnacles. These pinnacles, or ergs in Arabic, are abundant throughout the Red Sea, mostly located in the shallow waters of the coastal fringes and in offshore lagoons. They are generally quite small (typically between 10-30m in diameter) tower-like structures rising from 20m or so to within 1-5m of the surface. At their best they offer a microcosm of Red Sea reef life. Many of them burst with colour and energy and can provide examples of almost every known reef species. One or two have become stars of wildlife films due to their rich populations. Perfect specimens can be found close to very popular dive sites which have suffered the ravages of beating fins and anchors, but are often ignored or just given a cursory examination because of their small size. To marine naturalists and photographers it is the size, variety and density of the marine life which is the great attraction and getting to know a particular pinnacle intimately has its advantages. Most are in reasonably sheltered water and, following a day dive to familiarise yourself with the topography, make excellent night-dive venues. Not every pinnacle is perfect. Some have been used as moorings or suffered from pollution and natural degradation. However, there remain many more healthy than damaged ones. Often pinnacles fringing a lagoon are found to be healthy on the seaward side, even though the lagoon side has suffered from pollution by sand borne by rough weather or strong tides. Typically, the first impression of a healthy pinnacle is of swarms of bright orange anthias shoaling in the shallows at its top, darting in and out of the safety of the coral with any unexpected movement or noise. The ramparts of the tower are often sheer, forming mini-walls from surface to seabed festooned with dazzling soft corals and perfect formations of hard corals. As with the popular wall-dive sites, it is this very configuration that saves the coral structure from damage. Visiting divers have to perfect their buoyancy control to hang in one spot and observe the comings and goings of the marine world. You will find all the familiar characters, from clown and lionfish to moray eels and lazy shoals of glassy sweepers, groups of bannerfish, sweetlips, angel and butterflyfish and teams of marauding jacks and barracuda in search of lunch. Looking more closely at the coral reveals tubeworms, plumeworms, gaudily coloured nudibranchs, cheeky blennies peering from their burrows and any number of small, shy fish and crustaceans which show themselves only for a moment. Patience and slow movement is rewarded as the inquisitive nature of many species overcomes their timidity and they edge out for a closer look at their strange visitor. Pinnacle diving is not suited to large groups of divers being led around at high speed. But there are many ergs out there waiting to be discovered, and well-known ones visited by only one or two boats. These are some of my favourites: The Pinnacle (1), Taba, lies close to the border post between Israel and Egypt and although it is on the fringe of a popular dive site it is often deserted, even on busy days. It lies in 15-18m at the base of a sandy slope dotted with small coral heads. This is a classic pinnacle, with very busy fish life and a resident shoal of glassy sweepers with an attendant fleet of lionfish, which begin herding the sweepers and feeding as the sun goes down. This area is particularly rich in frogfish, found in a variety of disguises varying from yellow and orange sponges to algae-covered rocks. My visits have normally included an encounter with a large, lemon-yellow example. The Temple (2) is one of the first dives you will make at Sharm El Sheikh, particularly from the dayboats. Quite a large pinnacle, it lies in the centre of the bay below Ras Um Sid. Although now a shadow of its original glory in the Ô70s, the Temple remains a very attractive dive. The main pinnacle has a bit of everything, but it is worth moving into slightly deeper water (20-25m) to investigate the two or three smaller pinnacles, which have some very healthy soft corals and seafans. Some particularly friendly Napoleon wrasse hang around here and one or two stonefish can be found. This is also a popular and exciting night dive. North from Ras Um Sid are the famous deepwater reefs of the Straits of Tiran. These are the main attraction for most divers but there are excellent pinnacles in the North and South Laguna (3), area, where many of the dayboats moor for lunch and live-aboards often anchor overnight. The dive at North Laguna is in the narrow lagoon entrance, marked by a beacon on its northern edge, where there are a number of low-lying pinnacles throughout the cut. The strong currents which run through the cut as the tide changes make this a high-energy site and it is best dived on the incoming (generally north-running) tide, when visibility is at its best. There is a low pinnacle at the entrance, together with several table corals where several groups of large batfish and schools of barracuda and jacks cruise in the current. This pinnacle is also the frequent hang-out of a large turtle who is very approachable. Further in towards the lagoon is another, larger pinnacle surrounded by large carpet anemones, with swathes of clownfish and dominofish. Pinnacles to the south of the wide entrance to South Laguna offer a more placid experience. There are two dozen or more, each offering something slightly different, although several feature resident shoals of banner angelfish and some of the more exotic Red Sea nudibranchs on the sandy patches between them. Those closest to the lagoon entrance offer the best chance of finding a resting leopard shark or torpedo ray, especially early in the morning. As you make your way up the Gulf of Suez from Ras Mohammed you pass the fringing reef system of Sha'ab Mahmoud on the west coast of the Sinai peninsula. At the southern end of this reef and lagoon system is an arc of coral pinnacles which provide sheltered diving in all but the worst weather conditions. This string of pinnacles is named Stingray Station (4), at its northern end and the Alternatives (4), at the southern end Ð the sheltered nature of the site suggested this name. There are some wonderful pinnacles in both groups, with the best diving and healthiest coral to be found on the seaward (east) side of each. Your boat will generally moor in the sheltered lagoon created by these heads and it is then only a short swim to your first choice. Navigating is easy, as visibility is normally good enough to see from one erg to the next. Depths range from 8-10m on the eastern side to 18-25m on the seaward side, which slopes away gently and is dotted with smaller coral heads. This is a good area for spotting leopard sharks, especially under the table coral, while the sandy lagoon area to the east of Stingray Station is a common resting place for torpedo and eagle rays. Both groups boast caves and swim-throughs with large glassfish shoals, which part reluctantly as you swim through them Ð keep clear of the bottom as you do this, as there are normally a number of healthy scorpionfish and one or two stonefish lurking for an easy meal. I have lost count of the number of dives I have enjoyed here and something unexpected always seems to be happening. On one recent visit we were accompanied by two turtles, one of which showed more than a passing interest in my wife and persistently approached her to be touched Ð a magical experience! (see Diver, January) Continuing north-west from Stingray Station towards Beacon Rock and the ss Dunraven brings you to an isolated pinnacle which has become known as the Lonely Mushroom (5). This site was rarely dived until three or four years ago, when rumour circulated of the amphora wreck alongside the pinnacle. Since then most of the very large amphora have disappeared from here and some damage has been done to the reef top by inconsiderate anchoring. Despite this it is still a superb dive and the walls of the tower boast most of the Red Sea reef residents, with some large seafans (home to several long-nosed hawkfish), deep purple and red soft corals, resident glassfish and sweetlips shoals, and an abundance of macro subjects. On the north-eastern side of the pinnacle is an area of broken coral where a dive boat ran aground, but even here colonisation is taking place and this is a good spot to find genuine and false stonefish as well as some unusual nudibranchs grazing on the algae. Maximum depth here is 16-18m and a number of the smaller heads dotted about are well worth investigation. The reef at Abu Nuhas (6), in the Gulf of Suez is best known for the abundance of ancient and modern wrecks which lie here. They are all located on the northern side of the reef, which is very exposed to the prevailing wind and waves. On the southern side is a sandy lagoon area which most of the visiting boats use to anchor in while ferrying their divers to the wrecks. Although ignored by many divers, this lagoon has several small reef systems and numerous coral pinnacles, many of which are pristine. Most are small and can be circumnavigated in a few minutes but they are a coral Eden for marine-life enthusiasts and photographers and are smothered in soft corals and pristine hard corals. These heads appear to be breeding areas for all sorts of species and you can expect to spot juvenile and adults together, many of them looking like different species and getting you reaching for the ID book on your return to the surface. Jacks and barracuda can often be seen swimming swiftly through here on their way to the deeper water, or perhaps stopping for a snack. These pinnacles are worth making the trip to Abu Nuhas for in themselves, if not as a change from all the steelwork to the north. They also make a fantastic night dive if your boat stays for more than one day. Tobia Arbaa (7), is a group of seven pinnacles lying just north of Safaga in the lee of Ras Abu Soma and protected from the prevailing northerly winds. They rise from the seabed at 12-14m and provide that classic image of the Red Sea, festooned as they are with soil corals and seafans with clouds of anthias and basslets. They are all quite close together and it is easy to see your way from one to the next, but each is slightly different. There are many cleaning stations here and you will often encounter a large potato cod or pelagics such as jacks and barracuda visiting, in addition to the resident reef fish. This is a good spot in which to spend the entire day, making three or four dives to observe the changes in the behaviour of the reef life from dawn to a full night dive. For photographers, the atmosphere of the pinnacles changes dramatically as the light varies and these ergs provide a great opportunity to capture those shafts of sunlight which are so spectacular early and late in the day.