THERE ARE RED SEA DIVE SITES you may have known nothing about before mooring up, but which made the guides eyes twinkle while delivering the briefing. There are also others that, while not unknown, may be overlooked because of their eminent neighbours, though they can still offer outstanding dives.
I have worked in Egypt as both a shore-based and liveaboard dive guide for the past four years, and while the big names are still a thrill, poorer cousins have given me some of my best dives.
These are sites in key areas that I would be visiting if I had my own boat!

DEEP SOUTH
PARADISE REEF
Paradise Reef at St Johns is not far from Umm Kharerim, a network of caverns and tunnels synonymous with the area. Paradise may not match its neighbour for quantity, but for quality and variety, it more than steps up.
The attraction is the sheer mixture of reef environments within a small area. The caves and caverns are within the main body of reef plate, but as you follow the sloping bottom away from the walls you find a forest of pinnacles to explore.
Around the western side of the site, the sandy bottom slopes gently towards 25m with pinnacles and blocks, before dropping off to a deep plateau below.
This extra depth gives divers the chance of seeing eagle rays, tuna and other pelagic species that have come towards the wall to feed or utilise cleaning stations.
The deep water surrounding the main reef-plate also helps bring nutrient-rich water and currents that allow the coral life to be more prolific.
This is a dive with multiple personalities, so is ideal for any level of diver. Dive it as a coral garden, a drop-off or a network of tunnels to be explored.
Marine life ranges from macro critters through schooling fish to large pelagics.
And the fact that Paradise Reef is small means that you can combine the elements of the site to sample a bit of everything on a single dive. Bigger isnt always better.

MARSA ALAM
MARSA SHOUNA
(aka Marsa Shoni Kebir)
The area between Marsa Alam and Port Ghalib is best known for its signature dive sites of Elphinstone and Marsa Abu Dabab. Much has been written about both sites, and their potential for shark or dugong encounters, but a little further along youll find Marsa Shouna.
This site has been visited more often since Abu Dabab was closed to boats, and is often used as a check-dive or final site for safari boats sailing in and out of Port Ghalib.
However, it deserves to feature on a liveaboard route for more than just the locality. The horseshoe-shaped bay consists of coral reef around the edge and a gently sloping sandy bottom combined with a large area of sea grass in the middle.
The reef is home to many schooling fish, and has a large population of pipefish, batfish and Indian Ocean mackerel. The latter can be seen feeding by filtering water through their engorged mouths and collecting the plankton from a fine mesh within the gills.
The seagrass is home to macro life such as seamoths and even seahorses up to larger residents such as green sea turtles and ribbontail rays.
There is even a dugong to be seen here, if fortune smiles on you.

HURGHADA
FANOUS EAST
Hurghada is one of the best-known and developed areas in the Red Sea, with thousands of divers visiting every year. Fortunately there are many sites to meet this demand, and its possible to dodge the crowds by avoiding the more popular ones.
Fanous, a crescent-shaped reef that offers a number of different dives, receives mixed reviews from guides and guests alike. However, if you visit the eastern side of the reef you dive over a coral garden that contains the full spectrum of Red Sea reef fish.
Schools of anthias gather around the pinnacles, moray eels and octopuses hide among the cracks in the reef, and you may even see dolphins as they move between their feeding grounds.
This dive can get busy, but as you head around the corner towards the pinnacles in the north, there is always some peace and quiet to be found over the hard coral garden, and you can spend time watching a cleaning-station at work, or look for nudibranchs in the sponge.
There is also an often-overlooked strip of sand between the coral garden and the main reef-plate, which is home to benthic species such as crocodilefish and seamoths.
Fanous East gives you back what you put in. You can dive it as just another coral garden in Hurghada, or take your time and look for residents in particular areas. Check a reef guidebook for certain species before you dive, and ask your guide where your favourites are likely to be found. It will repay the effort.

NORTHERN WRECKS
THE BARGE, SMALL GUBAL ISLAND
The Barge is not a large wreck, but what it lacks in scale, it more than makes up for with diversity. Its history is unclear, as is which end is the bow and which the stern! The wreckage is very broken up and offers no swim-throughs, penetration or bridge to explore, but it has become a magnet for marine life.
The jewel in the crown of the northern wrecks itinerary may be the Thistlegorm, closely followed by the ship graveyard of Abu Nuhas, but the Barge should not be viewed as simply a mooring spot for the night, even though it makes a perfect one.
The wreck is home to several species of moray. As well as a truly giant eel
you can also find grey, undulated, yellowmargin and yellowmouth morays on or around it. The wreck has also become famous for the large schools of tiger cardinalfish that gather in the shelter of the hull, and these can be seen protecting eggs in their mouths. There are lionfish, scorpionfish, crocodilefish and even a resident Napoleon wrasse.
But its the proliferation of macro life that stands out for many divers. The variety of nudibranchs, crabs, shrimp and pipefish can test the patience and buoyancy control of the most ardent underwater photographer.
Night dives are usually most productive when searching for smaller marine life, so the Barge plays its trump card when the sun goes down.
Shrimps eyes glow red from the reef, and moray eels begin to hunt.
Dont limit yourself to the wreck itself, however, because the surrounding reef offers unlimited potential for special encounters, and can also provide peace and quiet for you and a buddy.

NUWEIBA
HILTON HOUSE REEF (AKA ABU LOU LOU)
Nuweiba is known for its macro life and abundance of critters, nowhere more so than at the Hilton house reef.
A few kilometres south of Nuweiba are world-renowned dives such as Dahabs Blue Hole, but if you fancy a break from the deeper dives and want to hunt among the nooks and crannies, Abu Lou Lou is the place to go.
From the jetty with its ever-present population of lionfish to the seagrass that contains seahorses and pipefish, this site offers a wealth of photo opportunities. It is best dived as slowly as possible to ensure that you dont miss any of its treasures. You could spend 20 minutes studying a square metre of seagrass without getting bored.
If you prefer your marine life a little larger, head to the coral pinnacles to search for moray eels, porcupinefish and octopus. Frogfish are often seen moving about the reef as well.
Around the jetty you may find schools of silversides gathering, along with jacks and trevallies waiting for a chance to snatch a lone fish.
As with the Barge, Abu Lou Lou gets even better at night, offering a chance to see creatures that would be considered rare in other areas of the Red Sea. If you like hunting for the weird and the wonderful, this site is shallow, easy to navigate and rarely has any current, so is ideal for new divers.
Next time youre on a Red Sea trip, ask guides which sites they always enjoy and could recommend. Youre likely to be pleasantly surprised.