A northerly tongue of the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea is a 2,000km long stretch of water surrounded by Egypt to the north, Egypt and Sudan to the west, and Saudi Arabia to the east. Much of the diving in the Red Sea is in the northern reaches around the Sinai Peninsula, mainly from the gateway resorts of Sharm El Sheikh and Hurgada, however, a good number of liveaboards run itineraries further south to offshore reefs and pinnacles.
The Red Sea is unique in that its species boast high levels of endemism - this means they are not found anywhere else in the world. Some facts and figures:
There are a total of 1120 species of fish in the Red Sea, and 216 of them are exclusively endemic to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
22 of the 46 species of fish living at depths deeper than 200m are endemic.
After Hawaii (30.7%) and Easter Island (21.7%), the Red Sea has the third-highest percentage of endemism in the world, at 19.3%.
So what is it about the Red Sea that has resulted in such specific marine biodiversity? Well, it has a lot to do with how the Red Sea was formed.
Until 5 million years ago, the northern end of the Red Sea was connected to the Mediterranean Sea and the southern end was landlocked. Gradual uplifting of the land in the north closed off the Red Sea entirely, creating a huge inland evaporation pan that developed thick layers of salt.
Eventually, further land movement resulted in the opening of the southern end of the Red Sea, connecting it to the Indian Ocean. While this connection allowed Into-Pacific species to colonize the Red Sea, the shallow, narrow mouth at the Strait of Perim, along with higher salinity and water temperatures, has created a partially isolated environment.
Also, ice ages as recently as 15,000 years ago locked up so much water that global sea levels fell by as much as 100m. This would have temporarily cut the newly formed Red Sea off from the Indian Ocean.
All of the above factors have contributed to evolutionary processes that resulted in high levels of endemism in the Red Sea. It is the reef species with very small ranges that are most affected, and families such as the dottybacks, blennies, gobies, and butterflyfish are prime examples of the endemic species you will spot when Red Sea diving.
Here are some common endemic species found in the Red Sea:
Red Sea Pipefish
Red Sea Flasher Wrasse
A final point of note is that of Lessepsian migration or the transfer of species through the Suez Canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. This artificial connection between these two bodies of water has introduced alien species to non-native habitats at a much faster rate than they would ever evolve. This presents significant implications for the ecological health of previously isolated habitats.
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