This is one of the few places where divers can regularly come eyeball to eyeball with these feared but fascinating animals. The whitetip is categorized as vulnerable to extinction by the World Conservation Union and the hammerhead one level worse at endangered.
However these encounters are only for highly experienced advanced divers - not primarily because of the sharks who do not actively seek out human prey - but due to the reef's location in the open-sea, its' alluring but dangerously deep coral plateaus and caves and its' infamous and constantly changing currents.
As one diver recalled on TripAdvisor
"Pure adrenaline.... a truly unique experience, a little fear mixed with intense emotion."
( Franco 6 November 2012
WHERE IS IT ?
Also often referred to by its' local name Sha'ab Abu Hamra - Elphinstone Reef lies in the open sea around six and a half nautical miles ( 12 KM ) east from the coastline at Marsa Abu Dabbab
(the popular beach and bay near Marsa Alam's Hilton
) at coordinates 25 19 North and 34 52 East.
This makes it 17 bumpy minutes from the shoreline by Zodiac providing sea conditions are suitable and about 17 nautical miles ( 32km ) distant or two hours from Port Ghalib
by a much safer and more comfortable motorized boat.
WHAT'S THE REEF LIKE ?
You might wonder how this tiny speck on the charts - a three hundred metre finger-like stretch of reef, just twenty to forty metres wide, could be such an attraction.
This sliver of reef runs approximately north-south. The middle section can usually be seen from the surface breakers as it lies barely concealed below the surface at a depth of just one to two metres. However the reef descends down to an arrowhead point at around 40 metres at its' southern most point while the northern section descends in steps to around 42 metres.
Go any further north or south and you descend near vertical cliffs. Similarly the east side is also an almost perpendicular drop off while the west is less steep and slightly sandier with a number of overhangs and small caves.
Since its' first mention in the first ship log records in 1827, no one has known quite how deep the surrounding waters are -
"Distant from the Egyptian shore about three leagues," noted Captain Denton of the British navy, "It is steep and at a distance of half a mile no ground at one hundred fathoms."
All that can be said is that the depth descends to several hundred metres into the deep blue - making for an eerie but beautiful contrast with the reef's many colourful coral types, especially the purple and pink soft corals and graceful red gorgonians - their tentacles moving slowly in the strong sea currents.
There is also the dangerously enticing sarcophagus archway at a depth of 52 to 65 metres near the southern tip of the reef. Legend maintains that one of Egypt's Pharaohs lies buried here, and you can just make out in the dim light the shape of a sarcophagus shaped mass encrusted in coral. However you should not descend this deep without your professional guide's approval. This type of depth far from the shoreline is only for very advanced and experienced divers.
Marginally more accessible are two pinnacles of coral on the northern plateau at around 42 metres depth but most divers would be better advised not to descend below 30 metres which is sufficient to explore most of the reef's length. Visibility is generally good at an average of 20 metres.
AND THOSE INFAMOUS SEA CURRENTS ?
The currents are variable and usually (but not always) run from North to South. They are often quite strong - two knots or greater - and this can benefit those skilled in drift diving as they can start with a dive off the northern point, which is possibly the most likely location for shark encounters, and go with the flow southwards along the reef and have the boat meet them at the southern end.
However the currents necessitate careful consideration and your guide should be prepared to adjust your diving plans according to any unusual changes in the current that he may notice. This is important as this reef is fully exposed to the open sea with nowhere to shelter.
WHAT SEASON AND WHAT TIME ?
Late summer and early autumn have the warmest sea temperatures ( 29 degrees in August compared to 22 in March ) however as August is also a peak diving season it can get disappointingly crowded so the Autumn is probably ideal. Sharks can be seen all year round although oceanic whitetips are mostly numerous during the October to December period.
Go very early at around dawn for the best chance to avoid the crowds and also the most likely time to see sharks. By eight or nine o'clock the area can sometimes get quite congested.
"Two live aboards and a few day boats unloaded all their divers at the same time....," one diver grumbled. "It was a bit crowded down there."
( TripAdvisor 5 December 2012
This despite the fact that she had arrived at the site "very early" - although she doesn't state the exact time - which suggests that how many other divers you encounter and what you see is often a matter of luck .
WHAT WILL YOU SEE ?