by Dr. Sharif Galal
November 29, 2014
The Red Sea is an extension of the Indian Ocean, located between Egypt and Sudan from the western side and Saudi Arabia from the eastern side. Fringing coral reef systems can be found everywhere at both shores of the red sea. These reefs are estimated to be over 5000 years old, and the entire coastal reef complex of the red sea is considered one of the longest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It extends for more than 2,000 km of shoreline.
Most coral reefs grow from the shoreline. The following photo shows a beach in the beautiful town of Sharm Al Sheikh, one of the most known diving spots in the red sea and the coral reefs can be seen clearly from above.
A fringing reef rims the shore of Egypt's town of Sharm Al-Sheikh.
This town is a hot spot for all sea sports including scuba diving and snorkeling as the water is warm all over the year, adding to that, the water is exceptionally clear due to the lack of river discharge and low rainfall in addition to the slow current in some bays. In some days, the visibility could literally reach up to 60 meters. In other word, put a snorkeling mask and you can see all the marine ecosystem all the way down to the sea bed.
The biodiversity of the marine ecosystem is extra ordinary in the red sea, ranging from thousands of different species of soft and hard corals, tropical fishes, dolphins, sharks, whales, rays, marine crustaceans, sea stars and sea shells. There is about 120 coral reef fish species were found to be endemic in the red sea i.e. found nowhere else in the world and the scientists are continuously discovering new species every year. Such Red Sea coral reef formations and biodiversity are attributed to its unique geographic location and warm temperature that make it one of the warmest seas in the world.
The Egyptian coast of the red sea alone supports more than 200 species of reef building corals belonging to more than 50 genera. This represents about four times the hard coral diversity found on Caribbean reefs, and is comparable to the coral diversity found in the Maldives and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.
A growing number of marine protected areas (MPAs) have been established in the Red Sea in order to save such pristine ecosystem from the damage that incurred by fishing industry and repeated un-regulated diving activities. Ras Mohammed National Park was established by Egypt in 1983 and extends for more than 480 km². This national park contains very healthy fringing reefs that are full of different forms of life and in my opinion, it is one of the best places in the world to practice underwater photography (if not the best of all of them).
Red Sea exploration
Today, the most popular dive destinations of Egypt are Sharm Al Sheikh, Dahab and Taba. Further south, reef diving is known at other small towns like Marsa Alam, El Gouna, and Hurghada. There are daily flights to these destinations boarding from different European airports. There is a variety of accommodation options in Egypt and overall , it is affordable, you can have a wide choice between bed and breakfast lodges that cost 40 $ per night all the way up to 5 star fancy hotels that cost more than 300$ per night.
Shallow reefs and exceptionally clear water full of marine life make the red sea an extra-ordinary place for underwater photography.
One of my favorite creatures to photograph is the blue-spotted stingray (Taeniura lymma) it has a large, bright blue spots that cover its body. It usually lives at the sea bottom and feeds on shells of crabs and shrimps. These kind of rays live alone most of the time or in small groups and tend to hide under the sand waiting for prey to come close.
Blue-spotted stingray (Taeniura lymma)
Blue-spotted stingray (Taeniura lymma)
Parrot fish Rusty Parrot Fish (Scarus ferrugineus), feeding on the elephant ear coral (Sarcophyton).
The clown fish (Amphiprion bicinctus), sometimes called anemone fish, is one of the most common fish in the red sea and can be seen almost every dive, it the most photographed fish in the red sea due to its friendly behavior, once you fire the strobe , it comes close to your camera, so it gives the photographer a nice oppertunity to take some close up shots. This fish usually lives at shallow depth and has a symbiotic relationship with the anemone (type of soft corals), it tends to stay at the same patch of soft coral for its whole life.
Different types of clown fishes. Soft corals are a fusion of polyp bases into a fleshy mass partially supported by calcareous spicules which are common in the red sea.
The clown fish anemonefish
Grape like water filled vesicles of Bubble Coral (Plerogyra sinuos)
Attractive elongated polyps of leather coral (Sarcophyton)
Tree coral (Scleronephthya) is a species of soft coral which is known to be highly toxic
Dendronephthya klunzingeri is a species of soft coral
Flowerpot coral (Goniopora)
Dendronephthya klunzingeri is a species of soft coral that lives in a small colonies
Daisy coral (Alveopora)
Hard corals are widely diverse in the red sea, they generate a hard skeleton - examples below.
Yellow hard scroll coral (Turbinaria reniformis) forms a good habitat for different kinds of reef species including fishes and crustaceans.
Massive brain coral (Colpophyllia natans)
Abstract of Moon coral (Favia Speciosa)
Red Sea Eels
The red sea is also a natural habitat for different kinds of eels, including the giant eel, the grey eel and the golden eel.
Grey eel (Gymnothorax griseus)
Golden spotted eel
Eel eating a Trigger Fish
Red Sea Diversity - Eel
Coral reef fish are fish which live in close relation to coral reefs. Among all the other reef inhabitants, the fish stand out as they are very colorful , playful and interesting to watch. This puffer has the ability to change her skin color according to the surrounding environment, similar to the reef octopus.
Schools of Jewel Fairy Basslet (Pseudanthias squamipinnis)
Schools of Jewel Fairy Basslet (Pseudanthias squamipinnis). This beautiful fish lives in a group of about 400 females with only one male, when this male dies, the oldest female turns into a male and takes the lead.
Different species of banner fish
Pennant Fish (Heniochus intermedius)
Orange Striped Trigger fish (Balistapus undulatus)
This fish can grow up to 70 cm in length and is known for its big strong teeth that crushed the hard corals.
Another kind of trigger fish , The Arabian Picasso Trigger fish (Rhinecanthus assasi)
Coral Grouper (Cephalopholis miniata)
Royal Angelfish (Pygoplites diacanthus)
Spotted Boxfish (Ostracion meleagris)
Sergeant fish (Abudefdur saxatilis) are associated with shallow reefs
Other sea Creatures
Reef octopus camouflaging within a patch of a hard coral waiting for a catch.
Puffer fish have the ability to change their skin color according to the surrounding environment, similar to the reef octopus above.
Masked Puffer Fish (Arothron diadematus)
Masked Puffer Fish (Arothron diadematus)
Underwater housing, camera and strobe
Underwater photography tips and tricks
1- Control your buoyancy. This is the most important advice, don’t start underwater photography in the ocean or open seas before you master your buoyancy ina swimming pool otherwise getting busy with the camera during
scuba diving may result in uncontrolled ascent and decompression sickness later on.
2- Start with good gear . I found that using big gear (SLR camera and two arms with guiding light and big double strobes) restricts my movement underwater and makes the dive unpleasant. All of the photos in this article were shot with Canon G11 and one strobe which costs less than $1500 and can be hooked to your BCD (bouyancy control device). I prefer this gear over my Nikon D7100 and its heavy underwater housing. Getting stunning underwater images doesn’t necessary require very expensive equipment but it requires good knowledge about the principles of general photography. I love the canon G series because it's handy, affordable and can shoot in RAW format.
3-Always shoot in RAW format. The secret of getting stunning underwater colors is to know how to adjust the white balance. By shooting RAW format, you can play with white balance slider in light room later to get accurate colors and exposure. Sometimes, I take a white board with me to use it as a reference point for calibration. I personally advise against shooting JPEG unless your camera does not support RAW format.
4 - Get close and closer. Try to get closer to your subject without touching it to get less water between your camera and the subject in order to minimize the effect of backscatters (dust-like particles in the water that turns into white spots when you fire the strobes). Having said that, make sure not to touch the corals as several species are known to be toxic and could result in sever allergic reaction that will ruin your whole day (some corals are called fire corals because of the allergic reaction they can inflict).
5- Use a strobe. A strobe is a must tool for underwater photography. The deeper you dive, the less light you will have and everything will look grey or blue after 7 meters depth. Light brings colors back into the photo. I personally prefer the off-camera flash as it can be positioned exactly where you need it. My preferred underwater gear is Canon G11 plus one Ikelite strobe. I don’t use the TTL function as I never got the right exposure with it , instead, I tend to keep everything on manual mode including the camera itself.
6- Work on the composition and background. I have noticed that most novice underwater photographers tend to point their cameras down toward the subject which results in a dull photographs. Instead, always shoot upward to get a nice composition, a blue background and a sense of scale. Shoot at different angles and take several frames and different exposures. Usually shooting with a shutter speed of 1/250 will result in a black background even if you are shooting in the middle of the day which sometimes gives you a very compelling outcome especially if you are shooting macro.
7- Exposure. Work on getting the correct exposure. Shutter speed controlls the background exposure and aperture is responsible for the foreground exposure (the main subject in most of the cases). I personally tend to capture the first shot on P mode while pointing the camera toward the blue water keeping the sun behind me or at an angle to get the right background exposure (the nice blue ocean color) and then, I dial these settings in M mode and start playing with the aperture to get the right exposure of the foreground. I usually keep my strobe power very low as a starting point, then tweak it up according to the surrounding light. Here is one of those situations where you act against the rule: The best time to shoot underwater is around noon time as this is when you get the maximum ambient light (contrary to any other kind of photography where you better shoot at sunrise or sunset). I usually keep the ISO somewhere from 100 to 400 and I never go above that, noisy underwater photos are usually difficult to process. If you are shooting a shutter speed less than 1/100 sec, you will likely get a blurry photo unless you are freezing the motion with the flash.
8- Keep practicing. I remember the first time I used an underwater camera, I was disappointed with the results , The great thing about digital cameras is that you can see the outcome instantly. Keep practicing, shoot horizontals and verticals but always point the camera upward (Unless you are shooting an abstract). Every frame you take is a learning experience.
9- Read about underwater photography I found that the book by Jack Drafahl “ Master Guide for Underwater Digital Photography” to be very useful source for any one who is starting underwater photography , another book is” The Underwater Photographer “by Martin Edge which is more advanced.
Dr. Sharif Galal is a medical doctor and a biotechnology researcher. He received his M.D. from Egypt and his specialty degree in diving medicine from Stellenbosch University- South Africa in addition to a Master’s degree in biomedical sciences from university of Calgary. Apart from medicine and research, Dr. Galal is an amateur underwater photographer, scuba diving instructor and an enthusiastic wildlife and nature advocate. He currently resides in Calgary, Alberta and can be contacted at:
1- Fifth national report to the convention on biological diversity in the red sea ,2014
3- Coral Reefs and Tourism in Egypt’s Red Sea Topics in Middle Eastern and African Economies Vol. 14, September 2012
Other articles by Dr. Galal on the Canadian Nature Photographer
Dr. Sharif Galal - The Great Grey Owl
Dr. Sharif Galal - Rocky Mountain Marmot
Dr. Sharif Galal - The Great Salmon Run Adams River BC