Exploring Djibouti’s underwater treasures

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When it comes to snorkelling with whale sharks, Djibouti is unsurpassable – floating with these majestic creatures is unlike anything you will have experienced. Beneath the surface, a great repertoire of diving adventures also awaits, with a great mix of shipwrecks and reef dives suitable for all levels. The best part is, there will be no crowds to share in the experience.

djibouti-whale-shark-snorkelling-divingA whale shark and snorkellers swim in the Bay of Ghoubbet © Fergus Kennedy / Getty Images

Moucha & Maskali Islands, Gulf of Tadjoura

The best diving in Djibouti takes place off the islands of Maskali and Moucha in the Gulf of Tadjoura, where you will find plenty of sites for all levels of divers. The superb marine biodiversity, the incredibly healthy reefs (Garden of Eden-like) and lack of other divers are all big draws. And as on land in Djibouti, there’s a sense of adventure to spice up the diving. A few marvellous reef dives include Tombant Point, which is blessed with healthy corals and prolific marine life, and the Canyon, a relaxing site suitable for novices. Another site worthy of exploration is Les Patates Air France (‘Air France Bommies’), which is known for its shoals of groupers, especially in March and April when they mate.

djibouti-diving-coral-fishA school of gaterin skirting through a reef bursting with colourful corals © Frédéric Bassemayousse

Another clincher is the presence of shipwrecks in a good state of preservation. Wreck buffs swear by the monster-sized Le Faon, a 120m-long cargo ship that lies in 27m of water on sandy floor and is heavily overgrown with marine life. L’Arthur Rimbaud, a tugboat that was scuttled in 2005, is another stunner, as is the nearby Nagfa, a small Ethiopian boat that lies in about 32m of water.

Bay of Ghoubbet

And now the moment of truth… spending time with the whale sharks who frequent the Bay of Ghoubbet at the western of the Gulf of Tadjoura. These massive, silent beasts migrate annually from their usual feeding grounds to the warm waters of Djibouti to mate and give birth. During the peak season (November to January), the question is not whether you will see one, but rather how many you will see. There are occasionally up to 10 individuals close to the shore, and snorkelling amongst these behemoths is sure to leave you with indelible memories. Their grace, vibrant spots (some folks even call them ‘dominoes’) and unworldly bulk take you back to the time of dinosaurs and mythical leviathans.

whale-shark-djibouti-divingThe complex patterns on the upper surface of whale sharks have led some people to call them ‘dominoes’ in Djibouti © Len Deeley / Getty Images

Close interactions with wildlife is definitely a delicate topic, and plenty of unprofessional operators arrange whale shark spotting trips around the world, but a number of reputable local tour operators in Djibouti have created some best practices for the tours – stick to established outfits that are ecologically sensitive and follow protocols, including Dolphin. Visitors are required to wear a life jacket or wetsuit, keep a respectful distance from the world’s largest fish, and neither feed them nor submerge beneath them. And no, you cannot catch a ride on their fin.

Les Sept Frères archipelago

If you want to see a dazzling aggregation of pelagics, Les Sept Frères archipelago can’t be beaten. Trapped in the bottleneck between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, the ‘Seven Brothers’ bear the brunt of the raging currents that sweep through twice a day. Cold greenish water is whipped up over the rocky plateaus to nourish colourful soft corals and other creatures that feed on the plankton. The seven reefs vary immensely, from Rhounda Dhabali, which is largely barren, to Rhounda Khomaytou, which is literally seething with life. There are shallow gardens such as the Japanese Gardens on Kadda Dhabali, frequented by Spanish dancers and, at night, dozens of lobsters.

Les-sept-freres-archipelago-diving-djiboutiThe sun sets over Les Sept Frères, an archipelago dotted with dive sites – it’s best accessed on live-aboard dive boats © Frédéric Bassemayousse

There are also deep drop-offs such as the east ridge of Rhounda Khomaytou, which boasts giant groupers, schooling jacks, shoals of barracuda and oversized nudibranchs not seen anywhere else in the Red Sea. Indian Ocean species also hold their own here, with honeycomb morays, oceanic triggerfish and giant sweetlips in abundance. Oh, and there’s even a good wreck dive, La Dame Blanche, which lies in about 25m of water. Note that diving in Les Sept Frères is not for the faint-hearted because of the rough seas and the strong currents. Due to the distance, trips to Les Sept Frères are usually organised in the way of live-aboards.

Diving conditions

Although Djibouti is diveable year-round, the best season for diving is from November to March. During July and August, the seas may be too rough for diving. Note that visibility rarely exceeds 10m to 15m (and can drop to 5m at certain sites at certain periods of the year). Current conditions vary, but are generally imperceptible to mild, except in Les Sept Frères archipelago where strong currents are not uncommon. During the coolest months (December through March), water temperatures are usually between 25°C and 27°C. Summer water temperatures range from 27°C to 29°C. You won’t need anything more than a 3mm wetsuit.

djibouti-diving-wreck-FaonLe Faon, a 120m-long cargo ship that sits on the sandy sea floor some 27m below the surface © Frédéric Bassemayousse

Facilities & services

There’s only one professional land-based dive operator in Djibouti, Dolphin, who work out of Djibouti City. It’s affiliated with CMAS and PADI, two internationally recognised certifying agencies. Equipment is well-maintained, facilities are well equipped and staff are friendly and knowledgeable and speak excellent English. It arranges diving and snorkelling trips as well as whale-shark spotting (between November and January).

If you’re eager to do as much diving as possible, a live-aboard is a good option as you’ll do several dives per day, plus some at night. A six-night live-aboard around the Gulf of Tadjoura and Les Sept Frères archipelago is a great way to enjoy Djibouti’s best dive sites, avoid lengthy boat rides to and from Djibouti City and make the most of your diving vacation. Mini-cruises from two to four nights are also available. Recommended professional operators for these trips include Dolphin and Siyyan Travel & Leisure. Both have highly comfortable yachts with private facilities. During the whale shark season, diving and whale-shark spotting are usually combined.

These operators also run snorkelling trips in parallel with its dive excursions.

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