You are here: Home » The Dahlak Islands

The Dahlak Islands

Scattered over a vast area of the Red Sea like a string of pearl upon the azure, translucent waters of the Red Sea, more than 350 Eritrean islands, among which more than 200 islands belong to the Dahlak Archipelago, remain one of the last great unspoilt destinations in the world.

The impact of the Red Sea on the history and development of Eritrea has been all important. The name Eritrea derives from the ancient Greek word for red, which was named after the waters of the ‘Erythrean Sea’. Today, it provides modern Eritrea with its vital sea links with the outside world, as well as a welcome place of recreation for Eritreans and visitors alike.

The abundance of fish life, the wonderful corals and unspoiled waters have made the Dahlaks a scuba-divers’ paradise, an aquatic wonderland.

Beautiful corals, Eritrean Islands (Explore Eritrea)

Beautiful corals, Eritrean Islands (Explore Eritrea)

Pearl fishing has flourished around the Dahlaks since the time of the ancient Egyptians, who held influence over the islands. Later they fell under the control of the Ottoman Empire, when the largest island, Dahlak Kebir– some 60km across, was the chief port for pearl fishing in the southern part of the Red Sea. It has a Necropolis with Kufic inscriptions, as well as ancient water cisterns.

Early inhabitants of the Dahlak dealt with the problem of drinking water by carving large cisterns out of the rock, each of which contained a day’s ration for the settlement. One cistern was carved for every day of the year, an extraordinary triumph of human ingenuity over this harsh environment, but for some reason they fell into disuse centuries ago.

Of the 1,000-plus species or subspecies of fish known to inhabit the Red Sea, some 15% are not found anywhere else. Some corals and echinoderms, such as certain star fish, are only found here. Current records for coral fish include 40 species in 24 families on stresses coral patches near Massawa and over 250 species in 49 families on outer coral reefs such as angelfish, parrotfish, barracudas, pipefish, surgeonfish, sharks, tuna, caranx et cetera.

Off the leeward coast of Dahlak Kebir, at the mouth of the Gulf of Zula, lies the Island of Dissei, formed by a narrow ridge of little volcanic hills which tapers off at either end. Dissei’s beaches are so quiet and remote that when the island’s only village comes into view in a wide, sandy bay, it appears like a settlement of survivors from a long-forgotten shipwreck. Huts constructed from driftwood and strung with old fishnets strengthen the impression that this is a community of several dozen Robinson Crusoes.

Sea turtle, Dahlak Islands, Eritrea (Explore Eritrea)

Sea turtle, Dahlak Islands, Eritrea (Explore Eritrea)

There is a good chance, too, of seeing turtles – notably the hawksbill, leatherbacks and green species – and the sparsely populated Dahlaks offer a haven for these threatened animals when they breed. Female turtles come ashore to lay their eggs on the beach and bury them in the sand. When hatched the babies make their way to the sea to fend for themselves.

Mantarays, which have ‘wing spans’ measuring up to several metres, occasionally leap clear of the water and flap down on the surface. The reason for this acrobatics is a mystery, but it could clean themselves of parasites. The fins which form ‘horns’ in front of the eyes and on either side of the mouse, the dark back and long whip-like tail give the manta a somewhat sinister appearance. But they only fed on small shoaling fish and they behave sweetly when a diver hitches a ride on their shoulders.

Pods of Dolphins sometimes appear, swimming playfully alongside the boat, including the humpback, bottlenosed, spinner and common types. Whilst whales are rarely observed in the Red Sea, another significant mammal species found in the Dahlaks is the dugong, or sea cow. This creature, which gave rise to fishermen’s tales about mermaids, is rarely seen. It is grayish, cylinder-shaped, up to four metres long, and can weigh up to 900 kilos.

Across from Dissie lies the Island of Madot. At certain seasons, tens of thousands of seabirds come here – and many other islands in the Dahlaks – to breed.

If you swim at night it is possible to observe another incredible wonder of nature. As you move through the dark water, an aura of greenish sparkling light explodes around your fingers and limbs. This amazing light show, called bioluminescence, is produced by tiny living creatures. The Dahlaks are indeed a world of their own.

With its expensive coastline, numerous islands and relatively calm waters with steady winds in some areas, the shore and marine environment of the country offers significant potential for water based tourism.

Scuba Diving & Snorkelling  The Dahlak islands, are one of the most rewarding places for these activities.

Shipwrecks off the Massawa Coast – Twelve wreck sites have been located in the Red Sea. Some of them lie only 3m below the surface while some are as deep as 40m down under. These include wrecks of the World War II Italian warship such as the Nazario Sauro, freighters and even army tanks have been observed.

Water Skiing, Surf-riding and Sailing  there is a great potential for Water-Skiing, Surf-riding and Sailing.

Beach Recreation & Swimming  The waters of the Eritrean coast are shallow and relatively safe for swimming. There are beaches on both the mainland coast and islands, very suitable for recreation and family retreat.