Phytoplankton, at the base of the marine food web, represent a fundamental food source in coral reef ecosystems. The timing (phenology) and magnitude of the phytoplankton biomass are major determinants of trophic interactions. The Red Sea is one of the warmest and most saline basins in the world, characterized by an arid tropical climate regulated by the monsoon. These extreme conditions are particularly challenging for marine life. Phytoplankton phenological indices provide objective and quantitative metrics to characterize phytoplankton seasonality. The indices i.e. timings of initiation, peak, termination and duration are estimated here using 15 years (1997–2012) of remote sensing ocean-color data from the European Space Agency (ESA) Climate Change Initiative project (OC-CCI) in the entire Red Sea basin. The OC-CCI product, comprising merged and bias-corrected observations from three independent ocean-color sensors (SeaWiFS, MODIS and MERIS), and processed using the POLYMER algorithm (MERIS period), shows a significant increase in chlorophyll data coverage, especially in the southern Red Sea during the months of summer NW monsoon. In open and reef-bound coastal waters, the performance of OC-CCI chlorophyll data is shown to be comparable with the performance of other standard chlorophyll products for the global oceans. These features have permitted us to investigate phytoplankton phenology in the entire Red Sea basin, and during both winter SE monsoon and summer NW monsoon periods. The phenological indices are estimated in the four open water provinces of the basin, and further examined at six coral reef complexes of particular socio-economic importance in the Red Sea, including Siyal Islands, Sharm El Sheikh, Al Wajh bank, Thuwal reefs, Al Lith reefs and Farasan Islands. Most of the open and deeper waters of the basin show an apparent higher chlorophyll concentration and longer duration of phytoplankton growth during the winter period (relative to the summer phytoplankton growth period). In contrast, most of the reef-bound coastal waters display equal or higher peak chlorophyll concentrations and equal or longer duration of phytoplankton growth during the summer period (relative to the winter phytoplankton growth period). The ecological and biological significance of the phytoplankton seasonal characteristics are discussed in context of ecosystem state assessment, and particularly to support further understanding of the structure and functioning of coral reef ecosystems in the Red Sea.