Red Sea: Hard Coral
words + photos
The resorts of southern Egypt offer a luxurious experience on land, but is the diving good enough to lure people away from the favourites of the north?
The pufferfish were scrapping like a couple of pumped-up rottweilers. I had been following my dive guide, Lewis around the pinnacles when we stumbled across them. We moved in closer, wondering if our presence would end the fight, but their only interest was in who could take the biggest chunk out of the other. One fish grabbed a mouthful of its opponent and shook him with all his might like a puppy with a rag doll. Eventually the rag doll freed himself and took off around the reef with the other in hot pursuit. I had always thought of pufferfish as peaceful critters, so this was quite an eye-opener. It was a dramatic end to what been an otherwise sedate experience swimming through cracks in the rock at Sha’ab Samadai, circumnavigating the pinnacles and watching Spanish dancers on the sea grass.
Once the sole preserve of liveaboards, the sites around Marsa Alam are now becoming established day boat classics, thanks in no small part to the local airport, which has now been operating for six years. Marsa Alam has a fascinating variety of dive sites, and there’s more than one way to get in the water. Shore diving, jeep safaris, speedboats and day boats are all on the weekly itinerary. The diving is an eclectic mix of secluded bays, dynamic offshore reefs, labyrinths of tunnels and caves and pretty coral gardens.
The Red Sea in southern Egypt is characterised by fringing reefs that run all the way down to the Sudan and many of the offshore sites have massive hard coral formations that are absolutely pristine. Perhaps because of the closed geological nature of the Red Sea, this region escaped the mass coral bleaching that occurred over much of the Indo-Pacific during the 1998 El Niño: today its labyrinths of hard coral offer a snapshot of how acropora reefs looked in the past, before global warming started to take a toll on temperature-sensitive stony corals.
It wasn’t so long ago that Marsa Alam only offered tented accommodation with very basic amenities, but it is now gaining a reputation for luxury hideaways. I was here to check out one of the new ‘built by divers for divers’ resorts, a combined venture between Werner Lau and Sinai Divers – The Oasis. I arrived late in the evening, feeling slightly frazzled after a day of travelling and flight delays, but it didn’t take long before a blanket of calm descended over me. True to its name, this resort is a haven of tranquillity. Situated well away from the road and overlooking a pretty sandy beach it has been built in a modern Nubian style, using natural materials that blend in with the landscape. All the chalets are individually designed with air conditioning and mini bars and are separated by winding steps of fossilized coral stone. Most also have stunning views over the coastline from the veranda.
The Oasis has its own house reef, which can be accessed from a small jetty on the beach. You can do a giant stride entry off the jetty straight into 12m of water, and the reef slopes down into the depths, where an array of soft and hard corals can be found. I adored night dives here: three Spanish dancers complete with emperor shrimps in the first few minutes, as well as some tiny squat lobsters perched in the fire coral, sleeping parrotfish and spiny spider crabs crawling across the soft corals. However, when the wind and swell picks up, the reef can be difficult to access and occasionally has to be closed for safety reasons.
The Oasis dive centre is efficiently run and all guests with relevant qualifications are offered nitrox for free. Dives are arranged every day by minibus to neighbouring bays and transfer times vary between five minutes and one hour. If, for instance, you want to dive at Marsa Samadai, there is a 30-minute transfer with guests travelling by mini bus and dive kit in trucks. Bedouin rugs are laid down on the sand and your dive kit set out ready for you to begin kitting up. Marsa Samadai is a shallow bay and slopes gently down to a maximum 25m. Look closely at the little coral bommies on this site and you will find an incredible amount of cleaning stations with very busy little shrimps and cleaner wrasse. Guests also have the option to upgrade their dive packs to join the day boat or head off to Elphinstone or Abu Dabbab. The routine is incredibly easy – just write your name on the dive list, check your gas mix with an oxygen analyser, write your kit box number on the label and everything turns up automatically for you the next morning, all you have to do is get yourself out of bed.
Day boats are offered to both Sha’ab Marsa Alam and Sha’ab Samadai and if coral tunnels and swim-throughs light your fire neither of these sites should be missed.
Well suited to all levels of diver, Sha’ab Marsa Alam is a 30-minute boat journey from Marsa Alam harbour. On the east side of this reef there is a coral garden and to the south you can find large pinnacles and stunning coral formations. A small safari boat can also be dived here in just 12m of water. Sunk as recently as 1995 this little wreck has already been well colonised and the holds are full of glass fish, schools of yellow fin goatfish parade the decks and under the hull crocodilefish and blue spotted rays can be seen lying on the sand.
The horseshoe-shaped reef known as Sha’ab Samadai is a protected national park due to the famous resident pod of spinner dolphins that live there, hence the nickname ‘Dolphin House’. The inner lagoon is a forbidden zone, but snorkellers can be dropped just outside by zodiac and the dolphins regularly use this entry/exit point and sometimes stop to interact with visitors. However, there is a lot more to this site – on the southwest of the reef there is a chain of pinnacles, the largest of which has a small cave where shafts of light cut through the darkness. On the pinnacle chain to the south there is a labyrinth of swim-throughs and the added bonus of a sizeable colony of anemones.
Those with an adventurous spirit should make the journey to the offshore reef of Elphinstone. It’s only 20 minutes by speedboat from Marsa Shagra when the sea is flat, but if the wind and swell picks up, you can expect the journey to take a bit longer and don’t forget to hold on tight! This cigar-shaped reef is subject to strong, nutrient-rich currents and the sheer walls are festooned with colourful soft corals. Keep an eye out in the blue as many pelagics can be seen here, including oceanic white-tip sharks just below the surface on the northern plateau and hammerheads that are occasionally spotted off the deeper southern plateau.
If you want to see big critters in a more protected environment, Abu Dabbab is well worth a visit. This large bay has sea grass beds that attract some interesting grazing animals. The most famous, of course, is the resident dugong, which can occasionally be seen munching his way along the sea bed, but there is also a population of large green turtles along with guitar sharks, large marbled stingrays and moray eels. If sea grass isn’t your thing, there’s a really pretty reef to explore nearby.
I enjoyed the mix of diving available, and although I’m not a morning person getting back to the resort in time for breakfast after diving Elphinstone was strangely satisfying. It also means that you can fit in another three dives with the whole day still ahead of you… mind you, it can be tempting just to spend the day in the hotel pool overlooking the beach, or enjoying a pummelling courtesy of the resident masseur!
If a holiday in Sharm or Hurghada is all about joining the party, Marsa Alam delights in its splendid isolation. As the sunsets over The Oasis and you are enjoying a cup of freshly ground ginger coffee in the Bedouin tent on the beach, it all makes perfect sense. Whether you’re finning slowly through a maze of coral or watching a turtle working its way through a sea grass meadow, the Marsa Alam experience is all about finding the time and space to appreciate the subtle rhythms of the Red Sea.
Need to know
Jane Morgan was a guest of Werner Lau (+49 4105 690 936, or email) and stayed at the Oasis resort. You can also book via Regaldive (+44 1353 659 999, or email). Thanks also to Sinai Divers. A seven-night package with half-board accommodation, transfers and flights from London Gatwick costs from £519, based on two sharing. A range of dive packages is available at additional cost.