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Scuba Diving around Marsa Alam, Egypt

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18 July 2014
Three divers give the low-down on the scuba diving around Marsa Alam in the Red Sea: Dugongs, Dolphins, Sharks and Turtles by Graham Collins; Wow," I said to Anna, "I didn't expect this by Greg Kruse; Marsa Alam in the Past by Jill Studholme. Photo credits: David Collins, Greg Kruse, Suzanne Challoner.

This Marsa Alam video features turtles, dolphins, sharks and stonefish. Starts with a green turtle (Chelonia mydas) eating seagrass and accompanied by a sharksuker (Echeneis naucrates). Progresses to guitar shark (Rhinobatus halavi) and trumpet fish (Fistularia commersonii). Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) put in several appearances. The confusingly-named zebra shark (Stegostoma varium) shows off its spots (the juveniles have black and white stripes). Compiled from original footage by David Collins.


Dugongs, Dolphins, Sharks and Turtles

Dugongs, Dolphins, Sharks and Turtles
by Graham Collins
Abu Dabab, at Marsa Alam, used to be the haunt of the dugong, but the building of 3 hotels has meant that they are now more scarce. Our first dive here followed the north side of the bay along the reef. This is an interesting dive and we saw 4 large remora on their own (without a host). A second dive went out into the sea grass area and saw several guitar sharks and 3 large turtles which were untroubled by our presence and gave good photographic opportunities.

Red Sea Dolphins

Dolphin House Reef has been designated a protected area, to protect the shallow bay where the dolphin sleep. A day boat is used to reach this site, and attracts snorkellers who swim with the dolphins when they leave their protected area, as well as divers. We were dropped off from the boat as it reached the horseshoe shaped reef, and we made a drift dive along the reef to where the boat anchored. There are lots of soft corals, and a turtle lunching on soft coral, which made for an excellent dive. Following lunch on the boat we took the opportunity to snorkel with the several dolphin pods which were clearly happy to interact with the snorkellers.

Later we dived through The Canyon which makes a beautiful scenic dive from the boat anchorage and round the coral pinnacles in the area.

Marsa Alam Canyon

Although many of the bays around Marsa Alam have been developed with resorts and hotels, a few have been protected and make good shore dives. We dived at Marsa Al Salya. This involves quite a long walk out across the reef, and then we searched the sea grass area, without great success, so then we followed the north side of the reef for a pleasant dive. To the north is Marsa Eglet, where we found several turtles feeding on the sea grass.

Turtle in Marsa Alam
Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) at Marsa Eglet

Out on the north reef there is a beautiful coral block with shoals of glass fish and lots of other life. On the way back there was a very large moray eel.

The Solitaire House Reef
We did two dives on the house reef of the resort to check it out. The entry is a jump off the jetty which goes out over the reef. On the first dive we went north along the drop-off. This was typical house reef scenery and fish life, and because of the limited diving over the last few years had good coral growth. There was a full sized Napoleon wrasse on the way back. In the afternoon we went south along the house reef, where the drop off is steeper and there are even more corals. A silhouette at the bottom of the drop off turned out to be a zebra shark resting, and we were able to get good close up views before it moved off. There were also scorpion fish, a moray eel and sting rays.

Zebra Shark

As the season changes from winter to spring, there can be strong winds along the red sea coast. We tried a dive at Marsa Samedi, but it was a bit like a washing machine in the bay, so our last day was spent playing water polo with the other guests in the resort pool.

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"Wow," I said to Anna, "I didn't expect this."

"Water, water, everywhere,/ nor any drop to drink..." lamented the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge's famous poem. The sea, too, can be a desert, with its vast, flat, empty surface sparkling and bare under the sun. And so it felt, driving 250 kilometers south from Hurghada toward Marsa Alam along the Red Sea coast. The Great Eastern Desert to the right of us and the Red Sea desert to the left of us and the long black line of the road ahead.

"Wow," I said to Anna, "I didn't expect this."

"I thought you would be shocked," she replied. "It's not at all like the tropical islands we're used to."

The unexpected desolation was accentuated by dozens of unfinished hotel construction projects scattered along the roadside. Bare concrete block walls, dusty courtyards, and a few frazzled palm trees seemed to be the extent of more than half of the projects waiting, unfinished, for a brighter day.

We booked at the Oasis Dive Resort just north of Marsa Alam. It sits on a bare rocky cliff overlooking the beach, the simple buildings done in traditional village architecture befitting the environment. A cluster of palm trees and aloes, and a small grove of stunted olive trees in the wadi running through the property help to create the feeling of an oasis in the desert. On the beach side, a pier juts out into the sea, reaching the dark line where bright shallow water suddenly turns dark and deep.

All activities at the Oasis turn around the dive shop. Racks of gear and shelves of books and detailed maps of local dive sites all over the wall confirm that this is a serious and well-organized operation, part of the Werner Lau system that extends through the Maldives and on to Bali. Although boat diving is offered, we opted for shore diving. It's simple and easy, and you don't get mal de mer. A fifteen to thirty minute minivan ride gets you to one of the many little bays that line the coast - marsa means bay. You gear up on the shore, wade in, and off you go.

Diving the Red Sea is different from other oceans. Reefs run the entire length of the coast, but the bays are shallow, making buoyancy control challenging, and the Red Sea is about 15% saltier than most oceans, so we had to add about 3 kilos of weight over what we would normally carry.

The extra weight adds a further dimension to the already strenuous task of walking down to the water from where you gear up on the beach. Tank, weights, buoyancy control vest, fins, mask and snorkel, camera; we struggled along feeling like astronauts, wearing all our gear down to the water's edge. Once we were under water, the dives were bliss. Because the bays are so shallow, 70 minute dives are common. Free nitrox at the Oasis makes long dives even easier and less fatiguing.

The typical site is a bay with seagrass beds in the middle and coral gardens and walls on both sides. A common dive plan is to head out into the seagrass beds at first, where most life is encountered only 6 to 10 meters down, to go looking for turtles and rays and guitar sharks, and also for It, the creature whose name must not be said, or you will never see it. Dugongs were once common in these bays, but their numbers have greatly reduced recently as tourism grows. Giant sea turtles more than a meter long, however, can be found grazing in herds like cows in the seagrass beds. We never did see It.

Turtle at Marsa Eglet

After 20 minutes floating over the seagrass, we would head to the north shore coral gardens, which are generally richer than those on the south side of the bays. There is a great variety of hard and soft corals, reef fish of all kinds, lion fish, scorpion and crocodile fish, as well as morays and octopuses, cuttlefish and squid. The sea floor drops fairly rapidly toward the mouth of the bays, providing richly colorful walls to explore for down to 20 meters and more. Going out fairly deep, but rising up to 10 meters or less on the return extends dive time and gives you a chance to find some of the Red Sea's odder creatures.

On one such return, at Marsa Egla, I saw Anna hanging about 5 meters from the bottom a little off the wall, staring intently at the sea floor. She looked over at me, and pointed down at something. Henry, who had buddied with us that day, and I drifted over to see what she had found. Below us, something that looked like a rock was crawling across the sand among the coral heads. We all went down to take a closer look. It was hard to say what it was. It clawed slowly across the sand on insect-like black legs, and was more perfectly camouflaged than a scorpion fish. It was difficult to spot its eyes, or even to determine whether it was a fish. Henry took several photos, looking back up at me in amazement between shots as if to say, "What is this thing?"

Red Sea Walkman
Red Sea Walkman, Inimicus didactylus

We puzzled over it after the dive on the way back to the Oasis. I recalled having read about some kind of fish that crawls in the Red Sea. When we got back, I asked Roland, one of the divemasters, what it could be.

"Oh, that's a Red Sea Walkman," he replied at once, "very funny looking fish, and as toxic as a scorpion. It's sometimes called a devil fish. Nasty fellow, don't mess with him!"

Henry grinned. "Is that by Sony?" he asked.

But Roland was serious, and so it was. Anna had found a Red Sea Walkman (Inimicus filamentosus). That was the highlight of a series of very excellent dives, with a wonderful variety of marine creatures. The best dive site was Abu Dabab, where a herd of sea turtles grazed the sea grass beds, octopi were hiding among the corals, a cuttlefish sat tranquilly on the sand, and a squadron of squid wheeled with perfect symmetry to eye us as we passed below. Roland gently scratched an octopus between the eyes as it sat on a coral head trying to look like a rock. He was doing a pretty good imitation, but each time Roland would scratch him, he would recoil slightly and turn from mottled black and brown to pure white. He stayed put for several scratches, and we left him there when we sailed on.

Be warned, however. Even Marsa Alam is rapidly becoming overcrowded like the Red Sea dive sites further north. At one point, returning from our last dive at Abu Dabab, where we had set out almost at sunrise, we ran into a crowd of about fifteen divers coming toward us around a point. Looking up, the sea was frothy with a score of floundering snorkelers. Before long, even It will be only a memory of quieter times, so plan your visit soon.

By Greg Kruse, Leave a Comment


Marsa Alam in the Past

Ten years ago I stayed in a tent in the desert and dived every day up and down the coast. It was the most relaxing holiday I've ever taken. A mix of nationalities ate together each evening in the communal tent, and agreed that the Egyptian Cleopatra wine was just as bad as it had been the night before.

The place was Marsa Alam and in 2004 I went back. This time I flew into the recently built airport, was whisked to my hotel and air conditioned room. We drove past my original campsite but I didn't recognise it at first as an "eco village" had been built. The coast which we'd travelled up and down in a pickup truck, and that had been nothing more than desert, had been carved into hotels and resorts.

But what about the diving? Marsa Alam is very close to Elphinstone Reef. This is a fantastic dive site, featuring deep pinnacles and a very deep archway concealing a sarcophagus-shaped rock. There is always the possibility of seeing sharks, dolphins and turtles. It has steep walls and shelving plateaus, including one at around 5 m so plenty to see at the end of the dive.

If you are staying at Marsa Alam you take a day boat out and do 3 dives on Elphinstone. However, you may have a 30 m depth limit, which on this dive I consider a serious limitation. With Emperor Divers' day boat, the two first dives are very close together (1 hour surface interval). You've barely time to warm up after the first dive when it's time to start kitting up for the second. Also, the day boats wallow in the waves so the two hour journey means some people get sea-sick.

The other dive sites are closer inshore. They are generally pretty, with good vis and swim-throughs. Especially interesting is the nearbye Abu Dabab where you might by lucky enough to see dugongs.

dugong at Abu Dabab

If you would like a hotel-based holiday with uncrowded dive sites, Marsa Alam is the place for you. If you want to take your time diving some of the best sites in the Red Sea, then you would be better off taking a liveaboard. One which visited the Brothers, Elphinstone and Daedalus would be a good choice.

by Jill Studholme, Leave a Comment


Dive Sites of Marsa Alam

For Elphinstone see Elphinstone Dive Sites.

Rating: 5 Star Rating: Recommended

"Abu Dabab, at Marsa Alam, used to be the haunt of the dugong, but the building of 3 hotels has meant the bay is now too busy. Also the sea grass area has been badly damaged by the washing of sand into the bay following a rainstorm: the sea grass has been replaced by a brown algal growth on the sand. Our first dive here followed the north side of the bay along the reef. This is an interesting dive and we saw 4 large remora on their own (without a host). A second dive went out into the sea grass area and saw several guitar sharks and 3 large turtles which were untroubled by our presence and gave good photographic opportunities."
Graham Collins, UK, 2013

"Dugongs, Guitar Sharks and Giant Turtles are just a few of the amazing creatures you can see swarming the Sea Grass area in Abu-Dabab. "
Yaseen Abdel-Ghaffar, USA, 2011

"Both sea grass beds and coral gardens were rich in large and small marine life. Huge turtles grazed the seagrass beds, while many octopi, cuttlefish and squid were found along the north shore in the coral gardens. Go very early in the day, the bay becomes a madhouse later when all the tour groups arrive. "
Greg Kruse, 2011


Where to Stay

For people with partners or children who don't dive the Kahramana hotel is a good choice. This is a sprawl of small buildings, each one comprising two or four rooms (a room being a large bedroom, bathroom and hallway). There is plenty to do: horse and camel riding, beach volleyball, tennis courts, two swimming pools, two beaches and a children's playground.

As you will not be near a town, paying a little extra for a hotel with three restaurants plus bars and bar-snacks is definitely worth it. They've managed to convert the desert into a garden with a huge array of gardeners keeping the plants healthy. Palm trees have been planted on the beaches and the buildings are the same red and ochre as the desert sand.

Oasis Dive Resort

Marsa Alam

"Oasis Dive Resort, Marsa Alam is a good place for divers, excellent dive shop, well organized shore diving all along the coast near Marsa Alam, house reef is OK, you can walk down to the pier and hop in to the Red Sea."
Greg Kruse, 2011


Dive Centres

Emperor Divers
Oonasdivers
Pioneer Divers
Oasis Dive Center

Marsa Alam

Rating: 5 Star Rating: Recommended

"The Oasis Dive Center, at Oasis Dive Resort, offers both shore and boat diving (Elphinstone, Samadai Reef), free nitrox. Experienced divers can go on their own when shore diving or follow the group. Orientation to shore diving sites was excellent, with detailed hand drawn maps of each site showing landmarks and suggesting routes. Divemasters were all friendly, cheerful, and very experienced. Will go again and recommend to friends. Very Good. Good food, very professional dive shop and dive masters, very well organized, good equipment, free nitrox."
Greg Kruse, 2011


Books to take to Marsa Alam

We recommend these books for your trip to Marsa Alam.

Marsa Alam - Diving Guide and Logbook
by Julien Stein, Travelling Diver, (2008)
For 12.50 you get a guide-come-logbook for the Red Sea area around Marsa Alam, Egypt. The format is loose sheets designed to fit into a diving logbook binder. Includes Elphinstone. Read our review.
Coral Reef Guide Red Sea
by Ewald Lieske and Robert Myers, Collins, 384 Pages, Paperback (2004)
Coral Reef Guide Red Sea covers all common species of underwater life of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, you are likely to see while diving or snorkelling. Each species is illustrated with a full-colour photograph and the text gives details of range and characteristic behaviour. A map of good dive sites appears on the inside front cover. Includes jellyfish, corals, nudibranchs, starfish, sea urchins, fishes and turtles. An excellent sea life guide which I always take to the Red Sea
Red Sea Map
Road map and good chart of all the major dive sites in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, Eritrea and Djibouti.

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