Marsa Alam 2009

After our recent trip to Sharm el Sheik we were wondering where to go in the summer, the choices were narrowed down to Malta or back to Egypt. Ruth wanted to go somewhere she didn’t have to wear a drysuit, she does feel the cold. Malta probably would be a little too cold for her so it was Egypt, but where? I didn’t want to go back to Sharm after just three months away and had heard some good things about Marsa Alam. So we searched the net and found a deal to fly to Marsa and stay at the Marina Lodge at Port Ghalib. Marsa Alam itself is a two hour drive from the airport but a long stretch of coast within easy reach of the airport is advertised as Marsa Alam.

We left Cornwall in the early hours of the morning and drove to Gatwick, it was a long and uneventful journey but very tiring. Check-in was smooth, getting into the departure lounge required removing your shoes to go through the metal detector! The Thomson flight was on time and we boarded. Now at 6’3” I like a lot of leg room, there wasn’t much at all. You could pre-book a seat with more leg room for £25, a bit steep but I didn’t expect to be quite this cramped. My knees were jammed into the seat in front and there was no way I could get in a position to get some sleep. The five and a half hours seemed to take ages but we eventually landed at Marsa Alam airport. We hadn’t booked the transfers advertised on the site we booked the hotel and flight with as it was expensive. We took a taxi and booked the return trip for £30 for the two of us. The hotels transfers cost £10 per person each way so we saved £10. Port Ghalib is about five kilometres away from the airport. At the airport I tried to get some cash our of the machine but my request was declined! I did make sure I had some spending money spare, luckily I had some £££’s in my pocket.

We arrived at the hotel around 7pm and checked in. Our room was very nice and well laid out, we left our bags and had a quick look at the dive centre, Emperor Divers. We like the fact that the boats were along the quayside behind the hotel, within a few metres of the breakfast room. No long transfers or really early mornings. The dive centre shuts at 6pm so we had missed it, it did say we could check in at 8am. Time for our evening meal and check the mobile phone, I had a missed call from my bank. Apparently someone had tried to use my card in Marsa Alam airport, they stopped it because it looked like a fraudulent attempt, that was the first time I’ve ever had a card stopped, instead of having a go at them I just told them to release it, which they did. The buffet style selection was always varied with the chefs cooking different things each night by request, from Burritos to Koftas. There were plenty of deserts to choose from as well. It had been a long day so after our meal we went to bed.

We had an early breakfast and got to the dive centre around 8am, we managed to fill in the forms and get onto one of the boats that day, Empress Amy. The first day was going to be some easy dives, check-out dives for the newly arrived. The boat left at around 9am and it headed out of the port and went south. After a short trip we arrived at a small bay called Marsa Shouni Kebir – bay, market, large apparently. The boat moored alongside another Emperor boat, Empress Rachel, in the north side of the bay to avoid the choppy sea caused by the northerly winds. We all kitted up and jumped in, when everyone was happy we descended down to the sand in around 6m of water. There were a few divers completing a scuba review so we left the behind and headed off. The vis wasn’t as good as we expected and patchy, around 12-15m. Swimming across the sand we came across a few rocky outcrops, the first had a Hawksbill turtle rummaging around. The next had a Scorpion Fish and a Crocodile fish, the next had three Peppered Morals. We had now reached the sprawling and sloping part of the reef with colourful corals and fish as expected. There was a sandy bottom where we saw the first Blue Spotted Ray of the trip. Shoals of glass fish and Antheas covered small coral pinnacles and the Turtle appeared again. We headed back to the boats where we could see the drop tanks hanging below. Maximum depth was 22m with a 62 minute dive time. Lunch was served and we had a decent surface interval before jumping into the RHIB and heading to the other side of the bay. Rather than move the hard boats they like to move the divers around on a RHIB. We were dropped off on the south side of the bay, the RHIB looked a little overloaded and ended up with water splashing over the bow but it was fun. The south side was another sloping/sprawling reef with Moray Eels, Crocodile Fish and the all the usual fish you’d expect in the Red Sea. Time was soon up and we were collected by the RHIB and returned to the hard boat. Maximum depth was 21.8m and a shorter dive time of 56 minutes. Our return trip to Port Ghalib showed us just how much the northerlies had picked the sea up, there were a few green faces on board. Our kit was left on the boat overnight and our first day was over.

That evening after our meal, another feast, we decided to go over to the other side of the port and see what was there. We tried to get the attention of the water taxi driver but failed so we decided we would walk, it didn’t look far. It was, it took us around 30 minutes over uneven ground. We wandered along the front and saw two Costa Coffee shops, TGI Fridays, a Chinese, Baskin Robbins, Pizza Hut and a fish restaurant. Behind the front shops was a lane with lots of the little shops where you get the usual hassle from the staff. We popped in Fridays for a quick drink and got the water taxi back, we were surprised it was free though. We also found out to get the taxi you just ask the guard at the hotel and he’d call it on the radio.

We were told to be on the boat for 8am, so an early breakfast and we were ready. Unfortunately, every day, there was someone who turned up late. Once again we headed south, we were told it was better if we had the waves on the return so we could be sick after the dives, fair enough. Today’s site was going to be Ras El Torfa – headland corner. A very similar routine to yesterday, tied up on the north side kitted up and jumped in. We headed out towards a large pinnacle over several smaller mountain coral pinnacles, vis was better on this site at between 15-20m. Around the pinnacle and back to the reef, once again very colourful and with all the fish you’d expect including plenty of clown fish. Maximum depth was 25.7m and a 60 minute dive time.

For the second dive we headed out on the RHIB, it was going to be a one way trip hopefully returning to the hard boat. We were told to look out for the large salad (lettuce) coral that was a bright green in colour. When we jumped in it was a very obvious large coral formation. Along the way we saw a large Moray fully exposed under a table coral and a Blue Spotted Ray under another. I’d realised that John had been watching me and that I’d been watching him, we always looked at what each other was photographing. I saw him taking a picture under a small rock on a sand patch and went to investigate, it was a large bright red nudibranch, a Spanish Dancer. A turtle was seen swimming to the surface, there were loads of puffer fish everywhere, more rays and Scorpion Fish. Towards the end of the dive I saw an Octopus and called John over. Over a small pinnacle and there was a small Torpedo Ray bashing itself against the coral, they are all blind apparently. Maximum depth was 23.5m and the dive was 62 minutes long. Back to the hotel and we made sure we were listed to do some of the special trips, Abu Dabab, Sha’am Samadai (Dolphin House) and Elphinstone. Elphinstone didn’t look likely as the northerlies were making the sea quite rough for the distance we would have to travel. We were booked on the other two sites on our last two days.

Another 8am start for most of us! The boat once again headed south and went to Marsa Mubarak. On entering this site we could see loads of Puffer Fish, as we got closer we could see a Porcupine Fish having a bit of personal attention from some Cleaner Wrasse. Along the reef we saw a couple of nudibranchs, more rays, Porcupine Fish, Pipe Fish, Scorpion Fish and Clown Fish. The most populated reef so far. As we returned closer to the boat there was a shoal of Flute Fish swimming above. I spotted another Octopus and called John again while we were taking some pics two other divers from our boat barged in front of us to get some pictures and video, very rude I though so did John. Dive two was from the hard boat again, we headed off in a different direction and came across a large Napoleon Wrasse and a turtle near a damaged coral pinnacle. Our return trip was across the sea grass, a small rock had the ugliest Stone Fish ever seen. By the time we got back to the boat a shoal of Catfish had gathered underneath with a shoal of Flute Fish just above them, they must have liked the shade of the boat. Maximum depth 19.2m and a runtime of 61 minutes.

Next day we started at 7:30, we were taken by a minibus for a hours ride closer to Marsa Alam and boarded another boat, Horus Star N. We then headed off in some very big seas towards Sha’ab Samadai, ‘Dolphin House’. As we arrived we could see the horseshoe shape reef breaking the waves with some fairly flat water inside the area. One other boat on site with some snorkellers, hopefully they’d spot the Dolphins for us. The area is a national park and has a ‘no go’ area and a snorkelling only area. We were going to dive the pinnacles on the west side, then, if there were any Dolphins we would snorkel the appropriate area, then a second dive around the pinnacles. We entered the water, descended and headed straight around the first pinnacle. I do like this kind of site, there was a lot of life of all types including a Turtle that was hungry and feeding on the reef. It just ignored us while we took pictures and watched it eat. The maximum depth was just 17.3m with a runtime of 66 minutes. The national park has opening hours, 9am till 3pm. It was now 12:30, we only had 1 hour and 15 minutes before we dived again. It was going to be tight time wise and we had the park ranger on the boat watching what was going on. There were no Dolphins spotted within the horseshoe so it was just going to be another dive. The dive briefing was kept short and we started to kit up. The first four of us in the water descended and waited under the boat, it was flatter and if the dive was going to be cut short because of time at least we had some underwater time around the rocks beneath the boat. It did take a while for the rest to get kitted up and jump in, time was getting very tight indeed. We did a similar dive to the first dive around the pinnacles. We saw very similar life and what looked like a spiral of red nudibranch eggs. The underwater topography is very interesting, the pinnacles all virtually touch the surface making it all very dramatic and great for some wide angle photography. After 64 minutes we surfaced, it was close to 3 o’clock. By the time everyone had got out of the water and the boat left it was past 3pm and the park ranger wasn’t happy.

Our last days diving was at Abu Dabbab to see if we could find Denis the Dugong. The divers who didn’t go to the Dolphin House had seen a Dugong at Marsa Mubarak that day, John had the photos to prove it. Denis hadn’t been seen at Abu Dabbab since March, perhaps he’d moved. Oh well, we were promised loads of green turtles. Abu Dabbab is a shore dive, we kitted up and headed across the sand. Once in the water we headed towards the Sea Grass, we fanned out a bit but there were no Dugongs in sight. We did, however, come across several Turtles and a lone Fire Urchin. The Turtles all had multiple Remorras attached to them, lazy fish. We kept our eyes open for Dugongs, Pipefish and Sea Horses, all I saw was a what looked like a very strange flat worm, a pink and black stripy Tube Worm, a Spotted Eel with it’s head down a hole and a Flat Fish. Heading towards the reef there was a large Remorra on the sand, it wasn’t too bothered about the divers, it did look fat and un-fit though. The return swim along the reef was very nice, the most life on any dive.

For the second dive we all went separate ways, our group, Ruth, John and me, decided to go across the grass but close to the edge so we could spend more time on the reef. While making our way across the grass we came across three Green Turtles close to each other, nothing small this time though. We headed across to the reef and just hung in the water looking at the reef and the life, it was excellent. I was told a run time of 75 minutes and it wasn’t enough to marvel at the reef, I don’t think we could have made the Ali 80 last much longer anyway without losing our safety margin that is. I had noticed my throat was getting very dry and was getting suspicious of my air, I cleared my mask and could smell oil. I couldn’t taste it and it didn’t give me a headache, it never does though. When on shore I smelt the air from the tank and told the dive guide to smell it, she agreed it did smell. Whether they did anything about it I don’t know.

On our way home the pick-up carrying the cylinders overtook us, cardboard boxes and plastic bottles blowing out across the desert, I did wonder where all the rubbish along the way had come from.

Overall the diving was very good, Dolphin House and Abu Dabbab were my favourites. There is however a limited amount of dive sites. When in Sharm you dive a different site each dive and could do that for weeks, if you did that at Port Ghalib you’d run out of sites in a week. That’s probably why they dive the same site for both dives in a day. The area is very quiet and would suit anyone not wanting any night life, the hotel staff were friendly and the company was great. If you want a quiet beach, the hotels beach is very quiet and has an excellent reef for snorkelling.

Would I return, yes, one day, probably in a couple of years. I can hear Thailand calling me again next year.