The city of Marsa Alam is a bit of a shithole, the seafront property is mostly unfinished, apparently due to some bizarre Egyptian law whereby if you have land you have to build on it or the government will take it off you. Anything over 70% completed is subject to tax resulting in a a slew of concrete shells and an abandoned feel to the area. Fortunately we found a place about 14 kilometres south of the city with a beach we were free to use and what turned out to be a spectacular, healthy house reef, full of colour and teeming with life. Yes, this would very much do.
After the traffic and car horns and constant “taxi/camel/felucca?” offers of the towns and cities lining the Nile we were ready to spend our last week in Egypt somewhere outstandingly chill and outstandingly chill is exactly what we got. Guys, I cannot stress how relaxing Deep South Eco Lodge is. At first you feel like you’ve rocked up to a post apocalyptic wasteland with concrete chalets and rustic huts randomly dumped in the middle of nowhere but it rapidly starts to feel like home. Electricity is only on for four hours a day so no one can blast music into the wee hours, the only noise nuisance is from the dogs kicking off at various intervals throughout the night but I forgive them because they’re adorable. It took us about ten minutes to completely fall in love with the place.
Right then! Fish bothering! No way was I coming all the way to Egypt and not spending a few hours underwater. The first day, we were driven to Marsa Samadai for two shore dives. As soon as you enter the water and hop around trying to get your fins on with all the grace and finesse of a badger on ketamine you’re pretty much there, right where you want to be. We descended and suddenly there’s all this fantastic, towering coral stretching from the seabed to the surface, full of life. Aaaaand my camera packed up. Bollocks. Guess I’d just have to enjoy it with my eyeholes.
It’s actually wonderfully refreshing to dive without waving a camera at everything and I really, really enjoyed it. Not the tunnel we swam through, that could fuck right off. He did ask us during the brief if we were all happy to go through tunnel and I thought fuck it, let’s have a bash at this with my complete lack of spatial awareness even when I’m not decked out in SCUBA gear. What could possibly go wrong? Well I wouldn’t say it went wrong but I certainly didn’t enjoy it. I kept kicking the sides which freaked me out so by the time I got to the end I’d completely lost control of my buoyancy and the dive leader had to pull me out.
The second dive to the south of the bay was even lovelier on account of the lack of enclosed spaces. I do wish I had photos, hopefully the guys I dived with will be able to send me some of theirs (Edit: I’ve added photos from Niels). I absolutely loved the diving and I’ve never seen such healthy coral before but you know how when you step over a threshold your memory gets wiped? Yeah so it’s kind of like that when I surface from a dive, it’s like everything exits through my nostrils with the several tonnes of mucus and all those fish I wanted to ask about are carried away on the waves.
On day two we took a boat out to Sha’ab Marsa Alam and this time Tarrant came along with the promise of some excellent snorkeling. It was a lovely big boat with toilets and places to chill. The kind of boat that can handle a little bit of chop so you happily bob about on your surface interval and no one has to find out the hard way what you had for breakfast. It was only about half an hour away from the shore and just before we got to where we would moor the captain slowed right down and someone shouted, “Dolphins!”
Oh my gosh, what an absolute privilege! There were at least two pods swimming around the boat, it was amazing. We watched them for a short while before finishing our short journey to the dive site. Tarrant and the other snorkellers went off on a zodiac and the divers got kitted up and again we were asked if we wanted to go through a tunnel. Oh for fuck’s sake. Well yes, of course I’m going to because I’m an idiot with FOMO but I told him that I’m not good with small spaces and he might have to drag me out of the hole. Modi was our dive leader today and he promised that I could be right behind him and he’d keep an eye on me.
We got there, Modi signalled “cave” and I swam in behind him. This was okay actually. Quite wide, plenty of light, nice and tall… I watched as Modi’s fins disappeared around the corner and followed him and oh dear fuck no. It had completely narrowed but it was only short. I could see Modi, he could see me, I was fine and I was safe and then I panicked for literally no fucking reason, inhaled sharply and, of course, hit the ceiling. I stuck my hand out and Modi pulled me out. Well that wasn’t my proudest moment.
It turned out that the snorkellers had gone back to the Dolphins and spent ages swimming around with them. They were shuttling divers out in the zodiac so we could have a chance at snorkelling with the animals for ten minutes before we got ready for our second dive. It was so so good! I counted about 26 in the pod we saw and there were babies too. Probably the best surface interval I’ve ever had.
Today was clearly going to be another day of insanely stunning reef and thousands of fish. I managed to find a workaround to get my camera to function properly so I had photos of my very own to revisit which was ideal given that the safety stop was out of this world. We approached a pinnacle and bothered a couple of lionfish as we waited for the other group to exit onto the boat. We ended up just circling this pinnacle for several minutes until it was clear for us to ascend.
Though right at the start of the dive a miniscule amount of seawater got into my left nostril and sent it into snot hyperdrive. Every time I inhaled I couldn’t stop the air from forcing mucus bubbles into my mask resulting in the left side filling up with viscous germ juice. Delightful. I could pretty much only see through one eye for most of the dive despite so many rinses my eyeball threatened to fall out. Is the water around here particularly salty or something? Because none of my headholes are happy when they come into direct contact with it.
Have I bored you to death yet? Because I need to tell you about day three which was quite possibly one of the best days I’ve ever had. Elphinstone Reef, guys! Sure, the reef itself is astounding and we descended to 30 metres to have a right good gawp at it. It just falls away into nothing though, you can’t see the seabed, it’s 150 metres down or something ridiculous like that. There’s something exhilarating about hovering over the unknown, especially as what you’re really here for are the oceanic whitetip sharks which are known to be a particularly bitey species.
It’s a very busy dive site. We were in a zodiac, just a small group of five tourists plus two guides, but there were other zodiacs plus about five large safari boats. You round the corner to the plateau and all you see are bubbles from the plethora of divers circling the reef. At this point we made our way into the blue and ascended to look for the sharks. We were going to stay around five metres. They’re not bothered by the reef, they like the boats though. They’re curious little buggers and they’re attracted to the noise of the engines.
We’d barely even left the reef and there was one, right there, swimming above us! Incredible. That would have done us but we saw a couple more before climbing back onto the boat for the surface interval. So this is where it nearly went to shit for me, the water was choppy enough to make my stomach sit up and take notice. Add to that the diesel smell from our engine and the engines of edge bigger boats, plus the guys chuffing away on their cigarettes and I had to just stare at the horizon and will the biscuits I had for breakfast to stay where put them. I couldn’t even relieve it by getting in the water unless I wanted to be lunch. Ten minutes longer and I think I’d have redecorated their lovely boat.
I’ve dived with reef sharks before, though you don’t really dive with reef sharks do you? You’re diving and they’re just sort of there, then they see you and nope the fuck out. You’re definitely diving with the oceanic whitetips, very firmly in their domain. We spent less time faffing at the reef this time and as soon as we reached the plateau we headed straight out to the blue. Guys, we saw so many. At one point we were all watching a shark swim close by us when Niels turned around and pointed behind me. One of the fuckers was proper sneaking up on me!
I think there were about five of them in the end. We’d been told that they might approach you but don’t panic, they just want to have a look, and one did indeed approach me. My camera battery had already died by now so all I could do was watch it glide as close as it damn well pleased, gaze into my actual soul, then veer off just as it was about to get into pant shitting territory. So fucking majestic! They’re wonderful, perfect creatures.
As we were floating around the blue we were watching people get back onto their boats which is quite a process involving stripping off weight belts and fins, and whilst their legs were dangling in the water, sharks were charging at them. It wasn’t a curious meander either, they weren’t thinking “Ooh let’s have a look at this.” It was a purposeful swim, a definite “I’m fucking having that!” This particular species of shark is thought to pick off shipwreck survivors. I’ve never felt so far down the fucking food chain.
Once we were all safely on board the zodiac it took our guides a long time before they could exit the water as they were being circled and had to keep descending, then we were sped back to land, exhilarated but utterly fucking knackered. I think the 5am pick up combined with the sensory overload of Elphinstone Reef pretty much finished me off.
Day four was perfect. We were meant to be diving a wreck about an hour away but the Navy wouldn’t give permission so we were defaulted to the house reef at Tondoba Bay and I’m not even a little bit sad about it. It was a nice, late start so we could have a leisurely breakfast then we shuffled down to the dive centre for 9am. We could easily walk to the zodiac and it was only taking us minutes out to the most perfect reef I’ve ever seen.
The coral here is so healthy, it boasts every colour you could imagine. Over the two dives we did at two different sites we saw so many different species of fish, a huge moray eel, green turtles, there was always something to look at, but it was also just such a chilled dive. I’d been buddying with Niels for the last couple of days and we we’re pretty good at sticking together around similar depths and keeping an eye on each other, but that went out of the window today.
We were all in our own little worlds, faces in the reef, enjoying everything it had to offer. Every now and then I’d look up, ascertain where everyone was, then resume examining the coral. I’ve got more photos from these two dives but less to say about them as they were just uneventful, perfect hours. I think I could dive this reef every day and not get bored. Dives like this inspire me to learn more about fish ID.
You know when something has been so hyped that you don’t want to get your hopes up in case it’s just not that good? Diving in the Red Sea is said to be world class but then I heard people talking about how damaged the reef is now due to all manner of things including overtourism. But it’s been phenomenal. I guess this area isn’t as popular as Hurghada or Sharm El Sheik. I’m so pleased we’ve come here now and seen it whilst it’s still so healthy and flourishing. It’s a difficult balancing act, because you want places like Deep South to do well but you don’t want the coral to be destroyed by too many people that perhaps don’t respect it as they should.
Jump to “Useful shit to know…”
Marsa Alam, Red Sea Governorate, Egypt
مرسى علم ، البحر الأحمر ، مصر
Stayed at: Deep South Eco Lodge, Tondoba Bay
Diving with Deep South Diving
Useful shit to know…
- Deep South Eco Lodge is rustic but the breakfast is good, the huts are as clean as you can get a wooden structure with a concrete floor, and the beds are comfy. It’s cash only.
- The electricity was on from 5.30pm until 9.30pm when we were there.
- The website was quite inaccurate. There is no restaurant at the camp for dinner but Fady can call a takeaway place for you which delivers. We were paying LE125 to have chicken, rice, black eyed peas, bread and tahini.
- The seafood restaurant is good. I paid LE200 for prawns with rice, bread, tahini and salad. Tarrant doesn’t eat seafood so she said she was vegetarian and got all the sides for LE50.
- There’s a restaurant behind African Tent which serves fish or chicken with a load of sides for LE200 but the chicken is disappointing. Tiny drumsticks in breadcrumbs. You’re best off asking Fady to order you takeaway.
- Fady can sell you a beer for LE50.
- Deep South Diving are a fantastic, professional outfit and I highly recommend them. Safety is first all the time.
- They take your wishes into account when organising dives, and they kept it varied.
- You’ll need to contact them for current pricing but I paid US$25 per dive plus US$20 for equipment rental for the day. So $70 a day for two shore dives.
- Sha’ab Marsa Alam cost an extra US$40 for the boat including lunch.
- Elphinstone cost an extra $50 not including lunch.
- They quoted me in euros but they were happy to accept euros or dollars, just not Egyptian pounds. Cash only.
- Getting from Luxor to Marsa Alam is quite the ordeal. We were originally going to take the 8am Go Bus from Luxor to Safaga, stay overnight there, then take the 6.15am Go Bus to Marsa Alam.
- Yousef at Adam & Eve Guesthouse said his friend could take us by car for LE1500 which we agreed to, but then it turned out he wasn’t allowed. It needed to be a proper taxi or tourist vehicle.
- Foreigners aren’t allowed to travel on certain roads. We have to take the road to Safaga then turn right and head to Marsa Alam that way.
- Even taking this route the driver needs to get permission which costs LE100 per foreigner. Egyptians don’t need this permission.
- It turned out the going rate for this journey is over LE2000 but they managed to find a taxi driver who agreed to do it for LE1700 including permissions.
- The driver’s licence, credentials, and our permissions were checked twice.
- Foreigners aren’t permitted to take minibuses between cities (within cities is fine) but our friend, Silke, does it. However, she speaks Arabic and gives no fucks. If you want to risk it you can take a minibus straight to Marsa Alam from Edfu but they’re not going to want you to.
- Having said that, Fady at Deep South says he can put you in touch with a bloke in Marsa Alam who, for LE50, will argue your case with a minibus driver to get you from Marsa Alam to Edfu. You’ll need to agree to buy two seats. However I’m not sure of the consequences if you’re stopped.
- If it weren’t for that overnight stop in Safaga, Go Bus would be a perfect option. You don’t need permission to travel with Go Bus.