The “Deep South”, as it is sometimes referred to, must be one of the best kept secrets in the Red Sea. Yes it may be further to travel, but that is little to sacrifice for world-renowned encounters with friendly dolphins, wall diving (which must be some of the best in the world), forests of soft coral covering every inch of reef, perfect conditions and visibility that stretches on forever. It is further to travel but, to me, the ultimate benefit of being further away was the fact that 4 days went by before we saw another boat on the same reef as us.
Text and Images by Paul Hunter
After a disappointing trip to the Northern Red sea I was hesitant to return. I had placed the Red Sea on a pedestal. Yes the conditions were perfect and the visibility awesome but there was nothing to see from a fish life perspective. I have to admit though that the two wrecks we did, the Thistlegorn and the Dunraven, were unbelievable and an experience of a life-time.
After much persuasion, I was convinced to return. But this time hundreds of kilometres south; the Deep South. I was told that the reefs were what the north was like 15 years ago. I joined a group of about 20 people most of whom are underwater photographers and good friends. This definitely added to the experience of the trip.
Let’s face it travelling to Egypt and the Red Sea is an adventure unlike anywhere else in the world. There is something mystical about the place, I think it has something to do with a history dating back thousands of years. A time of Pharaohs and Gods and a civilization ahead of it’s time. It was time to return to Egypt and the Red Sea.
Driving through Marsa Alam en-route to the harbour I soon realised that this once small fishing village on the western coast of the Red Sea is blooming into a Riviera. It is destined to become another Sharm El Sheik as a top diving destination. Marsa Alam is located some 250km south of Hurghada. Since the opening of its international airport in 2001 this small village has become more popular and accessible. In some way, i wanted to be selfish and stop progress so this place and the unspoilt reefs can remain just as they are.
Dolphin Reef, as its name describes, is home to a very large pod of friendly Dolphin. It’s a shallow horse-shoe shaped reef structure, basically in the middle of nowhere. I would highly recommend this experience to anybody who is in the near vicinity of this magical place. To spend time with these highly intelligent mammals and in such an awesome environment is a once-in-a-life-time must. From the time I hit the water it was almost a sensory overload swimming with them; from their high pitched clicking sounds bouncing off my body to being surrounded by no less than 10 dolphins at a time. The more we wanted to interact with them the more they seemed to want to interact with us. I was unsure if they were used to interaction with people or were just unafraid of us as they came right up to me, swimming continually around me in circles or from straight up from below. The interaction was surreal and I’m still unsure who was having more fun; them or us. We must have spent 90 minutes in the water with them before we had to call for the boats to pick us up as we were all exhausted.
The Red Sea and ship wrecks are synonymous so this trip would not be complete without at least one wreck dive. The Abu Galawa Wreck is not a big wreck. In fact it’s only a sailboat, and it lies at the base of the reef on its starboard side in 18m of water. The wreck is very picturesque and great for photographers and the opportunity should not be missed. The boat is mostly intact, except for decking and the upper structure. The inside is filled with a massive shoal of glassfish. I have tried to find out more about this wreck but to no avail. The only information I have is from the guides who told us that’s it’s an American sailboat that sank in 2002.
Diversity, diversity and more diversity is something this trip had from the start and St John’s Cave was no different. From the surface it looks like somebody went to work on the reef with a pizza cutter. I could make out the myriad of tunnels which form an underwater maze through the reef. With our boat moored on the southern side of the reef we were informed that there were two openings to the north which would lead us into the tunnel system. At this stage I must point out that we were extremely lucky as our captain and dive guides gave us a lot of freedom. The captain was very flexible in terms of the different dive locations and the dive guides let us do our own thing. This helped with the bunch of photographers onboard and went a long way in keeping the peace. The dive on this reef was another highlight for me. What we found while diving here was unbelievable. There were deep cracks in the coral plate which provided us with tunnels to navigate and explore. These same cracks allowed shafts of light to penetrate right down to the seabed. It was mesmerising and cathedral-like to witness. What a pleasure to photograph these scenes. Although some of these cracks were narrow to swim through I never felt unsafe or lost as the cracks always opened up to bigger caverns or to the sea again.
Wonderful Wall diving. With famous names like St Johns and Elphinestone on the agenda, to mention a few, I knew the wall diving was going to be good. To be honest, the wall diving exceeded my expectations. The walls were covered from top to bottom with pristine hard and soft corals. In some places there were forests of soft coral on the wall. This made for awesome underwater photographic opportunities. We were very fortunate that we never really had strong currents on our dives. This meant we could do the dives at our own pace and really get to enjoy some of the wonders on these reefs. Elphinestone lived up to its name as a magical dive site with unbelievable corals and a large variety of fish life. Another good reason to visit this location is the possibility of seeing Oceanic Whitetip shark. Unfortunately we did not get to see any this time, but that is nature and what will keep me coming back.
The phrases: unspoilt, secluded, diverse and some of the best diving I have ever done, sum up my experience. This is really a special place to visit and dive – one which I will highly recommend. If you are looking for an adventure with unspoilt reefs and secluded dive sites this is the place for you. It’s far away from the hustle and bustle of the north. I would also recommend doing this trip on a liveaboard as many of the locations are too far for day trips. With calm surface conditions, visibility that stretches forever and pristine reefs this trip is well worth it.