A few years ago I had the opportunity to gain first hand experience of the phrase “took my breath away.” A lifetime dream of mine had been to swim with the fish of a coral reef, and my first opportunity came in the warm water of the Red Sea.
As I ducked under the water on the ocean side of the reef I was literally rendered breathless at the swarms of brightly colored creatures darting past me. Since that moment, I vowed to always take any opportunity to snorkel, and hopefully one day dive, along coral reefs.
A few weeks ago a friend popped into town and invited me to accompany her to the warmer waters of Marsa Alam. Marsa Alam is a quiet little coastal town about 3 hours from Hurghada. We traveled by hired car to get there and back, but they do have an airport with flights from Cairo. Neither of us really had a desire to spend a lot of money, so we decided to do a 3-day weekend on a strict budget. Our purpose was solely to swim with the fish, and then, as a friend once put it, “go and eat our friends for dinner.” Our days would be: Snorkel, eat, and pass out in a clean hotel (with a hot shower), no need for frills.
I found an inexpensive hotel, still under a soft opening, ingeniously named Red Sea Hotel. The rooms were clean, and there was hot water and satellite television. Our room was on the second floor and overlooked the Red Sea. However, due to construction it may not retain its sea view for long. The staff was eager to please and desired our feedback to help them improve. The manager was a bit over zealous and I felt like I was a patron at the “Best Exotic Marigold Red Sea Hotel,” an adventure nonetheless.
Traditionally Marsa Alam has attracted Italian tourists. One wonderful Italian lady left Rome and now owns and operates a delicious Italian restaurant in the downtown area. She imports Italian sausages and bacon for her dishes, and gently informed me that “Alfredo sauce” is simply an American invention. She also has a beautiful selection of Italian deserts.
The best asset of Marsa Alam is that the reef is accessible directly from the beaches. There are several great spots to stop along the coastal highway and the taxi drivers are familiar with the popular snorkeling spots. Each beach is typically referred to by its kilometer number or local name.
Our first day we spent exploring Kilo 8 North. The water was crisp, the wind was strong, and we found it hard to swim against the current once we got farther out from shore. Being February, the water was a bit chilly so we opted to purchase some neoprene suits at a dive shop downtown for about $40. Kilo 8 was desolate during the winter, but I could still see the lonely huts where local ladies will sell tea, trinkets and snacks during high season.
Kilo 14 South is rumored to be a good spot for spotting sea turtles, but none were there on the day I visited. We were able to swim for a few hours then walk over and order some fresh fish from the new restaurant across the highway. The chef brought out a tray of fresh fish, the clearer the eyes the fresher the fish. We selected a nice red spotted grouper and had them fry up some fresh squid. The fried calamari was light and crispy without a strong fishy taste, and the grilled grouper was stuffed with peppers. Paired with some delicious tahini dip and fresh salad, it was a delightful way to re-energize after a cool swim in the Red Sea. Considering the freshness of the food and atmosphere, the meal was a steal. We ended up eating there several times.
The reef at Kilo 7 South begins about 6 feet out from the shore and there are plenty of coves to explore. This would be a great place for a beginner since the waves were small and the reef begins in the shallow water. Within 100 feet of the shore I was able to see almost every major species of fish and coral.
Many snorkelers and divers opt to take a little bit longer drive out to the nature preserve where they can swim with sea turtles and dugongs (sea cows). Negotiate with the taxi to drop you off then return in a set number of hours to pick you back up. Taxi fares were more expensive than Cairo fares, but still reasonable. Our hotel helped us make contact with a reputable driver who spoke English and Italian.
The reefs off the coast of Marsa Alam seem to be healthy, and the coral was the brightest and most colorful I have seen yet in the Red Sea. However, the locals often fish directly from atop the reef and there is evidence of boat anchors and fishing hooks present, not to mention the all too common plastic bags that blow in from the desert. As a professional photographer, I cannot travel anywhere without a camera in my hand. Rather than risk thousands of dollars worth of equipment in the sea, I snorkel with a simple Sony point-and-shoot camera in a $40 underwater bag from Digitech. Since I am not shooting for National Geographic, this works for me, just as something fun to do while I am snorkeling.
Amanda Wentzel is an editor and graphic designer for Maadi Messenger. She enjoys travel photography and exploring this beautiful country.
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