The best scuba diving sites in the Red Sea’s Marsa Alam

| Courtesy of Jay Clue
Ally Wybrew

The Red Sea is globally acknowledged as a scuba diver’s paradise. Below the surface, plentiful reefs, vibrant coral and an impressive array of megafauna abound, while above, stunning beaches, luxurious hotels and a host of liveaboard options provide aqua-addicts with every possible holiday option. But while most divers gravitate towards the tourist-ready vibes of Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada, a little further south lies a quieter, less-crowded – but equally mesmerising – diving destination dubbed the ‘Egyptian Maldives’: Marsa Alam.

A three-hour drive south of Hurghada – home of plush resorts, plentiful restaurants and a vivacious nightlife – lies Marsa Alam. A sprawling section of Western Egypt lining the Red Sea, the region is less about luxury hotels and heady nightlife, and more about boutique abodes and eco-conscious dive centres. It’s the perfect location for scuba fanatics to enjoy some of the region’s most beautiful underwater attractions, while also leaving a softer carbon footprint than elsewhere. When it comes to sustainability, it’s no secret that Egypt has a way to go, which is why efforts from local businesses in this area are crucial. Travellers can support these initiatives by choosing to stay at properties doing their bit for the environment, such as Red Sea Diving Safari, who, earlier this year, were granted Eco Center status by dive certification company PADI.

The best bit about Marsa however has got to be its underwater wonders, which are far less crowded than its northern neighbours. All of Egypt’s star attractions – including sharks, turtles and the elusive dugong – can be found. We take a look at some of the best locations to don your fins and dive in.

Elphinstone Reef

Diving encounters in the Red Sea.

The jewel in Marsa’s many-studded dive site crown, Elphinstone (or Sha’ab Abu Hamra) consistently ranks highly in ‘best dive sites in the world’ polls. It’s likely because it’s the place for shark spotting.

Many Scalloped Hammerhead, Thresher and Oceanic White Tip sharks have been seen here, alongside Hawksbill Turtles, Manta Rays and an abundance of other pelagics.

Barely seen from the sea’s surface, Elphinstone is the tip of a large underwater mountain that sits in strong currents, attracting megafauna and encouraging plentiful soft corals, sponges and gorgonians to grow. At around 20-40 metres wide, 375-metres long and descending to over 40 metres in some places, it’s a bountiful location for divers to explore. Beyond the pinnacle, walls descend to over 100-metres deep. Due to the ocean conditions here, Elphinstone Reef is more suited to advanced divers that feel comfortable drift diving and confident handling currents. Access is by a 20-minute boat ride from Marsa Abu Dabbab or Marsa Shagra Village.

Dolphin House Reef and The Canyon

The clear waters of Dolphin House.

No prizes for guessing why visitors like heading to this offshore reef. You guessed it: A pod of local Spinner dolphins are almost always in residence, and can be viewed from the surface by either swimming or snorkelling. As the location is protected, diving isn’t allowed, and there are limits as to how close boats and people can get to the reef. This doesn’t hamper visitors’ chances of seeing the pod though, as they tend not to stray far and, with over 30 members, are easy to spot. Watching them swim by, whistling as they go, is a truly unforgettable experience for any ocean lover. Boat trips there usually combine a snorkel with a dive or two at the nearby Canyon. This picturesque site comprises a narrow swim-through between reefs, broken up by chambers and open pools filled with dappled sunlight, soft coral, moray eels and all manner of fish. A 20-metre opening leads into the canyon and allows recreational divers to descend as far as 30-metres and tec divers as deep as 54-metres. Visit in March or April to see baby sharks hiding in the crevices beneath overhangs.

Abu Dababb Bay

A rare dugong spotted in Abu Dahabb bay

A location made popular in part thanks to its easy shore access, the middle of this wide, 18-metre- deep bay is carpeted with lush sea grass. Though less visually dazzling than some of its neighbouring sites, it has one huge draw the others don’t: the dugong. These mammoth marine mammals love chomping lanes through the underwater turf, before surfacing every six minutes or so to take a breath. At up to four metres long, these impressive animals are a delight to dive with, though sightings aren’t guaranteed as locating the creatures – which move about constantly – can be tricky. If the dugong remains elusive during your stay, the bay offers plenty of other thrilling options. Along its edges, beautifully bright coral shines in the shallows, and Ghost Pipefish, pygmy seahorses and turtles thrive. The Red Sea Project operates out of Abu Dabbab and monitors turtle activity in the bay in an attempt to aid conservation, building records of population and behaviours throughout the year. Divers keen to learn more about their efforts can sign up to their volunteer program.

Hamada Wreck

As well as wildlife, the deep sea around the Marsa Alam is full of wrecks to explore

There aren’t an abundance of wrecks in Marsa Alam (head further north for the likes of the famous SS Thistlegorm, SS Dunraven and Giannis D) but one it does have isn’t only a stunner, but also perfect for newly qualified divers. Sitting in the waters off ​​the Ras Banas peninsula just south of Marsa, this 65-metre cargo ship was wrecked in 1993 and now lies in two sections on the seabed at just 14-metres deep. How the wreck made it to the bottom of the ocean is somewhat of a mystery: one report claims a fire broke out while another suggests the ship struck a submerged object. Whatever the reason, the ship sank and now provides a beautiful natural reef ideal for underwater explorers. Its shallow nature means divers can spend a good amount of time here, enjoying multiple penetrations into the cargo hold, pilothouse and engine room. With nearly thirty years of coral growth, marine life is plentiful, so visitors can hope to spot lionfish, gobies and surgeonfish – at the very least.

Curious about our oceans? Become a certified scuba diver with PADI.

Other things to do in Marsa Alam

Go green with Red Sea Diving Safari

Go home feeling good for more reasons than one by earning an eco-friendly certification while you’re on holiday. At Red Sea Diving Safari, every certification booked – from Open Water to Divemaster – comes with the ‘Dive against Debris’ qualification, meaning you can not only contribute to keeping this incredible ecosystem healthy, but learn transferable skills to bring home with you.

Combine a diving safari with a stunning coastal retreat

Experience a taste of the Bedouin lifestyle

Most Red Sea tourists come for exactly that: the sea, but if you turn inland, there’s plenty of fascinating sights to explore. Guests at Wadi Sabarah can enjoy a 4×4 desert tour guided by local bedouin Adaroub, which offers the chance to see wild donkeys and camels, traverse dry river beds and enjoy a mug of tea around a traditional bedouin campfire.

Visit Cleopatra’s emerald mines

Worth a trip alone for its numerous mangrove-spotted beaches and wealth of endemic land mammals (including the Nubian Ibex and Barbary Sheep), the Wadi El Gemal National Park also hides rich ruins. Visitors can head over to the remnants of ancient emerald mines believed to be in operation during the time of the pharaohs, as far back as the Ptolemaic period in 330 BC. Despite their name, it’s worth noting there’s no proof these mines were linked directly to Cleopatra.

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