By Denise Mattia
It’s an accepted fact that the first recorded conflict occurred in Egypt during the reign of Ramses III in the 12th century BCE. Ever since then demonstrations have been a part of the world’s history. Today, thanks to added security, travelers to Egypt can be assured of a carefree vacation. First-time or repeat visitors will be mesmerized by the magnificent paintings, sculpture and architecture the country offers, the warmth and friendliness of the Egyptians and unparalleled scuba diving in the Red Sea.
As a diversion from artistic interests in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, staying at the luxurious Sofitel El Gezirah in Cairo, the Winter Palace in Luxor and the Cataract in Aswan, I chose to dive in the Red Sea off Hurghada. Hotels there and dayboard diving are not only more affordable than living aboard a dive boat, but they also allow for flexible schedules. Resorts such as the Hilton Hurghada offer good packages, and dive operations such as the five-star facility, Aquarius Divers offer good value for the money. The operation has comfortable, big boats, which are moored at docks within easy access to the hotels. The dive sites they visit are pristine due to the Hurghada Environmental Protective and Conservation Association (HEPCA), a twelve-year old agency that installed and services mooring buoys on all the dive sites and offshore islands.
Abu Ramada South is a shallow site off the Hurghada coast. Here, three pinnacles rise from a 50-foot sandy bottom, where there’s a patch of illusive skinny garden eels squiggling out of their holes to feed on plankton. A much bigger eel caught my eye. It was a black moray in a coral head blanketed with colorful soft coral. A swarm of cardnalfish, the ubiquitous jewelfish of the Red Sea, swam above another picture-perfect formation. A blue spotted stingray churned up the sand nearby and fled . The water is almost always 78 degrees, necessitating a seven-mil wetsuit. Since there was no rushing the dives, I spent a comfortably warm hour at various sites.
If several divers aboard request three dives in a day, the boat is equipped to accommodate them, and Giftin Island has several sites on which to moor. The south end of the island has an intense concentration of marine life and bushes of brilliantly colored soft corals along the wall. One diver spotted a Napoleon wrasse, one of the largest of the wrasse family in the world. The critter can grow up to six feet in length. They’re known to be curious and even friendly to divers if they’re approached slowly. One diver chased it, causing it to fin into the deep. I sank down slowly to 65 feet to a shallow overhang and was delighted to find one looking straight at me. The wrasse hung around just long enough for me to snap a shot. I waited for it to return without luck.
At the next dive at Small Giftin, I found several black moray eels, a member of a diverse family of fish found around the world in tropical and subtropical waters. Apparently, the darker the color, the older the fish and if that’s true, these guys were great grandparents. I traced the length of one, whose body was snaked in and around a carved out coral head and estimated the giant to be almost a couple of feet longer than I’m tall. They too are curious creatures, and very photogenic. I shot several angles and soon became interested in the formations of the black and white clown fish swimming in the hard coral above my model.
An unexpected treasure was finding a perfectly camouflaged, two-foot crocodile fish, a bottom dweller commonly known as a flathead. Ranging in size, these fish can grow to 40 inches in length. Similar to a stonefish and related to a lionfish, its bulging eyes are located on the upper surface of the head. The fish waits on the bottom of the reef and snaps up smaller fish and crustaceans that come within range. For the rest of the dive I followed Moorish idols and then focused on an accommodating diver swimming calmly above the coral.
There was hardly any current at Shaab Sabina, a huge coral head located east of Haghada. This dive suits every level of diver, but since we were all experienced we were able to cascade down a sloping coral wall that looked like a Japanese garden. Easy to spot was a school of red snappers hovering over the reef. I found a nudibranch (a sea slug) that can have up to six breathing appendages. Ranging from brightly- to singularly colored, and growing as big as a foot long, my “nudi” was about four inches with only one breathing appendage visible. Still, it was a lovely find.
Someone wrote recently that American tourists “punish Egypt” by staying away. This idea is absurd. I walked among protesters in Tahir Square, and I strolled the busy markets in Cairo and throughout the country without incident. Although a cruise down the Nile is an option, don’t hesitate to leave its confines. The Sofitel el Gezirah in Cairo, the Sofitel Winter Palace in Luxor and the Sofitel Cataract in Aswan are luxurious, gracious alternatives with excellent services, spas and restaurants, and the drives from Aswan to Luxor and Hurghada allow you to see a countryside, sites and villages that are memorable and rewarding.
All photos by Denise Mattia
About Denise Mattia
A writer and photographer, Denise Mattia’s works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art , culture, resorts, spas, food and wine and sports’ activities. She's the founder of the soon to be launched Yum-Yum-Traveler, a site devoted to reviewing restaurants in addition to her travel articles from around the world. She lives and works in Manhattan, where she was born.