The Red Sea Egypt – What to expect along with tips & tricks when diving, snorkelling and enjoying Egypts Red Sea and the Marsa Alam region.
After exploring the temples, tombs and pyramids of Giza, Luxor & Aswan, we spent a week in Egypts Port Ghalib. Located in the Marsa Alam region in the Red Sea governance, working out how to get there was our biggest challenge. Accurate information in Egypt can be hard to get. And after our hope of travelling by bus diminished, we eventually arranged a private car for the journey.
The drive from Aswan took 6 long hours. We had read that desert road connecting the two towns was in a horrific state. However it actually wasn’t as bad as we had imagined, with road works and restoration happening. But the journey was slow as the sections of bad road, was indeed really bad!
When we finally arrived at our all-inclusive 4*hotel, Sunrise Marina Resort by lunch time, we knew we had made a great decision! The resort had two pools, gym, restaurants, shops, and a private beach. Included was a buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner, all drinks (including alcohol), all for around US$80 a night. We were pretty excited! The weather was nice, mid to late 20’s, however, there was a chilly wind most days, which kept things cool.
Diving the Red Sea
Over the course of a week, we split our time between diving, snorkelling, eating, drinking and relaxing! We were most looking forward to diving Egypts world class reefs. So our first task was finding a dive centre we were comfortable with. After a little looking around, we did five dives with Aquarius Diving Club, Port Ghalib, who we would definitely recommend.
Our first dive was at a house reef , designed as a refresher dive. Even so, the house reef was quite beautiful. We saw Stone Fish, Moray Eels and Lion Fish, amongst many other fish.
Our next dives were a boat ride away. We dived Halq Soliman and Marsa Mubarak. The latter is famous for the estimated seven dugongs that inhabit the area. Although we didn’t see any dugongs, two bottlenose dolphins appeared out of nowhere. They inquisitively swam around us for 15 minutes, which was amazing and a highlight of our 2 dives that day. We’ve never been so close to dolphins before!
But our best diving experience was a day trip to Marsa Alams most popular dive site, Elphinstone, a 300 metre long reef in the middle of the Red Sea. Famous for schools of Hammerhead Sharks, Oceanic Whitetip Shark, Whitetip Reef Sharks, we were desperate visit this dive site. Dive trips to Elphinstone didn’t operate daily and being an hour boat ride away, was dependant on weather conditions.
Not only were we lucky enough to make it to Elphinstone, but we saw an Oceanic White-tip cruising by. Jacques Cousteau once dubbed the Oceanic Whitetip as ‘the most dangerous of all sharks’. But, despite its aggressive reputation it was what we had come to dive Elphinstone in search of. It’s ironic and incredibly sad that this amazing species has been decimated by commercial fishing and the hideous shark fin trade over recent years. So it really was a special moment to dive with one!
As well as the Oceanic Whitetip we saw several pods of Spinner Dolphins, a Whitetip Reef Shark, big Napoleon Wrasse and plenty more Lionfish. The visibility was great and there were no currents, although the water was a tad chilly! Unfortunately, we were a month or so outside the Hammerhead season, a definite reason to return another time! This dive was by far one of the more beautiful and definitely more exciting dives we have done! We will admit we didn’t hang around once we surfaced and got back in the boat nice and quick. But it was an awesome underwater experience, just as we hoped.
All of the local dive companies ran snorkelling trips to Marsa Mubarak. The chance of seeing a dugong whilst snorkelling is higher than when diving. Instead of doing a tour, we hired some fins and snorkels and walked an hour to the reef. We had been told to pay attention to the zodiacs who were also searching for dugongs for the snorkelling trips. Usually if they stopped, they’d likely spotted something. We did try this, although the zodiacs were quite a long way from the shore and the sea was a bit rough. In the end, each time all we saw were turtles.
It was difficult to stay in the water for too long, as we didn’t have wetsuits and it was cold. After drying off and warming up, we sat on the beach, unsure of exactly where to look for the dugongs. After a while, Chris went back into the sea, patrolling the sea grass in hope of finding a dugong. Unsuccessful after half an hour, he retreated to the beach after plenty more turtle sightings.
Feeling frustrated, we were just about to leave, when a French man slowly came out of the water to get his camera. He started saying ‘sea cow, sea cow’ and pointed to water. We instantly jumped up and followed the man to the shallow water. Sure enough, we were amazed to see the dugong was still there! It was huge, however it was rolling around on the seabed, stirring up the sand, so it was difficult to see it properly. And, before we knew it, it swam away! But a great way to finish the day! We walked back to the resort and decided we would return the next day.
We spent the following day at Marsa Mubarak. We didn’t have any more luck finding Dugongs, but we had fun following around Bluespotted Ribbontail Ray, stingray, turtles and fish, taking photos. The reef there was really picturesque, with beautiful colours in the shallows and nice clear water.
Our week on the Red Sea coast was amazing. After a hectic and at times stressful trip in Egypt, it was nice to be able to completely relax. The underwater world on the red sea coast is incredible and if you’re heading to Egypt, we recommend adding Marsa Alam to your itinerary. You won’t be disappointed!
Getting to from & around
Marsa Alam’s International airport is located just under 10 km from Port Ghalib’s Marina and approximately 70km from the city of Marsa Alam. Flying to the region is by far the easiest way to access the area. You will need to prebook a taxi to get from the airport to your accommodation as there are no taxis or buses waiting at the airport. Taxi prices vary depending on who you book through. Check prices with your accommodation. We can recommend Steven’s taxis who charge €16 one way from Marsa Alam Aiport – Port Ghalib. There may be cheaper options available.
Buses operate between Cairo, Aswan/Luxor and Marsa Alam, while minibuses operate between Edfu and Marsa Alam. At the time of our travels, the main desert road connecting Aswan and Marsa had been restricted to locals only and had just opened up to tourists. We were advised we needed permits to travel on this road. Tourist info in Aswan told us that there were no buses; there were, we just weren’t allowed on them. We have since read that several tourists have travelled by bus from both Aswan and Edfu to Marsa, without a permit and with no problems. But accurate information can be difficult to obtain.
We suggest that if you want to take a bus, go to the bus station a day or 2 in advance and see what the situation is. You may need to change buses along the way if travelling up to Port Ghalib. Don’t rely on accurate info from tourist information centres! Worst case, you’ll need to book a transfer.
We travelled from Aswan to Port Ghalib by car, booked through Steven’s taxis. It wasn’t cheap, at €150, however it was a door to door service and got us to Port Ghalib by lunch time. We had to send passport copies to Steven in advance so he could obtain tourists permits to travel on the desert road. This road wasn’t in the best shape, but was having a lot of work done to it. So hopefully, it’s in a better state now.
Local taxis were hard to come by in and around Port Ghalib and most taxis were private, needing to be pre-booked. Most hotels will have a contract with a taxi company and if you book through the hotel, it will cost more as the hotel will be getting a commission. It’s better to shop around and book direct.
We stayed in Port Ghalib for our week on the Red Sea Coast. The area consists of resorts, a marina, dive centres, shops, ATM’s and restaurants. The area was developed with tourists in mind, so this is not a ‘local’ experience. There are several resorts available offering all-inclusive packages, or some that just offer breakfast or half board, largely catering for tourists on package holidays. It is however, a perfect place to base yourself for diving and relaxing. It’s location to the international airport makes it super convenient and a lot cheaper than travelling to Mara Alam city, which is a further 60-70 km south of Port Ghalib. Having said that, there also many options to choose from in and around Marsa Alam city, so we recommend checking out booking.com for options. There really is nothing to see, other than desert between Port Ghalib and Marsa Alam.
We stayed at the Sunrise Marina Resort, Port Ghalib. At the time, we paid US$80 p/nt, which was all-inclusive. We were really pleased with our choice as the staff and facilities were great.
Most travellers will need a visa to enter Egypt. Citizens from countries such as Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, EU and handful of others, can obtain visas on arrival at Cairo’s International Airport or Marsa Alam International Airport. There is a bank window just before customs at both airports where you buy your visa. The fee is US$25 and it’s best to pay in US$ for this, although Euro may be accepted. ANd take the exact change to pay. When we visited in 2017, it was not possible to get visas on arrival at land borders.
Diving the Red Sea
Many people visit the Marsa Alam region to go diving and snorkelling. There are several dive operators in Port Ghalib and we chose to dive with Aquarius Diving Club. These guys are PADI certified and ran great diving trips. Dive packages are available and work out a bit cheaper if you’re wanting to do a lot of diving. There are additional fees for gear hire, taxes long distance day trips and sometimes site fees/taxes. Our favourite dive sites were:
Ghalib House Reef
We had to do a house reef dive as a refresher dive before we could do any other dives. The house reef is walking distance from the dive centre, at the end of a pier and was actually quite beautiful. It’s a great option for beginners and people who get seasick!
There isn’t really much to see at Mursa Mubarak. The dive isn’t too deep and for the most part, you will be looking at sand and seagrass. BUT, this site is popular with divers as the seagrass attracts Dugongs. Dive companies visit the site almost every day and although we didn’t see any dugongs, we had an amazing experience with spinner dolphins instead!
So this dive site is one of the most famous in the area. Located 1.5- 2 hrs by boat from Port Ghalib, the 300m long reef is home to beautiful soft corals and a huge amount of fish life. During the summer months, manta rays and hammerheads frequent the reef, whilst oceanic whit-tips, reef sharks and even thresher sharks can be spotted here too. The currents can be really strong, making this a drift dive suitable for advanced divers.
Snorkelling the Red Sea
Dive operators take snorkellers on many of their dive excursions and run snorkelling trips to Mursa Mubarak. There is a higher chance of encountering dugongs when snorkelling than when diving. And although you can pay to do organised trips there, its just as easy to DIY if you’re staying nearby. There are pretty corals, fish, rays and turtles too.
From Port Ghalib, it’s an hours walk to reach Mursa Mubarak, which is located on the southern side of the marina. There is usually a water taxi that can transfer people from one side of the marina to the other LE30, making the journey much quicker (it was out of action during our visit). Alternatively, there are resorts located closer to Mursa Mubarak. You can hire snorkels and fins for around €8 a day, or if you plan on snorkelling a lot, take you own!
The official currency is Egyptian Pounds, abbreviated to E£ or LE. You can find ATM’s at the airport and in all of the big cities. There is a limit of around LE3000 per withdrawal. Prices are often advertised and payable in Euro and U$S, but it’s best to check in advance. If you plan on exchanging euro or dollars, it’s best to take smaller notes as some exchange machines/banks don’t accept large notes like $/€50 or $/€100.
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