I LEFT MY WIFE KAREN SUNBATHING by the pool, armed with her Kindle and a large tropical fruit punch.
I knew I’d be gone only for 90 minutes, back in time to drive her nuts with tales of beautiful coral reefs full of colourful marine life.
At the dive centre the dive guide gave us our briefing, then we kitted up with everything we needed except for tank and weights, which would be supplied at the end of the jetty next to our entry point, a short walk away.
Our first dive would be at the house reef to the south of the bay inlet. A giant-stride entry put us in the warm, clear water. Relaxed OKs, and we were off.
A shoal of mackerel swam frantically above us, mouths comically agape, washing plankton-rich water through their gills to filter anything edible.
Below us was a small bommie adorned with hard and soft corals. Hundreds of bright orange anthias intermingled with silver, green and blue chromis. The fish pulsated with one rhythm, darting into the protection of the coral, then slowly expanding as a shoal into the blue to create a living halo around the reef.
A pair of blue-cheeked butterflyfish swam in synchronised formation and a small moray poked its head from its lair, allowing small cleaner wrasse access for a morning wash-and-brush-up.
We followed walls covered with beautiful corals, and entered a canyon that opened at the surface, allowing the sun to create dancing beams of light that struck the backs of big-eyed squirrelfish and red coral trout. It made them seem to glow against the cavern’s shadows.
As we hovered weightlessly around a pinnacle, marvelling at the amount of life that called it home, a large remora appeared, eyeing us up and assessing the possibility of one of us becoming its next host. Boldly it searched around our arms, legs, bodies and dive-kit for
a suitable attachment point, its determination unswerving.
As we counted down the minutes of our safety stop, I observed a quartet of Open Water Diver students being put through their paces on a nearby training platform, eagerly demonstrating skills to their eagle-eyed instructor.
I would love to see the joy on their faces as they experienced the Red Sea reefs for the first time.

CLIMBING THE STEPS back onto the jetty, an hour gone in what seemed like the blink of an eye, the smile on my own face said it all. I love to dive reefs.
The guide grabbed my arm: “Wait till you go to some of our better dive sites,” was all he said, with a knowing look and a twinkle in his eye.
We were in Marsa Alam, based around a small fishing village on the south-west shore of the Egyptian Red Sea, some 160 miles south of the popular tourist resort of Hurghada.
At one time, when hotels this far south were scarce, Marsa Alam could be accessed only via the rough coast road or from a liveaboard. Then, in 2001, the first commercial flight landed at Marsa Alam International Airport, opening a gateway to virtually untouched reefs and bays. This generated a huge development programme along the coast.
An area stretching about 40 miles either side of the old town is now referred to as Marsa Alam. The numerous bays along the coast provided ideal locations in which to build holiday resorts blessed with 365 days of sun and clear water, and many with adjacent coral reefs.
Coraya Bay, about 35 miles north of the old town, is now a well-established tourist resort. Four high-calibre hotels stand beside a sandy beach surrounding the shallow lagoon.
The bay inlet has fringing reefs that extend north and south along the coast, and access is via a jetty extending into the mouth of the bay.
The complex opened just a month before the airport, and included a single dive centre. In 2006 German businessman Hans-Heinz Dilthey took it over, and resident managers
Kai and Sonja Dunkelmann run the place like a well-oiled machine, catering for a multi-national customer base.
The Dunkelmanns offer multiple daily trips, using one of three RIBs to visit dive sites within a 30-minute ride of the bay. The timing of these short trips coincides with the Kids’ Club, so that diving parents can participate in the knowledge that their offspring are being supervised and entertained.
A single RIB is constantly on hand to deliver divers to the north house-reef, allowing them to drift south with the prevailing current back to the exit point.
There are also three day-boats moored in nearby Port Ghalib, and one at Port Marsa Alam. These regularly visit famous sites such as Elphinstone, Marsa Abu Dabab, Sha’ab Marsa
Alam and Mubarek.
Coraya Divers is passionate about the environment, endeavouring to protect fragile eco-systems by educating staff-members, who in turn educate the guests, whether they are divers, snorkellers or swimmers.
The centre’s carbon footprint has been reduced by the use of a donkey and cart to transport cylinders, boat-fuel and kit to the jetty. The donkey, Mr Nice, has proved to be one of the most popular attractions on the beach.

AFTER LUNCH AT THE HOTEL’S BEACH BAR, and a few hours with Karen, I was off again for the second dive of the day. A 15-minute southbound RIB ride took us to Gamila, a shallow reef dive along a coral wall that led to a bay with small coral pinnacles rising from the sand at about 25m.
A rolling entry took us down to a site that had only recently been added to the itinerary; new dive sites are constantly being discovered. The corals were all in fantastic condition, and the fish life prolific and varied.
I discovered a tiny yellow frogfish, its hand-like fins gripping the coral as it waited for something edible to come within range. Nestled on the sand a few metres below him, a pair of large devil scorpionfish had the same task in mind.
Sha’ab Marsa Alam was my next destination. I left Karen to recharge her batteries in the sun as I set off at 8.30am. A one-hour bus ride found us at the port just outside the old town. A short RIB ride took us to our day-boat, and after a 20-minute hop the crew secured the boat to permanent moorings.
We were kitted up and in the water 10 minutes after the comprehensive site and safety briefing, delivered with typical Egyptian humour by the guides.
Dive one took us to no more than 20m among a bunch of coral pinnacles rising to the surface from the sandy seabed.
A rainbow of small fish created dazzling colour contrasts against an azure backdrop. Gorgonians adorned many of the pinnacles, and other pristine soft corals in various hues vied for space with the hard coral, which in turn provided a safe haven for the tiny fish darting in and out of their complicated formations.
On the second dive, I wanted to experiment with a new off-camera flashgun slave set-up, and the canyons and caves made a good playground.
After a few test shots I was ready, and signalled my model into position. The equipment worked faultlessly, and I was able to produce a few images with a different perspective and feel.
Not being part of a group of divers being led by a guide is a must for photographers. Coraya Divers is flexible in this respect, giving budding David Doubilets the opportunity to work at their art.

THE FOLLOWING DAY back at our resort I visited Sharm Coraya and Youseff, both accessed by a short speedboat trip from the jetty.
Both reefs gave me reason to believe that I was enjoying the best of the inshore sites available.
Hans-Heinz was keen to show off what he called the “jewel in the crown”, the house-reef at the Fantasia Hotel complex, his second dive centre 60 miles south of Coraya.
This meant an hour’s drive in his Toyota Land Cruiser, or two hours by bus. I was wishing I’d taken the bus as we belted along the coast road.
We sped past hotels, resorts and miles of building sites, proving just how developed this area is becoming.
One of the most famous shore dives in this area is Marsa Abu Dabab, home to the famous dugong nicknamed Dennis. As we passed the seagrass-filled bay with its luxury hotels on the beach, I could see a queue of minibuses disgorging snorkellers and divers for their chance to swim with him.
Unfortunately, he is rarely seen there any more. I’m told that this is due to the sheer number of neoprene-clad people mobbing him as he tries to get on with his life.
Another site that has succumbed to the pressure that popularity brings is Dolphinhouse.
Coraya Divers no longer runs trips there, because there can be up to 40 day-boats on the site at any given time, and it feels it shouldn’t add to the numbers.
We arrived at Fantasia, and I prised my white-knuckled fingers from the Toyota’s dashboard. The site consisted of a hotel that had opened in the past year, and another still under construction. The huge dive centre looked isolated and lonely on the beach.
Again a jetty stacked with cylinders and weights provided access to the water, with a constantly crewed RIB on hand to deliver and collect divers from various locations around the reef.

I FOUND THE TWO DIVES breath-taking – the same corals and marine life I’d seen at Coraya Bay but in larger quantities, and it seemed more vibrant.
We dived around outcrops and pinnacles teeming with life. Resident anemonefish flitted in and out of their diversely coloured hosts, and soft corals were everywhere, filtering out tasty morsels delivered by the gentle current.
Goatfish probed the sand for their lunch, and blue-striped snapper shoaled and moved as one in the bright Egyptian sun. Thick clouds of anthias surrounded the coral heads, a hawksbill turtle munched lazily on the coral, and cleaner wrasse were busy at their stations. Butterfly and angelfish swam in pairs, and eagle rays appeared, then faded away into the blue.
Coral trout and grouper hung in dark crevices and lionfish slept in overhangs following a busy night’s hunting. For a reef-diving nut like me, this place ticked all the boxes.
Diving in Marsa Alam has changed little since I visited a few years ago, but the popularity of the area will eventually take its toll.
The inexorable development of this desert coastline will put some precious eco-systems under pressure. But at present it provides the shore-based diver some of the very best diving the Red Sea has to offer.
If reef-diving lights your candle, the flame will burn brightly in Marsa Alam.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Nigel Wade flew with Thomson Airways from London Gatwick direct to Marsa Alam International Airport. Excess baggage charges apply over 20kg for hold baggage.
DIVING: Coraya Divers, www.coraya-divers.com
ACCOMMODATION: Iberotel Lamaya Resort Coraya Bay, www.iberotel-eg.com
WHEN TO GO: Year round.
MONEY: Egyptian pounds or euros, although US dollars are widely accepted.
PRICES: A week’s all-inclusive accommodation including flights at Lamaya Resort costs from £520 per person (two sharing). A 10-dive package at Coraya Divers costs from 225 euros – nitrox is free for suitably qualified divers.
FURTHER INFORMATION: For a full list of approved operators and a blacklist of non-approved operators in Egypt, visit www.cdws.travel