YOU CAN’T ARGUE WITH 88%. That’s a high occupancy rate for a resort, especially in a remote part of southern Egypt at a time when everyone’s being gloomy about tourism.
I’ve been reading the dire warnings about what will happen to the diving industry after Egypt’s elections, still a month away when I arrive at the Oasis, south of Marsa Alam.
The country will go fundamentalist, I’m told, with women wearing chadors and, least-bad scenario, tourist money supply maintained by cordoning off Sharm el Sheikh as a Las Vegas for decadent pleasure-seekers. Egyptians tell me otherwise.
For now, I’m in a resort that doesn’t look like a resort, and it’s full of cheerful divers. Almost all are continental Europeans, many of them returnees and as friendly as language barriers allow.
You can fly into Marsa Alam International just up the road, but with no flights available when I want to visit, I take the three-hour drive down from Hurghada instead.
It’s interesting to see all the big resorts along the way, some looking half-finished and abandoned, though to be fair you can’t tell from the road if they’re occupied or not.
Some resemble Arabian fantasy fortresses, but what I like about the Oasis is that it just looks like a settlement. It’s a dedicated dive centre with 50 scattered chalets.
I also like the friendliness of the staff, from the hotel and terrace restaurant to the dive centre beneath it and the Bedouin tent bar on the slope down to the sea. The rooms are comfortable,
the food tasty and the diving mainly shore-based and relaxed.
Staff-members may mistake you for a party person and warn you on arrival that there is “no animation” here.
By this they don’t mean that everyone is lazy, just that this is a very laid-back resort. “No animation” means no entertainment. Fine by me.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM, as far as my week’s diving is concerned, is the presence or otherwise of the famous dugongs, which munch the algae and sea-grass in shallow waters around
here. Dugongs, as it happens, belong to the same sub-order as elephants.
I am warned on arrival that the water temperature isn’t ideal for dugongs – on the chilly side at 22-23°C – so I shouldn’t count on a sighting.
I’m not too bothered. A dugong would be a bonus, but my philosophy is that when dealing with nature you must enjoy whatever happens to come your way. If diving with dugongs was a done deal, it wouldn’t be half as appealing.
So while large grey mammals lurk at the back of my mind when we hang out at sites such as Marsa Abu Dabab or Marsa Egla, I’m perfectly happy to be distracted by the many other inhabitants of these waters.
Big green turtles are the most obvious of these. We see a lot at nearby Egla, though they’re skittish compared with Abu Dabab’s single-minded giants.
Here small jellyfish lie in indentations in the sand like so many blue poached eggs, and the turtles wander around scooping them out of their nests.
So intent are they on their meal that if you lie still on the seabed they’ll wander right up to you, possibly check whether your dome port is edible, and give you plenty of chances to get a shot before heading upstairs for a breather.
The turtles usually carry hitch-hikers in the shape of large green remoras, some on top of the shell but others dragged through the sand beneath them.
Once attached – effectively upside-down if atop the shell, because its sucker-pad is an adapted dorsal fin – remoras can stay put for months, living on plankton and their host’s food scraps.
They bring nothing to the table for the turtle, so that’s real dependency culture.
In some parts of the world fishermen actually catch turtles by sending live remoras down on a line to attach themselves – the turtle is powerless to resist that suction-grip as it is hauled up. I’d rather not think of such things as I enjoy the turtle bonanza.
Also worth watching in the sandy areas are the many rays. One enormous specimen at Marsa Abu Dabab is a whiptail with subtle leopard-spot markings that leaves clouds of sand in its wake.
I can’t believe the sheer length of its “whip”, which is at least three times the length of the sizeable disc. I don’t recall seeing a tail like that on a ray before.

MARSA ABU DABAB is justly renowned. After a first dive hanging out in the sand with the turtles and flatfish, our follow-up is along the reef wall that snakes out from the north side of the beach. Initially dozens of snorkellers accompany us above.
If anyone asks me to recommend a good snorkelling site in future, I’ll say this one, because while the hard corals are OK the sheer variety of colourful fish on this reef is extraordinary. I won’t catalogue them, but the site will appeal to anyone seeking an easy aquarium experience.
As it gets a little deeper and cooler the snorkellers thin out and you just have fun fish-spotting.
Most days we are pre-briefed at the dive centre, jump into a mini-van and head along the coast to the various local sites. The equipment is brought ahead and laid out on a mat, and you kit up, buddy-check (safety is paramount here) and wade in.
At some sites such as Ras Samadai it’s quite a long plod over rocks before you can put your fins on, but once you drop through the hole and the spectacular canyon scenery opens up, you realise that it’s well worth the effort. This isn’t a site to photograph so much as enjoy the picturesque coral-wall views.
Easier to negotiate is slot-shaped Marsa Egla, a 20-minute drive from the resort and a popular choice for its combination of sea-grass seabed and well-populated coral pinnacles.
Over three visits here I get to see a lot of green and hawksbill turtles, the same large red octopus several times, a great many fish and what is apparently a fairly unusual sighting, a spiny seahorse.
If the seahorse is the showpiece for our guide Camille on our first dive here, her boyfriend Ehab’s contribution on the next occasion is a Red Sea walkman (Inimicus filamentosus), the scorpionfish that uses its front fins as legs.
It’s also Ehab who is in charge when we set off early one morning to beat the crowds bound for the Elphinstone. With us are an affable group of experienced Belgian divers.
It’s an easy enough trip – a drive to Marsa Shagra to kit up at Red Sea Safaris’ large base, a 10-minute RIB ride out to the north plateau, a current check by Ehab and then a negative entry to get past the surging surface currents. We anticipate an exciting drift-dive across the plateau.
As our RIB approaches Elphinstone the bottlenose dolphins move in, seemingly dozens of them, riding our bow wave and clearly having fun. Surely this bodes well for the dive

WE ARE WARNED TO DROP IN fast and stay together at all costs. I get a bash on the head from someone’s tank as we back-roll in (who can’t count to three) but it isn’t a problem and I still have Ehab’s fins firmly in sight just ahead on the descent. But when I turn to see where everyone else is, there seem to be divers all over the place.
Ehab has little choice if he is to keep things safe – he signals for everyone to go back up. Dekitted, we climb back into the boat like naughty schoolkids.
Our leader’s lecture is polite and professional. Do we still want to do the dive “Yes!” we chorus sheepishly.
It could have been great but in the event what we get is a rather tame 40-minute troll along the wall of the north plateau to around 28m, with not much more than anthias to see.
However, there is a kicker, albeit blink and you’d miss it. As I hang at 5m below the RIB on my safety stop, vaguely perceived background whistling and clicking suddenly intensifies, and then grey-brown bodies are shooting through the water, diagonally downwards across my field of vision, as a pair of dolphins race past me away from the surface.
And that’s about it – I can’t claim any great meeting between me and the dolphin nation, but the momentary encounter at least finishes what would otherwise have been a disappointing dive on a high note.
It’s an improvement on the previous day’s lunchtime cetacean pursuit at Dolphin House (Sha’ab Samadai), the horseshoe-shaped marine reserve accessed by a 75-minute hardboat ride from Marsa Alam harbour.
There are only two other boats there and the diving is enjoyable, but everyone is hoping for an inwater glimpse of the rare spinner dolphins that hang out in protected Zone A, marked by buoys.
Only snorkellers can enter Zone B, and boats have to keep to Zone C.
A tender from one of the other day-boats has ventured too far into the dolphins’ territory, and is duly reported to the authorities from our boat. However, the same tender later picks me up to join the other snorkellers while the divers on our boat are lunching. This time it stays the right side of the buoys.
The dolphins are spotted, we jump in and pump our legs for all we’re worth in one direction, then another. I decide that if I save my breath and hang back the spinners will almost certainly evade the pack and head for me, but of course it doesn’t work out that way.
In the end, after much fruitless finning, some other divers from our own boat drop in just about where we started from, and later show me their great spinner-dolphin piccies. I grit my teeth.

DOLPHIN HOUSE is a very enjoyable experience for all that. The morning dive takes us to a table coral under which a solitary whitetip shark lurks.
This, I learn later, is a well-known character in the neighbourhood who endures visits from divers at regular intervals, so there is obviously a dearth of sharks in these parts.
When I ask later if it has been named, Ehab tells me it’s known as Whitetip. Never! It circles around the ergs but never comes that close.
What stands out, however, apart from some impressive colonies of anemones and attendant Nemos, are the Canyons, spectacular caverns cut into the coral rock and open in many places high overhead, offering brilliant sunlight effects through the intersecting passages.
You can spend a long time wandering these natural corridors.
Only the occasional blue-spotted ray, wall-dweller or pair of sergeant-majors intrudes into the cathedral-like calm. On our first dive here there are a few divers around, but when I go back with Ehab that afternoon we have the place to ourselves, the chambers dwarfing him as he fins ahead to model.
We pause at a square opening to the blue outside. It’s covered by a delicate filigree screen, created by lacy sea-fans wafting outside in the gentle current. With many colourful small fish “trapped” inside it, this net-curtained window effect demands attention.
All good experiences, but the day I particularly enjoy is at Abu Ghusun. The 60-mile drive south provides the chance to see how many more holiday resorts have been conceived if not completed.
From our temporary base in a Bedouin hospitality tent, with yellow fog billowing over a vessel in the nearby harbour taking on a cargo of phosphate, we set out to dive the Hamada.
From the mid-1960s this Aberdeen-built coaster operated in Britain, Cyprus and Malta under various names. She is thought to have met her end some 20 years ago while en route from Saudi Arabia to Suez carrying plastic pellets.
She caught fire, reasons unknown, and must have struck the reef with great force, because she was smashed in half.

WE REACH THE WRECK by following the reef wall out from the beach, and the first sight of the stern as it lies on its starboard side will get you wanting to pose your buddy in front of it straight away.
As the Hamada isn’t dived that much, and dive-boats haven’t tied into it, it’s in good shape and richly decorated with corals on the hull, superstructure, railings and mast.
Follow the port side at no more than 18m and you note details such as the telephone on the bridge, the receiver still connected by its curly cable, and wonder how many divers must have held it to their ear. The single propeller lies beside the rudder, appearing small for a 65m-long vessel.
The long bow section lies at right angles to the stern, the hull coated in coral and anchor in its mounting. The engine-room and cargo-holds are accessible and there are a lot of small fish on the wreck, as well as blue surgeonfish that hang out above it.
I enjoy my first dive on the picturesque Hamada with guide Ira, and opt to go back a second time with her rather than explore the reef. Incidentally, I’ve name-checked many of the instructor/guides because Werner Lau dive centre staff all over the world seem to be the product of a particularly fine finishing school.
In fact the dive centre here is a joint venture with Sinai Divers, and manager Roland must be proud of his team.
So what about the dugongs On my last dive at Marsa Abu Dabab, on the eve of flying home, I emerge with my buddy to find instructor Hany on the shore looking expectantly out to sea. “They’ve spotted a dugong!” he tells me.
I glance at my contents gauge. “I’ve still got 90 bar left,” I say, aware of a childish note of pleading in my voice.
He continues to look for the telltale signs of over-excited snorkellers, but to no avail. It’s a big area to scan.
I look at the rest of our group, already half-packed up for the ride back to the Oasis, and I realise that it’s not going to happen. The sea-elephant is in the room, but it will just have to get along without my company.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly to Marsa Alam or Hurghada – from November, divers can fly direct to Marsa Alam from Manchester as well as Gatwick.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Werner Lau / Sinai Divers Dive Centre at Oasis Dive Resort, www.oasis-marsaalam.com, www.wernerlau.com, sinaidivers.com
WHEN TO GO: Year-round.
MONEY: Egyptian pounds, or euros, US dollars or sterling.
PRICES: Regaldive offers prices for seven nights’ half-board at the Oasis from £619pp (twin-share), with flights from Manchester or Gatwick to Marsa Alam and transfers. Five days’ 4x4 & house-reef diving (15 dives) costs £233, or you can do 15 house-reef dives for £110. Regaldive : 01353 659 999, www.regaldive.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.egypt.travel