WATER TRICKLES DOWN the back of my wetsuit as I struggle to put on my fins in the bay at Abu Samadi. It’s 24°, yet it feels fresh enough to make me gasp and shiver.
If you’re more used to drysuit-diving, this sensation is a little bit disturbing.
I’ve dived the Red Sea so many times that it almost seems a crime to be back here when the rest of the world’s oceans beckon – until I put my head below the surface. It’s simply gorgeous.
How could I have forgotten That rush of perfect blue and pristine reef is overwhelming.
Right now Bob, my dive-guide, is more concerned about making sure I have enough weight on. “The Red Sea is very salty, madam!” he insists.
I’m not going to argue with Bob because I have just arrived. He has never dived with me before, and for all he knows I could be a psycho-loony dive disaster.
It’s better to get under water and let the diving speak for itself. An experienced guide will have sussed out a diver within 60 seconds of leaving the surface.
We fin out across the bay in barely 2m of water. Baby sand-coloured flatfish scoot away before us, and I’m mesmerised by a higgledy line-up of translucent squid that are hunting just below the surface.
And then there’s the reef, bursting with healthy diversity, busy with colourful fish. I take in this sight and I understand that what I’m seeing and what I’m feeling right now is the motivating factor for thousands of people who labour away in swimming pools to learn and practise those diving skills.
There are blue-spotted rays scattered like fluorescent confetti all over and under and around the reef. I look across at the dive-guide, and he has me sussed all right. He senses my joy without words or signals.
It’s taken me fewer than five minutes of my first dive on Day One to fall under the spell of the Red Sea all over again. Marsa Alam, you had me at “hello”.

Desperately seeking dugong
Somewhere in Marsa, there are dugongs. Am I excited OMG, I can barely contain myself. The manatees in Florida have to rate as one of my all-time favourite underwater experiences. I would give anything to hug (sorry!) see a dugong.
I’m bursting to look into the tiny pin-prick eyes in that improbably squidgy face, while trying my very best not to grab it and cuddle it to within an inch of its pudgy little life…
Oh dear. Well I’m sure I’m not the only one to feel this way, which may be why it’s a good thing that the dugongs are elusive creatures.
Marsa means bay, and this part of the coast is basically a series of different bays, each with its own character and diving attractions. So of course, there’s a special “sea cow bay” – Marsa Egla.
It looks like a silt playground that someone has crafted into weird lumps and bumps, with the occasional bristly bit of seagrass sticking out.
We roam this landscape back and forth, desperately seeking dugong. No luck this time. But on every dive here there’s a part of me that’s just hoping that somehow, in some improbably random moment, a dugong will just wander on by.

Mutant nonchalant turtles
The law of Neptune dictates that when you’re looking for one thing in diving, you’ll inevitably find something else instead. I find turtles. Big ones. Supernaturally huge, somewhat grumpy, and almost too busy eating to be bothered even to look up. Or move.
If you like taking photos of turtles, you have to come to Marsa Alam because this is surely turtle photography heaven.
Here, you can pretty much push your lens up an eating turtle’s nostril before it decides to take offence and leave.
Not that I would ever encourage anyone to do that. It’s rude enough to “papp” the wildlife during lunch without risking an actual assault. And these turtles are big enough to knock you for six.
So thanks to my dives at Marsa I now have about a million photos of turtles, but however hard I tried, I simply couldn’t get them to look at the camera and smile. Victoria Beckham, eat your heart out.
I did capture a lovely few moments of video, swimming through a moving carpet of tiny silver fish, which parted like magic to reveal a feeding turtle.
This might have been an absolute masterpiece if, in a fit of self-doubt, I hadn’t turned the GoPro around mid-shot to check that the video was actually turned on.
The brief, concerned-looking selfie provides a surreal out-take in an otherwise idyllic sequence.
So apart from some spectacular walk-in reef diving, the vague chance of encountering a dugong, and the dead certainty of a close-up encounter with turtles, what else might Marsa have on offer
Actually, you’re spoiled for choice – as the numerous dive-site descriptions posted up at the dive centre demonstrate.

The elf of Elphinstone
The Elphinstone is a legendary dive, and for good reason. It’s a huge, squashed, oval-shaped pinnacle that rises from the depths and flattens off 5m or so below the surface. It has a series of stepped plateaus from 30m and 40m-plus at both north and south ends, with sheer walls in between.
The currents that whip around the reef and over these plateaus can be strong and unpredictable. This makes it an ideal place to spot sharks, as they love to cruise in fast-flowing water.
Many divers visit the site from liveaboards or safari-boats. The Elphinstone reef lies directly out from the Oasis. When I gazed out to sea from the patio in front of my room, I could often make out the white shapes of boats moored up at the site.
I’m staying at the Oasis, a Werner Lau dive resort that is run by Germans with seamless efficiency and impeccable manners.
The best way to dive the site is to get an early start, so the sun is barely up before we’re briefed and into the minibus.
Once we reach the bay, it’s an exhilarating 20-minute Zodiac ride out to the site. We leave the calm waters behind and head into the oncoming waves.
Our dive-guide is a pixie-sized little package of perfection. She’s the girl who puts the elf into Elphinstone. She makes sure that we’ve prepped, checked and loaded our scuba gear. She’s busily putting everyone at ease, because we’re all only too aware that there’s no turning back for a spare fin-strap or forgotten weightbelt once you’re on the RIB.
The anticipation is electrifying as we bounce our way across the deepening blue expanse of water, the waves building around us.
This is not a dive for the inexperienced or ill-disciplined diver, because the currents are notoriously tricky and it’s really easy to mess up the entry.
The first time I dived the site, a group of four divers (from a different dive centre) hesitated for too long at the surface with their guide and were swept away into the blue during their descent.
They ended up swimming against the current at 30m for over 20 minutes just to come back in sight of the reef. Most had half-emptied their cylinders in the process, were exhausted, and had little time to explore.
Worse, they then had to sit around on the RIB for more than half an hour, feeling hard done by, and waiting for the rest of us to return with enormous smiles on our faces. So dive with Oasis, and let the elf of Elphinstone weave her magic!

Wonderwall
“Dolphins!” The shout goes up, and we all turn to see the slick grey bodies of a dozen or so bottlenose dolphins cruising through the waves towards our RIB.
I take this as a good omen – if the dolphins are here, there’s bound to be plenty of interest and action.
It’s time to pay close attention. I hold my mask and reg in place and clutch my camera, listen to the countdown and then flip backwards off the RIB with no air in my BC.
As soon as I’m in the water I fin down, clearing my ears as I go, looking around to check where the reef is, and watching the guide to see where I need to head.
The current is absolutely banging, which means that I’m in for an amazing dive, but I need to stay focused. The group stays tight and fights forward to the edge of the plateau.
Bingo – there’s an enormous reef shark cruising along the wall. It’s off with a mighty flick of its tail before I can even drag my camera into position.
Wow – what a start to the dive! We ease back along the reef and out of the raging flow. The sheer wall of the coral drop-off is dancing with life. There are free-swimming morays coming up at me, there are free-swimming morays coming down at me. There are two morays lurking in the same hole.
A gang of enormous trumpetfish snake between and above the divers, moving with all the aplomb of an urban street crew.
Down, down in the dark blue depths, large shapes are moving. Maybe tuna. Or maybe the Napoleon wrasse that dawdles into view minutes later, eyes flicking back and forth, circling cautiously – just out of reach.
But above us and around us, the perfect blue is broken by the fluttering swirl of a billion orange anthias.
In years gone by, people spent hours whirling around and around in a circle to induce a state of blissful rapture. These days, you need only spend five minutes under water staring at the pulsating dance of these gorgeous little fish to achieve the same mesmeric state.
You could die and go to heaven, and it would probably look exactly like this wall on the Elphinstone reef.
One dive here is worth the price of the entire trip. You could dive here every morning of your entire holiday and never tire of it.

The tunnel of love
One of the (many) tempting dives on offer is the unmissable Dolphin House. This is a hardboat dive, with two dives and a proper lunch on offer.
As soon as the boat nears the horse-shoe shaped reef I can hear squeals of excitement as a large group of sprightly spinner dolphins bounces past.
The dolphins live here, and everyone wants them to stay and thrive. This means that you have to obey the restrictions about when, where and how to dive or snorkel at the site.
The currents here can also be “interesting”, so the groups are kept small, with some people being dropped by inflatable, and each group being collected – wherever they might end up.
If the dolphins decide to visit, you’re in for a treat – but I actually forgot all about them on the dive. The reef was beautiful. The clownfish were everywhere. And the swim-throughs were simply to die for.
If somebody had sat down and tried to design a more perfect cavern experience for divers they probably couldn’t have come up with anything better.
It’s wide enough to navigate easily, but small enough to require single file; shallow enough and permeable enough to be interspersed with pools of sunlight, yet enclosed enough to give you the rush of moving through an overhead environment.
As I followed behind the expert frog-kicks of the dive-guide, I filmed yellow butterflyfish tussling over a translucent jellyfish and bigeyes lurking in the shadows. A ray sat motionless on the sand as we passed overhead. And then out we popped, out through the dazzlingly
bright window of the exit and onto the reef. Just fabulous.

Just desert
I might have arrived here with the hustle and bustle of London engrained into my psyche, and the hassle of airports and security checks still fresh in my mind, but it’s Marsa and I’m staying in the desert.
The Oasis is literally an oasis. It comprises several low bungalows, in unobtrusive shades of sandy cream and brown, nestling comfortably into the contours of the landscape around a cluster of palms and a gully of green shrubs.
I walk out of my room into the bright sunlight and find myself inside a Rothko painting – the pale blue sky, the dark blue sea, and a band of ochre-yellow beach, which meets the turquoise square of the pool. And I’m perched in the middle, swallowed by the vast canvas of shimmering colour. My head is instantly wiped clean of stress.
Night falls quickly here. Are there stars out tonight Gaze upwards and the darkening desert sky becomes peppered with brilliant points of light.
At home I never get to see the stars – the visual smog of electrically lit buildings and streets obscures them. In London
I no longer look up; the night sky is forgotten. Here, the universe is inescapable.
The desert is softened by the darkness, the paths and buildings at Oasis are lit by tiny lamps as if fallen stars have been scattered across the ground. The dive-centre shines like a beacon, with guests and dive-centre staff converging for a drink and some socialising.
Conversation is the entertainment. There are no TV screens blaring Sky Sports, there’s no throbbing Russian-themed roller disco, and nobody is yelling at you in the street while trying to flog you an alabaster cat.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the noise and energy of Sharm. But here in the desert there’s the time and space to reflect. It’s incredibly precious.

Get here – if you can
I don’t care how you get here, just get here if you can.
The Red Sea, and the south of Egypt in particular, is astonishingly great value. A week here can work out cheaper than your average three-day UK bank-holiday dive-trip – with considerably more sun, and zero chance of being blown out. What’s not to like
Well, getting on an aeroplane can be a drag. I understand that. But getting stuck in traffic behind a caravan on the A303 is hardly a laugh a minute either.
So is it safe to visit Egypt right now
I believe it’s considerably safer than walking through Camden Town on a lunchtime or cycling across north London – something I do without a moment’s hesitation several times a week.
Egyptians are incredibly welcoming and protective towards visitors. Unless you want to run round Tahrir Square
in your underwear shouting political slogans, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to encounter any kind of threat at a Red Sea resort.
So right now remains the best possible time to visit the Red Sea. The dive-sites are relatively empty, the prices are ridiculously low, and everybody is delighted to see you.
“The British, and particularly the British divers, continue to come to Egypt. We know that you’re our good friends.” This is what the driver told me soon after I landed at Marsa Alam airport.
Well, of course! We’re divers, we’re not fragile little dolls too scared to leave our own front door.
I settled back in my seat feeling suitably flattered and proud. “The British and the Russians,” he added with a nod.
Oh dear. My English snobbishness baulks at the thought of being lumped into the same category as Russians. But no doubt they feel the same way.
Pussy Riot, Pussy Riot, Pussy Riot, I repeat to myself silently as the car moves along the scorched coastline.
So, Marsa Alam – what a treat. What a revelation. I came to the end of my week and, if the truth be known, I never found the dugong. Instead I found something more valuable. Peace.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Fly direct to Marsa Alam from Manchester or Gatwick.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Werner Lau / Sinai Divers Dive Centre at Oasis Dive Resort, www.oasis-marsaalam.com, www.wernerlau.com, sinaidivers.com.
The dive centre has great equipment and nitrox is offered as standard – as long as you’re qualified, says Louise. You could also take the nitrox course while you’re there.
WHEN TO GO Right now! The diving is good all year-round, and the sooner you go the better chance you have to enjoy the dive-sites in relative peace.
MONEY Egyptian pounds, or euros, US dollars or sterling.
DO TAKE Your surface marker buoy for the boat-dives – especially useful on those dives with strong currents.
PRICES Regaldive offers prices for seven nights’ half-board at the Oasis from £615pp (twin-share), with flights from Manchester or Gatwick to Marsa Alam and transfers. There are many special deals and offers, so check out the latest position, www.oasis-marsaalam.com, www.regaldive.co.uk
TOURIST INFORMATION www.egypt.travel