Seemingly half abandoned, dusty Marsa Alam doesn’t look like the place to take a vacation. At first glance you might wonder why you made your way through the hot desert just to end up in this tumbleweed town but once you get underwater, you understand why you are here. Crystal clear water, sharks, dugongs, and dolphins are all to be found here for those who make the effort to dive here. Word is spreading quickly about Marsa Alam’s pristine dive sites so it won’t be long until people begin traveling here rather than to Egypt’s main dive centers in Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh.
Why Dive in Marsa Alam?
Due to the unique aquatic environment that surrounds Marsa Alam, the area is host to some of the most sought after marine life by divers. Deep waters, shallow reefs, and strong currents make the perfect environment for many shark species and large aquatic life. The area is famous for schools of hammer head sharks that come into the area as well as the open water dwelling oceanic white tip shark. Rare thresher sharks, with their unusually long caudal fin can also be spotted here. The clear waters are also one of the best places in the world to see gigantic whale sharks who normally reside in murky oceanic waters filled with plankton.
Besides sharks, other large aquatic life is commonly spotted here. Manta Rays take advantage of the strong currents while the endangered Dugong makes its home along the many calm sea grass beds that line Marsa Alam’s shore line.
Swimming with Dolphins
While diving is king in Marsa Alam, non divers should not exclude themselves from a trip down to Marsa Alam as the area is also one of the best places to swim and snorkel with schools of dolphins. This was our favorite experience while in the area and was one of our most memorable experiences while in Egypt.
The dolphin experience does not come cheap as the only way to get to the dolphins is on an organized tour. Hotels can arrange this for you and it costs around $60 USD per person. The fee includes transport to and from the hotel, a boat ride to and from the site, a excellent lunch, and snorkeling equipment. We were a little shocked at the price but after we went on the tour, we would have done it again without hesitation.
The boat launch is roughly a one hour drive from Marsa Alam as you pass along endless stretches of desert on one side while on the other the desert sands abruptly end in the crystal blue waters of the Red Sea. The boats have plenty of lounge space, making the journey out on the open sea rather enjoyable. After an hour or so, the vast open ocean reveals a beautiful sanctuary of turquoise water ringed by reefs on all sides. This is dolphin house, a breathtaking paradise out in the middle of the big blue.
The first activity on hand is swimming with the resident dolphins in the sanctuary. After grabbing your fins and snorkel, a small boat will shuttle you to where the dolphins are. You will have around one hour to swim with these majestic creatures. Swimming along side them is hard to but into words. Claire and I even shouted out unconstrained excitement into our snorkels as we swam eye to eye with them for the first time. There are few other places in the world to swim with dolphins in such a pristine environment and for us, one hour was no where near enough time to spend with these incredible animals.
After a long swim with the dolphins, it is time to have lunch which is served buffet style. You get your money’s worth with grilled meats, salads, fruits, and vegetables being plentiful. After refueling, the crew will take you to do some snorkeling along the fringe reef, although we would have rather spent more time with the dolphins.
Ethics of Swimming with Dolphins
A few weeks after our incredible experience swimming with dolphins, I came across some disturbing news about the effects of human interaction with dolphins in these sanctuary areas. I learned that the dolphins come here during the day to rest and sleep which then gets disturbed by all of the tourists swimming around them. The good news is there is a place near Marsa Alam to swim with dolphins in a responsible and ethical way.
There are two dolphin sanctuaries near Marsa Alam, Samadai and Satayah. Unfortunately the one we went to, Satayah, is unregulated meaning there is no limit on the number of tourists and boats that can visit each day. Samadai on the other hand, is regulated by the local government which imposes limits to the number of daily visitors. The government has also made sections of the sanctuary off limits to visitors, providing a place for dolphins to go if they wish not to interact with swimmers. If we had known this information, we would have made sure to have visited Samadai instead of Satayah. We want to make sure our readers understand this so that they can make a better decision than we did. You can learn more about tourists’ impact on dolphins here.
Many incredible creatures can be spotted in the waters of Marsa Alam but it is important to understand that wildlife spotting here is seasonal. Depending on which creatures you are keen on spotting, you will need to plan your trip around the times they are likely in the area. Below are the seasons for the following aquatic life. Also note that just because the season is right, does not guarantee you will see what you are looking for. Nature is unpredictable and sometimes things just don’t work out.
Hammer Head Sharks: May – August (Schooling from May – July)
Oceanic White Tip Sharks: October – December
Whale Sharks: May – June
Thresher Sharks: September – February
Manta Rays: May – August
Turtles: All Year Round
Dugong: All Year Round
Dolphins: All Year Round
Choosing a Dive Center
Marsa Alam is still developing into a diving destination so regulations are haphazard and the quality of dive centers varies greatly. On top of all this, there is very little information on the dive centers that do operate.
Unfortunately for us, we choose a terrible dive center which appeared professional but was anything but that once we got to the dive site. The manner of the dive and the state of the equipment was so bad that after our first dive we refused to dive again and demanded a refund for the second dive. Fortunately, we received our money back for our second dive but sadly did not spot any dugong during our dive (they didn’t see any the second dive as well).
We dove with Blue Vision Diving and we cannot recommend them. The dives were carried out in an unprofessional manner and the equipment was in poor condition (the equipment is not in house).
Near the end of our time in Marsa Alam, we met a German who was living in town and she recommended for us to use Marsa Diving Center. We plan on using them when we return to Marsa Alam for shark season in the future.
Where to Stay
Marsa Alam is a bit of a ghost town so your options for food and accommodation are limited. For accommodation we used Blue Vision Diving Hotel which cost 434 EGP ($24.22 USD) for a private room with a/c and without breakfast or wifi (both cost extra). Rooms are clean and comfortable but the hotel is a little outside of the main town area. The hotel can order food to be delivered to the hotel but at over double the price for what you could get on your own. The ‘downtown area’ is about a ten minute walk from the hotel. We can recommend this hotel for budget travelers but we advise you not to use their dive center. It was our worst dive experience to date.
There are a few grocery stores in the center of town where you can pick up basic supplies, fruit, and breakfast materials. A walk towards the center of town will bring you to a few eateries, the best being along the main drag.
The biggest surprise while in Marsa Alam was the litter load of puppies we became friends with in town. On our way to lunch one day we found a stray puppy amid a pile of rubbish. After playing with him for a bit, another 8 little guys came out one by one creating a scene of puppy cuteness overload. We would take time out of each day to make sure they were being fed and had water. It was good to find out that the construction workers across the street were keeping an eye on them as well.
Marsa Alam: Underwater Awe
Marsa Alam doesn’t look like much from the surface but get under water and its treasures will shine brightly at you. We really can’t wait to revisit this place during the right season. The idea of seeing schools of hammerheads, dolphins, whale sharks, and mantas in the same dive trip sounds like a dream too good to be true.