Soma Bay: Diving the Egyptian Red Sea
I first visited the Red Sea as part of a marine biological expedition with Dr Paul Cragg back in 1973. After having run safaris out of Israel and ending up living there for several years working on the legendary liveaboard dive boats Lady Jenny III and Lady Jenny V, my love for the Red Sea has never diminished. Now, some 45 years later, a return trip to the Red Sea was increasing my heartbeat in anticipation.
That first frisson of excitement came at 20,000ft when the plane taking my wife and me to the region started to descend, flying over the Red Sea Mountains of Upper Egypt, and I could see the shores of the Red Sea beckoning. The route of the Thomas Cook Airbus to Hurghada took us directly over Ras Abu Soma, the destination of our dive resort. Hurghada Airport is big and efficient, and well used to large numbers of tourists. Visa payment, customs and luggage collection is straightforward, and the various resorts, travel companies and dive businesses all have representatives waiting at the gate to collect you. Do not be put off by their rather aggressive stances in trying to nab your custom; just make sure that your transport is ready and waiting for you in advance.
Dive resort and operator
Our hotel for the week was The Breakers Diving & Surfing Lodge at Soma Bay, the only dedicated diving and kite surfing resort in the Middle East. The Breakers has over 170 staff (mainly Egyptian), and food served here inevitably has the Egyptian slant of flavours, but there were plenty of other dishes too, including Asian cuisine, fried fish and burgers. There were also a couple of bars and roof-top areas for chilling and après dive chatter.
The Breakers’ two large dive boats were used for half and full days of diving. The dive boats each had a large saloon, in which divers could hang out, check cameras and enjoy a buffet lunch when on a full day out. Dive sites were around a 30- to 90-minute ride from the marina, and a full dive briefing was always provided whether one was diving independently or with a guide. For those who have done some of these dives before, it is always a good idea to listen in, as there are always seasonal vagaries of the critters one can find here.
The diving part of the resort is owned and operated by Orca Dive Clubs, which has several resorts in Egypt as well as in Mauritius, Flores, Bali and Sardinia. With the latest equipment, multilingual staff and a great house reef opposite the dive centre, what more could one ask for? Large dive boats to explore the offshore reefs and wrecks? Oh, yes, they have those too.
All levels of divers are catered for, from beginner snorkelers and try-divers all the way to mixed-gas and rebreather divers. Many come to increase their diving or training skills, and for underwater photographers like myself, it is the perfect base for exploring the northern Red Sea reefs off the African mainland.
Over 100km north of Marsa Alam, a number of the dive sites between Sharm el-Sheikh and Marsa Alam were really only accessible by liveaboard dive boats. Nowadays, Panorama Reef, the wreck of the Salem Express, and a number of other dive sites around Safaga and the Soma Bay headland, are easily reached. These dive sites were the focus for our trip.
Once the dive shop paperwork was completed, there was a week’s chart on the wall for us to consider, listing full- or half-day dive boats, RIB dives and space to plan our shore diving off the house reef. We just had to put our names down for whatever boat trip we wanted, and always made sure to remove our names if we changed our minds.
The house reef was reached along a 420m pier with two platforms and plenty of ladders to aid entry and exit. Transport was provided by converted electric golf carts, which could transport you, your buddy and all your dive gear and camera equipment. This style of diving, of course, allows you and your buddy to spend extended time in the water.
The following is just a small example of the superb diving to be found along this stretch of coastline, far from the maddening crowd.
The House Reef. By far, this was probably the most-dived site, and there were countless “ferry” trips up and down the pier every day, transporting divers and their gear. Most notable at this site were those early-morning dives and early-evening dives when the juxtaposition of daytime critters and nighttime denizens shared the reef. Cleaning stations were doing a roaring trade, and both predators and prey lined up to be cleaned of parasites with no thought of “breaking the rules.” Dolphins came into the pier area too and were seen regularly.
Predominated by small hard corals, this was a steeply sloping reef that descended to around 18m (60ft) before dropping steeply and even vertically in many places. The more vertical sections had large black coral trees, which hid small schools of glassfish and hatchetfish. Curiously, there were many large bigeye snapper out in the open, when they are usually well secreted away under overhangs. There were a few huge stonefish on this reef, one hiding under the sand, but the other was so well overgrown with algae that it was virtually “invisible” amidst the corals and algae beds. Small mushroom corals littered the reef and there were some huge sections of lettuce coral.
The ubiquitous anemonefish, or clownfish, dotted around large anemones. As we moved to the north, towards the headland and opposite the lighthouse, we found the same type of anemone, which fluoresces red underwater, yet only shows green with normal white light flash. Once you get to the 30m (100ft) range, you will find the lyretail angelfish (Genicanthus caudovittatus). With the male and female sporting completely different colours, the lyretail angelfish feed on planktonic critters in open water near the reef. Dolphins are seen very regularly here as well as large barracuda and schools of trevally and other large open-water fish, so always keep casting your eye out into the blue.
Panorama Reef. I first dived Panorama Reef back in 1985 while working on the Lady Jenny V. Principally here to seek shelter for the boat one night, we found that this large circular reef, with its two shallow platforms, was so good that we stayed the next day too and explored all around the reef as the sun moved around and illuminated the soft coral gardens and gorgonian forests.
Over 33 years later, I set off from the Soma Bay Marina on a full-day excursion to this reef and I had mixed emotions as my buddy Waleed and I dived the wall and east platform in the morning. This reef so reminded me of Jackson Reef up in the Straits of Tiran with its soft corals teeming with orange anthias and staggering amounts of angelfish and butterflyfish.
We were on the sheltered side of the reef, away from the current, so there were much fewer sea fans here than we found later on our second dive in the afternoon, which was a drift dive on the western plateau. I forgot how strong the current was. Skimming over and around the huge stands of gorgonian sea fans that stretched out into the current was fun, but it was difficult to stop and take photographs.
As we approached the bottom corner of the reef, the current virtually stopped, and there were huge numbers of glassfish, lionfish, crocodilefish and all the usual suspects that one would normally find on a Red Sea reef. Panorama Reef also had a large anemone garden with dozens of large anemones, huge numbers of clownfish as well as hundreds of threespot dascyllus (Dascyllus trimaculatus).
Gabir Soraya. Only 30 minutes from the marina, this shallow reef comprised a large elongated reef with several small satellite coral ergs, or coral heads, to the south. At only 15m (50ft) maximum depth, the central sandy plain had a small group of garden eels. The narrow passages between the coral heads had small red sea fans and plenty of fire coral as usual, but the schools of butterflyfish and angelfish were a surprise as these fish are normally only found singularly or in pairs.
Sha’b Shear. This rather blind reef was also just a short boat ride from the marina. The dive boat anchored in a coral amphitheatre with large coral outcrops all of the way around, interspaced with narrow canyons filled with anthias and chromis. There were numerous bits of wreckage around these reefs, including a small unknown ferry in this location that was well broken up (rumour has it that this was an insurance job—like so many others). One of the coral heads had a circular tunnel that ran through the reef from the seabed, rising to around 5m. On exiting, we found a large school of yellowtail barracuda (Sphyraena flavicauda) and numerous groups of sweetlips, butterflyfish and angelfish.
This part of Soma Bay was littered with small coral heads, which stretched in a huge arc to the north and south. It was these shallow coral heads that became almost invisible to shipping late in the afternoon when the sea was calm and the sun was low.
Tobia Soraya. Around a 30-minute boat trip from the marina, this reef was really a group of small coral heads that were randomly spaced out on a 15m (50ft) sand sea bed. After a lengthy swim around the outside of the reef, our guide Waleed brought us to a coral head that was simply covered in gorgonian sea fans and filled with longnose hawkfish (Oxycirrhites typus), glassy sweepers, hatchetfish and hundreds of cardinalfish. There was also a huge stellate pufferfish (Arothron stellatus), which was apparently resident on this reef.
Salem Express. Built in the French shipyards of La Seyne-sur-Mer in 1964, this Ro-Ro ferry was on her way back from Jeddah to Safaga, overloaded with passengers who had been on a pilgrimage to Mecca on 17 December 1991. A massive storm had blown up and at gale force, the ship struck Hyndman Reef where she was holed and quickly sank in the early hours of the morning. Official records state that 470 persons lost their lives, but locally it is widely known that many more were lost as the ship was grossly overcrowded.
Now lying on her starboard side in 30m (100ft) of water, the Salem Express is completely encrusted in small hard corals. All of vessel’s parts are accessible for those who wish to explore the ship’s interior.
When I first dived the Salem Express 25 years ago, two of her lifeboats were on the seabed. Apparently, one has been removed since then, as there was now only one to be seen. Her stern door was now lying on the seabed, creating a huge square opening where divers were able to explore much of the vehicle deck. Both her propellers were intact and made for a superb photographic backdrop as they are covered in small corals and brilliant red encrusting sponge. The ship’s funnels had a large “S” on them, but this was getting harder to see due to the corals encrusting the emblem. The ship’s bridge was fairly open, and all of the windows were now gone, but her parts were still visible inside.
Her empty davits and railings all hung out into open water, and the seabed was littered with debris, including some children’s toys—just another reminder of that terrible tragedy.
There is still a large amount of controversy about whether divers should be permitted to dive the wreck. The Egyptian Government is still considering whether to ban all diving on the Salem Express. But after such an extended period of time, it hardly seems worth the effort. Rather, divers should be given the option as to whether to dive the ship or not—out of respect for the dead, religious beliefs or just not wanting to be there. Whatever the outcome in the future, diving this wreck should be done with the greatest respect. Divers must not touch anything or disturb any of the remains.
Having run safaris here—living, working and visiting the area innumerable times—visiting the Red Sea always holds a sense of nostalgia for me, and indeed, I often think of it as coming home. Coincidentally, the strapline on The Breakers Diving & Surfing Lodge website is also “Welcome Home.” These Safaga reefs should not be overlooked when considering or planning a Red Sea diving trip. ■
Lawson and Lesley Wood were supported by the Egyptian Tourism Authority; Dan Lion of Holiday Designers; Anna Hollingworth and Harriet Shearer of The Communications Group; Marwa Kachmar from Somabay; Wolfgang Jocham and Waleed Abd Elmaksoud from Orca Diving; and Stephan Reichl from The Breakers Diving & Kite Surfing Lodge. Flights were supplied by Thomas Cook. For more information, please refer to Lawson Wood’s book, Underwater Guide to the Red Sea, available at: Amazon.com.