I returned last week from a 14-day trip to Sharm El Naga, just North of the Safaga area. I asked about it on Wetpixel but no one seemed to have been there so here is a somewhat long report. To help you decide if it is worth readin, I first list my must-haves and desirables, based on which I select dive destinations. If this doesn't match your dive appetite than there is probably no reason to read the review. If it does, please continue
Good house reef (biotope diversity, small critters/fish more important than big stuff)
Unlimited shore diving
Low cost, 2-weeks for ~US$3,000 (E.g. spend money on diving, not luxury accommodation)
Well run dive-op making 4 to 5 dives a day easy to do
One-day travel to/from destination
Allow solo diving
Previous dive destinations that fit this bill (more or less) are: Planet dive (Anilao), Marsa Shagra (Egypt), CocoView (Roatan), Bari Reef (Bonaire), Scuba Club Cozumel.
Marsa El Naga checks off all the boxes except, depending on where you live, easy one-day travel. I combined the trip with visiting family in the Netherlands and from there it is ~5 hours flying with no time difference/jet-lag. Equivalent to a Caribbean trip from Canada. The amazing part is that the whole trip: flight, transfers, accommodation, diving, 3 meals a day, 2 boat dives and unlimited shore diving cost just under 1000 Euros. Add 4 Euro a day for nitrox, tips and drinks (all drinks, including water, are extra), and the whole trip out and back ended up costing me about US$1500. Even when adding my Canada/Europe return ticket, the trip fit my typical US$3,000 for a 2-week dive trip.
The main attraction of Sharm El Naga (SEN) is their house reef. Anyone who loves Marsa Shagra (MS) for their house reef will love SEN. Both have a protected sandy Marsa allowing easy entry/exit, even when there is strong wind. The shallow bay at SEN is more interesting than MS because there are 2 "pinnacles" in 10-3m of water that attract a lot of different guests, in addition to its resident population of fish and critters. One had a major cleaning station that was attracting all kinds of fish, big and small, as well as being the daily finicure place for a school of mullets. Schools of filter-feeding Indian mackerel, turtles, giant moray, a pair of octopuses, blue-spotted sting rays, snake eels, dragonets, and several crocodile fish made the bay their home. If you like gobies, blennies, wrasses, etc. the list is too long. On my day of arrival a single snorkel trip already yielded 99 different fish species. You can probably find more kinds of fish in that bay in one day than in a 2-week trip to any place in the Caribbean (but not as much as Anilao). The one let-down was that visibility in the bay tended to be significantly worse than what I remember from MS, but we had a lot stronger winds, including white caps, so it may be the same as MS if the seas are calm. In addition, visibility tended to be substantially better along the reef wall North and South of the bay.
Close to the bay the reef has deep gullies, with some swim-troughs connecting them, especially on the Southern side. These were attractive and had some resident groupers (big brown marbled and roving coral groupers), Arabian angelfish, snappers etc. to look out for. This is the same at MS but the topography of SEN was IMHO nicer. Farther from the bay, the SEN reef becomes a steep wall going down to beyond recreational diving limits. In contrast, at MS the wall drops to only 20 m or so with a nice sand/coral plateau. I definitely preferred that aspect of the MS house reef as it is a good place to hunt for small fish and it is more diverse than a wall. Only after swimming 25-30 minutes either way do you start to get a shallower plateau. You can ask the dive-op to drop you off by zodiak so you can spend more time at those sites. They may not always be able to do so, it is not an advertised valet service as at MS, but if it is not too busy they were accommodating.
For lovers of big stuff, we saw spotted eagle rays twice as well as the large groupers mentioned earlier. There are large snappers (black, twinspot), triggerfish, jacks, and at least two turtles. No sharks and I believe they are only seen occasionally on boat dives to deeper sites.
For lovers of small stuff, including juveniles, you will easily be entertained for two weeks. I made over 30 dives on the house reef and never tired of it, but you will know if that also applies to you.
Boat dives were by hard-bottom zodiaks. On several days the wind/waves were too strong for the boats to go out. When the seas became completely flat they organised a 2-tank trip to 7-pillars and Tobia in the Safaga bay area with a picnic on sandy island during the surface interval. They normally don't go that far but did it to compensate for the windy days. Their signature dive site is Green Gardens. A mostly flat and large "coral island" surrounded by sand. I would take more than an hour to circumnavigate the site and there is lots to see, including larger fish I didn't see at any of the other sites (sleek and spotted surgeonfish, sweetlips, spadefish, ... The drawback, they tend to go to that site several times a week, and on one occasion there were 7 live-aboard ships diving the site as well. Other sites are: Soma Bay ( more MS-like vertical wall to 15-20m followed by a sandy/coral plateau sloping down more gently), Zadana wreck (a deep 35-45m dive of an old wreck, but only a collection of amphoras remain), Zadana cave (cave large enough to enter and explore at about 35m, the dive continues around Zadana island where we saw dolphins, a spotted eagle ray, and in general this site had more of a big-stuff drift-dive feel to it), Blue Lagoon (this is not a lagoon at all but a pinnacle attached to the shore reef, with another cave at ~35m and lots of life all around it), The Block (not an official site, but a small pinnacle on a sandy bottom around 35m deep. Good for lovers of cardinals and gobies. Also had glassfish/sweepers, and red sea anthias). In all the number of dive sites is far less than what is available in MS and they don't have attractions like Elphinstone or Dolphin house. They are contemplating getting a larger day boat during the high season for trips to Panorama reef and other attractions in Safaga Bay.
The dive operation is not nearly as well-oiled as MS (few are). The rinse tanks, shower, gear-storage area is about 100m from the shore; there are no lockable lockers, everyone gets a crate and there is ample space to hang up suits and BCDs. Officially you have to sign in and out in a log book in the dive shop rather than in the suit-up area or at the dive entry point. When we mentioned it we got pages to log our dives that we could keep in our crate. For some of my buddies the walk with all gear from/to the beach was too much and the staff would deliver and pick up their gear for them using a wheel barrow. In general the staff was quite helpful that way. Tanks were always filled to 200 bar or more. Nitrox was prepared on-site to nominally 32% O2 but ranging mostly from 30 to 33%. The person responsible for equipment and tank fills was excellent, a bit protective of the equipment in his charge, a good sign in my book, but less strict once he sees you use it responsibly. Near the end my own regulator had an underwater failure of the first stage (posted separately here: http://wetpixel.com/...showtopic=50603), which also damaged my octopus. I ended up using a reg and BCD from them for the last two days without being charged for it.
The Zodiaks have a rather high rim but you can use a ladder to get in, unlike the often unelegant struggle to get back in the Zodiak at MS. This was made easier by the crew picking up camera, weights and BCD prior to getting up the ladder. There is a small bucket on the boat but more for masks and point-and-shoot cameras than the kind of equipment most of us dive with. You either have to wrap it in a towel and trust that it will survive the bumps when there are waves or keep it on your lap and trust that you can hang on to both the camera and boat. Most dive sites are with 20 minutes of the resort but, at least during our windy period, can be quite bumpy.
Finally, the resort's rooms appear to have been without maintenance for quite a long time and if you expect luxury, don't go to SEN. The rooms do have air conditioning, two beds (Queen + twin), a desk, good amount of storage, balcony, and bathroom with shower. All a bit rough but working. Compared to the "Mandara hut" at MS, which had no shower/bathroom or air conditioning, SEN was much better in terms of amenities, whereas MS was better maintained. You can get "chalets" in MS with air conditioning and shower/bathroom but at a substantially higher cost. If you were happy with accommodations in Planet Dive you will have not issues with SEN. It is save, clean, and in the end it is just the place to sleep and charge batteries.
The biggest let-down was the food. MS had sumptuous buffets and despite diving 5 times a day I did gain weight during my stay there. At SEN I had a rather basic buffet twice. The other days there was a choice of chicken, fish, kafta (spam-like processed meat), chicken or tuna salad. The same choice for both lunch AND dinner, every single day. When we complained some accommodations were made, but if the food part is important to your holiday prepare to be disappointed. If you just want something hearty to recharge your bodies fuel supply you'll be fine but bored by the selection. SEN has changed owners several months ago and a couple on their 18th trip to SEN said the food situation used to be much better and the Dive shop owner indicated that he was working with the resort owner to resolve this. He also helped make some changes during our stay so we got falafel, cheese, and nice Egyption stews. Hopefully, this is a temporary problem. The good news is that I actually lost a few pounds
The final major difference with MS was the number of people. When I arrived I was the only diver and, pretty much, the only guest in the entire resort (no wonder they had no buffets). Some day-trip groups came in from Hurghada to skorkel on the house reef. That never interfered with my diving pleasure and at least earned me the two buffets I did get. Without anyone to buddy with I asked to be allowed to dive solo. They do not have an official policy on that and do not typically endorse doing so. However, having seen me dive the day before and showing my SDI solo course certification was sufficient to let me go solo on the second day. For the rest I had friends from the UK join me to buddy up with. Later on we had a few groups visit, often members of a European dive club, and many being repeat guests. Having few divers has the advantage of uncrowded boats and dive sites but if you travel alone you are better of at MS where I found it easy to find buddies including other singles. From repeat guests I heard it does get busy later in the year and I expect the recent political unrest has had an impact as well.
In conclusion, SEN has an excellent house reef and it is the best diving you can get on a low budget. It also has a nice laid-back feeling. Whether it is for you depends on the relative importance of diving, budget, luxury. If you are new to the Red Sea and want a dive-focused trip I would still recommend MS. The water in MS is also 1 or 2 degrees warmer. If you have been to MS several times and want to explore something new or if saving a few hundred dollars is important then you should check out SEN.
PS: I am still working through images and video and will post some later.
Edited by Glasseye Snapper, 16 June 2013 - 10:50 AM.