My annual trip is over and took me back to the Red Sea. Normally I hunker down in one spot and keep on diving. This time we made it a three-destination trip, diving 3 days in Marsa Shagra, 5 days in Wadi Lahami and 5 days in Marsa Abu Dabbab. All transfers were after dinner so no dive opportunities were lost and the areas offered quite different types of diving, making for an interesting combination.
The trip started off at Marsa Shagra where I had been twice before and which is quite well known among divers so I won't go into details. Just Google it for more info. It offers very relaxed and easy shore diving on a house reef with a good corals and fish diversity, making it a good spot to get into the diving routine. However, the main reason for a repeat visit was to find a very small fish that I discovered 4 years prior. Discussions with scientists suggested it is likely a new and unusual species of blenny or goby, but with just that one sighting it could also be an aberration. Interestingly, Alex Mustard made the second observation of this fish in March this year north of Hurghada suggesting that it is really a new species. On our third day I found the same fish again and in exactly the same spot. A systematic search of several similar dead limestone blocks uncovered about a dozen individuals. So they seem to be permanently present in that location and after reporting to the Red Sea fish expert Sergey Bogorodski he indicated an interest to work together to describe it as a new species. I'll let you know if that comes to fruition.
At Marsa Shagra we just made 11 house reef dives because we knew that Wadi Lahami would be all boat diving. They run a two-tank trip to the Fury Shoals in the morning (6:30am breakfast, 7:15am gear-up, ~8am 1st dive, ~10am 2nd dive, back just before noon). The ride in a RIB can be bumpy depending on wind and takes 20-30 minutes for most sites. Coral formations and fish live is different than the more protected house reef at Marsa Shagra including interesting landscapes such as stairways to heaven leading through a valley with large healthy corals and ending in a large underwater arch. Claudia had very interesting and complex system of tunnels running through the reef. We spend a full hour going from one tunnel to the next and, as far as I can tell, never using the same one twice. I found some uncommon dottybacks (golden and lyretail dottyback, the last one in an uncommon non-striped color form), and dwarf gobies (Trimma sp.). I would love to dive that site with just a buddy to explore it more fully and not have to follow along with the group. It is also the site where others in our group who didn't enter the tunnels saw a manta ray.
The afternoon dive is around 2:30pm and here they drop you off at a site closer to the resort and without guide. The diving is really easy, just working your way around pinnacles or following a reef wall so it is hard to get lost. I personally enjoyed these dive just as much, if not more, than the Fury Shoal dives, because the sites were more fishy including the smaller reef fish that I am fond off. It is also where I found my first harlequin filefish as well as damselfish I had not seen before and many juveniles. But there were also big(ger) fish including Napoleon wrasse, dogtooth tuna and various trevally/jacks.
The last dive of the day is another unguided drop-off at a site very close by. This is normally a night dive but since we were the only ones making the fourth dive we normally asked to go earlier so it became a dusk/night dive. For less experienced divers, diving unguided at night off-shore may be a bit disconcerting but you can always just follow the main reef wall and back if you are afraid to get lost. However, the outer wall and a sand plateau with corals are very interesting and with help of a compass you can always find your way back to the main reef wall. Interesting finds were a free swimming marbled torpedo ray, large pilot trevally, blotched porcupinefish, the very secretive sharpnose wrasse (Wetmorella nigropinnata) and the uncommon purple-yellow color form of the smoothfin blenny.
The diving at Wadi Lahami was very easy but the boat ride, getting back into the boat, and walking to from the boat at low tide can be a bit cumbersome. The first 3 dives are all limited to 60 minutes and the night dive to 45 minutes.
Lyretail dottyback in non-striped color form
Meteor perch (Liopropoma susumi)
For the last stop we had picked Marsa Abu Dabbab because it has a large seagrass meadow and thus would harbour very different animals than on the reefs. The site is best known for the sightings of large green turtles, a dugong, guitar rays and large stingrays. We had been there on single-tank truck dives from Marsa Shagra in the past, however, this time we were interested in unguided muck-diving to find its better camouflaged and small critters. In addition it has reefs along its Northern and Southern edges for extra diversity.
Unlike the secluded and hard-core dive operations of Marsa Shagra and Wadi Lahami, Marsa Abu Dabbab is a major tourist destination with a sandy beach, lots of activities and a large fancy resort (Malikia). Good if you travel with non-divers but we like it more low-key. We therefore stayed in Abu Dabbab Diving Lodge, not located on the beach but across a quiet road and a 500m walk from the dive shop (Blue Ocean). The accommodation was surprisingly good with private bathroom and air-conditioning, small swimming pool, and well-maintained nice-looking buildings. All for less than the tent or simple (very hot) hut at Marsa Shagra. We had a few power interruptions and service in the restaurant left something to be desired (it improved a lot when we mentioned it to the manager), but it was very good value. You can also eat a la carte at their beach restaurant, but our package did not include that. It would be worth trying to get at least the lunch at the beach included so you don't have to walk back to the hotel at the hottest point of the day.
We loved the diving at Marsa Abu Dabbab. We used Blue Ocean diving, which is owned by the hotel. They are centrally located on the beach and we were very happy with their service. A disadvantage is that they are only open from 8am to 5:30pm because they mostly cater to day tourists from the resorts and people taking diving courses. At the last day we got them to give us our tanks and equipment at 6am for a perfect early dive without waves and great visibility. With an 8am start we only managed 3 dives a day but you can easily dive longer than 90 minutes per tank, with the longest just exceeding two hours.
The shallow part of the North and South reef offer a protective environment like that of Marsa Shagra. The North reef has very healthy corals on a bit of a slope and is the most protected from the waves. The South reef is more of a wall starting at 1m and ending at the corner in about 15m depth. In addition to the normal reef fish you can find garden eels, yellow-spotted scorpionfish, an unusually large number of emperor fish, and many juveniles. As you reach the corner of the South reef you find a number of pinnacles in 15-20m depth that are worth exploring. The corner of the North reef has a more exposed feel to it and reaches depths below 30m. However, for us the main attraction was the seagrass meadow. The sandy beach slopes rather slowly from the shoreline to ~10m depth. The seagrass starts at about 1m but sea life is most interesting in the 4-10m depth range. After the 10m mark, the slope becomes steeper and in some points more silty with less or no seagrass and deep pits and "volcanos" probably produced by some large worm. Typical fish for the seagrass are wormfish, five-finger razorfish (and their cute juveniles), sand divers, young yellowspotted puffers, a fangblenny? that I have not yet identified, ornate, Merten's and ambonoro shrimpgobies (Vanderhorstia genus) sharing their burrows with a pair of shrimp, and sometimes spinecheek gobies, tailspot gobies, and something that looked like a small dartfish. When you slow down to muck-speed you also start finding ghost pipefish (translucent, brownish, and green; but probably all one species), tiny black and white pipefish, juvenile boxfish, lionfish, crocodilefish???, kasmir snapper, mottled cardinalfish, orange-dotted and orange-lined nudibranch, flatworms, mantis shrimp, box crabs, weird shrimp, head-shield slugs, snake eels, thornback boxfish, etc. Slowing down also means longer dives so three dives could add up to 5+ hours of bottom time.
Translucent ghost pipefish
Green ghost pipefish
Pretty nudibranch (there was also with same colours but lines instead of dots)
We had also been jokingly saying we would find a pygmy pipehorse and to our surprise we did, twice, once on each of the last two dives. One was absolute tiny and the other normally tiny. No need to say we were absolutely exhilarated. What a way to end the holidays.
"big" pygmy pipehorse
tiny pygmy pipehorse
Finally, if you live in Europe the cost of diving the Red Sea is incredibly. The entire trip with all travel, transfers, food, accommodation, and 46 dives was less than 1500 Euros. I expect to be back next year so if you know any other Red Sea dive operations with unlimited, unguided, affordable house reef diving then let me know. I am particularly keen to check out the Gulf of Aqaba next time.