Scuba diving at Marsa Shagra

Published on
By Imre Jonk

I spent the last week in and around the Marsa Shagra ecolodge near Marsa Alam, Egypt. Like many people this was my first "far away" holiday since the COVID-19 pandemic. I had visited Marsa Shagra twice before, during my diving vacations in 2017 and 2019. The beautiful house reef, friendly staff, easy access to a number of great dive sites like Elphinstone and the amazing food made me come back again. Everything about this vacation was perfect. Well, except for the flights to and from Marsa Alam.

You can find some pictures I made at the end of this post.

Table of contents

Airport shenanigans
Diving at Marsa Shagra
Accommodation and food
Things to do on the last day
Airport shenanigans, part 2
Downloads

Airport shenanigans

Not many planes land at Marsa Alam International Airport. In 2017 I could get a direct flight both ways with Transavia, but sadly they cancelled that route a couple of years ago. The only service between Amsterdam and Marsa Alam has been operated by TUI Fly since then. I remember from my flight home in 2019 that the flight was delayed and that I arrived around 02:30 in the morning. The experience was worse this time. The planned itinerary was a direct five-and-a-half hour flight to Marsa Alam, and on the way back the plane would land at Hurghada to disembark passengers with destination Hurghada, unload their bags, load the bags of the passengers who just finished their vacation there, board those passengers, and fuel up the airplane for the five hours and fifteen minutes flight home. But things didn't go exactly to plan.

On the day of departure I received a text message from TUI Fly that the flight would be delayed by almost four hours. I was still home so I just turned around and got a bit of extra sleep, but was sad that now I would miss the afternoon there. An afternoon that I could have spent snorkeling and meeting new people. Later that morning it became clear that the flight would no longer be direct. The plane needed to land at Hurghada first and change the crew there. I would eventually arrive at Marsa Alam at 21:03 that night, five hours and thirteen minutes after the planned arrival time. The captain said that wind shear at Tenerife was the reason why the airplane could not make it to Amsterdam in time, and apparently TUI decided not to operate another airplane instead. Ah well. At least I can now find out if the European Flight Compensation Regulation is any good.

Customs at Marsa Alam demands a valid visa, which you can buy for €24 at the bank office just before the customs booths. Don't buy it from one of the hustlers in front of the bank office: one of them charged me €32 once. The customs officers also wanted a filled-out declaration form. Although I was told by TUI Fly that the online application, which I had completed a week before, was sufficient, the customs officers still demanded the paper form. Afterwards my passport was checked again (probably by a senior officer), and then my bags were X-rayed.

Tip: don't do the online application. The form is incredibly broken. It presented me with numerous errors, I had to fill it out again multiple times, and at one point it even presented me with someone else's information. The paper form can be filled out in a few minutes, is more secure, and always works.

Once outside the airport building I spotted the Red Sea Diving Safari chauffeur and my vacation had finally begun.

Diving at Marsa Shagra

The six-day diving package I had booked included two supervised dives in the house reef. I had made many dives there before, but it was nice to have an instructor available that I could ask questions and practice things with. My last dive was three years ago, after all.

I brought my own 2/3 mm full wetsuit, mask, dive computer, dive light and diving socks. From the equipment room I rented a buoyancy compensator, a regulator set, fins and a surface marker buoy (SMB).

An SMB prevents the boat captains of Marsa Shagra from accidentally hitting divers that are just below the surface. Each buddy pair is required to have at least one SMB, which must be used when surfacing outside of the bay's "safe surfacing area". There is a rope system in place to guide divers to this area, but anyone who wants to explore the outer regions of the (quite large) house reef has a chance of finding themselves low on air at one point. And when that happens, you better begin your safety stop and inflate the SMB. Even better is to have each diver bring an SMB, so that they can safely surface in case they have lost their buddy. The boat captains of Marsa Shagra keep a lookout for any SMBs and, once spotted, will pick you up shortly. They plan their pickups according to the dive plan that you or your buddy file on one of the two (North or South) dive profile boards.

The equipment I rented was in good condition. Together with the dive instructor I made a rough estimate of the amount of weights I would need. The last time I used six kilograms, and a quick check at the beginning of the dive determined that this was enough to get me to sink below the surface. As the dive progressed however, it became clear that I was carrying a bit too much. I had to inflate my buoyancy compensator quite a bit, causing my shoulders to float up and my legs to drop down, which required more effort to stay horizontal and streamlined in the water. I did another weight check during the safety stop. At the end of the dive, when the cylinder was lighter, I deflated my buoyancy compensator completely and found myself sinking like a rock. This was even stronger evidence that I carried too much lead. On the second supervised dive I only brought five kilograms (three on the belt, two in the buoyancy compensator pockets), and this turned out to be more suitable for me.

I would do two more house reef dives that day. The first one was together with one of the Swiss guys I met during the supervised dives, the second one was a night dive together with a Belgian diver.

Night dives in the summer are best done from 19:00 until 20:00. You will still have a bit of daylight when entering the water, but things are pitch black ten minutes into your dive. You do have to remember to exit the water and wipe your name of the dive profile board before 20:00, or the dive center employees will start the search and rescue procedure.

I didn't find it hard to find someone to dive with. There is a buddy board that can probably help, but I've found that just walking up to someone who is preparing for a dive, questioning them about their plans and experience level, and asking them if you can join works really well. In total I did 22 dives that week: four days with four dives each, and two more days with three dives each.

Apart from the house reef, there are a number of diving excursions that can be booked one day in advance. Some are by truck, but all of the excursions I did were by boat. A well-known one is Elphinstone. Elphinstone is a reef some nine kilometers off the coast, twenty-six kilometers north of Marsa Alam. Its exact location is 25° 18′ 31″ N, 34° 51′ 37″ E. Here you can see hammerhead sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks, silky sharks, dolphins and, if you're lucky, even tiger sharks.

Diving on Elphinstone is quite challenging. This should not be underestimated. My first dive there was in 2017. I had the required PADI Advanced Open Water certification, but didn't have fifty dives logged back then, so the diving center had me pay for an additional guide to supervise me. During the briefing they failed to mention that the descent would not be alongside the reef but rather "into the blue", and that the maximum depth would be forty meters instead of the thirty meters that is normally maintained for Advanced Open Water divers. In short: that dive was rather stressful. Sea conditions made for a bumpy thirty minute boat ride. Only in the boat it became clear to me that we would jump into the water using what is known as a 'negative entry': a backwards fall off the edge of the speedboat, with a deflated buoyancy compensator, descending as fast as possible in order to minimize the drift caused by the sea current. I should have aborted the dive right then and there. But I didn't, probably because I felt like I would let some people (including myself) down if I did. I had trouble keeping up with the rest of the group, saw nothing but divers below me and blue all around me, and was breathing fast the whole way down. Once we passed thirty meters, my dive computer started blaring its depth alarm. We leveled off at forty meters and, despite my heightened state of awareness, I was feeling confused. I signaled to the guide that something was wrong and that I wanted to ascent. He got a good look at me, probably saw the alarmed face behind my mask, grabbed my buoyancy compensator and quickly started dragging me to thirty meters. Once there I got my breathing under control again. We slowed our ascent, saw a school of barracudas, and surfaced safely after twenty-four minutes of dive time. Once I was in the boat, the guide descended to the five meters safety stop depth so that he could offer his (now abundant) air supply to anyone who might need it. The rest of the group didn't see much more than the school of barracudas. Years later I would learn from Simon Pridmore's excellent book Scuba Confidential that my fast, inefficient breathing prevented my body from expelling enough carbon dioxide, which under pressure causes CO2 poisoning. Its symptoms include confusion, disorientation and vertigo.

My experience was completely different this time. I had a lot more diving experience and the sea was completely flat. The briefing was thorough, the speedboat ride took only twelve minutes, the current was not too strong (we still did a negative entry), and best of all: it was the hammerhead shark mating season. The descent was swift but not too fast. It felt like I was free falling in slow motion: kind of like a skydiver, just without the speed. There was no adrenaline rush, no heavy breathing. I was surrounded by experienced divers. The guide was right below me. The descent required no effort at all: I just emptied my buoyancy compensator completely and let gravity do the rest. I checked my instruments once more. I had a bit over 200 bars of pressure in my cylinder. My dive computer wasn't sounding any alarms. At around twenty-five meters I started inflating my buoyancy compensator to slow the descent. We leveled off at thirty meters. There I saw my first hammerhead. And another one. And some ten more. I am not too good at estimating distances underwater, but my guess is that on that first dive the hammerheads came within six meters. The feeling of being so close to hammerhead sharks for the first time is that of amazement, and joy. Then I heard the muffled, unintelligible shouts of the dive guide. He was shouting in his mask, pointing to a shark-like animal swimming away in the distance. I didn't get a good look at it. The guide put his flat hand perpendicular to his forehead, indicating a shark sighting, then curled this hand into a claw and pretended to rip open his left arm. Clearly this was some vicious animal. And clearly, the guide was overjoyed to have seen it. Back in the boat he told me that he saw a tiger shark, a rare sighting in that area.

I booked the Elphinstone excursion two more times that week. The third dive was even more spectacular than the first two, as the hammerhead sharks were a lot more curious. One of them was swimming right towards me, only to turn around at the last moment. I also saw oceanic whitetip sharks underwater, and bottlenose dolpins swimming alongside the speedboat after the dive.

My buddy Aly made an amazing video of the second dive.

Not all dives went according to plan. One of the divers on the first orientation dive had a punctured inflator hose on his buoyancy compensator. This was discovered when we entered the water from the shore, but luckily the instructor was able to fix the problem with nothing more than a knife and a tie-wrap. On another dive I was practicing deploying the surface marker buoy, but while focusing on the task, I failed to notice that I became positively buoyant and that I had ascended far faster than what was recommended by Suunto's RGBM algorithm. This caused my dive computer to recommend a five-minute decompression stop with a ceiling of three meters. I witnessed two counts of mask strap breakage, one of which was my own. It broke on the boat, right before entering the water with a large group of divers. Luckily the guide had a spare mask strap that I could use. One night dive went without a proper briefing and ended in a longer and deeper dive than some were comfortable with. And on that first hammerhead dive, I exceeded the no-decompression limit by about two minutes.

A selection of sea creatures I've seen on my dives are hammerheads, silky sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks, whitetip reef sharks, bottlenose dolphins, spinner dolphins, a dugong munching on seagrass, sea turtles, moray eels, an eagle ray, an octopus, nudibranchs, highly poisonous scorpionfish, lion fish, crabs, puffer fish, barracudas, whiptail stingrays, parrotfish, triggerfish, butterflyfish, Napoleon fish, sea needles, sea urchins, starfish, giant clams, Red Sea bannerfish, surgeonfish, hermit crabs and shrimp. I dived together with Egyptians, Swiss, Germans, Hungarians (they liked my name), Brits, Czechs, Dutch, Slovaks, Belgians and Austrians.

There are also people who freedive at Marsa Shagra. The dive center even has an instructor available for it. Marsa Shagra is a perfect place for freediving, with even Umberto Pelizzari having freedived there. During my stay there was only one freediver, Frederique. He dived all by himself, mostly early in the morning, with a monofin. Mornings are the best time to dive at Marsa Shagra because the rising sun illuminates the reef, and the tide is still high, which is good for visibility. I first met Frederique when I was staying at Marsa Shagra in 2017. He is from France, and gets his freediving inspiration from dolphins. However beautiful his stories may be, I think I'll stick with the (safer, easier) scuba diving for now.

Accommodation and food

I slept in a regular tent, right on the beach. I've really only used it during the night. After sunrise it gets too hot to sleep, and relaxing in between dives is best done in the cafeteria area anyway. Every morning around six I would get dressed and take a small bag with things like a towel, water bottle and my dive log. Then I would head out to the dive center, only to return after dinner, at which time the sun had been down for some hours already and the climate inside the tent would make for a comfortable night's sleep. Except maybe for the first night. That was on a Friday, and the call for the morning prayer could be heard quite some time before sunrise.

It struck me that there were some expensive cars with Egyptian license plates in the parking lot. The Red Sea Diving Safari tries to cater to the wealthy guests with the new Superior Deluxe Chalets. Complete with air conditioning, mini-fridge, Nespresso machine, 50-inch LED TV and a private terrace.

Marsa Shagra has a beautiful restaurant that is elevated above the rest of the ecolodge grounds. The view of the Red Sea, plenty of shade and always a fresh breeze make it a nice place to gather for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The buffet is different each day and the chef always tries to impress with artsy salads and desserts. There is one night a week when pizza is baked in an Italian pizza oven, on another night traditional Egyptian food is served.

Things to do on the last day

Recreational divers should maintain at least eighteen hours between the last dive and the airplane's departure time, in order to prevent decompression sickness on board. I would depart Marsa Shagra at around 13:30. I packed my stuff early in the morning, returned my rented diving equipment, and went for breakfast. This was around the same time the Elphinstone boats were leaving. One of the boats turned around, the dive guide shouting: "Dolphins! Dolphins in the bay! Tell everyone!". I saw some people scrambling for their snorkeling equipment already. I had just returned my fins, so I ran to the equipment room to get them back real quick, ran to the jetty, jumped into a zodiac which was just about to leave, and got to spend some time snorkeling with the spinner dolphins. There were ten adults and two babies. Dolphins are fascinating animals: they are very curious, communicate using high-pitch tones, and sometimes perform acrobatic tricks.

You can also visit the hyperbaric chamber on your last day. The Baro Medical facility, run by the friendly Dr. Hossam Nasef, is just across the road. There your can see the hyperbaric chamber, which is used to treat divers suffering from decompression sickness. The chamber is still used around six times per year, but that number might rise due to COVID-19 therapies. It was built in 2005 and has a capacity of eight persons (six in the main chamber and two more in the airlock). The walls and doors are made of thick steel that can withstand the enormous forces of the air inside the chamber at 7.8 bar test pressure, 6 bar operating pressure. It has a small lock for passing medication, jet fighter-style masks for delivering oxygen, an intercom system, instrument panels that display equivalent depth in meters of seawater and temperature, three windows, air conditioning, a toilet and even an FM radio. Lighting and the camera system are rigged on the outside of the chamber to further reduce the risk of electrical fires. If a fire does break out in the chamber, pressurized water will be injected into the chamber through a spray nozzle. The room next to the hyperbaric chamber contains the pre-pressurized cylinders of air, water and oxygen.

Right next to the Baro Medical facility are the crew chalets, a small supermarket, the laundry room and the cylinder refill station. The refill chef gave us a tour of his operations. He refills around a thousand cylinders every day, just for Marsa Shagra. The large refill volume and close proximity to the ecolodge makes this economical. The refill station has multiple compressors for regular air, but the Nitrox refill system stood out. I expected the system to work with a regular air compressor and some way to mix in extra oxygen. Instead they first dry and compress the air to a low (10 bar) pressure, heat it up, pass it through a membrane to remove part of the nitrogen, and then use a high-pressure compressor to fill the 12L, 200 bar aluminum Nitrox cylinders. The benefit is that this method doesn't require a constant supply of expensive oxygen cylinders. It can produce up to 40% Nitrox within a 2% error margin.

On the way back to the ecolodge you can get a look at the owner's compound. It is a fenced-off area (complete with guard) and it contains the owner's house and those of his family members.

Airport shenanigans, part 2

My flight home was again delayed, but not by much. The one-hour delay was supposedly caused by some boarding pass system failure at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. The check-in desks were still closing at the original time, so when I arrived at Marsa Alam International Airport a bit late, I was pulled to the front of the queue. It was not very busy at that time, the only other people in the queue were all flying to Frankfurt. Soon the small departure hall would fill up with mostly German tourists.

The airport has large TV screens that display a list of departing flights. Mine was still shown with the original departure time, without any remarks. I still had time so I set out for something to eat. There are only two food venues in the departure hall. A pizzeria that gave me food poisoning on my last flight in 2019 (NOT fun), and a small café. I went with the café. When I got my overpriced cheese-turkey sandwich, I opened it up to apply some ketchup and saw to my horror that its contents had expired. Green and white spots of mold covered the inside of the bread and parts of the turkey. I quickly returned the sandwich and got another one. Food safety is not much of a priority there. I spent most of the remaining time at the airport worrying about whether I would suffer another case of food poisoning, which luckily I didn't.

At some point I heard a woman's voice over the PA system announcing something about my flight. That was about all I could understand anyway, her English was that bad. Not seeing any updates on the screens I just assumed that she was re-announcing the delay.

Thirty minutes before departure I got the feeling that something was off. The plane had been on the apron for some time already. Surely they would have started boarding by now. There are only five gates at Marsa Alam International Airport. Two of them were in use: one for boarding passengers to Frankfurt, the other to Düsseldorf. Or at least, that is what the displays above the gates said. Still nothing on the departure information screens.

The airport does not have an information desk, so I just walked up to the guy standing in front of the Düsseldorf gate. He was shouting something unintelligible. I asked him where the gate to Amsterdam was, and he said "Amsterdam! Yes, this flight to Amsterdam". When I got to the bus that was taking me to the airplane, I met the other perplexed Dutch tourists.

Once at Hurghada we were instructed to leave the airplane so that it could be refueled. This was different from the flight a week earlier, where the pilot made the decision to refuel with passengers on board, probably because it was quicker and the airplane was already hours behind schedule. We were brought to the transfer waiting room. It was a sterile room, with hard metal benches, a bathroom and some windows through which you could see the runway and the customs booths. A bomb squad employee was quietly praying in the corner. Only passengers to Amsterdam were in this room, and we already went through security at Marsa Alam, but for some reason (and to much dissent of my fellow passengers) we had to go through the whole security theater again.

Back in the airplane the pilot announced that air traffic control in Cairo was understaffed. We had to wait some twenty-five minutes on the apron before we could depart. We arrived in Amsterdam at 02:15 in the morning, two hours and fifteen minutes after the planned arrival time. I am never able to really sleep in an airplane, so this flight was all but pleasant. Luckily my fellow passengers kept mostly quiet. Except for one moment where a woman in the row behind me was hitting her child and people were loudly protesting about it.

Schiphol was also suffering from personnel shortages at that time, and there were many piles of delayed suitcases in the hallways, but luckily our suitcases were on the conveyor belt in about twenty minutes. I took the night bus home and arrived there at around 03:30.

Download

dive shade
the place where people prepare for their next dive, 4.0 MB JPEG

view of the sea
as seen from the dive shade, 4.7 MB JPEG

restaurant and cafeteria
it's still quiet this early in the morning, 3.5 MB JPEG

reception and dive center
the dome on the reception building is relatively new, 4.0 MB JPEG

sightings board
a quick glance of all the buzz, 4.2 MB JPEG

jetty and zodiac boats
the captain's domain, 4.0 MB JPEG

main hyperbaric chamber
prepared for everything, 3.6 MB JPEG

two-person airlock
intercom and one of the oxygen masks visible, 4.4 MB JPEG

instrument panel
the instruments display pressure in meters of seawater, 3.9 MB JPEG

outside view of the chamber
medical lock, thick steel and external lighting system visible, 4.0 MB JPEG

pre-pressurized cylinders
from left to right: compressors, air cylinders, pressurized water system for extinguishing fires, and oxygen cylinders, 4.5 MB JPEG

panorama
from left to right: Baro Medical facility, Marsa Shagra village, the owner's compound, and a neighboring resort with jetty, 20 MB JPEG

Nitrox refill system
the high-pressure Nitrox compressor (light blue), 4.2 MB JPEG

nitrogen removal membrane
this tube removes nitrogen from the Nitrox refill air, 4.1 MB JPEG

regular air compressor
the refill station has multiple of these, 3.7 MB JPEG

service road to Marsa Shagra
mostly used by personnel, but it has a nice view of the ecolodge, 4.4 MB JPEG