Sharm el Sheikh
The very beginning of my love affair with
The Red Sea
I discovered the Red Sea in 1998, on our first visit to Eilat, Israel. I had read the books and brochures, telling of the multi coloured under water world, and thought it might be quite nice to have a day at the beach looking for the fish.
On the chosen day we got a bus from the town centre to coral beach, passing the huge and very ugly port arriving at our destination some 10 minutes later. After paying the bus fare, the entrance fee and deckchair hire we then hired our mask and fins. We found our patch on the coral beach, as near to the jetty as was possible. The jetty was the permanent type, built on metal pillars set into the coral plate, with a wooden walkway, and at the end 8 metal steps into the deep water. My first walk along this jetty changed my life forever.
The first time I stuck my head under the warm waters of the Red Sea I was blown away. The books and brochures had told of the beauty of this underwater world, but the cynical me had assumed this to be a sales ploy, if anything those books and brochures had written with a degree of generic ignorance.
Snorkeling at Coral Beach was difficult for me. It was a very windy day and the sea was choppy, a huge wave threw me onto the coral drop off and I grazed my knuckles on Fire coral. Fire coral burns and any cut becomes infected with toxins. I had wounds that took three months to heal.
Due to illness, the following year we didn't go on holiday, but by this time I had so much knowledge about the area I was desperate to get back. The year after we bought our own kit, snorkel, mask and fins and booked to go to Eilat again.
We went five days after the 9/11 atrocities, and on the days leading up to our departure day we were never 100% sure we would actually go because of the airport restrictions implemented around the globe. But we did go.
We visited Coral Beach twice, but each time it was windy and the waves were strong. I had learned my lesson 2 years earlier about swimming too close to the reef when the sea was choppy, but now, with my new found knowledge, I was more concerned about the reef than I was about myself.
Eight weeks later we went to Sharm el Sheikh for our first visit. Even before the plane landed, my love affair with the Red Sea had begun, a love that has taken over my life with such a forceful passion, my family and friends cannot understand, the only way I can describe it is as a physical and mental need to be in My Egypt, in My Sharm el Sheikh, in my Red Sea, with My Fishes. I think of being under the water every hour of every day, quite simply, I just need to be there.
As I looked out of the window during our decent I could see the fringing reefs, with colours so shockingly vivid, aqua, neon blue and green, glittering turquoise gleaming back at me, and from above, offset by the rich golden red Sinai mountains and desert, the stunning contrast of these colours, thrown together by nature to create a psychedelic land and seascape.
When I first stepped from the plane onto Egyptian soil I cried.
I knew I had come home, to my Sharm el Sheikh.
My opinions.. possibly not to everyones taste...
When I visit travel forums such as Holiday Truths and Trip Adviser it never ceases to amaze me at the diversity of the comments, and makes me ask the questions, why do people go to Sharm in the first place and what are they expecting?
The following is my own personal opinion.
The Egyptians who work in
Sharm el Sheikh
Egypt is a poor but proud country. Egyptian parents have invested, which ever way they can, in the best possible education for their children. The majority of the people who work in Sharm are from Cairo, Luxor, Aswan or Alexandria. They work relentlessly, looking after us, for several weeks non stop, then go home to their families for a week, before returning to Sharm where the cycle starts again.. People who work in the hotels are very well educated, many speak 5 languages, those who work at the reception desk and in the restaurants are fluent in some languages, I have spoken to waiters who are fully trained teacher but can’t get a teaching position, so choose instead to work in Sharm to improve their language skills, hoping that someday they will find a job in their chosen profession. For a developing country the Egyptian people have a wicked sense of humour, they laugh, they joke they want to give you an enjoyable experience – they are a delight, and if you give them a small tip regularly to show your appreciation, they are positively falling over themselves to make you feel like "A listers! " When I read reports that hotel workers, shop keepers and restaurant waiters have been rude I have to ask the question, why? From what I have seen, waiters and shopkeepers in Europe would simply not tolerate the degree of verbal abuse, clicking of fingers, raising of voice and unforgivable bad manners that the Egyptians have to tolerate every working day – give them a break, the Egyptian people are lovely, warm, friendly and funny, you will end up having much more fun!
Ask them to define a 5* hotel and they will probably describe Burj Al Arab in Dubai, and for those who want to spend a couple of thousand pounds a night I am sure the Burj is great. As a general rule, hotels are given a star rating on the facilities and amenities, and as far as I have seen (I have stayed in 18 Sharm Hotels) they all have great facilities. Ok, so some of the older properties are a little tired, but they are bound to be, the way Sharm has become a tourist phenomenon, I am not making excuses on behalf of the hotels here – I have always found the maintenance people in the hotels to be fantastic – slow, but fantastic.
The food....think I will try to calculate how many different meal options you could have at Dinner. Generally it is tasty, hot, and there is something for everyone, meat eaters, fish eaters and vegetarians. One peculiar thing I have wondered, how on earth do the lovely Egyptian chefs manage to create so many beautiful looking puddings and deserts, they are an artistic feast for the eyes, but however different they all look… they all taste the same, I will of course continue testing them, just in case they slip in another flavour!
Nobody is going to starve in Sharm.
Appallingly, if you go south down the Red Sea you will eventually reach Somalia and Ethiopia where people are starving to death, every minute of every day – I rest my case.
My advice to the people who complain about the food in hotels, spend extra and go to a restaurant in the town if you are not happy with what is on offer, that way you will be getting the food you order, and will also be helping other Egyptians put food on their own families table. And if you are still moaning and complaining, may I suggest you stay at home and try, very hard to get your life into perspective.
The Melia Sinai...
My most favourite place on Earth
Whenever I visit Sharm el Sheikh I stay in two or three hotels during my holiday, so I have different parts of the reef to photograph, but I always save my most favourite hotel till the last. To me The Melia Sinai is the most magical place, it offers everything I want in a hotel, and so much more.
As soon as our taxi approaches the entrance to the hotel I get an overpowering feeling of "coming home". I feel calm, yet excited, and I know exactly what to expect - a perfect holiday experience in beautiful surroundings, with lovely people looking after us.
The first time we visited The Melia Sinai the hotel was brand new and still smelt of new paint and varnish, it was as beautiful then as it is now. The lobby of the hotel is the first hint of what your holiday promises. Mellow wooden beams, opulent, shiny marble floors, deep plump, comfortable seating, and reception staff who are wonderfully warm,friendly and professional at all times. The whole theme of the hotel is based around a magnificent glowing white lighthouse, that can be seen for miles around. The restaurant and lounge bar are very cleverly built around the base of the lighthouse, and emit a fitting nautical ambiance to this 5 star beach side hotel. The hotel rooms are large, comfortable, and cleaned daily to a high standard, by people who care about their work, and are intent on making sure your stay is unforgettable. This attitude is shared by every member of staff throughout the hotel, from the security men who greet you as you enter the hotel, to the waiters, bar staff, pool attendants, chefs and brilliant reception staff. A special mention should be given to the en suite bathrooms they are far bigger than normal, with lots of space available for any diving equipment guests may have. The hotel is luxurious without being pretentious and was built as the first 5 star hotel in Sharm with the diver in mind. It's dive centre is second to none, run by knowledgeable multi lingual staff who are committed to assisting divers of all levels with emphasis on safety, education and fun! For non divers the hotel offers fantastic facilities for pure indulgence, from the Health club offering a fully equipped gym, sauna, Massage and Beauty Salon to the great swimming pools and private, silky soft sand beach. The hotel's jetty enables divers, snorkelers and swimmers access to the unbelievably beautiful and healthy house reef, and it is this part of the reef and the way it is looked after, managed and nurtured that makes The Melia Sinai Hotel so very special for me.
They can be annoying, but funny annoying. They try to entice you into their shops and restaurants with various ploys such as “where are you from? England, oh! We like the English” Lovely jubly and in my case Leeds United! Other ploys include please come into my shop to sign my book, please read a letter from England, my English reading is not very good, and my brother/ cousin/ uncle/ nephew has a shop/ restaurant let me introduce you. This is Egypt. This is the way they do things. We shouldn’t try to change the way they have traded for millennia – even if in Sharm it is done with rather more gloss and sophistication than in Cairo and Luxor. To me, this side of Sharm is "show business", an Egyptian Disneyland. Who said we are right and they are wrong? It is their very beautiful Country and we should visit for the differences.
Please do not expect any form of culture in Sharm. What you will find is a very over the top desert playground. From Naama Bay at night, with it’s twinkly lights, neon lit palm trees, stylish shopping centres selling, perfumed oils, papyrus, designer(?) handbags, Egyptian cotton and general tourist bric a brack. There are the supermarkets, where you get no hassle whatsoever, but can buy food, drink and in some cases very bizarre and random goods. Well known brand names have moved in, Hard Rock Café, KFC, Macdonalds, et al. There is KFC in Naama bay and the service there is incredible, once you have got your food, the very unobtrusive staff just seem to appear from behind you offering whatever they think you will need next, such as napkins, tooth picks and those little sachets of lemon hand cleaning wipes, and they smile and chat to you, if you want them to, if you want peace and quiet they leave you alone, but they leave you with a smile. I have used this example as a way of saying what to expect in the line of service. Our meals at KFC cost about £4.00 sterling but the service and attitude of the Egyptians is priceless, we paid a very low price for the meal but were treated with genuine respect and friendliness. We would not get, or even expect, this degree of service and treatment in our own countries, from the spotty youths with dirty fingernails who smell of last nights drinking fest, but in Sharm this is what you get, without exception.
Responsible Snorkeling in
Sharm el Sheikh
The following is a combination of my own personal opinions and facts. To say I love this small sea is an understatement of such magnitude that I cannot find words to describe the passion I feel, it is both emotional and physical.
The scientific stuff.
For me Sharm el Sheikh is all about the Coral Reef and it’s inhabitants.
The Red Sea is unique for various reasons. It is the saltiest live sea in the world because there are no rivers flowing into it and because the only sea it is connected to is the Indian Ocean. This connection is, as far as seas go, very narrow (29 kilometers) and also very shallow (only 134 meters) Because of this many species are endemic to the Red Sea, this means they are found nowhere else in the world.
The Red Sea is getting wider at a rate of 1.5 centimetres per year because the African and Asian plates are being dragged apart. This sea is also unique because of it’s temperature, not the Sea surface temperature, which averages out in Sharm at about 25 degrees, with the warmest months being July and August at around 28 degrees, but a fact that I, for one, think is fascinating, 1000 meters below sea level, the water temperature of the Red Sea is 21 degrees, whereas the Indian Ocean at the same depth is a chilly 6-7 degrees!
The Red Sea is amazing, and Sharm el Sheik’s fringing reef, with its kaleidoscopic colours and never ending texture created by the corals, is a sight that takes my breath away each and every time I put my head under the water.
A coral reef is a delicate structure – coral has been classified as an animal, each little polyp, has a mouth . but please don’t try to find any tiny faces! It may look tough and well able to withstand anything, but quite simply, it can’t. Strong waves can tear off huge areas in a matter of seconds and send them tumbling into the deep blue. Many of the reef fish are algae eaters, they scrape it off the dead coral, but in doing this they can also prevent new coral growing.
Other reef dwellers feed on the actual coral polyps, these include the Crown of Thorns starfish that grows to a massive 50 cm in diameter, usually uncommon, but periodically there is a population explosion creating an army of these huge starfish who advance, several starfish deep carpeting the reef, eating the live coral, and leaving in it’s wake a scene of total destruction resulting in white, bleached coral. Even the different coral species fight and kill one another, survival of the fittest at it’s most terrifying. A healthy and growing coral reef is as important to our planet as the great rain forests, should all the coral reefs die this would have a catastrophic effect on the world’s food chain, the butterfly effect at it’s most deadly. But now, the reefs, and all that depend on them have an even bigger problem – mass tourism. The rate at which Sharm has evolved into a holiday destination is incredible. When I first started going there were only 2 flights a week from the UK. Sometimes, in the early days, there were only 20 guests rattling around in a hotel with 400 rooms! These days Sharm is a “must do” holiday destination. And this is, for the reefs, a problem. In years gone by people who wanted guaranteed sun would head off for the Canaries or Majorca and have a great time eating their full English Breakfast, drinking in the “English Pub” and having a whale of a time splashing around in the sea and having a go on the banana boats.
However, now in Sharm they can do all these things with the added attraction of the Coral Reef and it’s fish.
I do not dive, I snorkel, and I have over 500 snorkeling hours under my belt. Because the Red Sea is the saltiest live sea in the world floating is very easy. Also, because I have visited many of the beach side hotels in Sharm, I know the ones with bays protected from the wind and waves. Being able to float in calm waters is, for me, the perfect recipe for an amazing adventure exploring the reefs. As an underwater photographer I have to ensure I make every second in the water count, and to do that successfully I have to feel confident. With the knowledge I have gained over the years I now know what works for me, and hopefully others will learn a little something from the following. Hints and Tips
Always enter the water by the jetty/ floating pontoon.
There are a few “easy entry” locations where you can walk into the sea over sand or, more commonly, the dead coral plate. However these areas have, as far as I am concerned some major negatives. On the coral plate, which is a build up of ancient coral reefs, made smooth over thousands of years worth of weather conditions, and the various algae eaters and polyp feeders, new corals are starting to grow. This is a very positive sign of healthy waters, but as it has been estimated that on average it takes a coral reef 1000 years to grow 9-15 meters, we need to be protecting what is already there and allow new coral a protected start in life. Of course, the individual species grow at different rates, but it needs consistently perfect conditions if it is to flourish.
I have a favourite hotel in Sharm that I always stay at (when I go to Sharm I stay in 3 hotels over a 14 day period so I have different parts of the reef to photograph) It excites me the first time I visit this part of the reef , having not seen it for a year or so, at how the coral is growing healthily on the chains that secure the jetty to the reef so be aware that you may be killing the coral polyps that could, in years to come , become a new reef area.
From a human safety point Sea urchins love the little crevices in the coral plate, the most common being the black Diadem sea urchin who’s needle fine spines can pierce a foot and give very nasty stings that can easily become infected. A much, much bigger, but unlikely threat, is the Stone fish. Practically impossible to spot because of its camouflage, it rests, deadly still, on corals and sandy floors. It’s dorsal fin is capable of injecting a toxin so lethal that it can cause death. I have seen one only once, and only because it moved very slightly, but I know that I will have snorkeled past them, totally oblivious to their presence. Do wait until you feel confident in the water before approaching the reef. Have a go treading water in the deep areas, you will be amazed to discover that you will just bob around with little effort, I love just floating, literally using only my fingers to navigate my way around. I personally never use fins, two reasons, I am useless with them, and, more importantly, because I float over the reef, in about 24 inches of water I need to know I am not going to touch and kill the coral.