Sat, Apr 07, 2007 - Page 16 News List

As Red Sea hotels spring up, divers go down

As the pace of development picks up along Egypt's Red Sea coast, there are a few unspoiled destinations left to choose from

By Ethan Todras-whitehill  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

A sea turtle is seen during a dive in the Red Sea at Marsa Alam in Egypt.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In the wilds of Marsa Alam, Egypt, nothing is familiar. Pastel mountains, a pink, green and yellow pointillist fantasy, soar overhead, scraping the shimmering curtain of the sky. Sand dunes fan out in orderly waves, orange-striped goats feeding between them, and flocks of blue parrots coast by above. Hamada el-Kawy, my guide to this strange land, taps his eyes and points to a purple unicorn grazing on a nearby mountain. Unicorns are famously wary of strangers, but this one hasn't noticed us yet, its horned head facing the other direction. We make our way toward it, silently, slowly, hoping for a closer look, but it's no good. It sees us and bolts.

Hamada taps his watch; our time here is limited. We rise, my head breaks through the shimmering curtain, and I inflate my jacket with a whoosh. Hamada pops up a moment later, pulls off his scuba mask and asks, "Good dive?"

Scuba diving is a bit like visiting another planet — in this Red Sea dive, the landscape of fluttering reef walls and pinnacles seemed as unfamiliar as the canyons of Mars. The fish, weird in their color and shape, have been given names that impose our frame of reference on theirs: parrotfish with their beaklike lips, goatfish sporting forked beards, and unicornfish that spar and horn-joust like the beasts of fantasy.

The Red Sea, one of the world's premier diving destinations, can be reached from Europe by cheap charter flights. The climate is tropical; prices are reasonable. Unfortunately, the most popular resort areas, like Hurghada and Sharm el Sheikh, are also overrun with tourists, the reefs teeming with as many divers as fish. Marsa Alam is farther south, the newcomer on the scene, still offering the serenity and solitude lost by its neighbors to the north. An international airport opened there in 2001, and the area is developing rapidly, but right now it's at the traveler's sweet spot: sufficient infrastructure without too many people taking advantage of it.

"It's the Bahamas of Europe," said Philippe Natural, who runs Emperor Divers in Marsa Alam and who used to work farther north. Since 2001 he said, "you have one diving center developing after another" in Marsa Alam. "After five years, down here, you're not going to recognize it."

I took my scuba certification course in 2002 and hadn't done a dive since, but I wasn't worried. I did a refresher after arriving in Marsa Alam, and between the otherworldly trips to the reef, I spent most of the day calculating numbers off nitrogen tables and discussing air pressure's logarithmic properties. This wasn't a sport for daredevils. This was playtime for an accountant.

In contrast to the reef dive of my first day, the second day's site was shallow and offered no pretty landscape — only a 5cm layer of rubbery sea grass along the floor. But that was the draw: white-spotted guitarfish with the ripply heads of manta rays and the dorsal fins of sharks threshed by, hunting crabs that live in the grass. We came across a huge green turtle eating its lunch with what seemed like the grumpiness of a great-uncle who thinks everyone is ignoring him. It took a break from chewing and glided to the surface, two rubbery appendages clinging to its shell like misplaced fins. The turtle's apparent bitterness was justified; these were not fins but remora, primordial, textureless fish that hitch rides on larger sea dwellers without so much as a by-your-leave.

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