Photo by Martin Hammond
Having dived the Red Sea at the usual resorts of Hurghada, Sharm, El Gouna, Soma Bay we decided to try Marsa Alam which is just a bit further south and within reach of Elphinstone without being aboard a safari boat. We booked the complete package with Longwood Holidays including a 12 day dive pack.
We flew from Gatwick directly to Marsa Alam airport which is about an hour away from Marsa Alam itself, but within 15 minutes of the marina based development at Port Ghalib. The airport is small but new and well organised and we were quickly through to the hotel transfer.
When we arrived at the hotel we quickly realised that the Marina Lodge is a divers hotel. If you booked the hotel and were not intending to dive, there is very little else to do but to stake out in the sun which we didn't find too attractive a proposition as it was very hot during the day. However, the hotel facilities were good and the food was great (no tummy upset at all...Thank God!)
Port Ghalib itself is a long term development project with a free shuttle water taxi service to shops and bars on the other side of the huge and well constructed marina. However, during our time there, it was like a ghost town! Clearly it will take some years to get the whole development up and running but when it does it will be superb and to a very high quality standard. Having said that prices have already been set at the luxury end and drinks on the marina were very expensive.
The hotel is totally dependent on the divers coming to dive with Emperor and the synergy of the two operations is terrific. The management of the hotel are friendly and go out of their way to ensure that your stay is a pleasant experience and the obvious link with the dive centre works well. However, the hotel is under new management and appears keen to attract a wider clientele including the young, late night partygoers and drinkers. In the future this may well make the hotel less desirable to divers, who, after two or three dives and a day on the dive boat usually want to fall into bed at about 10pm! Late night revellers were not welcome at 2am when we were due out on the Elphinstone boat which left at 6am! Look out for further comments on sites like Trip Adviser who give the Marina Lodge a really positive commendation currently.
The obvious reason to choose Emperor was that they were on-site and we just had to tumble out of bed to get on the boat. The location was excellent. No early morning bus pick-up to the marina for us!
Although reasonably competent divers (PADI Rescue and AOW with 170 dives) we are not the youngest on the boat and therefore with age comes a degree of caution so it is important to us to choose our dive companies and trips with care. We had never dived with Emperor before although we had heard good reports. They were fantastic! Without doubt this was the best day boat diving that we had ever experienced, even allowing for the fact that we have dived prettier dive sites in the past. Their organisation, safety, commitment, team spirit and genuine embodiment of team Emperor was faultless. The guides were all well qualified, and approached their day with infectious enthusiasm and care. I pick out for special mention Kevin, the newly appointed but highly experienced Dive Centre Manager, Louise the admin brains, Sylvain (our adopted son, even if he is French!) Flemming, Tarek, Sarah and Vanessa (who took some unnecessary stick from me and then proved her professionalism by making me eat my words after a great day together!!). Thank you all!
The boys on the boats were all exceptionally helpful and hardworking but Mahmud, the cook on the day boat Rachel and another Mahmud, the compressor guy who carried Chris's equipment to the water's edge on the Abu Dabab shore dive and waited on the beach for 71 minutes for us to return and then carry it all back, were outstanding! The boat captains and crews were very customer facing and provided a quality service and excellent food. Chris needed to remove her kit before climbing the ladder, due to an old back injury. The crew waited for her to surface and as soon as they saw her, they swung into action. The daily provision of small chocolate bars certainly helped and must have cemented her relationship with the boys as they seemed to enjoy the daily ritual of lining up for the treat!!
Similarly the Zodiac drivers were very skilful, attentive and watched diligently for all divers but they treated Chris with real care particularly as they pulled her effortlessly into the RIB. We appreciated that! Although the day diving was good, it would have been much of the same for two weeks so we took several additional excursions to Elphinstone, Abu Dabab and Dolphin House, which whilst expensive, were a definite highlight.
We had our own equipment but we had problems with newly purchased Miflex inflator hoses with our Sea Quest BCDs. I was surprised and relieved at the range of equipment that they carried on the boats and as they had replacement inflator hoses and tools there was no problem. I also used 15 ltr tanks to ensure that my gas and Chris's worked out about the same. There was no problem with this or the provision of Nitrox which I took as a package at 60 Euros for 29 fills in my case. So this worked out well for me. Maybe one day Nitrox will be free to all but until it is 2 Euros a tank is OK.
Safety is obviously a major feature of diving with Emperor. The team were well qualified and all standards were well maintained. The Boat handling and all the safety facilities both on and off the boat were explained and demonstrated. There is no doubt that it costs more to dive with Emperor but it is diving at the highest level and I felt totally confident on all the dives that we did during our time there. The briefings were excellent and very comprehensive. I was very impressed, particularly with the navigational references. There was no need for any diver to get lost, but the Zodiac crew were always standing by in case.
The weather was superb for the whole two weeks with water temperature around 26 degrees. A 3mm full suit was more than adequate. The visibility was OK but the coral was spawning and it meant that if there was any wind the tide reduced the visibility markedly in the shallower waters and along the coastal reefs. However, the sea life was great. Dolphins, a Manta Ray off the house reef, Eagle Rays, loads of Turtles, Guitar Sharks, Octopii and reef life, plus terrific Oceanic white tip Sharks at Elphinstone. WOW! And the Titan Triggers weren't nesting.....Phew!
Thanks again to all concerned. We had a great time and will go back at some stage but we will definitely use Emperor divers again.
I have attached some photographs. The underwater shots were all from a fellow diver's camera who was on the boat with us. (Martin Hammond who was with his lovely wife Sarah. He could spot a Nudibranch from 10 meters!) He was also a little too fearless with the shark at Elphinstone, but hey...he's a lot younger than me! The land shots were all mine.
As I said at the beginning we went with Longwood but Emperor, Regal and others do use this hotel. My advice would be to take a week, with a three day dive package and the three extra excursions.
David McCall - 29/06/09