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Parting the Waters

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 22, 1998; Page E01


Nothing prepares you for the moment when you first kick out over the edge of the reef at Ras Muhammed, a barren finger of rock and sand that juts into the Red Sea at the tip of Egypt's Sinai peninsula. One moment you are bobbing in shallow water a few feet above the coral, trying to avoid scraping your knees and elbows as you rise and fall with the swell. Then the bottom drops away and you are floating in another world, weightless, with nothing below but a luminous blue void. It feels like outer space.

There are fish, of course, thousands of them, in a rainbow of hues and enough shapes and sizes to tax the imagination of Dr. Seuss. Then there is the reef itself, with its pink, brainlike heads of coral, delicate sea fans and intricate labyrinth of caves hinting of unseen (and largely imaginary) dangers.

Add water of extraordinary clarity -- and an almost-vertical subsurface drop of 5,000 feet -- and you have a recipe for one of the most spectacular snorkeling and diving experiences in the world.

That may come as a surprise to Americans, most of whom associate such aqueous pursuits with destinations like the Cayman Islands or Australia's Great Barrier Reef. But there is more to Egypt than tombs and temples. Since I moved to Cairo with my wife and two children in 1994, we have been drawn repeatedly to the Red Sea -- and especially to the silent, mesmerizing world that lies beneath its surface.

Unfortunately, others have made the same discovery. For the past several years, European tourists have been flocking to the "Red Sea Riviera," and hotel construction is proceeding at a breakneck pace. The development boom has raised serious concern for the long-term health of the reef, which is vulnerable to pollution from dive boats and damage from careless swimmers, among other things.

Much of the development is centered on Sharm el Sheikh, at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba and just across the Straits of Tiran from Saudi Arabia. Sharm is the jumping-off point for many of the best Red Sea diving adventures and also happens to be the area we know best.

Happily, many of the newcomers seem more interested in sipping mai tais on the beach than in subsurface activities, which leaves plenty of pristine underwater scenery for the rest of us. Although it is unclear how long things will stay that way given the fearsome pace of development, the government is at least partly aware of the need to safeguard the environment. With funding from the European Union, Egypt's environmental agency has taken steps to protect the reef, such as installing permanent mooring buoys to prevent anchor damage by dive boats. A handful of coastal areas -- most notably Ras Muhammed -- have been declared off-limits to developers.

Nor do you have to invest in scuba lessons to savor the experience. Especially around Sharm, the Red Sea reefs are readily accessible to snorkelers, including children. Some of the area's most vibrant coral reefs, in fact, are situated just a few paddle strokes from the beach. Hazards are few, and you won't need a wet suit, except perhaps in January. Boat trips are also an option.

Sharm's relatively late arrival on the international tourist map is explained by the region's tortured political history. Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt in the 1967 Middle East War, returning it in 1982 under the terms of the Camp David peace accords. Until the last decade or so, recreational visitors consisted largely of hikers and hard-core divers. The latter stayed on boats or in rough-'n'-ready dive camps at Naama Bay, now the main resort area in Sharm. (As much as Egyptian tourism promoters would like to pretend otherwise, Sinai is still a part of the Middle East, which makes it vulnerable to the region's periodic political upheavals. That is not necessarily a bad thing: Some of the best diving in recent memory, I'm told, was during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when tourists stayed home and the biggest creatures patrolling the reefs were manta rays.)

From the border with Israel to the southern tip of Sinai three hours' drive to the south, the tourist boom has transformed the Gulf of Aqaba coast. Visitors now have their pick of accommodations, from the rustic Basata campground, popular with Israeli back-to-nature types, to five-star hotels. Sharm, which is served by an international airport, has gotten so popular that it recently acquired a hospital and a recompression chamber -- paid for with U.S. aid money -- for curing divers of nitrogen sickness, otherwise known as the bends.

Along Egypt's main Red Sea coast, from the Suez Canal south to the border with Sudan, underwater activities are centered on the charmless and overdeveloped resort city of Hurghada, 250 miles southeast of Cairo. Reef access from Hurghada is generally by boat.

Although I once spent a summer scuba diving in the murky waters off Nantucket, Mass., I have not felt the need to renew my diving certificate since moving to Egypt. For my money, at least, the snorkeling off Sinai is simply too good to bother with all that extra gear -- and besides, the kids (not to mention my wife) would never permit me to leave them behind.

The sheer abundance of snorkeling sites on Egypt's Gulf of Aqaba coast is staggering. Tens of thousands of years old, the reef is a natural work in progress, fringed with living coral that appears from the shore as a dark band just beneath the surface of a turquoise sea. Along the southern Sinai coast, it forms a virtually unbroken shelf that culminates in the spectacular underwater cliffs of Ras Muhammed.

Beach resorts are barred from discharging sewage or conducting other activities that could damage the reef; many have sought to capitalize on its proximity by making it easily accessible to guests. Several of the larger resorts, for example, have installed floating platforms that allow you to walk from the beach to the outer edge of the reef, where most of the fish congregate, without damaging delicate coral structures or incurring nasty cuts. These are particularly useful for kids who might otherwise balk at swimming across the reef. At the age of 6, my son, Drew, learned to snorkel at the Coral Bay, an Italian-built resort not far from the international airport. He plunged off its gently swaying platform with no more trepidation than if he had been entering a swimming pool back home in Bethesda.

We also have had good luck at the Hilton Residence, situated on a cliff top overlooking the sea a few miles south of Naama Bay. Guests ride a 10-story elevator to the beach, where a footpath leads to secluded coral-fringed coves. Several years ago, my then-4-year-old daughter, Catie, learned to snorkel in one of them, clutching my arm and chirping gaily through her snorkel tube whenever she spotted a fish. My wife, Gail, brought up the rear in a rented pedal boat.

For those put off by thatch-roofed beach bars and noisy volleyball games, south Sinai still offers plenty of solitude. One good way to get away from it all is to board a boat. Most hotels offer snorkeling cruises lasting from an hour to a day. One Christmas holiday a couple of years ago, we took a short cruise to Near Garden, a maze of coral heads and grottoes off a rocky headland just outside Naama Bay. Our guide dropped us off at a long wooden rowboat, which was moored near the coral and served as a semi-permanent snorkeling platform. Then he headed back to shore, promising to return in 45 minutes.

It was magnificent. Diagonal shafts of late-afternoon sunlight penetrated the water, illuminating the colorful coral garden and many of its denizens. Among them was a moray eel. Its enormous mottled head poked from the shadows four feet below the motionless form of my daughter, who was frozen not with fear but with fascination. Another curiosity was the Napoleon fish, a harmless lug of a creature that must have weighed 50 pounds and had the disconcerting habit of approaching to within a few feet of our face masks. We later learned that this particular fish had developed a taste for hard-boiled eggs, courtesy of visitors who ignored the rules against feeding sea life.

Last Christmas, we took a day-long cruise from Naama Bay with my parents and my sister and her family, who were visiting from the United States. Our principal destination was Tiran Island, which is arid and uninhabited and rises from the sea just a few miles from the Saudi coast. The snorkeling itself was forgettable. For reasons that remain unclear, the captain of the cabin cruiser anchored some distance from the reef, forcing us to make a long and tiring swim against the current. My children turned back before they got there. Not only that, but the wind had kicked up quite a chop and the water was murkier than usual. But the journey itself made up for any disappointments. Spreading beach towels on the foredeck, we read or dozed in the sun. Just before lunch, a crewman trailed a line off the stern and hooked a silvery tuna. He fileted it, fried it and served it on plates heaped with rice. It doesn't get any fresher than that.

Other remote snorkeling areas can be accessed by vehicle, although these are diminishing in number. We were disappointed to learn recently that one of our favorite refuges has been claimed for a new hotel. There are several prominent exceptions, however. Several miles north of the airport is the entrance to the Nabq Protected Area, whose only inhabitants are Bedouin herdsmen and their families and a handful of Egyptian soldiers. Nabq features mangrove forests, miles of undeveloped coastline and the rusting hulk of a grounded freighter that is said to be teeming with fish. The only disadvantage, from a snorkeler's perspective, is that the reefs are a long swim from the beach and access can be difficult. Also, you will need a four-wheel-drive vehicle and preferably a guide.

All things considered, we prefer Ras Muhammed. Situated just 20 minutes by car from the bustling tourist promenade at Sharm el Sheikh, Ras Muhammed is the crown jewel of Egypt's fledgling national park system. It is clean, generally well-regulated and starkly beautiful, above the water as well as in it. Hotels run regular bus trips or you can hire your own car and driver; be prepared to haggle over the price.

Abutted by ocher mountains, Ras Muhammed is a rocky, windswept spur at the confluence of the two Red Sea gulfs. The ruins of old military posts attest to its strategic value during the 1967 Middle East War. Sand dunes tumble into surrounding waters like spilled sugar. The only greenery to speak of consists of a mangrove forest near the very tip.

Also near the tip is the aptly if unimaginatively named "Main Beach." A 20-minute drive from the entrance over rocky unpaved roads, Main Beach is the most popular destination in the park. It consists of a wide beach and protected inlet with sandy bottom that is great for young swimmers who might not be ready to snorkel. Older children and grown-ups immediately will want to strap on their face masks and fins and start kicking toward the reef a hundred yards or so offshore. Once you cross over the edge of the reef, a gentle current will carry you along the face of the coral, with its hidden vents spewing spirals of brilliantly hued fish.

The reef is popular with barracuda, silvery shapes of several feet in length whose needle-sharp teeth and menacing underbite make them look much more threatening than they are. One of the few genuine hazards comes in the much more benign-looking form of the lionfish. The striped brown creature is equipped with featherlike appendages that can inflict a paralyzing and excruciating sting. The good news is that they are not aggressive and will ignore you if you ignore them.

Main Beach has its down side. The parking lot is big enough to accommodate several tour buses and the reef can get crowded with snorkelers, some of whom stand on the fragile coral with utter disregard for the damage they are causing. The destination also is popular with dive boats; I have seen as many as 13 anchored at one of the permanent buoys offshore.

Fortunately, Ras Muhammed is big enough that it provides a number of alternative snorkeling sites, among them Eel Beach and another one situated within sight of the main entrance. If you prefer something even more remote, try camping at one of the half-dozen designated sites scattered along one side of the broad fiordlike inlet in the middle of the park. We have spent occasional weekends at one of them, a secluded beach just big enough for a couple of vehicles and five or six tents. From the water's edge, the sandy bottom slopes gently to a depth of 40 or so feet, where giant coral heads sprout like toadstools on a forest floor.

The sun is hot in Sinai, and it tends to drive us from our tents and sleeping bags by 7 a.m. If the kids are willing, or even if they are not, I sometimes strap on my gear and go for a lazy circuit of the coral, with its legions of angelfish, sergeant majors and countless other varieties. Their quicksilver motions are soothing and endlessly absorbing. Then I paddle back to the beach for coffee and breakfast, preferably pancakes cooked on our portable gas stove. And the day has only just begun.

Egyptian Travel Update

The massacre of 58 foreign tourists in Luxor in November has had a predictably devastating effect on Egypt's tourism industry. But a little perspective is in order. During six years of extremist violence in Egypt, terrorists have yet to strike in Sharm el Sheikh or, for that matter, anywhere on the Sinai peninsula. As it has been for the last several years, militant activity in Egypt is largely confined to a handful of rural provinces in the upper Nile Valley south of Cairo.

Since the Luxor massacre, Egyptian authorities have substantially beefed up security at tourist destinations throughout the country; last month, the U.S. Embassy rescinded its warning that Americans should stay out of upper Egypt, although it added, "the potential for terrorist attacks exists, and Americans should exercise caution throughout Egypt." Americans are also advised to contact the embassy for advice before traveling to the Nile Valley governorates of Minya, Assuit, Sohag and Qena (north of Qena city), where militant activity persists.

-- John Lancaster

Details: Snorkeling the Red Sea

GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights to Sharm el Sheikh from Washington. Sharm is served by direct flights from major European capitals, including Rome, as well as daily flights from Cairo on Egyptair. Egyptair is quoting a round-trip fare of $1,767 from Washington to Cairo, via New York, with restrictions. The round-trip air fare from Cairo to Sharm is $276.

Or, once in Cairo, those of a more adventurous -- or impecunious -- bent may prefer to travel to Sharm by taxi at a cost of between $100 and $150, depending on your bargaining skills. The five-hour drive becomes quite scenic once you pass through the Suez Canal tunnel and onto the Sinai peninsula itself. Be advised, however, that Egyptian roads are notoriously dangerous, especially at night.

WHERE TO STAY: For better and for worse, Sharm is abundantly supplied with five-star hotels. One of the best hotels in Sharm is the Movenpick (1-800-344-6835), which is situated smack on the boardwalk at Naama Bay, the main tourist hub. Prices vary widely according to the season; doubles start at $175. For the budget-minded traveler, there is the Sanafir (Naama Bay, 011-20-62-600-197), at about $50 per night double. The Sanafir is built in the Moorish style, with domed ceilings, a courtyard and clean if somewhat monastic rooms.

Families may prefer the Hilton Residence (Main Street, Sharm El Sheikh, 1-800-445-8667; doubles start at $155), several miles to the south adjacent to the main dive-boat harbor. It has two-room apartments, a private beach and kid-friendly amenities such as bike rentals.

Most hotels in Sharm and surrounding areas offer reef access within easy walking distance, but those in search of more pristine surroundings will want to head for Ras Muhammad National Park, about 20 minutes by car up the road. Bring your passport, as you'll need it to get through the military checkpoint south of town. Hotels typically provide round-trip bus service to the park. You can also hire a taxi. When you pay your fee at the main gate, pick up a map, as you might want to try alternatives to the main beach, which can get crowded. One of the best and most underutilized reefs is just inside the main gate adjacent to the visitor center.

INFORMATION: Egyptian Tourist Office, 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 1706, New York, N.Y., 10111, 212-332-2570.

-- John Lancaster

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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