EL QUSEIR ISN’T ON that many divers’ radars. For me, I admit, it was just a town through which I had passed on that long road from the north, the one that eventually takes you to Sudan and connects you to the airports at Hurghada and Marsa Alam, as well as the marina at Port Ghalib.
A few thousand years ago, El Quseir was a major port that helped bring exotic goods from the East into the Roman Empire. Time, tide and geological upheavals have seen the sea retreat, and the area is now a desert.
Look carefully and you can still see shells and old corals, mixed in with a bit of Roman archaeology.
Today El Quseir is a busy place, but it relies less on tourist income than other towns such as Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada. For the diver this is no bad thing, because its few hotels and dive-centres have access to some excellent shore-dives and house reefs that are very much off the beaten track and, in my opinion, far surpass those of the busier north.
I stayed at the Mövenpick Resort, a luxurious establishment built around the bay of El Quadim, just a little to the north of the town. Mövenpick resorts have a reputation for great food, a reputation I’d find to be well-deserved.
Once I’d finished scattering diving and camera gear across my room in a happy mess, I went to find the dive-centre, run by the German-owned company Extra Divers.
“We’ve been voted as having the second-best house reef in the world,” I was told by manager Marc Hügi.
“It was a German magazine – they loved our reef. You’ll love it too!”
Marc is a friendly Swiss guy who, between organising me and a team of divemasters, was helping to cement into the floor a Hollywood Boulevard-style marble plaque bearing a star, for a guest who had clocked up 555 dives.
“Second-best house reef in the world – that certainly sounds intriguing,” I thought as I wandered along the beach from the centre towards the hotel and a splendid buffet dinner.
I was also wondering how I could avoid succumbing to the stereotype that everything run by the Swiss is well-organised. The thing is… it just was, and I did succumb.
We all had numbers, lockers, assigned kit with tags, and everything had a place and it all made sense. Just how every dive-centre ought to be, I thought – and with a world-class house reef too.
For well over a decade I’ve been a fan of liveaboards with their oh-so-early mornings. So enjoying a lazy breakfast and a first dive after nine o’clock felt very decadent.
The morning dawned clear with a brisk breeze off the sea, but the beach and the bay were well-sheltered, and as Marc and I chatted and got our kit together, I spotted a few of the notices for excursions and trips on offer.
The word “Elphinstone” leapt out at me, and the trip was a few days later. I was already a happy diver – I had dived there before, but to dive there again would be a bonus.
We carried our kit down to the centre’s dedicated pier, collected lead and cylinders and took a giant stride into the warm water. A quick OK sign and we dropped towards a shallow sandy bottom before heading slowly to the southern side of the bay to get the best of the morning light.
Marc had shown me a map of the reef, but I couldn’t remember a bit of it. It was a jumble of coral bommies, caves and channels – amazing to explore and get to know but, because I was adjusting to the hired kit and fiddling with my camera, I was pleased to have a guide.
We followed the edge of a coral-covered wall and headed into a maze of swim-throughs full of pink squirrelfish sheltering in the shadows.
A large moray eel swam past before we emerged into an open area with superb, pristine coral heads protected from the winter storms and divers’ fins.
We headed back into the open cave system, with “cathedral light” streaming down around us. I was working hard not to kick up silt and trying to pose Marc for a picture in silhouette when a shoal of surgeonfish streamed past (possibly as lost as I was) and I was able to squeeze off a few photos of these fish, which usually tend to stay in pairs rather than 100-strong groups.
HAPPILY, MARC KNEW where he was going, and after 50 minutes we were back at the pier with a sensible amount of gas remaining. It had been impressive – I’m very interested in coral diversity and marine life, and this reef had clearly been well-protected.
I spent the next few days enjoying fine food, an uncomfortable camel ride – you have to do it at least once [you don’t – Ed] , a mooch round the archaeological site of Myos Hormos and, of course, a little time reading on the beach between some leisurely dives.
Some of these were again on the house reef and others at nearby sites up or down the coast that involved a few minutes in the minibus.
One splendid dive that I will long remember was at a spot called Zerib Kebir. It was another sheltered bay, reached from a sandy slope that revealed a vibrant, colourful and almost chaotic reef, full of swim-throughs, pinnacles and bommies covered in large table and delicate bird’s nest corals, each one full of wee crabs, Christmas-tree worms and multi-coloured clams. These were fine reefs indeed and, even better, I was going to Elphinstone the next day.
This expedition required a slightly earlier breakfast than normal and a short drive to Port Ghalib to pick up the day-boat, which then took two and a half hours to reach Elphinstone Reef.
This might sound a long time, but it would be worth the effort.
We jumped off the boat and headed out over the plateau to look for sharks. The water was a little murky, and every distant shadow was a potential hammerhead or whitetip, but on this dive it wasn’t to be, and we headed back to the walls to enjoy the colours of the soft corals and the orange anthias in their thousands.
This is a world-class reef dive. My guide Amor posed happily for photos and, back on the boat, we talked about how, while the downturn in the economy had made life harder for everyone, the lack of divers on the reefs and the wrecks had been beneficial.
The next dive would be at the other end of the reef, where the day-boat had moored, and as we jumped in and orientated ourselves in the current, the signal for shark went around.
An oceanic whitetip was scything through the water, with a shoal of pilotfish in its bow wave.
Back and forth it came, checking us all out. Then Amor signalled “two sharks”, and indeed there were two, each easily identifiable by the unique damage to their dorsals.
At around 10m, one fish cruised straight towards me and I got the shot I wanted before it swam within a few inches and gently bumped my camera. “Nice bitey fish. Nice big bitey fish,” I mumbled to myself through my reg, while laughing like an idiot.
BACK ON THE BOAT, everyone was beaming from ear to ear. It was a joy to see the faces of some of the recently qualified younger divers, who had just enjoyed the finest dive of their lives.
Topping spending 45 minutes with two oceanic whitetips was going to be quite a challenge, but I wanted to see as much as I could so, armed with my macro lens and a fresh memory card, I set about photographing some of the smaller life on the reef.
I love macro photography and fish portraits in particular, but I’m always mindful that getting up close on a reef can risk damaging fragile corals. So I headed out around the edges of the bay to look at the bommies that emerged from the bright white sand.
At least here I could shoot away and, resting on the sand, take my time and get the shots I wanted without damaging anything. Or so I thought, until my long-suffering buddy (the poor lad had to watch me stare at coral for an hour), started pointing at the sand, at nothing.
Then the “nothing” moved, and I was staring at a pair of sea-moths, fish that look half-dragon/half-squashed frog.
I was in fish-nerd heaven, and I swore to take more care on apparently empty sand from now on.
The bommies didn’t disappoint, and before long I was shooting clownfish, brilliant red coral hinds and ultra-cute pipefish. I could have stayed down there all day.
As the week started to draw to a close, I was thinking that there is in all of us divers a desire to cram in as many dives as possible on a trip. Yet here I was, usually so very eager to be up and in the water, enjoying a mere two dives a day and revelling in it.
There’s something compelling about having the luxury to pick the best dives and relax between them.
This was also the case for several of the other guests I met – mostly Swiss and German folks who were there with their partners or families and indulging in a few dives, while still feeling they could enjoy a family holiday.
I HAD YET TO manage a night dive, and with a 4×4 safari booked for decompression day I once again mounted my macro lens and took a giant stride off the pier, a little after sunset.
I adore night-diving, and this one was a delight, with sleeping parrotfish, cup corals, a yellow-headed moray and whole stack of critters posing for me.
There wasn’t a nudibranch in sight, however, not even the orange and black stripes of a pyjama slug, so a few points deducted there.
With an easy “keep the reef on the right” briefing, it was relaxing to pootle along with my buddy, exploring the reef edges and peer into the coral heads to witness the night shift.
I had enjoyed El Quseir and the Mövenpick resort far more than I had expected.
If I’d been on a liveaboard for a week I’d have felt cheated with only 10 dives, but sometimes it comes down to quality over quantity.
Every dive had been superb, none was rushed and, in between, I could enjoy a little luxury (and, if I’m honest, a little too much food) and a few afternoon snoozes.
It may be a cliché but it did seem like the best of both worlds – and there never has been a better time to visit.