Swimming with Dolphins

Originally published in Business Monthly‘s June 2018 issue.

Thinking about travel in Egypt rarely does the image of dolphins come to mind, especially for us locals. We grew up being told the North Coast’s turquoise shores are as wild as it gets. However, as I began to explore the country I call home, I discovered nothing could be further from the truth. I have seen prehistoric carvings deep in the Eastern Desert. I have come across lush stretches of desert along mountain peaks of Halayeb. I have passed through crystal-like desert littered with natural springs and vegetation near our borders with Libya.

While each of these places tells a tale of unique beauty, nothing will ever compare to the moment I free-dived for the first time into the middle of a school of dolphins.

Dolphins weren’t the only incredible surprise of our trip, we visited an island that can only be described as a haven. Resembling Hawaii with its snow-white sand and transparent shores, the island is covered with heavy vegetation and is home to a variety of birds. Beneath the island, however, is a completely different level of beauty.

The whole adventure began with an initiative to clean an island off the shores of Wadi el Gemal, an area along the Red Sea about 400 kilometers north of the border with Sudan. The trip wasn’t all work; in fact, quite the opposite. It included two days on a boat docked in Satayeh (also spelled Sataya), an area known for its dolphins, and a one day trip to Seyal Island for cleaning.

For the four-day trip, I managed to efficiently pack only one pair of pants, two t-shirts, a dress, and a swimsuit. I remember the excitement walking into my office on a Wednesday morning with my backpack to wrap up any loose ends before I disappear into Egypt’s Red Sea.

I left work that afternoon, met my friends for our traditional one last luxurious meal (a habit that sometimes backfires), and headed to our meeting point. As the bus of 10 passengers made its way south along the Red Sea coast, we dozed, a blessing since our journey was about 14 hours.

Some nine hours later it was dawn, and we stopped at a comfortable rest house just outside of Al Quseir, a coastal city known for diving and fishing. People in the south tend to be more on the conservative side, a fact that exhaustion drove us to ignore when each of us took a couch to sleep on as we waited for coffee. Luckily, no one commented and we soon packed ourselves back into the bus and continued our journey to the beautiful south.

One of the great things about driving long distances is getting to witness the landscape shifting slightly from one area to the next, until it completely changes. Somewhere right before we reached Marsa Alam, the sea began to lighten by the minute and random patches of greenery began to appear sporadically before becoming denser. At one point we were looking out the window at beautiful stretches of turquoise beaches with desert vegetation.

Just as we hit the 14-hour mark, we reached Azur Wadi Lahmy, a three-star resort in Wadi el Gemal, where we spent the afternoon snorkeling its emerald waters. After chatting away the evening, we headed to our rooms for a last bit of deep sleep before our amazing offshore adventure the following day.

The Dolphin House

Early in the morning the next day, we boarded a three-level yacht and sailed east. We were advised the yacht would pass through an area that tends to cause seasickness. Never being seasick before I completely ignored the warning. Words can’t express how right they were. The best image I can think of is that famous scene in the movie “Ismail Yassin in the Navy,” where the whole crew got really sick. Half of us ended up lying on couches, hugging our stomachs until we finally cleared the dreaded area.

By noon we reached Satayeh, a U-shaped area formed by a rich coral reef bed, known for housing dolphins. We quickly changed into swimsuits, put on snorkeling equipment, got into a zodiac (a small inflatable motorboat), and headed toward the dolphins. We suddenly reached an area where seven or eight zodiacs were going in circles, and that is when our boatman yelled: “jump now.” Going back-first into the water, I didn’t really get why all the hurry and yelling until I opened my eyes, I was in the middle of a school of dolphins. I froze as they passed around, above, and below me. I could hear them talking to each other. For a moment, the whole world stopped and I was part of a school of dolphins.

It was wonderful to watch them roam as one family. In one instance a baby dolphin left the group like a wandering child, and his mother went after him, prodding him with her nose in the right direction.

The dolphins tend to travel in wide circles and it is standard practice to follow them in a zodiac. For anyone with little upper body strength – like me – getting back in the zodiac can be quite embarrassing. People on the boat pull you out of the water like a dead fish; one time it even took three strong men to get me aboard. Nevertheless, the whole experience was still magical.

We spent the rest of the day swimming with the dolphins, until they left for their nightly hunting.

While no words can explain the beauty of this experience, I found the number of zodiacs and visitors alarming, begging the question of whether this type of activity is detrimental to the dolphins’ environment and welfare. Abdel Rahman Nasser, founder of the trip organizing company Eco Travel and a master diver, explains that current levels of visitors are not harmful to the dolphins. However, he would be concerned about any increase. He further cites the case of Samadai Reef – another dolphin house north of Satayeh – where an increasing number of tourists caused most of the dolphins to migrate south. While the area still houses a few, the number is far less than previous years. Currently, efforts are under way to reverse the negative impact on Samadai, such as limiting visitors to specific areas. According to Nasser, while extending the same practice to Satayeh can help prevent to some extent any potential negative impact, the area is far larger than that of Samadai rendering it difficult to mimic the same positive results.

As we enjoyed the sunset on deck, it was time for dinner and some lively conversation. Soon it was pitch dark and, with nothing else to do, it seemed like a good idea to jump back into the water for a late night swim. To our surprise, the lights of our yacht illuminated the clear water, allowing us to see the hundreds of colorful fish around the yacht.

A couple of hours later, we were back on deck in our sleeping bags, watching a dark blanket filled with glittering stars over us. It was the perfect end to a magical day.

Sleeping no more than a couple of hours, we were awakened right before sunrise. Part of our group were advanced divers and they had to begin their excursion pretty early to make use of the day, while the rest of us explored the reef bed and the wreck of a small nearby ship. From what I understood from the divers in the group, it is far more enjoyable to snorkel in Satayeh than to dive. The real beauty of the place lies in the coral reefs and the dolphins, both of which are closer to the surface.

While snorkeling, I noticed that some yachts were anchored to coral reefs, a practice that is incredibly harmful to the ecosystem and subject to significant fines that too often are not  enforced. HEPCA, an NGO dedicated to protecting the ecosystem of the Red Sea, has placed mooring buoys throughout the Red Sea for anchoring boats. The system includes drilling permanent fixtures into the sea bottom away from coral reefs.

Surrounded by incredible nature and amazing company, it was time to sail to our final destination, and to my surprise, it was to be an even more magical spot.

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