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Dive into the coral paradise of Egypt

origin 1Anyone who knows the Red Sea only from above has little idea of ​​the fantastic worlds that exist beyond the surface of the water. Banks of colors float in choreographed dances among corals that are hundreds of years old. An underwater tour of Sharm el-Sheikh. Renata Romeo/Ocean Image Bank/The Ocean Agency/dpa

The stonefish rests on a 28m deep slope, unimpressed by the divers who float from above like astronauts. Only when one takes out his camera does it move and turn its back to him, sending sediment dripping to the seabed.

The fish and other sea creatures seem quite indifferent to the many humans who day after day dive into the Red Sea in their clumsy gear, a stark contrast to the delighted gestures of the tourists as they explore the underwater realms of Egypt.

A dip into these silent forests filled with colorful shoals swirling among corals that are hundreds of years old is like “swimming in an aquarium,” says a photographer.

The main gateway to this dazzling other world is in Sharm el-Sheikh, a tourist hotspot on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. The resort was developed in the 1980s while still under Israeli occupation.

After Israel withdrew its troops, Egypt rapidly expanded the number of hotels, and online travel agency Expedia now numbers around 450. Many are next door to dive shops or have their own in-house suppliers and offer packages for novice or experienced divers and snorkelers.

The sea flashes white in the morning sunlight as dive guide Saif gathers his guests at the hotel, and dozens of dive boats with names like “Captain Morgan” and “Nemo” wait at the ready. This is the beginning of the Ras Mohammed National Park marine protected area, which the nature conservation organization IUCN describes as “Egypt’s underwater paradise”.

It is one of the best protected marine environments in the world. The barrier reef, a complex ecosystem for countless species, is the largest in Africa and stretches over 2,000 kilometers from Egypt to Sudan and Eritrea.

Eventually the tourists dive in, taking oxygen from their compressed air tanks and sinking, the salt water filling their neoprene wetsuits warming and enveloping their bodies.

The bulky gear they had lurched awkwardly to the edge of the boat changes into a soft summer jacket and the fins into elastic stockings. Weightless divers glide off into four, seven and then twelve meters of water.

Around them clown fish play hide and seek, meter-long moray eels meander between the rocks and a parrot fish the size of a poodle casually wears its rainbow colors to the bottom. The stars down here are the fish and turtles, some of them endangered species, but dolphins, whale sharks and oceanic whitetip also make an appearance on a good day.

However, this spectacle is only complete against the backdrop of magnificent corals, which according to Transnational Red Sea Center researcher Prof. Anders Meibom are unmatched anywhere in the world. He even describes them as “hope for humanity” because they are particularly resilient in times of climate change.

“The Caribbean is more or less extinct,” Meibom says of the corals there, while the Maldives in the Indian Ocean are also in “very bad shape.” The Coral Triangle around Indonesia and its neighbors is also “under enormous pressure from pollution and wastewater”, while warming of the world’s oceans is accelerating the bleaching process and is unstoppable on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Corals are also threatened in the Gulf of Aqaba, a kind of secondary tank of the Red Sea with Sharm el-Sheikh at the discharge. At this point they have unique defenses against higher temperatures, possibly due to the last ice age about 18,000 years ago, after which corals slowly spread here. Because areas with higher temperatures lay in their path, the heat-resistant specimens survived.

“This kind of resistance to heating doesn’t exist anywhere else,” says Meibom, who was out with a team in the Gulf of Aqaba a few months ago. Formed in some cases more than 50 million years ago, the fascinating formations resemble bright shrubs, flowering meadows, fields of broccoli and fossilized brains.

It’s hard to believe that this ancient underwater growth can be seen just by walking to the dock in a wetsuit, but that’s the reality. In Sharm el-Sheikh and further north in Dahab and Nuwaiba, the snorkelling and diving experience can literally be started on foot from shore.

If you want to avoid the big hotels, the hot desert air blows on the faces of visitors in Nuwaiba’s thatched hut camps, and the pastel colors of the mountains alternate between grey-brown and beige every few hours, depending on location Of sun.

But a much higher price is also demanded for the enjoyment of all this natural splendor. Tourism has also caused serious damage to the region and is getting worse, especially due to the riches of coral.

Along with oil and heavy metal pollution and coastal development, tourism is one of the biggest stressors for corals, says Jessica Bellworthy, a researcher at the Laboratory of Coral Biomineralization and Physiology at the Israel University of Haifa.

“If we can’t quickly limit the local damage to our reefs, their exceptional heat resistance won’t matter,” warns Bellworthy.

origin 1Geared towards beach vacationers and divers, Sharm el-Sheikh is Egypt’s huge tourist attraction at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Gehad Hamdy/dpa
origin 1Whale sharks swim in the waters of Ras Mohammed National Park. Cinzia Osele Bismarck/Ocean Image Bank/The Ocean Agency/dpa-tmn
origin 1At Naama Bay in Sharm el-Sheikh, sometimes you don’t need to dive deep to find aquatic company. Gehad Hamdy/dpa
origin 1The development of Sharm el-Sheikh into a beach resort began in the 1980s. Today there are hundreds of lodgings for tourists here. Gehad Hamdy/dpa
origin 1The location on the Red Sea attracts many tourists to Sharm el-Sheikh. Gehad Hamdy/dpa