The sweetest thing
Join Mohamed El-Hebeishy as he lives out a dream and swims with the dolphins at Samadi Reef
We've all come across aquariums and theme parks featuring dolphins. And much as watching the animal in action is always a real pleasure, there is also an inevitable sadness involved in seeing it in captivity -- and promoting its imprisonment by virtue of having visited in the first place. An interaction with dolphins in the wild, on the other hand, is to many people a dream which seems virtually impossible to fulfil.
Not so in Egypt. For swimming with dolphins in the wild is one of the country's tourism industry's latest surprises. And it is Samadi Reef that caters for an up-close experience with the incredibly loveable creatures. A half-hour sail from Marsa Alam -- or a little less from Marsa Tunduba and Marsa Nakari -- will land you at your destination. Samadi is a horseshoe-shaped reef that forms a shallow lagoon in the centre, and constitutes an important natural habitat for spinner dolphins, which commonly inhabit the Red Sea. Their name speaks for them and for their spectacular leaps out of the water. Though such an acrobatic feature would lead one to imagine these dolphins would have been high on the list of aquarium and aqua park owners, they actually have a very low survival rate in captivity. They are grey in colour, measure two metres in length, weigh about 75 kilometres and border on nocturnal. They use Samadi Reef not only as their resting place, but also as their shelter where they breed and nurture their young.
Marsa Alam is developing fast, and visitors are flocking to what was once a small fishing village. Though the coastline gains economically from this rush, Marsa Alam's proximity to Samadi Reef begs the question of how far tourism can be developed without harming the dolphins and their habitat. In principle, tourism could be planned so that it is environmentally friendly. Nevertheless, some tourists' and tour operators' irresponsible behaviour can surely reap to catastrophic outcomes. Undoubtedly, most of the guests' intentions are good, but causing a nuisance to the dolphins is inevitable -- from speed boats circling the dolphins' clustres to big boats anchoring inside the lagoon. Eyewitness accounts report a ship catching fire while anchoring in the lagoon. Definitely something needs to be done.
Abu Salama is what locals call dolphins. And it is also the name for the first scientific society established with the sole objective of protecting the Red Sea's marine mammals. A purely Egyptian initiative, this NGO is just one of the outcomes of a well-established relationship between the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) and the Red Sea governorate. Based in Hurghada, Abu Salama operates through out the entire Egyptian Red Sea coast. Following some shocking incidents that Samadi Reef unfortunately witnessed, NGO representatives stepped in, both for the sake of the environment and in order to salvage a tourism-based source of income from depletion. After closing the reef off for some time -- during which Abu Salama meticulously studied the situation and consulted experts in the field including marine biologist Giuseppe Notarbartolo -- Samadi Reef was finally re- opened in January 2004, this time with a brand new management plan.
The new plan is simple. It aims at guaranteeing environmental conservation and preserving the dolphins' natural habitat, and in turn maintaining the flow of tourists and income. Now only 100 divers and 100 snorkellers are allowed into the lagoon each day, and the reef is open from 9am to 3pm for divers, and from 10am to 2pm for snorkellers. During these hours rangers appointed by the EEAA are present at the site. In addition, the reef itself has been partitioned into three zones. The first is open for speed boats and serves to drop snorkellers off into the water. The second zone is open only for snorkellers, and acts as the interaction area pending that the dolphins willingly approach the visitors. Lastly, the third area -- that of the shallow lagoon, which is the heart of Samadi Reef -- is a no-entry zone, and is restricted for dolphins.
At all times snorkellers are required to wear lifejackets, both for safety and as a preventive method that controls free diving and possible dolphins' harassment. Diving is allowed only within the designated hours. There are, however, other sites worth visiting around the reef, including a beautiful cave system located on the reef's outskirts.
A trip to Samadi Reef is more than an excursion. For the location also serves an important scientific purpose, given that it is a mine of information waiting to be researched. It is precisely this which Abu Salama representatives are already doing. The NGO is developing a spinner dolphins research databank, and it is monitoring individuals' behaviour and the human impact on their lives via photo identification techniques. To enable and empower the daily supervision as well as the scientific aspect of the management plan, a ticket of $15 (same price for foreigners and Egyptians) has been levied. Payable to the diving centre, the money is later collected by the EEAA.
Once home to a number of dolphin species, two -- Oryx and Addax -- have died out. The Dorcas Gazelle is on the verge of becoming extinct here too. Hopefully spinner dolphins don't share the same fate. Help protect Egypt's natural heritage.