My (un)resting areas: Samadai and Satayah


Observation in Satayah Reef. Photo by Ahmed Fouad Gad ( Copyright HEPCA.

No doubt, Samadai and Satayah are among the best places I have ever visited.Fascinating stunning reefs and spinners resting areas.

To me, this is enough to make them special sites.

My affection for Samadai is understandable, the place became part of my professional and personal life a few years back.  Moving to Marsa Alam in 2006 to work on a project in Samadai marked the beginning of a new phase of my life. You never forget your first love: its history and the conservation process that has happened there, a ray of light in the Red Sea panorama, have always captured me. I got to know Satayah and everything orbiting around it several years later and developed the same attachment to the spot and its spinner inhabitants.

On top of that, since my confused scientific-sociologic-conservation oriented soul has brought me to undertake a PhD on tourism impacts on wild dolphin populations, this is my playground. And it is a privileged background! Very few of my fellows can work in such amazing conditions.

This summer we did some fieldwork in both sites. The data collection proceeded according to the plan despite small issues with gizmos and electronics: we got plenty of pictures for photo-identification and hundreds hours of behavioural monitoring. People in and out, the human-component of the project was also very positive.

While observing the average tourist dolphin interactions I found myself much more scientific than I used to be. OBSERVE. This is the keyword, I think. I watched a lot (from sunrise to sunset, never ending days!), I have seen things through other people’s eyes and tried to document without interpreting. A cold, clinical, detached approach. And, believe me, it has not been easy to drop my emotional burden.

I have seen Samadai through the eyes of the guides working there and the visitors. I overheard the extremes “oh well, nothing special, the usual fish” talking about the marine life on the pinnacles that I adore and the “those dolphins are magnificent creatures indeed!”. I have seen guides using the material we handed over and, through their briefing, conveying the value for conservation of the site. I have seen someone getting it, and others not.

Most of my team members had never been to Satayah before our survey and are not involved nor dedicated to the study of dolphin-based tourism. Despite background differences, we came home with the same sweet and sour feelings. I saw their excitement on each single sighting, no matter if it was early morning or the end of a long day, no matter if we were melting under the sun or almost blown away by the northerly. They were there, focused, enjoying every single jump and newborn funny behaviour (and we had plenty!). Every single day.  It is very easy to fall in love with the place, not everybody really gets it though. They did. It was incredible for me to see how quickly they all developed a very sensitive understanding of the whole situation. Of the circus. Because Satayah is a circus, unfortunately. Dolphin watching and swimming-with are uncontrolled and unregulated there, from this a long list of possible scenarios happening on daily basis. In a nutshell: dolphins are a product that has to be enjoyed, no matter the cost. Seen from outside, it looks cruel and unsafe. A pure consumer attitude. The dolphin tourism there looks like an endless hunt, with very little respect (because of little knowledge?) for the dolphins and the visitors. The standard procedure is as follows: be transported by zodiac on top of the dolphins – jump in the water – see dolphin flukes (the animals often flee)– get back on the zodiac. Repeat. Over and over. And, funny enough, many people enjoy! They are probably too excited by the proximity of the animals and would do anything they are instructed to do by crew and guide. So, there is no questioning on the zodiac running full speed on a group of dolphins, on the boats encircling them, on being dropped in the water without fins and mask, on big boats moving at close distance. I saw people whistling and clapping their hands in the water to attract the dolphins. I saw people unable to swim getting in the water. I saw a group of 5 dolphins being “assaulted” by 65+ people and their 5 zodiacs for hours. No stop. And those animals didn’t want to engage in an interaction, this was quite obvious.

There is something wrong in the way Satayah is felt and “used”(I would better say abused). And, to my relief, this is not my conclusion. It is the one of a guy we “rescued” on our speedboat: he refused to swim after the dolphins with his fellow snorkelers. He was left behind by his zodiac. He was screaming in the water “this is insane. You cannot chase them this way!”.

It is also the conclusion of a tour leader who confessed that people cancel their trip after hearing from former visitors that what happens in Satayah is “dolphin hunting”.

It is Suzanna’s “Madda, go scold the guy driving that zodiac!!” referring to a particularly intrusive approach.

It is Yasser’s, our zodiac guy, that after taking me out for the photo-identification session every morning for 15 days, thanked me for teaching him how to approach the group. “Because this is our future, what would we do if the dolphins disappear?”. His words.

So, it is not just me! There is a developing awareness on the issue, which doesn’t need a scientific background, it naturally comes from common sense and a little criticism.

There is work to do. A reforming process has to start as soon as possible, it has to include all social segments and promote an effective change for the marine activities in the Red Sea.

Everyone has a role and a responsibility. Roll up your sleeves people!


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4 Responses to My (un)resting areas: Samadai and Satayah

  1. Carol A Sellers says:

    Madda, The Red Sea is a special jewel in the the crown of the worlds reef systems; there are still some special places on the planet to view heaven on earth but the areas you are focusing on are dolphin sanctuaries that are being exploited daily due to lack of understanding and a poorly prepared tourism base. You have a tremendous burden and responsibility to make an impact on this region for future generations; contributing in a small part last year was an honor and privilege I will never forget; thank you for your dedication and updating us on our spinner neighbors…. Carol

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. sylvan says:

    Madda, you’re absolutely right.

    You are pragmatic and scientific but your words transport such strong emotions that it made me almost cry.

    Satayah is a fabulous microcosmos displaying everything possible and impossible – human approach towards nature – like under a magnifying glass.

    This place – along with others – needs scientific monitoring and a wake up call for the “users” of this “resources”. It needs basic knowledge and rules: no zodiacs, no forced encounters, time off for dolphins between morning to mid afternoon – allowing them to rest properly. operators must proof that they “get it” by taking courses, without there is no admittance to “exploit” the resource.

    If someone is seen walking on a reef top, everybody is yelling nowadays – even without knowing really why; a decade ago this wasn’t common sense allover. So social control works and may be a good way to fill in the vacuum in a no law enforcement zone also in the case of dolphin encountering in more or less remote places. If you are reported harassing the dolphins – which easily can be defined – you have to take the courses if you haven’t done it yet. And if you were informed (you have to sign, that you took the courses and understood them) but harassed anyway – then you pay and you are banned.

    Let the dolphins live in their world on their terms.

  3. Sally Munt says:

    Thank you for your sensitive and challenging comments. Perhaps HEPCA could do some outreach with these zodiac drivers. To hear about the dolphins being chased for 5 hours is distressing. We invade their world. Perhaps we shoudl leave them alone and stop romanticising dolphins. Watch them on TV.

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