The Broadcast / The Reefs Of Marsa Alam

The Reefs Of Marsa Alam

Brought together by their love of the sea and passion for diving, Finisterre photographer Abbi Hughes and a crew of waterwomen set out to the crystal clear waters of the Red Sea. A formidable mix of award-winning underwater photographers and record-holding freedivers, they explored the reefs of Marsa Alam from surface to sea floor.


6 min read

Written by Zak Rayment

Photography by Abbi Hughes
& Gina Goodman

“It started with a beautiful friendship, made through a Finisterre photoshoot.”


A swimmer, diver, former competitive surfer and volunteer crew for the RNLI, Finisterre’s senior photographer & studio manager, Abbi Hughes, is an all-round waterwoman with a deep passion for the ocean. Last year, a chance encounter with freediver Nara Ishikawa led to a beautiful friendship developing. “We were in the same van together, travelling around doing the photoshoot and chin wagging. And we basically found out that we're the exact same person and love all the same stuff!” Abbi laughs as she describes their meeting. “It was just pure friendship. Then she introduced me to Alice (also a champion freediver!) and we decided to travel together to do the stuff we love, via this one who organised it all!” she says, nudging her partner Gina with a grin.

A lecturer in Marine and Natural History Photography at Falmouth University, Gina Goodman has been visiting Egypt to dive and teach students for the last 13 years, and knew just where to head. “It’s this amazing place in the middle of nowhere, halfway between Cairo and Sudan.” she recounts, her eyes lighting up as she describes the destination. “There's nothing around you but desert. It's just tents on the beach and it's all about diving.”

With diving tourism having exploded in the Red Sea in recent years, one of the main threats to the reefs and wildlife is overuse, Gina explains, and this is forefront of mind for those operating the site. “Now they've managed to expand, they've made it their mission to make sure that the reef is protected and left pristine, so it’s able to foster all of the amazing life that you find there.”


New friendship cemented, destination decided, Gina put the word out to a few more friends – who just happened to also be talented female underwater photographers. Shannon Moran graduated from the same course Gina now teaches, just as she arrived at the university, and is now a dive instructor and award-winning underwater photographer. Rounding off the group was Gail Harland, a graphic designer in wildlife TV at the BBC Natural History Unit and, of course, skilled underwater photographer.

“Everybody jumped in and we thought, what an amazing bunch of people to go away and do work with!” says Gina, explaining that with a hectic teaching schedule it’s hard to find time to sit down with a camera and produce her own photography. “But the fun stuff, the work that you really enjoy doing.”

“It’s all work for us,” chimes in Abbi, “but luckily our work is our passion!”

This brings us to another element of the trip – the mix of freedivers, gliding silently between surface and seafloor, and the scuba diving photographers. “I wasn't quite sure how it would work having freedivers and divers mixed up,” Gina remarks thoughtfully, “but actually it added a whole different element for the photographers, because we had different subjects.”

“What makes a trip is the company, and we were spoiled for being with the most amazing humans who also just happened to be fellow ocean lovers.”

- Nara Ishikawa

Alice Hickson: Freediving instructor, World Champion Freediver and National Record Holder.

Gail Harland: BBC Studios Natural History Unit graphic designer, researcher and photographer.

Shannon Moran: Award-winning underwater photographer and dive instructor.

Nara Ishikawa: Continental Freediving Record Holder and tattoo artist.

Gina Goodman: Award-winning underwater photographer and University Lecturer on Marine and Natural History Photography.

Abbi Hughes: Finisterre's senior photographer and all-round underwater enthusiast.

Nara Ishikawa and Alice Hickson aren’t just hobby freedivers, they are continental and national record holders respectively, and Alice is a World Champion. Their movements below the water were effortless and captivating. “They would follow us in sections, dive down and tell us what they'd seen on the reef”, Abbi’s excitement is palpable as she describes their interactions, “Turtles over here, or dolphins over there! Then they'd swim around us for a bit and play and allow us to photograph them.”

Gina saw this added dimension to the dives as a spark for creativity. “As they dropped down to say hello, the photographer in me was switching on. When you go away with other divers, that visual is not something that enters into your frame much”, she explains, “so having that was opening up different ways of thinking about shooting underwater. It was a totally different perspective on a place that I’ve seen quite a lot of.”

For a diver, it was paradise. Warm water, warm air. Tents perched right on the edge of the beach, equipment and boats freely available from 6am until 6pm. “You just walk from the tents straight out”, remembers Abbi with a wistful smile, “You can just go in and out, in and out… so we were doing three to four dives a day!” The Red Sea contained an abundance of both shipwrecks and coral reefs for the group to explore, with up to 100 feet of visibility on a good day, and some of the best and most abundant aquatic wildlife of any place that Gina has dived.


“We’d take the boats out into what you think is the middle of the ocean, and then you roll off the back of it and all of a sudden you're in this metropolis of colour.” Abbi describes, waving and gesticulating with excitement, “You can swim through all the coral heads and through these massive caves, and then you pop out into a sort of garden, with all of these amazing curated pieces of coral. It’s like the fish are looking after it, it's so cool!”

So, with this crew of accomplished and passionate divers, how was the dynamic out of the water? “Gorgeous. Supportive. Collaborative.” Gina says with a warm smile, “There was no friction, no competition. Just these amazing people that loved the sea as much as we do, but all in our own ways. Everybody was teaching each other a little; whether that was Shannon talking about macro life and her favourite Nudibranchs, or Alice teaching us about the physics of freediving, or me spewing photography stuff at them! It was just this absolute, pure, unadulterated enthusiasm for being out in the water.”


Being around such a dynamic and encouraging group of incredible women was inspiring. Any joy experienced by one was celebrated by all... it was bliss.

- Gail Harland

The days rolled on – dive, sunbathe to dry off, eat, rest, dive again – flying by in a haze, the last diving day was quickly upon the group. A pinnacle reef offshore had gained a reputation for sightings of large marine wildlife and, hoping for one last incredible dive, they set out to the North Reef.

“As we rolled off the back of the boat,” Abbi recounts, “all we could hear was Nara squealing underwater.” She recalls the visceral excitement in the instant before the bubble stream cleared and she could take in her surroundings, “I was thinking ‘ohh my goodness, if it's a whale shark, I'm not ready! Maybe it's a toothy shark. Oh, my God. I haven't planned anything. Oh my God…’ And then, this dolphin just materialised right in front of our faces.”

It was a special moment for all, each taking in the creature and interacting from their own unique perspective. “You could see that the dolphin was really interested in the free divers,” remarks Gina, “because there's no bubbles and they have that ability to move up and down the water column in the way that divers can’t. It came and interacted with us all in a really different way. Exactly the same place, exactly the same creature. But we all got out of the water and sat there talking about it, sharing the little interactions everybody had had throughout that time. It was like reliving the whole experience again. You had your eyes, your memories, but then you got to relive it through somebody else's. It was just perfect.”

I felt like I was being drawn into a dance with the dolphin that I never wanted to end. I had to have a word with myself to make sure I took more than a few breaths between dives and actually recovered before going again.”

- Alice Hickson

It isn’t often you experience dolphins when scuba diving. I’ve done over 2000 dives, and so far that hour-long interaction with a curious dolphin tops the list.”

- Shannon Moran



With bonds deepened and hearts made full in a way that only comes from pursuing one’s deepest passion, this crew of award-winning, record-breaking, championship winning women of the water departed for home. “I don't know how we managed it,” laughs Abbi, “it was quite the line up! We’re all friends because we have a connection through Cornwall and our industries, but ultimately it came down to that complete love of water we all share.”



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