White-eyed Gull (Ichthyaetus leucophthalmus)

The wild paradise of Qulaan islands (Egypt)

The arcipelago of Qulaan islands, also known as Hamata arcipelago or “Maldives of Egypt”, is a group of coral islands located along the coast of Red Sea, 110 km south of Marsa Alam and 45 km north of Berenice. Together with stunning white beaches and gorgeous landscapes, it’s a great birdwatching site, with colonies of terns and gulls, but also one of the best place of the Red Sea where go snorkeling or diving. The corals here are particolarly colourful and well preserved, although the marine fauna has suffered the fishing pressure and most of fishes are small or medium sized.

To visit the islands is rather easy: some excursions reach the Hamata harbour daily from most of the hotels of Marsa Alam and Berenice and, from there, you can catch a boat to reach the islands.

I’ve been in the arcipelago in June and, apparently, the arcipelago was not so busy like others places, probably because of low season and distance from most of the resorts.

Arrived in Hamata, I observed a supposedly sick White Stork  (Ciconia ciconia), abandoned there by its companions during the spring migration, a big flock of White-eyed Gulls (Ichthyaetus leucophthalmus), a Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) and a Western Reef Egret (Egretta gularis schistacea).

Mounting on the boat I had a better view of what was flying along the coast: the first Sooty Gull (Ichthyaetus hemprichii), with a broken bill, a Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) and an amazing individual of White-cheeked Tern (Sterna repressa).

The landscapes around the Hamata harbour were breath-taking, with incredible shades of azure, torquoise and blue, little fisherman boats, few mangroves and, inland, the eastern desert.

The arcipelago was surrounded by shallows waters, lagoons and reef: to go snorkeling or diving there has been something hard to forget because of fantastic colours and shapes of the corals, sponges and algae.

The islands were featured by beaches of white coral sand and by an almost flat surface with just few rocks and shrubs, but they were also populated by rich colonies of sea birds. Bridled Terns (Onychoprion anaethetus) were the most common, with hundreds of pairs, but also White-cheeked Terns, Sooty Gulls, Western Reef Egrets and Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) were represented.

Landing on the islands should be not allowed…43

…but that was the truth…44

Anyway the panoramas of the islands were still matchless.

The underwater world was populated by hundreds of colourful species of fisches, of which I observed during my visit: Bluespotted Cornetfish (Fistularia commersonii), Yellowfin hind (Cephalopholis hemistiktos), Peacock Hind (Cephalopholis argus), Lyretail Anthias (Pseudanthias squamipinnis), Black-sided Hawkfish (Paracirrhites forsteri), Two-spot Red Snapper (Lutjanus bohar), Suez Fusilier (Caesio suevica), Striated Fusilier (Caesio striata), Sky Emperor (Lethrinus mahsena), Humpnose Big-eye Bream (Monotaxis grandoculis), Goldsaddle Goatfish (Parupeneus cyclostomus), Blue-cheeked Butterflyfish (Chaetodon semilarvatus), Red Sea Raccoon Butterflyfish (Chaetodon fasciatus), Black-tailed Butterflyfish (Chaetodon austriacus), Eritrean Butterflyfish (Chaetodon paucifasciatus),  Threadfin Butterflyfish (Chaetodon auriga), Chevron Butterflyfish (Chaetodon trifascialis), Royal aAngelfish (Pygoplites diacanthus), Indo-Pacific sergeant (Abudefduf vaigiensis), Scissortail Sergeant (Abudefduf sexfasciatus), Chocolatedip chromis (Chromis dimidiata), Blue-green Chromis (Chromis viridis), Arabian Chromis (Chromis flavaxilla), Whitetail Dascyllus (Dascyllus aruanus), Maldives Damselfish (Amblyglyphidodon indicus), Sapphire damsel (Pomacentrus sulfureus), Paletail damsel (Pomacentrus trilineatus), Red Sea Clownfish (Amphiprion bicinctus), Lyretail hogfish (Bodianus anthioides), Broomtail Wrasse (Cheilinus lunulatus), Red-breasted Wrasse (Cheilinus fasciatus), Clown Coris (Coris aygula), Slingjaw Wrasse (Epibulus insidiator), Birdfish (Gomphosus caeruleus), Checkerboard Wrasse (Halichoeres hortulanus),  Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus), Four-line wrasse (Larabicus quadrilineatus), Klunzinger’s wrasse (Thalassoma rueppellii), Bicolour parrotfish (Cetoscarus bicolor), Viridescent parrotfish (Calotomus viridescens), Sinai parrotfish (Chlorurus gibbus), Heavybeak parrotfish (Chlorurus sordidus), Rusty Parrotfish (Scarus ferrugineus), Bridled Parrotfish (Scarus frenatus), Blue-barred parrotfish (Scarus niger), Fringed Blenny (Mimoblennius cirrosus), Harlequin Prawn-goby (Cryptocentrus caeruleopunctatus), Little Spinefoot (Siganus stellatus), Dusky Spinefoot (Siganus luridus), Sohal Surgeonfish (Acanthurus sohal), Yellowtail Tang (Zebrasoma xanthurum), Red Sea Sailfin Tang (Zebrasoma desjardinii), Elegant Unicornfish (Naso elegans), Bluethroat Triggerfish (Sufflamen albicaudatum), Whitespotted filefish (Cantherhines pardalis), Broom Filefish (Amanses scopas) and Masked Puffer (Arothron diadematus).

On the way back, from the boat, I had some more good views of White-eyed and Sooty gulls…

…but also a breath-taking close encounter with an Osprey that passed overhead!

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

Coming back to the Hamata harbour, the tide was very low, exposing wide mudflats. Here I had some more observations, including a beautiful dark Western Reef Egret and a solitary Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata).

Luca Boscain

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