As a Christian, I always thought some day I’d make a pilgrimage to the Promised Land, but I was waiting for peace in the Middle East. But as a scuba diver, diving the Red Sea has topped my bucket list for the last several years.
When an opportunity to visit Israel with fellow members of the Society of American Travel Writers as a guest of the Israeli government, I jumped at the chance.
I was thrilled to get to go scuba diving in the Red Sea in Eliat and have the opportunity to fly El Al, which has the reputation for having the best security in the world. I discovered Israel is about so much more than diving. I had never walked where King David, Saul, Herod or Jesus had walked, and it’s magical to retrace Biblical footsteps.
Eliat and the Red Sea
After landing at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, our small group of divers caught a 50-minute flight on El Al to the Eliat Airport. It takes about five hours to drive the 200 miles between Tel Aviv and Eliat.
We checked into the Isrotel Yam Suf and then did our paperwork with Isrotel Manta Diving so that we could start diving the next morning. I’ve never seen a dive shop review my PADI card so carefully, but Israelis are extremely safety conscious. If you haven’t dived within the last six months, you are required to take a refresher course.
We squeezed in four beach dives during our two-night stay, but it wasn’t enough. Although the coral reef seemed stressed and affected by pollution and over diving in a couple of sites, the Caves and University dive sites were spectacular. At moments, I believed I was diving in Disney’s “Finding Nemo” because the colors of the Parrotfish, Trevally, Angelfish, Butterflyfish, Damselfish and other fish were so vivid.
One of the best things about Eliat is that there are activities for non-divers to enjoy too. Our hotel was at the beach about a ten-minute drive from the city’s marina shopping area. Within walking distance of the Yam Suf was the Underwater Observatory, which my friends highly recommended. I spent extra time at Dolphin Reef and missed visiting the Observatory.
Dolphin Reef is a must-visit attraction in Eliat where a pod of bottle nose dolphins live. You can pay a fee to enjoy a meditative float or you can pay to snorkel or dive with the dolphins. We paid about $71 to snorkel with the dolphins, and it is well worth the price. Each snorkeler is paired with a trainer and a dolphin for a truly one-to-one experience, and they emphasize the dolphin’s safety. Participants aren’t allowed to pet or touch the dolphin and personal waterproof cameras aren’t permitted during the experience. One of Dolphin Reef’s staff is in the water shooting pictures a few feet away that visitors can purchase if they wish.
Although the dolphins originally could leave Dolphin Reef, swim out to sea and return when they wished, that policy changed after the dolphins were getting injured (more details are provided in my Dolphin Reef writeup)
The Dead Sea
After the main part of our SATW meeting in Tel Aviv, a group of photographers and writers journeyed through the Negev and Judean Deserts to visit the lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea. I want to re- visit when the water is warmer, because the Dead Sea was too chilly for me just before sunset in January. Water temperature typically ranges from 59 to 73 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 23 degrees Celsius) in January.
I had never been in an ocean where all you do is float. Beyond salt, the 21 minerals in the Dead Sea include magnesium, calcium, bromine and potassium. This combination of minerals isn’t found in any other ocean or sea. The Dead Sea water is known for nourishing the skin, easing metabolic disorders and creating a sense of relaxation. But I only floated for about ten minutes because I can’t relax when I’m freezing.
I was surprised to discover that the Dead Sea is one place where people can worry less about wearing sunscreen. Since the Dead Sea is almost 1,200 feet below sea level, the ozone layer is thicker there, allowing sunbathers to receive more therapeutic UVA rays than sunburn-inducing UVB rays.
All I know is that January whetted my appetite for Israel, and it will take many more visits to satisfy me.