As soon as I knew I was going to Israel, I knew I was going diving. Why? Because where there is water, that’s what I do.
What I didn’t realize, at the time, is how many unique and salty dive experiences Israel had to offer. All that in time. I’d start where most divers in Israel start: at the Red Sea.
Walking over the border into Israel from Egypt, it suddenly felt like I was in Europe or even the US. Even the actual border crossing was entertaining. I was kind of wandering around the dusty Egyptian side aimlessly with my ten million overstuffed bags, getting pointed in different directions, unsure if I’d actually officially departed Egypt or not, when I randomly walked through a gate and the soundtrack changed. Suddenly everything was clean and sparkling and organized, and there was well-designed signage pointing me in which direction I should drag my embarrassingly large backpack. I was in Israel.
I’d been warned that Eilat, my destination, was considered by some to be the Las Vegas of the Israel. There were high rises, shopping malls, build-your-own-burger places and logical roadways galore! It was a bit of culture shock after nearly three weeks in delightfully disorganized Egypt.
Eilat, the sprawl of which covers the entirety of Israel’s small under-nine-mile Gulf of Aqaba coastline, also just so happens to be the epicenter of the country’s dive industry. When I was researching my Middle East trip, I was told that when it comes to diving the North Red Sea, Egypt is the star, Jordan lags behind, and Israel is generally considered the least spectacular. The further up the Gulf of Aqaba you go, conventional wisdom states, the less marine life you’re going to find.
Now, I ended up cutting Jordan from my trip in order to spend more time in Egypt and Israel, so I can’t speak to how the diving in Eilat compares to the diving in Aqaba. But from my limited explorations of each, I certainly have to concur that the reef health and amount of sea life is more abundant in Sinai than what I saw from Israel.
But I found that what Israel lacks in marine life and reef health, it makes up for in strict dive safety standards, excellent facilities, and an interesting diversity of dive sites. And clearly, it’s pretty popular — The Israeli Diving Federation, Israel’s own certification agency, reports that there are a quarter million dives every year out of Eilat, and diving represents 10% of the tourism income in this area.
And remember that we’re grading on a curve. The diving in Sinai is some of the best on the entire planet. Diving in Eilat is still something worth writing home (or, er, a blog post) about. I mean dang, in two days I dove a shipwreck and met dolphins — and they sometimes still see whale sharks in the summer here, guys!
Eilat, like the rest of the North Red Sea, is primarily a shore diving destination — pack your dive boots! Personally, I love shore diving. Not only is it the most sustainable and affordable choice, it’s just plain fun and easy. Some dive centers do have dive boats to access a couple of far-flung sites, which perhaps I’ll check out on a future trip.
The great thing about the compact size of Eilat? Dive sites are anywhere from 5-15 minutes away by car to 15-20 minutes by boat.
I’d been in Israel all of twelve hours when I was gearing up for my first dive with Ran from Out Of The Blu: a sunrise dip at Katza Port. When I heard “pier dive,” I had visions of Bonaire’s famous Salt Pier dive site, but it turns out Katza is a bit more sandy-bottomed and barren. However, it has a couple of five star residents, when they’re in the mood: dolphins!
photo by Out Of The Blu
As I explained in my guide to diving in Israel, Katza is located right next to Dolphin Reef, Israel’s swim-with-dolphins attraction. Most divers I know aren’t comfortable with the idea of dolphins in captivity, and yet diving at Katza is a nice guilt-free way to get to meet them.
Why? The dolphin residents aren’t netted in to Dolphin Reef; they return over and over again because, having been born in captivity, it’s all they have ever known — and they’re hungry. Thus, they have the range to roam — and possibly stop by to say “shalom!” to visiting divers.
dolphin photos by Out Of The Blu
Don’t get me wrong, if you’re up for a bit of a treasure hunt, there’s still plenty to see (and photograph!) while you wait to see if your dolphin friends might make an appearance. I particularly enjoyed a wiggly eel who put on a free-swimming show before eventually disappearing into the sand, the dramatic columns of the pier, and an angelfish being worked over by a cleaner shrimp.
photo by Out Of The Blu
Katza may not be a vibrant reef, but it is an extremely unique dive site, and a great opportunity to ethically encounter dolphins in Israel — obviously, I’d prefer if they were completely wild, but at least we’re not contributing financially to their captivity by diving here.
Keep in mind that while it’s not mandatory by law, if you have a guide like Ran, he’ll show you where the dolphins are most likely to come over and say hi. And speaking of local laws, dive insurance is mandatory for each and every diver in Israel — World Nomads offers both scuba dive insurance and travel insurance, and I recommend you carry a policy for each.
Next up? A wreck dive. The Wreck of the Satil is extra notable for how we got there — by shore entry from a lively day club on the beach. It’s not every day you slowly drown out techno as you descend into a dive.
As one of the most popular dives in Eilat, we didn’t have this one to ourselves like we had Katza Pier. But it’s big enough for everyone. Sunk in 1994 to create a dive site and artificial reef, the decommissioned Israeli Navy ship is 150 feet long, sitting from 82-40 feet deep.
photo by Out Of The Blu
We were able to penetrate the wreck, which was in great shape and bursting with schools of shimmering fish. Outside again, I marveled at the life that had collected around the exposed portions of the ship.
Still smarting from my strobe flooding disaster on the Egyptian liveaboard, I started to play around with using a dive light as a makeshift strobe. While my first attempts were kinda meh, I actually gasped underwater when I saw the results of my final experiments with a delicate pipefish.
Can you believe I got this shot with a Canon G7X, a waterproof housing, and some patience? (Okay. And I guess a lot of practice.) I don’t mean to sound big-headed and I rarely gush over my own photography, but I absolutely love this photograph!
I surfaced from the Satil eager to see more of what Eilat’s dive map had to offer on my next trip with Out Of The Blu. From more wrecks to countless reefs to an undersea restaurant that’s fallen into disrepair to the Eilat Underwater Observatory, where you can learn about it all from the topside, I have a lot to drag my dive gear bag back to Eilat for.
And there’s really not a bad time to do so. With water temperatures fluctuating from a tolerable high 60’s to a yummy high 80’s, calm currents and great visibility, the pool’s open year-round in the Gulf of Aqaba.
Due to its highrise skyline, VAT-free shopping, and abundance of man-made garishness, Eilat doesn’t always have the best reputation among independent travelers. But the ocean below and the mountains above are stunning, and even outside of diving, I left Eilat with a long wish list of places I’d like to explore. An afternoon relaxing at Mosh’s Beach, a morning snorkeling at Coral Beach Nature Reserve, a day trip out to Timna or Red Canyons…
Clearly, someday I need to come back and spend a bit more time in Eilat. Rarely do I breeze through a beach town so quickly. But this trip, we had places to go and seas to see!
Up next in the Israel Scuba Files: a dive into full face mask diving in the Dead Sea…
I was hosted by Out Of The Blu on this trip. Many thanks to Ran and Udi for their hospitality!