If you have had enough of tours around Israel or abroad, consider a switch to underwater sites. Eilat boasts some of the most beautiful scuba diving in the world, and lessons are offered by several diving clubs. You do not have to venture to that southern city for lessons: Scuba courses are available in the Dan region and even in Jerusalem.

Unlike other countries, Israel has laws regulating scuba diving. The Recreational Diving Law was enacted about 30 years ago to prevent adventurous swimmers from engaging in this sport without first undergoing the requisite training and certification from a diving club licensed by the Israeli Diving Authority.

Elsewhere most clubs operate in accordance with the standards of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. The PADI standards rank diving knowledge and experience by stars, with the minimum certification involving three days of instruction on the one-star level. David Vered, the PADI representative in Israel and director of the Isrotel Red Sea Sports Club, says the length of the course is less important than its content and the number of dives per course. One-star courses worldwide include six dives.

"A diver cannot go off on his own anyway until he has done 20 registered dives, during which he must be accompanied by an instructor," explains Vered," and afterward one-star divers must be accompanied by a diver at least one level above them."

The courses held in the Mediterranean are somewhat different from the courses in the Red Sea. The Mediterranean courses hold exercises in operating the equipment and underwater swimming in a pool before students do a sea dive. In Eilat, where the waters are calmer, all the exercises are in the sea. In addition, since the Mediterranean is much rougher, and divers have difficulty swimming to the dive points, they arrive by boat and learn about entering the water from a boat at an earlier stage than in Eilat. The basic Eilat courses do not even conduct dives from boats, as the dive sites are only a short distance from the shore.

"Since the water in the Mediterranean is rougher," says Dan Davidi, of the Reef diving club in Herzliya, "in my opinion those who learn and dive in it are better divers."

The advantage of a scuba course in the Mediterranean, for most Israelis, is that it can be done without going on a vacation that also involves hotel expenses.

Jerusalem residents can start learning to scuba dive locally; the Jerusalem diving club has been around for almost 20 years.

"The first two and a half days of the course are held in Jerusalem, with practice dives in a pool," explains Assaf Schwartz, of the TheDiver 02 - Jerusalem Dive Center. "Then we continue the course in Eilat, with the same instructors who started with the students in Jerusalem." Schwartz says that even some of the Eilat diving clubs hold the initial classes in a pool. "I work with busy Jerusalemites, who find it difficult to travel to Tel Aviv," says Schwartz. "Sometimes there are large groups who observe the Sabbath and even ultra-Orthodox diving students. We work in the evenings, after work hours, so as not to interfere with their daily routine."

One star or two?

More than 125,000 certified divers are registered with the Israeli Diving Federation. Its president, Liron Tirosh, estimates that 25,000 of them are tourists, and that another 50,000 Israelis have diving certificates from other organizations. Scuba diving courses are offered by some 15 diving clubs in the Mediterranean and eight in Eilat.

In addition to the basic courses, there are advanced courses for group leaders, diving instructors and deep-sea diving. A basic one-star recreational course costs NIS 1,100-1,300, and consists of five days of instruction, six hours a day. The course includes theoretical and practical instruction and dives. Participants who successfully pass both the theoretical and practical exams earn a license and international diving certificate for depths of up to 20 meters, accompanied by a diver with at least two-star certification. The minimum age for registration is 12 years, and minors up to age 15 require parental consent.

The two-star course costs NIS 600-700 and consists of two days of six-hour sessions of instruction and diving. There is more diving in this course than in the one-star course, in addition to lifesaving, navigation and deep dives. The certificate at the end of the course is for depths up to 30 meters. Minors under age 15 are not allowed to swim deeper than 20 meters. Some clubs offer discounted package deals on consecutive one- and two-star courses.

Despite the attraction and mystique of scuba diving, some people find that the water is simply not their natural element, and some participants stop in the middle of a course. Yuval Ziv, of the Coral Sea Diving Center, says his courses have a 25% dropout rate in the one-star course. Therefore, before signing up for a course, it is worth asking about the refund policy on withdrawing from a course. Most clubs will allow course participants to take a break and finish the course at a later date, within a year, but if you back out altogether, it had better be at a club that will agree to refund your money.

Diving is an expensive hobby. Anyone who has not dived for more than six months must take a refresher course, which costs NIS 150-180. Renting diving equipment for a full day costs NIS 130-195. A rented camera, to capture your underwater sortie, costs NIS 60-100, and the dive itself costs about NIS 160.

It is worth it for people who dive often to buy their own equipment. A diving mask, for example, costs NIS 100-400, fins run from NIS 100-600, a wet suit costs NIS 300-1,500 and an oxygen tank costs NIS 850-NIS 3,000.

Although scuba diving does involve swimming, people seldom dive to improve their physical fitness or health. Dr. Pinhas Halperin, the medical adviser to the Israeli Recreational Diving Authority, explains that scuba diving burns very few calories, as only the diver's lungs are exerting any effort, not his body.

"There are no [physical] health benefits in diving," says Halperin, "but it is good for mental health. Diving is a relaxing sport and is a calming and rehabilitative activity for patients with certain illnesses, as part of a therapy program."

A diver's equipment must be maintained in good working order, as his life depends on it. "We test our equipment every three months, even though the manufacturers require testing only after longer periods of use or after a certain number of dives," says Ziv. "Clients can see the date of the last test, which is recorded on the buoyancy jackets and regulators."

Ziv says that not all the clubs test the equipment as frequently as Coral Sea, because it entails employing a full-time technician. Ziv advises divers visiting a club for the first time to ask who the club's professional manager is and how many years of experience he has.

In Israel there are three hyperbaric chambers for treating diving accident victims: at Yoseftal Medical Center in Eilat, Assaf Harofeh Hospital in Tzrifin and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. Unfortunately, a person's need for treatment in a hyperbaric chamber could develop only hours after a dive, when the diver is far from these hospitals.

Dr. Asher Salmon, who heads the medical review board at the Health Ministry, sees no reason to install hyperbaric chambers at other hospitals. The chambers are very expensive to maintain and require specially trained professionals to operate them and provide high quality treatment. Salmon says that based on international guidelines, there is no need for more hyperbaric chambers in Israel.

Shai Roth, the Israeli representative of the Divers Alert Network, which offers diving insurance policies on behalf of Phoenix Insurance, says every year dozens of divers are sent for treatment in the hyperbaric chambers at the hospitals, following diving mishaps, and hundreds more go to emergency rooms for minor injuries such as nosebleeds or ruptured ear drums, which can be caused by rising through the water too fast after a dive.

In the past decade there have been six recreational diving fatalities. Even so, Tirosh does not define diving as a risky sport, but rather as a sport with risks, and accordingly cautions divers who learned how to dive abroad to make sure the standards of the course they took are the same as in Israel; that those courses included enough practical lessons and dives, as well as rescue, lifesaving and artificial respiration exercises.

The Diving Law states that every diver must be insured.

"No one will rent equipment to you, and will not even fill your air tank, unless you have proof of your insurance," says Tirosh.

Every diving club is associated with a different insurance company and sells international recreational diving insurance policies that are good for a year. The annual premium is about NIS 175, for $100,000-$150,000 worth of coverage. Clal, Harel and Phoenix insurance companies sell these policies..

"No [diving accident] claims have gone to court in recent years, and are settled between the insurance companies and the divers or the hospitals," says Roth.