Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, has a treasure: it’s known as the world’s most northerly coral reef – and the only one in Israel. There are places that have developed a flourishing tourism industry on a flimsier basis. And yet, most of the time Eilat wastes its treasure, abuses it or ignores it. Sometimes, or so it seems, the Red Sea city completely forgets about its treasure’s existence and thinks about all kinds of other things, most of them illogical, that have nothing to do with effective efforts to develop tourism.
On my last visit to Eilat, people talked to me about legalizing soft drugs, establishing a casino, a mall with an ice-skating rink, a market with stalls where grains of rice engraved with your name or mobile phones are sold for next to nothing, and about a musical fountain that sprays water 10 meters into the air. Hearing all that, I felt like shouting: Enough with the nonsense. You have a treasure. Dunk your head in the water. What’s your problem?
Eilat’s coral reef was once 12 kilometers (about 7.5 miles) long, but that situation won’t return. The Eilat shoreline is 13 kilometers long. Of that, about 3.5 kilometers are inaccessible to the public, belonging to the port, the army, the Electric Corporation, the Europe Asia Pipeline Co., the Ministry for Environmental Protection, the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences, and others. The reef, which for years suffered from maltreatment and pollution, shrank dramatically. The Eilat Coral Beach Nature Reserve, the primary reserve and one of the first nature protection areas in Israel, was established in 1964. The adjacent Eilat South Sea Nature Reserve was declared in 2002, and a third site, the Coral Sea Nature Reserve, was created in 2009.
Coral reefs worldwide are suffering from bleaching, a phenomenon caused by a rise in the temperature of the sea, which causes the death of corals. Indeed, a gloomy future lies ahead for them, but somewhat surprisingly, the situation in Eilat is different. There, the reef has revived impressively in recent years, and experts predict a rosy future, even if the improvement is slow.
Many people treat the survival of the Eilat reef as self-evident, Assaf Habary, director of the Nature and Parks Authority’s Gulf of Eilat Region, told me when we met in the Coral Beach Reserve. According to Habary, maintaining a world-class coral reserve within the boundaries of a densely populated city is a complex and challenging mission.
Where to go
The search for the best beaches for diving in Eilat is pretty simple. The relevant section lies in the southern area, particularly south of the port. There are quite a few options here. The following list refers to the simplest form of diving – with the aid of a mask and a snorkel. Nothing could be easier; no skill, knowledge, courses or training required. All you have to do is stick the mask on your face, stuff the snorkel in your mouth, and don’t forget to breathe even when you behold dazzling sights. Anyone who nevertheless wants or needs more detailed snorkeling instructions can get them at any of the diving clubs along the southern beach. Many of them also offer guided diving tours.
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Princess Beach (Hof Hanesikha):
This is the southernmost beach in Israel. Its location, opposite the Princess Hotel, which has been closed for the past three years, is relatively isolated (relatively, because there is no truly isolated place in Eilat). The entry to the beach is marked by ropes with floats. The sea is also accessible via two bridges that cross “over” the reef. The isolation and distance of the beach have apparently helped preserve the reef in relatively good condition. In the shade, under the bridges, a marvelous scene of large schools of fish presents itself. There’s no point looking for massive or dense colonies of corals here. The beach is comparatively clean, but there are no lifeguard or other active services. Free entry.
Caves Beach (Hof Hama’arot):
This site is primarily for divers with equipment and not for snorkeling, but it’s suitable for beginning divers and is very rewarding. The Caves Beach is 1.5 kilometers north of the Taba border crossing with Egypt, and about 20-30 meters from Highway 90 (Taba-Eilat). The precise location is 300 meters south of the Village Beach. Its name derives from two passages in the reef, which allow it to be crossed underwater – though one of them is blocked. It’s a popular site, close to the beach and in relatively shallow water of up to six meters. As a result, inexperienced divers are also fond of it.
Enter the water as marked by the ropes. The interesting parts of the reef lie about 30 meters from the shore and slightly to the north of the entry point. The area of the reef here is not large but is rich in fish. Free entry.
Lighthouse Beach (Hof Hamigdalor):
This beach is located just south of the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Studies, about two kilometers from the Taba crossing. It’s an open nature reserve, with diving sites of reasonable quality, but no more than that. Across the road are two diving clubs – Divers Village and Snuba – and a lighthouse that overlooks the bay and gives the beach its name. Equipment, such as masks and snorkels, can be rented from the onsite store. Toilets, showers and a bar available. Free entry.
Underwater Observatory Park:
The park is located exactly between Coral Beach Reserve (to its north) and the Interuniversity Institute (to its south). Tours set out from the park, such as the one on the Coral 2000, a glass-bottom boat where those on board view the reefs through windows. The 48 windows are located about 1.5 meters below sea level, making it possible to take in the view from the sides of the vessel and not via the bottom, as is usually the case in such boats, and providing a particularly large field of vision. The boat cruises for about 20 minutes along the coral reserve and the underwater Japanese Gardens site. Departure is from a jetty on the bridge leading to the observatory. Cost of entry to the observatory is 99 shekels (about $28) for adults and 79 shekels for children; a cruise on the Coral 2000 costs an additional 40 and 34 shekels for adults and children, respectively.
Coral Beach Nature Reserve (Shmurat Teva Hof Ha’almogim):
Entry to the reserve costs 35 shekels (about $10), but this is without a doubt the best deal you’ll get in Eilat. The reason: the reef opposite this beach looks far better than any other reef along the Eilat coast. The shoreline of the reserve is 1.2 kilometers long. There are no lifeguard services, and certain clear rules must be followed to help preserve the reef. Two bridges facilitate access for swimmers and divers to the front of the reef without harm being done to it. From here it’s possible to tour the length of the reef’s façade, a fine wall of coral that is better preserved than any other reef in the Eilat region, at a depth of between six to twelve meters.
Beyond the reef the sea is open and sandy, with some of the largest coral rock formations in the world, such as Moses Rock and Joshua Rock. The two of them, and especially the former, are among the most beautiful sites in the area. It’s simple, easy, a very short swim from the beach, and with mask and snorkel you can enjoy views that take a hundred times the effort in other places.
Just lately, the Eilat coral reef underwent an extreme low-water experience in which the level of the sea fell to below the height of the reef, exposing the upper corals to the air and danger of dehydration. A natural event of this kind, stemming from the position of the moon and the sun in relation to the Earth, and from the weather, generally occurs twice a year, in March and September. Dr. Assaf Zvuluni, an ecologist in the Eilat Region of the Nature and Parks Authority: “A few years ago, we realized that this process is essential for the formation of the reef and the variety of species growing on it. Accordingly, we chose the naturalist approach, namely nonintervention in a natural process which plays an important part in forming the reef.”
EAPC Beach (Hof Katza):
This beach is at the moment the big innovation along Eilat’s coastline. The site was opened to the public two years ago after being completely closed and fenced off for decades, when it was owned by the Europe Asia Pipeline Co. (formerly the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Co.).
Entry is marked by floating ropes, and the approach to the water is comfortable and pleasant. The sandy beach is about 500 meters long. Of this, 300 meters is accessible free of charge, with shade parasols erected by the Eilat Municipality. The beach is fenced in, to prevent lengthy stays of the sort that took place on the southern coastline. The municipality has earmarked the other 200 meters, in the northern section, as an ecological beach. North of here lies Dolphin Reef, and north of that, the port of Eilat. There are reports of four female dolphins that take a daily swim from Dolphin Reef to Katza Beach and allow divers to enjoy the show, but I didn’t see them and I don’t know if the reports are correct.
Electric Corporation Beach (Hof Hahashmal):
To the north of the port are Mosh Beach, Hadekel Beach and the Electric Corporation Beach. They’re all open to the public and have toilets and showers, but almost no coral reefs. They’re all splendid beaches, but those who came to see corals and multicolored fish won’t find them of much interest.