As we walked towards the pier at Eilat’s Dolphin Reef last month, we heard a man shouting angrily at one of the surprisingly patient staff. “I paid good money to see the dolphins!” he screamed. “Just tell me what time the feedings are!”
Time and again, the staff member tried to explain that the dolphins at the Reef run free, in and out of the deep waters of the ocean, and don’t perform for their dinners. But the numbskull yelling at the trainer cut him off him in the middle and dragged his little daughter to the entrance to ask for his money back.
Not a minute had passed before three dolphins appeared right next to the pier, to the absolute delight of the waiting crowd. We felt so badly for the little girl.
One of our favorite Eilat attractions, Dolphin Reef was first on a list of sites we planned to visit. For on this Eilat vacation we were on a quest for anything that had changed in the city since our last trip.
Dolphin Reef opened in 1990 with the goal of creating an environment in which humans and dolphins could co-exist in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Dolphins would never perform for the pleasure of visitors to the reef, or sing for their suppers. Should they desire the safety and the comfort of their families, dolphins could live in a secure enclosed area in the sea. But just as humans walk in and out of doors, they also could move through a passageway and swim out into the open waters whenever they craved adventure.
As years went by, the dolphins felt so secure that they let down their guard and began approaching the beaches. A Dolphin Watch manned by volunteers and personnel from the Reef patrolled the beaches and the bay, removed dangerous obstacles, and tried to enforce directives forbidding people to feed, chase or harass the dolphins.
Unfortunately, however, a few boorish boaters and sunbathers on beaches where the dolphins stopped to visit utterly disregarded the law. Feeding the dolphins was their worst offense, for they managed to disrupt the dolphins’ feeding patterns and alter their behavior. A few of the dolphins even reacted by flicking their tormenters with their tails.
Eventually it became necessary to keep all of the dolphins inside the giant enclosure. And after some early confusion when they found the open seas out of bounds, they took it in their stride.
During opening hours, Reef personnel sit on platforms in the water next to the pier, answering questions about the dolphins and calling them with special noisemakers. Tal Fisher, head of the Dolphin Team at the Reef, explains that the noisemakers are specific to each trainer, and that each dolphin has its favorite. Thus when a trainer shakes his noisemaker in the water, the dolphins who like him best show up asking to be petted — or to put on a show.
There are fewer dolphins at the Reef today than there were in the past (although you can hardly tell, as they seem to be everywhere at once). But there has been one other change at the Reef. As time passed, reports Fisher, the enclosure’s net began to tear in places. Then, a year and a half ago, a big ship accidentally ran into the net and destroyed almost every part of it that still remained.
So these days the dolphins – all born at the Reef and too young to remember those negative reactions from onlookers at the beach – once again swim back and forth between enclosure and the open sea. Most importantly, while there had once been no one to enforce the rules against hurting the dolphins, these days the Reef enjoys cooperation from the local authorities, Coast Guard, the National Parks and Nature Reserves Authority and the Navy, all intent on keeping the dolphins safe.
Sharks above your head
Next on our shopping list was the Underwater Observatory, which has developed from a modest (albeit wonderful) Red Sea establishment into one of the world’s most exciting marine parks. Besides the large underwater halls, a rare fish museum, turtle and stingray pools and a delightful coral reef tank, the park also boasts a fascinating Amazon exhibit and the Oceanarium, a simulative movie theater whose seats move in all directions to make you feel that you are traveling through the ocean.
But last year’s addition to the site — the largest shark pool of its kind in the entire Middle East – provided us with an eerily new experience. Created at a cost of 30 million shekels, Shark World begins in a darkened room featuring a giant window with a weird bluish tone. Fascinated by the sight of sharks, walruses, stingrays and thousands of other creatures swimming fearlessly back and forth, you could stand at the window and watch the goings-on for hours.
But when you finally move away, you enter a 15-meter-long transparent tunnel located inside the pool itself. Incredible the feeling of standing still or walking forward as sharks and their friends float by right above your head.
Finally, a Visitors’ Center offers a wealth of information about sharks. Here you learn, among other facts, that sharks are not dangerous to humans. Kids and adults alike delight in the interactive, educational games and a variety of terrific video clips.
Ice at night
So what else was there to see? Young people in Eilat complain incessantly about the lack of night life in the city. Yet there is plenty for tourists to do. We especially enjoyed sipping coffee on the second floor of the relatively new Ice Mall, and gazing at the skating rink below. Here, along with beginning skaters, super talented young people appear to be practicing for the Olympics.
It is also fun just to walk around on the promenades near the water, for brand-new landscaping has added a bit of green to the dull brown sand, and the make-shift stalls and bazaars that crowded the walkways in the past have all been moved into a special area of their own.
Best of all, there is a new colorful dancing fountain located just across the street from the hotels. And although locals grumble that it doesn’t compare with the Las Vegas or the Barcelona fountains, is still a beautiful sight.
Some things never change, and for this we were grateful. Blessed with a truly unparalleled landscape, Eilat’s stunning granite mountains, towering over a deep blue sea, change color at sunrise and sunset and even throughout the day. Imagine taking a morning or afternoon swim as Eilat’s mountains turn pink and purple, yellow and black. You turn your head in the water, and just a few hundred meters to the east you are treated to a fabulous view of Jordan’s mountains and their ever-changing hues as well. Then evening comes, and with it you watch, with awe, Eilat’s breathtaking, spectacular sunsets.
Dolphin Reef is completely wheelchair accessible; the Observatory also, with the exception of one of the displays.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.