Perched on the southern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, Elat is a hedonistic cluster of high-rise hotels and bronzing beach bums surrounded by blue sea and burning desert. Basically, it’s as close to Las Vegas as Israel gets — without the gambling.
|There’s a plenty of coral and fish in Elat’s northerly slice of the Red Sea.|
Elat, however, has got most of the other Vegas ingredients: sun, floor shows, well-stocked buffet tables, lots of fat people and, underlying it all, that faint whiff of vice. Plus the much more obvious whiff of money.
Great fun, in its way. But hardly the kind of place you’d expect to encounter massed ranks of bird-watchers and naturalists. Go there now, though, and that’s just what you will find.
Each spring and autumn, Elat witnesses one of the world’s most dramatic overflights of migrating birds. In spring, they’re heading north to Europe. In autumn, they’re heading south to Africa. Songbirds, storks, swifts, swallows, cranes and eagles — the skies are sometimes quite literally black with them.
One team of ornithologists, for example, counted more than 1.2 million birds of prey passing over during a three-week period in 1988. That was just the birds of prey. Added to this traffic were millions of waders, passerines, geese . . . you name it.
The reason Elat gets to witness such a spectacle is its location. This city sits on the only land bridge between three continents and is the principle junction (or bottleneck) for all feathered air traffic between Europe, Asia and Africa.
It is also a filling station. For the birds heading north, it holds the first fresh water they’ve seen after flying across 4,000 km of the continuous desert that composes the Sahara and Sinai.
Elat, like Vegas, is a thirsty boomtown stuck in a very dry desert. In 1947, it wasn’t there at all. In 1954, it had 500 residents. It now has a population of 45,000 and hotel rooms for 8,000.
Monitoring the number of birds flying over and keeping the drinking water sources secure from avaricious developers are essential. It’s not a crisis. Not yet. Still it’s a place that needs watching.
That’s the birds then. What about the rest of Elat?
You could try swimming with dolphins at Dolphin Reef. A group of bottlenose dolphins, languishing in an ailing Black Sea aquarium, were purchased, flown over and released here. The dolphins could clear off at any time, but for reasons that I suspect may be culinary as well as sociable, they stay. Sardine supplies here are guaranteed. There are no sharks or pirate whaling operations about. For the dolphins, life here is sweet. They’re happy. They’re breeding.
Tourists can scuba with them, snorkel with them or just observe them from the pier. There is also a research station at Dolphin Reef looking into issues such as interspecies communication, dolphins as antidepressants and so on.
The Red Sea offers the world’s most northerly tropical reefs and some of the world’s finest diving. The further south you go, the better the Red Sea gets, but Elat’s far northern slice is still a privilege to swim in. Good coral (including sea fans), beautiful fish, and plenty of dive outfitters able and eager to get scuba tanks on your back and you into the water.
There are various other methods of seeing the bottom of the Red Sea, such as taking a ride in a glass-bottomed boat. This said, I’ve never met anyone who has paid to travel on a glass-bottomed boat twice.
Glass-walled yachts, however, are a very different matter. Jules Verne Explorer operates a yacht that is a very stylish piece of work. Glass floor, glass walls, undersea views — plus wining and dining.
|Jaqueline, the “deepest diving submarine in the world”|
Coral World has a fixed underwater observatory and operates Jaqueline, a yellow submarine that is billed as “the most technologically advanced and deepest diving submarine in the world.”
The submarine is, to a degree, a victim of its own success. It dives to 60 meters, twice the depth most leisure divers achieve. But the deeper you go, the less light there is. All the warm colors — the reds, yellows and oranges — fade, leaving just chilly blues and grays. Still, if you’ve never been in a submarine before and aren’t short of shekels, then Jaqueline’s there.
The shop at Coral World is, in a word, eco-pornography. Coral World has an aquarium, it’s got its submarine, its displays are vaguely concerned with the protection of the marine environment, and then it’s got this shop by the exit, crammed with shells, corals, sea horses and other endangered species.
“Snails and shells in this shop have been imported!” explains the sign. “Don’t worry, none of these have been taken from here,” assured one staff member.
True. They’ve all been poached from Southeast Asia’s beleaguered reefs. A prima facie case of “Think Locally, Steal Globally.” And a blot on the face of Elat.