Sunday, 13 July 2008

Winter Sun and Dolphins.

Ori Golan takes to the water in Eilat's reef to meet a doll fin.

Legend has it that at the time of creation, the angels who painted the earth accidentally dropped their colour paints, and these landed on Eilat. This, according to the legend, accounts for the multitude of colours which assail your senses as soon as you arrive at Israel’s southernmost point: red granite mountains, clear blue skies and corals of every hue. The Red Sea, however, is not red, but a calm, deep blue. Its original name is the "Reed Sea" (Yam Suf, in Hebrew) and its modern name is attributed to a typographical error in a 17th-century English translation of the Bible in which an "e" was dropped.

While Tel Aviv is known as the city that never stops, Eilat gives the impression of being a city in slumber. Everything about it is slow, easy and relaxed. It is separated from the rest of Israel by desert and is unspoiled by politics. Throughout the year, you can see loafers basking under the sun, their faces buried under an international newspaper. In the evenings, they stroll through the city’s promenade with its bars, tourist stalls, restaurants and cafes. But Eilat is also a destination for thrill seekers. I am one of them and I am here on a mission: I have come to swim with dolphins, and realise a childhood dream.

How I loved Flipper the dolphin, hero of the 1960s TV hit, who nudged wayward boats to safety, knocked guns out of poachers' hands with a whack of his tail, and saved at least one human from certain death every episode. Ever since, I have longed to come face to face with these smiling aquatic mammals who protect humans from sharks, help clear mines in the oceans and do amazing leaps in the air.

I choose Eilat’s dolphin reef because here the dolphins are not caged or forced to do circus acts; they can swim out into the open sea whenever they want, through two underwater gates, and they are never separated from one another. The reef is a small private beach situated a short bus ride from the town centre. I arrive early in the morning and am struck by the friendliness there: everyone seems cheerful and helpful – not common traits in the Middle East. It is also spotlessly clean. The sea does not heave its flotsam and jetsam onto the sandy beach and, despite the presence of a number of cats and peacocks, the canteen area is tidy and clean. Paula Levin, the reef’s tourism manager, shows me around. "Did you know that dolphins are the only other mammals to practice sex not solely for the purpose of procreation?" she enquires. Erm…. no, I didn’t, I admit.

We walk along a wooden peer where we meet Joker, a shaggy mongrel who turned up at the reef a number of years ago, and has never left. He splashes his paw in the water, and suddenly one of the dolphins appears, which sets him barking in delight. When the spirit takes him, says Levin, he jumps in and swims with them.

I book a guided dive and a few minutes later, strapped in a diving suit, my feet in flippers and air tanks on my back, I meet Dan, my instructor. There’s no guarantee, Dan informs me, that the dolphins will approach us, but – seeing my crestfallen look – he reassures me that in the morning they are at their friendliest, so chances are good. We go into the water.
The underwater world is magical. We weave our way through exotic sea life: magnificent corals, weird looking sea urchins and brightly coloured fish. The azure water is warm and clear. Still no sign of a dolphin, however.

Then, at a distance, I see him: a full-grown male dolphin. He spots me and heads toward me, with intent. Quite suddenly, I remember that those cute teeth inside the smiling face can chop off a human arm, and that in Brazil, recently, a wild dolphin attacked a man viciously. Memories of gentle Flipper are replaced by scenes from Jaws. My heart sinks, my breathing stops and my eyes are ready to pop out of their sockets, as he darts straight toward me. Just before he slams into me, he swerves to the left and shoots off. He has a great sense of humour, remarks Dan, later.

From nowhere appears Domino, a female dolphin, accompanied by her young son, Bar, who, at seven months, is a fun sized replica of her. She emits a high-pitched sound and Dan greets her with a hug, while Bar swims over to me and offers me his fin. I stretch my hand and pat this "doll-fin" and he squeaks in response. Their morning greetings over, mother and child swim off. I am awestruck. Another dolphin appears, diving between my legs, then prodding me playfully from behind. He follows us as we head back to the beachfront at the end of the 40-minute dive. It was one of the most wonderful and exhilarating experiences I have yet had.

I later learn that the centre uses the dolphins to help people suffering from cognitive difficulties and a variety of emotional problems, and understand why this works: there is an inexplicable and yet incredibly strong bond which forms naturally between dolphins and humans, and the contact with these intelligent, kind and playful sea mammals truly lifts the spirits and instils a sense of elation.

Eilat is also every ornithologist’s dream come true. An estimated one billion birds – 420 species – crosses this region, travelling from Europe to Africa and Asia. Bird spotters from all over the world converge on Eilat to gaze at Aquila eagles, Egyptian Vultures, Steppe Buzzards and a host of passerine migrants. You may, however, find it hard to spot the spotters: with temperatures seldom dipping below 17°C in winter and an average of 32°C in summer, there’s rarely an opportunity to wear an anorak.

No visit to Eilat is complete without a climb up its surrounding mountains, I am told. So I drive for a late afternoon view of Eilat and view the beautiful coloured rocks, stunning cliffs and canyons. I am still trying to catch my breath.

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