Lisa Alcalay Klug
The sun is bright, the water calm. At the end of my fingertips, a dolphin floats by waiting to be petted. It’s been weeks since my last visit to Dolphin Reef Eilat, a unique attraction in Israel’s southernmost city, on the shores of the Red Sea. But the experience of swimming with these gentle marine mammals was so great it remains fresh in my mind’s eye.
From this stretch of Southern Beach, Egypt is to your right, Jordan to your left. On a clear day, you can even catch a glimpse of the coast of Saudi Arabia beyond the Jordanian city of Aqaba.
Unlike most dolphin attractions that focus on the amazing acrobatics of these powerful creatures, Dolphin Reef allows humans to visit with dolphins in the wild. Humans enter this natural environment temporarily, observing these friendly swimmers in their own world. It’s like plunging into a spot of sea in which dolphins drop in to say hello.
Your rendezvous takes place off a modest stretch of beach — complete with palm trees, showers, shops and snack bar — that faces the open sea. Professional trainers lead groups of visitors into the water. And although the trainers feed the dolphins throughout the day, encouraging learned behaviors, there are no shows or performances.
The dolphins clearly love the arrangement. The pod began in 1990 with four dolphins imported from the Black Sea — one dominant male and three adult females. They have since spawned 10 babies in as many years, five males and five females, and counting.
The dolphins swim freely within a large stretch of sea, so you never know what awaits once you enter the water (visitors must schedule a paid dive or snorkel). There are no guarantees you’ll touch a dolphin or even observe one, but after a handful of visits I’ve found the best get-togethers come in the early morning. And if you’re especially lucky, you’ll spot a baby swimming alongside its mother.
My most remarkable encounter with dolphins occurred on a previous visit. After an afternoon swim that ended up being terribly disappointing, I followed the recommendation of several employees to book the first morning dive with a trainer named Tal when it was available two days later. Tal, who had been leading groups at the Reef for years, enjoyed a unique relationship with the pod’s dominant male, Cindy. Indeed, as soon as Tal and I entered the water, Cindy was there waiting.
Although I was intimidated by his awesome presence, Tal waved me closer. She showed me how to scratch Cindy’s fins hard with my fingernails. His skin was rubbery and smooth; my scratching seemed to help clean away a thin film. I scratched and scratched, kicking my legs to keep up. This went on for a few seconds until Cindy swam away. Tal had explained that we wouldn’t swim after Cindy but would simply wait for his return.
Sometimes we sank to the ocean floor and rested on our knees until Cindy rejoined us. Occasionally a pregnant female dolphin Cindy had mated with would come by and chat with whistles and ticks, which we could hear clearly underwater. Eventually she would leave, and Cindy would return, again and again. At one point, as I was scratching Cindy and Tal floated nearby, he allowed me to swim along slowly. I was lost in the moment.
The experience remains one of the highlights of all my stays in Eilat, one I’ve tried to reproduce without success. On my last visit, Tal was working in the office and my sinuses were too inflamed for me to dive. So I signed up for another snorkel and hoped for the best.
During a short briefing on land, a few other reporters and I were reminded to avoid chasing the dolphins or trying to hold onto them. Then we donned the wet suits, snorkels and masks included in the snorkeling fee and headed for the water. Our multilingual German guide explicitly told us to wait until a dolphin approached and showed us the white underside of his belly. Only then, when it was obvious he wanted to be petted, were we to reach out for a close encounter.
Within minutes of entering the water, a pair of dolphins approached. Seconds later, one turned his tummy toward me. I immediately flashed back to my once-in-a-lifetime dive with Cindy. And as I swam closer, scratching and scratching, I relished every fleeting second.
When you go:
Reservations at Dolphin Reef Eilat are required for swims and dives with the dolphins. Sessions prior to 11 a.m., before the dolphins tire of human contact, are highly recommended. An on-land briefing is followed by a half-hour in the water.
Minimum age requirements are age 10 for snorkeling and age 8 for introductory dives. Multi-day diving programs, which include daily dives with dolphins, as well as dive tour packages, are also available. Underwater photos and videos are available for additional fees. If you're not up for a session, an entrance fee allows visitors to access a portion of the beach for swimming and to view the dolphins during feeding sessions at the floating pier.
A separate, new attraction features a series of relaxation pools (sans dolphins) in a secluded and tranquil area surrounded by a lush botanical garden. These hour-and-a-half relaxation sessions, which run from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., also fill up in advance.
Call 011-972-8-630-0100 for all reservations. To learn more about Dolphin Reef Eilat, visit www.dolphinreef.co.il or e-mail email@example.com.
LISA ALCALAY KLUG is a widely published freelance writer, photographer, editor and writing coach. A former staff writer for the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times, her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Jerusalem Post, Forbes.com, Shape, Self, Men's Fitness and many other publications in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. To learn more visit www.lisaklug.com