by Louis Bignami

You can make a good case that the best, reasonably accessible diving in the world is in Eilat City near Akaba, the spot where the legendary Lawrence of Arabia won his first victory in WW I. Diving, like Lawrence, is legendary. Water that's 22 to 24 degrees Celsius year round coupled with underwater visibility in Akaba Bay of at least 30 meters (100 feet). The reason for this is simple. The only way water gets into the bay is from the south and Suez Bay. There are no rivers, no runoff, no spillover fertilizer, no nothing! Just perfectly warm perfectly clear water. Note; While the water never changes temperature it can define "hot" here so winter's definitely the time to visit.

A good portion of the diving here is in the Coral beach national reserve about ten minutes by bus or cab south of Eilat where you need to bring gear as only snorkel gear is available for rent. So as soon as you arrive in the area make reservations and organize tanks and such at one of the many dive centers. Do realize you can only enter and leave the water at specific point to avoid damaging the coral and, of course, submarine souvenirs are not allowed. Many snorkel here, as the water's only 30 to 50 feet deep. There are two dive centers, Aqua Sport and the Red Sea Sport Club just a couple of hundred yards from the north end of the beach.

There's a nice Eel Garden right in front of Aqua-sport that are in the nature of pets, so don't molest them as they slide into and out of holes.

Perhaps the most interesting dive is at Dolphin Reef where nine or ten dolphins are willing to have tummies rubbed and suffer other indignities. One of these friendly creatures even works with the underwater rescue team. Others fool around with divers, frolic in bubbles and offer playful bumps and, for dummies to stick their hand in the dolphin's mouth, painful nips. At about $58.50 for adults and $56.50 for children this is excellent value if you consider the duration of the memory.

This is a full-service operation with changing rooms, showers, a restaurant, rental gear and a lot more. Scuba and special Nitrox courses, even diving trips to the almost totally untouched waters of Sinai and Jordan are available. The only drawback here is that dives are strictly timed in groups of six, and this is an understandable way to avoid overwhelming the dolphins.

If you like underwater caves head south of town to the lighthouse where Lighthouse Caves are located. This is wonderful snorkel country as the waters only 15 to 20 feet deep. It's also a killer spot to night dive, if you let the locals at Diver's Village know you're there. Otherwise you may find yourself on the wrong end of an Uzi. As is the case with airport security, the Israeli's take potential terrorists very seriously. Far as that goes, trespassing into reserves and other out of bounds areas may bring Israeli frogmen down you and a potential $100 fine.

To do all this without getting wet or to simply see a reef site well "seeded" by the Marine Institute, try the Underwater Observatory. It's a good first stop for some basic Red Sea fish ID and they've specimens of very rare fish not usually seen.

On the certification side, Israel is unique. They accept CMAS, NAUI, PADI, BSAC, ANDI and the usual alphabet soup of certifications. Dives with transport vary from $23 to $54 for one or two dives. A PADI/ CMAS or BSAC open water dive course runs about $275 for five days with tanks and your snorkel, fins and mask -- rentals available. Advanced courses, specialized wreck, night, reef, boat or underwater navigation course for two days run about $200. Those who don't dive might want to try a $40 SNUBA introduction.

NOTE: If it's your only visit to Israel, make sure to check out Petra in Jordan and the religious sites, and then head for the Med where a batch of sites wait. As in Eilat prices seem reasonable. A two-tank dive day with rental gear might run $35 US. Boat dives add about $10 -- the trip over to the Coral Island with the Red Sea Dive Club is good value. Hotel rooms run from $50 to $100 and food costs are very affordable if you stay with the local produce, fish and other Israeli items.