Diving in Israels Eilat is alive and well - and living in Egypt! Years ago, when divers spoke of the Red Sea they usually meant Eilat and the Gulf of Aqaba. Only the more intrepid made it down by four-wheel drive to the Red Sea proper at Sharm el Sheikh.
Now everyone flies to Sharm directly, and the place where it all started, Eilat, seems to have been forgotten. So what does Eilat have to offer the diver today
Since the Camp David Agreement and the return of the Sinai to Egypt, Eilat has hardly any coastline left. However, what it does offer is a choice of cheap flights from various parts of the UK to Ovda Airport; a simple set of sea conditions that make it an ideal place to learn to dive; and Moses Rock, that part of the Japanese Gardens protected area into which you can swim, and where you can still see a complete microcosm of Red Sea marine life.
Besides being an ideal underwater classroom, Eilat is also the perfect jumping-off point for the northern part of the Sinai. This includes a lot of the Gulf of Aqaba, which has traditionally been by-passed by divers in their haste to get further south. The commercially imaginative Israelis have not allowed a border post to obstruct business, and the Egyptians have not been slow to see the advantages of encouraging tourism in this area.
The new hotels, modern facilities, high-voltage electricity pylons and even the modern street lighting make the northern part of the Egyptian Sinai look very much like the modern holiday resort of Eilat just across the border. Even the Bedouin villages are beginning to look distinctly first-world here.
AquaSport, the long-established dive centre in Eilat, now has centres in the Hilton hotels in both Taba and Nuweiba.
The Taba Hilton was once in Israel, but the border was moved. However with such an overlap of Israeli culture its easy to forget you are in Egypt.
An hours drive further south, the equally luxurious Nuweiba Hilton is built in what was once nothing more than a dustbowl. Both are sophisticated, self-contained resorts with numerous swimming pools, restaurants of differing styles and cultures, and all the culinary delights and entertainment one would want for a sunshine holiday.
In fact both hotels are ideal for divers with young children, who will be kept fully occupied. Egyptians love small children and are incredibly good with them. It is never a problem to find a reliable baby-sitter so that both halves of a couple can get a dive in.
At Taba the diving is little different from that at Eilat, but the AquaSport boat stationed here, a typical Egyptian day boat, has the advantage of being able to visit sites far south of Coral Island, the limit for vessels based in Israel.
I dived from it at sites such as Marsa el Muqabila and Coral City. These are Red Sea dive sites with reefs, including plenty of soft corals in riotous colours, still in pristine condition because so few divers visit them.
This was obvious from the number of stonefish and colourful giant frogfish I saw. Stonefish do look like stones with eyes, and are about the most venomous sea creatures you will ever meet.
Dont worry. They just sit about obstinately, refusing to move to a better position for an ambitious photographer. Frogfish sit about too, though they have no poison. Both can swallow unsuspecting prey as big as themselves.
Divers staying at Nuweiba travel by 4 X 4 to shore dive at such places as Ras Abu Galum and Ras Mamlach. Its the same story with the corals here. They have enjoyed the benefit of divers steaming straight by on their way south.
Just south of Nuweiba is a Bedouin village called Muzeina. It is here that a young deaf-mute local man made friends with a spotted dolphin. She stays around near the village and it is possible to dive or snorkel with her. The village has turned the dolphin phenomenon into a useful source of extra revenue.
It is a charming and calming experience to dive with her and rub her flanks when she asks. You can attract her by rubbing a rock on an old submerged tyre put there for that purpose. She has bred with visiting male dolphins, but sadly neither of her two young have survived.
Divers almost invariably associate Israel with the Red Sea, but it is in fact a country with a long Mediterranean coastline. During my trip I had the rare privilege of travelling north to the coast at Haifa and diving with Ehud Galili, archaeologist and head of the marine branch of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
Israel is steeped in history, and this coastline is no exception. You can visit the remains of a Crusader port at Caesarea, and there are many other museums of antiquities nearby.
It contrasts sharply with the Gulf of Aqaba. The sea is subject to far more turbulent weather and the coast offers few places of shelter for the vessels that have been making passage here since boats were invented.
When boats have been destroyed by storms, those parts of them that floated were washed up ashore and recycled by a grateful local population. The heavier parts sank and were swallowed up by the sand and silt. They seemed lost forever, but were in fact protected from erosion caused by movement of the sea and from corrosion caused by any oxygen in the water.
During the past 50 years things have changed. The Aswan Dam has altered the character of the Nile, which no longer dumps billions of tons of silt into the Mediterranean as it used to. Coastal development and marinas in Israel have changed things too.
The sand and silt that remains is becoming more thinly spread, and with each storm new parts of the ancient seabed are exposed, together with precious artifacts.
All manner of items from the dawn of history are being revealed in this way and, unprotected by the sand, they soon perish.The other factor that threatens the safe recovery of these artifacts is the growth of scuba diving. There are 120,000 trained divers in Israel now, and many would welcome a souvenir.
The Antiquities Authority has the responsibility of patrolling the coastline and checking out new dark patches indicating that the sand has been cleared away by a recent storm.Ehud Galili showed me some of the vast wealth of antiquities being picked up every day from the seabed. Copper and tin ingots; Roman lead and bronze anchors; pre-Roman stone anchors; Ottoman helmets and swords; bronze cannon and their stone cannonballs; Roman lead stoves, even ones with heated water systems; weapons traceable to the soldiers of Saladin; Phoenician amphorae - the Antiquities Authoritys storehouse is an Ali Babas cave of treasures, and not only from the comparatively recent past.
Ehud described how, before Neolithic times, man was a hunter-gatherer. He ate what meat he could kill, and gathered wild fruit. It was as little as 8000 years ago that he learned how to domesticate animals and farm crops. He became specialised in individual skills, which meant that people had to live in communities to pool their resources.
At that time the sea level was lower, and many Neolithic villages were built by the waters edge. When levels rose those villages were engulfed, and preserved by the sand in the same way as later artifacts.
Ehud and I dived at one of these sites, and he instantly metamorphosed into a modern hunter-gatherer, excitedly moving from patch of sand to patch of sand in search of archaeologically important items for his capacious collecting bag.
It seemed that every time he fanned away some sand with either his fins or his hands he revealed something remarkable.
A fragment of skull, a small bowl, a hearth complete with 8000-year-old charcoal, numerous flint tools. Sometimes he would uncover a patch of Neolithic clay, a burial place complete with the bones of its occupant.
My photography was made quite difficult, because no sooner had he decided to look at an area than he would disappear in a cloud of silt!
I took photographs of the standing stones of a water shrine and the hollowed out stones where it is thought that offerings of water were made before it mysteriously disappeared over the following days.
Ehud also showed me the site of a Neolithic well that had been excavated but now refilled with sand to preserve it from collapse.
The window of opportunity for retrieval of all these important pieces of history is a small one. As soon as they are uncovered they begin to deteriorate. The Antiquities Authority plans to harness the enthusiasm of amateur divers in pursuit of its important work, and is building a marine archaeological site with artifacts repositioned under water, so that divers can learn what to look for.
EHUD GALILI solved a far more recent mystery when he discovered the remains of the Scire, an infamous Italian wartime submarine.
We went with the official Department of Antiquities boat to dive the wreck, 9km outside Haifa harbour in 33m of water. It is dived using GPS and echo-sounder, shot-line and buoy, in exactly the same way one would dive a wreck in British waters.
It was an eerie sensation to see this almost undisturbed relic of WWII sat on the seabed, hidden from the eyes of modern-day Haifa and its queues of container ships.
On an even keel, from the stern one could be forgiven for thinking the Scire was perfectly intact. But a short swim revealed the front section to have been badly damaged by British torpedoes and
bombs. This was compounded by the vessels eventual impact with the seabed.
Ehud had been the first to dive the wreck, and locate the remains of its crew. He had taken one skeleton out, complete with identity tags. These helped confirm the identity of the vessel, and were presented to the Italian navy, which in turn came and retrieved the other remains to return to Italy.
The water was cold and the visibility less than good when we dived it just like home. We noted that the forward torpedo tubes were still loaded on what remained of the bow at the port side. One even had the impact detonator still in place.
I marvelled that the conning tower had no hatch. This meant that during operations the deck crew had to walk along the hull from the main hatch to take up positions for surface-running. The framework
built to hold human torpedoes on the deck was empty.
After her last action in Alexandria harbour and the capture of her frogmen the Scire escaped, only to meet her end at a later date in the open sea.
For the crew it must have been a terrible way to die. We imagined the effects of the blast; the scenes of panic; the mad scramble; the last frantic yet futile struggle of the men to escape as the water rushed in and the submarine crunched violently into the seabed.
And no one had known that she lay there until Ehud discovered her.
0 John Bantin travelled at the invitation of AquaSport, which has recently introduced underwater archaeology courses with certification at Eilat combined with field trips to the Mediterranean coast. Tel. 00972 7 6334404 (UK 0181 744 0474).