Anchor Down Those Novices!
Eilat in Israel - is it just one almighty production line for fledgling divers and, if so, at what cost to the underwater environment Brendan OBrien went to see for himself, and found everyone curiously anxious for him to wear more lead Divernet

I believe we are the busiest PADI dive centre in the world, boasted Oren, the manager of the Red Sea Sports Club in Eilat. And heres why: last year more than fifteen thousand divers used our facilities. Of those, three thousand five hundred came to us for their PADI Open Water qualification.
Orens claim seemed out of place. After all, most dive centres try to persuade you of how quiet and off the beaten track they are. With numbers like this, some would describe this as production-line diving, impersonal and unfriendly. What would Oren say to such critics I would say, come and see for yourself! So thats what I did.
Over the years, Eilat has built up a vast tourism industry based on sport diving. As that industry has grown, so has the size of the hotels. Eilats North Beach area is now nothing more than a collection of vast hotels competing in the bigger-is-better race. The only factor to hold them back seems to be the border with Jordan.
The Red Sea Sports Club and its partner hotel, the 170-room Ambassador, is situated well away from all this hustling, in the Coral Beach area. It doesnt cater solely for divers, although most of the guests I met had someone in their family who would dive at some point during their stay.
The checking-in procedure at the dive centre was informal and took no more than 10 minutes. All the equipment was of a reasonably high standard, although the fins reminded me of my first pair, bought for me when I was 10.
Everything was going swimmingly until I asked for two 3lb weights to go with my 3mm wetsuit. The woman behind the counter told me I would need more.

I believe we are the busiest PADI dive centre in the world, boasted Oren, the manager of the Red Sea Sports Club in Eilat. And heres why: last year more than fifteen thousand divers used our facilities. Of those, three thousand five hundred came to us for their PADI Open Water qualification.
Orens claim seemed out of place. After all, most dive centres try to persuade you of how quiet and off the beaten track they are. With numbers like this, some would describe this as production-line diving, impersonal and unfriendly. What would Oren say to such critics I would say, come and see for yourself! So thats what I did.
Over the years, Eilat has built up a vast tourism industry based on sport diving. As that industry has grown, so has the size of the hotels. Eilats North Beach area is now nothing more than a collection of vast hotels competing in the bigger-is-better race. The only factor to hold them back seems to be the border with Jordan.
The Red Sea Sports Club and its partner hotel, the 170-room Ambassador, is situated well away from all this hustling, in the Coral Beach area. It doesnt cater solely for divers, although most of the guests I met had someone in their family who would dive at some point during their stay.
The checking-in procedure at the dive centre was informal and took no more than 10 minutes. All the equipment was of a reasonably high standard, although the fins reminded me of my first pair, bought for me when I was 10.
Everything was going swimmingly until I asked for two 3lb weights to go with my 3mm wetsuit. The woman behind the counter told me I would need more.

Later I met up with British diver Debbie Hassan, whose first dive had been at Coral Island. I asked her for her impressions: It was incredible, so many colours and bright fish which came right up to my face. That was why I took up diving!
A dive here is like a stroll around your local park as opposed to a brisk scramble across the fells. Theres no current, its shallow and there are plenty of diver-friendly fish. Our two dives were timed so that we wouldnt get in the way of the try-divers and vice-versa.
The verdict from the British foursome: We liked the professionalism of the staffÉ a good dive briefingÉ nice relaxing diveÉ good snorkellingÉ the food was excellent - a pleasant family day out.
Oren had organised another excursion for the next day, this time to dive in neighbouring Jordan from the Aquamarina diving centre in Aqaba (see Diver, May). My buddy was Dutch backpacker Arno Eussen, who had been diving with the Red Sea Sports Club for almost a week.
I asked him what he thought of the centre: Very professional, although at times the voucher system has fallen apart a bit, he said. This was what I was about to test - how a voucher for transport from the border, diving and lunch would work in another country.
The next day the centres van took us to the border crossing, where we faced the combined officiousness of the Israeli and Jordanian security services. More than an hour later, and out of pocket by about US $50 for an unexpected departure tax and entry visa into Jordan, we crossed to be met by Aquamarinas van. Arnos entry visa had turned out to be a lot cheaper: Our King likes the Dutch better than you English! the immigration officer told me.
We arrived late, but this made no difference, because the centres main boat was fully laden with divers going to Coral Island. No one staying at the resort wanted to dive in Jordan that day, so we ended up with a boat to ourselves.
Our vouchers for diving from the Red Sea Sports Club were accepted without any hassle. Then the weight thing cropped up again - they wouldnt let me put any less than 12lb of lead on my weightbelt. When I asked where this obsession with over-weighting came from I was told: The sea is very salty here.
I wasnt convinced, and slipped the extra weight off when they werent looking.

Our briefing for the first site, the wreck of the Cedar Pride, was very thorough, then they let us get on with it. We had this vast wreck, which lies intact on her port side, to ourselves. In May Gavin Anderson called it one of the most colourful wrecks in the Red Sea and I have to agree. It was an outstanding dive.
Our afternoon dive was at Gorgonian One, aptly named after a giant sea fan the size of a small shed. For those of you who love sponges and corals, this site is a feast.
The van took us to the border. After another 30 minutes of being interviewed by the Israeli security services we found, as promised, a minibus to take us back.
The day had been a success, the diving outstanding and the voucher scheme had worked perfectly. It was now time to take in what Eilat had to offer.
Opposite the Red Sea Sports Club is the Coral Beach, probably one of the busiest shore-diving sites in Eilat. Its name is a bit of a mystery - does it derive from the sand imported from the desert From the thousands of cigarette butts that cover it From the green tinge next to a rather suspicious-looking trickle of water from one of the waterfront bars I could only presume it was named after the wonders to be found in its waters.
At Aquasports 50 Bar, overlooking the beach, I met Benig, one of Eilats veteran diving instructors. Perhaps he knew the origins of the name Sorry I dont, and there really isnt much to see out there. This shouldnt be a surprise, because at any one time there can be over 130 divers in the water learning how to dive.
Its so busy that sometimes you find yourself with one or two students from another diving school, especially on night dives. Sometimes instructors dont even notice until they are getting out of the water, having taken them through several drills!
The next day I decided to test Orens challenge. Were the novices on a production line Could such numbers receive a personal service As discreetly as possible, I hung around the centre for a few hours to watch the process.
It was indeed a production line, but one so carefully timed that one batch of divers had been and gone before the next group arrived. It was all an illusion for the divers, none of whom ever realised how busy the centre really was.
In the afternoon, I joined an open-water class off the Coral Beach. The quality of the instruction was high and the lack of aesthetics did not detract from it. As I watched the class kicking up clouds of sand, I began to see the sense of it all. Create one small area that you know will get trashed by divers, and keep them there until they can dive without beating up the reef.
So what is in store for the newly qualified diver First stop might be the Gunboat, an old naval patrol boat sunk in 23m as an artificial reef. I joined a group of 20 on this shore dive, interested to see how the instructors could ensure that everything ran smoothly.
Heres how they managed it. We entered the water in carefully timed waves, and stuck to our divemaster like glue as he provided us with what seemed like a regimented guided tour. As we moved from stern to bow along the starboard side, another group was guided the opposite way along the port side.
The gunboat has been under water for several years, but there isnt really any life on it. Areas such as the forward gun compartment have been visited on so many occasions that the metal has become polished by contact with hands and fins.
My buddy was Katrina, a German teenager visiting Eilat with her family, and this was her first dive on a wreck. It was great. I was a bit nervous to start but I liked the way we were shown around by the divemaster. It was so interesting!
She asked our divemaster why there was no coral on the site. Its the pollution from the docks; theres also too much current, he replied tactfully.
Perhaps he didnt have the heart to tell her that the real reason was because of divers like her.
But is that such a bad thing There was no coral on this wreck to start with. The gunboat is the perfect training ground for novice divers, although if you have some experience you might find it a little dull.
In the afternoon I joined another group to do a shore dive at the Caves. Divemaster Jules buddied me up with Sarah, another German teenager, on her ninth dive and her first in open water.
On a gentle slope in about 6m was a rocky outcrop and under it a small tunnel. This in itself wasnt too impressive, but the hundreds of glassy sweepers inside it were.

The rest of the site was a wasteland of broken coral. Had I asked, I would no doubt have been told that this was due to storms or some other natural phenomenon, but I would put it down to heavily weighted divers.
Some of those in my group had more than 20lb around their waists, and even with their BCs inflated they bounced along the seabed like astronauts on a moonwalk, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
After the dive, I asked Jules why the divers were allowed in the water so over-weighted. Theyre novices so they need more weight to stay down, he said. I wasnt convinced. Had they done the lesson on correct weighting during training With dive centres keen to thrust upon them vast amounts of lead, would they ever learn correct buoyancy control
One of the instructors later confided that with so many novices using the centres, any attempt to weight them correctly could result in all sorts of buoyancy-control problems. Guaranteeing that they would stay on the bottom minimised the risk of uncontrolled ascents. It made the instructors life easier - but at what cost to the environment
Despite this, the Caves proved to be a great dive. Among the damaged coral we saw free-swimming moray eels, octopuses, and several anemones with their resident clownfish. For Sarah it was like being in a Jacques Cousteau film!.
I decide to spend some more time off Coral Beach, but free-diving around the large outcrop called Moses Rock, which at one time was the highlight of Eilats diving. The base of the rock lies at only 13m, and the corals and sponges were looking rather bruised, though nowhere near as bad as at the Caves. Some 30 snorkellers were hovering over it when I arrived, and some were trying to fin down and hold onto the rock. Fortunately for the reef, most of the coral was too deep for them.
I soon discovered four lionfish rounding up a small shoal of baitfish under a ledge. Every 30 seconds or so one would dart into the shoal to pick off its quarry. With no bubbles to disturb them, I lay down on the seabed and watched in awe as this game of life and death unfurled in front of my eyes.
On one of my surface intervals, I saw a group of divers below me circle the rock. They finned straight past the lionfish without stopping to look. As I descended again, it struck me that, despite the damage to Eilats reefs, there is still something left for divers to see. Among the damaged and worn-out sites there are things to see. Unlike the divers I had just seen, all you have to do is look.
So what of Orens challenge The Red Sea Sports Club might be a production line of divers, but its streamlined efficiency and the quality of the staff allows it to offer a personal service.
For the novice diver, Eilat is perfect, though they might not come away with much in the way of buoyancy control. For the experienced diver, it depends on what you are looking for - if its to take your non-diving family away, fine.
If youre after pristine diving in spectacular locations, you can always take advantage of its dive safaris (the centre runs three-day dive expeditions into the Sinai) and trips into Jordan. But if thats what you want, why not just go there anyway




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FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Fly to Ovda (about 45 minutes from Eilat) during the winter on cheap charter flights. In summer fly to Tel Aviv, then connect to Eilats domestic airport. Be prepared for a grilling by security staff if you fly with Israels national carrier El Al. Their interrogation (sorry, interview) techniques are blunt and to the point. They also spent a fair amount of time very obviously following Brendan OBrien around Manchester Airport!
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Prices vary depending on airline and month, whether you want to stay in the standard or luxury rooms and on what type of diving best suits you. Take proof of diving insurance with you, or you will have to pay for compulsory insurance. The Red Sea Sports Club arranges other activities such as expeditions into the desert and shooting on the hotels own firing range.
LANGUAGE & CULTURE: Most Israelis speak English. You might not find the locals particularly geared up for European ways during summer, when most visitors are Israeli, and elbows are freely used for pushing in at queues. Eilat is reckoned to be a safe area because of its proximity to the Egyptian and Jordanian borders.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Contact Samantha at the Red Sea Sports Club or on 0208 991 4626.
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