Living in Tel Aviv, a stone’s throw from a beautiful beach, I don’t end up travelling to Eilat, on the Red Sea that often - after all, it’s a five hour drive and I have the Mediterranean! But there a place there that I have to recommend in the south of the country - for adults and children, Israelis and tourists alike - a place I could visit time and again without ever becoming bored.
It’s the Dolphin Reef - an ecological site that’s entirely unique in Israel, where you get a chance to observe these magnificent creatures in their own habitat. Take your pick - sit on a floating pier, stand at an observation deck, or choose to swim/snorkel/dive with them - this is an experience that's hard not to enjoy.
The Reef is home to a group of ‘bottlenose’ dolphins, all born there and left to their own devices. It’s entirely their choice whether they want to be in contact with visitors, by swimming up to the piers or approach guided tours of snorkelers and divers. Their daily routines include playing, socialising and even courting! The entire set-up is based on the principles of mutual respect between humans and animals, as well as promoting scientific and marine research.
Dolphin Reef’s ‘mission’ (as it were) is to give humans a better understanding of marine habitats - and to show them just how intelligent these animals are. Indeed, they argue that when dolphins are allowed to spontaneously interact with humans, they become even more curious and playful - and from my own personal experience, I agree entirely.
How does it work? Well the dolphins live at the Reef, but there’s little intervention in their daily lives, and there’s also an “Open Gate” to the sea - which they are free to swim through if they choose. It is up to them to stay or leave. Marine biologists there will only intervene if they feel the dolphins are in some kind of danger - the general ethos is to provide them with an environment that is as good for them as compared to a life in the wild.
Here’s what they have to say:
“The responsibility for such a tension-free encounter lies with us, the humans, since as long as we can control the dolphin’s primary needs (provision of food, controlling its’ habitat area, intervening in its social life and more...) the dolphin can “only” offer itself and his friendship.”
The Dolphin Reef costs 67 NIS (about $18) to enter, and as well as cushions to lie on (whilst you watch the dolphins splash about), there’s a beach restaurant (which isn’t excessively costly) and additional services - ‘relaxation pools’ (I haven’t tried them) and the opportunity to snorkel or dive with the dolphins. I also haven’t tried this - some people I know say it’s wonderful, other’s say the water can be murky and it’s better just to lie back (or stand at the observation piers) and watch them at close quarters.
Petting of the creatures is not allowed (for obvious reasons) but they do swim incredibly close to you - sometimes as near as a metre. There’s also a beach area, which comes with chairs, umbrellas and showers, and the whole set-up is extremely clean and organised. When I first visited the reef, over a decade ago, there were at least nine dolphins there. Now it may be fewer, but it’s still very easy to spot one and watch it - and in general they show up for feeding time! The staff are also very friendly, and more than happy to answer your questions.
It is, without a doubt, my favourite place in Eilat - a fantastic place to go and relax, lie on the floating pontoons, read, watch dolphins swimming around, grab a chilled beer and soak up the atmosphere. The scenery is also to die for - the Red Sea in front of you, and mountains behind you. Most of all, it’s comforting to know that these animals - who really do have a mind of their own - are not in the least constrained.
My advice? Go early (although I’ve been told that as the sun sets, lots of birds appear - including a white peacock) and make a day of it.
Dolphin Reef - Southern Beach Eilat,
Tel: 972 (0)8 637-1846