Sinai Scuba Safari With Isaac, the Crazy Israeli

by Charles Glass
My friend, Mike Fainzilber, a student of Malacology at the University of Jerusalem, came to California to visit his relatives and scout out the possibilities of pursuing his scholastic career in this part of the world, and since he was in the area, asked me to arrange some California diving. Having written several articles on the Shells of Southern California for the Conchologists of America Bulletin (now the American Conchologist), I knew several good spots to observe the local molluscan fauna, so to speak. Now, not just through chauvinism, but for some very sound reasons, I consider southern California the second best spot in the world to dive! Well, make that the Santa Barbara Channel Islands. Which is the first, you ask? The Philippines, but that's another story. Mike was politely appreciative of California diving but it only reinforced his resolve to return to Israel and his beloved Red Sea. His parting remarks were, "Come visit me in Israel and I'll show you some real diving in the Red Sea." I knew that the Red Sea was indeed renowned for its diving, but, I rationalized, that was just the sour grapes of those European divers who couldn't make it to the South Pacific and had to settle for second best. However, since I am interested in shells, and since there are many species endemic to the Red Sea, I thought I'd better take Mike up on his offer. The political situation stops a lot of people from visiting the Middle East, but I thought, what the hell, I've taken off for the Philippines in the middle of coups and revolutions so many times that my Filipino friends are sure I'm CIA: why not try the Middle East...and anyway, one Charles Glass had already been kidnapped -- the odds were slim it would happen me!

Something every traveller should experience at least once is going through Israeli security! No wonder they have no hijackings! My companion, Marty Beals of Los Angeles, and I were each grilled prior to boarding El Al in New York for at least 30 minutes -- consecutively!. It was finally decided that we could proceed, though we were admittedly two highly suspicious characters, pending arrival of our luggage from Los Angeles. Well, some of the luggage never arrived -- par for the course, these days, with most of the airlines I travel on and of course the missing luggage HAD to be Marty's diving gear) -- so we were left with the dilemma: proceed sans equipment, or call the whole thing off. Marty opted for the latter, but I had an image in my mind of my poor friend, Mike, waiting for us at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, and so I persuaded Marty to come along with the assurance that, if his luggage didn't catch up, we'd get him SCUBA gear in Israel.

We were duly met by Mike, whose reaction to our news was that we had to be kidding. He expressed his appreciation that we came anyway, thus relieving him of the necessity of committing suicide rather than facing his cousin with the news that all plans were in vain. We taxied to the domestic airport and, after another half-hour's grilling by the anti-terrorist authorities, were off to Eilat at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, finger of the Red Sea!

At Eilat we were met by Mike's cousin, Isaac Abramovich, "Divemaster International," owner and driving force behind "Isaac's Diving Safaris" and our guide-to-be for the next two weeks. Isaac is one of those rare phenomena, somewhere between a Hebrew Zorba the non-Greek and the fiddler on the roof, the sort of "unforgettable character" people try to describe, hoping to get published in the Reader's Digest. How to describe him? Well, let the story speak for itself, other than to say he has a characteristic and nonchalant swagger that makes him look as if he is wearing a quarter-inch wet-suit when he isn't! He's the sort of person you feel comfortable being with when the going gets rough -- even if he hasn't got the solution to the problems at hand (he probably has!), he at least has enough jokes that he'll take your mind off the situation. His only shortcoming, and we're not talking about height, is that he is saturated with 10 years of Texas TV commercials, each of which he remembers verbatim!

Isaac properly but unnecessarily informed us that collecting live shells in both Israel and Egypt is forbidden, but we assured him that our main interests were observing...nor did we relish the idea of spending time in an Egyptian jail! The next day we spent digging up -- that is borrowing, renting and buying -- enough SCUBA gear to properly fit out Marty for the first week of our Safari, doing a check-out or orientation dive in Eilat, and getting everything ready for an early morning departure. Near dawn the next morning, divemaster and safari leader Isaac was there with his van and our other three divers, Danny Korkos, originally from Morocco, another shell enthusiast and Mike's regular diving buddy; Yochai, a young Israeli on leave from his military service; and Lior, a cancer radiology therapist from Tel Aviv, also the least experienced diver among us.

Our early departure was an attempt to be first at the border: if one gets behind a tourist bus, the delay can stretch into hours. It worked -- we got through with minimum inconvenience. Our van could accompany us as far as the Hilton Hotel in Taba, a short distance from the border. Then we must leave the Israeli van behind for an Egyptian vehicle and Egyptian driver we'd meet at the hotel. Once there we would also be able to change our money for Egyptian currency. The only problem was that just one vehicle, a jeep -- or what the Filipinos would call a "Jeepney," a long-bed jeep -- arrived. Isaac explained to the Egyptian agency with whom he worked that a second vehicle was needed, and it was finally arranged that the second vehicle would meet us in Nuweiba, about an hour's drive south. I couldn't quite imagine how our driver, Said, a guide, 7 divers and all their dive gear, including tanks, bed rolls and personal luggage, could make it is one jeep -- very chummily, we learned. Fortunately divers are a good-natured lot, especially at the beginning of a trip, and we made it to Nuweiba with only minor discomfort and in high spirits. It was hot, but not uncomfortably so, with a slight breeze -- Mike had suggested we plan our trip in the spring or fall as the best times in the Sinai Desert, neither too hot nor too cool!

The terrain was quite spectacular in its stark barrenness, rocky ranges of mountains coming right down to the sea, their outlines unsoftened by rain, their slopes unsoftened by vegetation. At the first stop, actually to fix a flat tire, for which -- you guessed it -- the spare was under all the gear, our Israeli soldier stripped out of his clothing and into more appropriate Beduin garb. At the first gas station/souvenir shoppe/coffee house, as we waited for the second vehicle, we started to feel we were really in Egypt, with passing camels and rugs thrown over palm logs upon which we could lie and rest and wait, while being served very strong, very thick coffee.

Our second driver, Faraj, a Beduin, arrived and we set out again, this time for Dahab and the first dive of the safari, at a site called "The Canyon." And a spectacular dive it was, made all the more impressive by the wonderfully theatrical orchestration of Isaac. Calling our attention with dramatic maneuvering of his impressively bushy and expressive eyebrows, he told us exactly how we were to follow him around the reef until, in about 30 feet of water he would stop by a pillar, wave goodbye and disappear through a cloud of colorful Anthius fish and hundreds of transparent glass fish.

We were to follow him through this cave entrance into a large, cavernous room, lit by a fissure in the ceiling. The room narrows as one descends, soon becoming a tall, narrow and rocky passageway, wide enough for a single file of divers. At about 110 feet we exited through the fissure in the top and returned to the beach. It was a fittingly dramatic, even awe-inspiring introduction to Red Sea diving. Making it all the better for me personally, the first shell I saw was a Murex, Naquetia fosteri! Quite an omen! It had been named for my partner, Bob Foster, some two years before and is quite rare indeed!

We dined on pita bread, cheese, beans, peas, cucumbers, tuna and sardines, jams and halevah, tea and Pepsi. Even though the Egyptians have a treaty with Israel, they honor the boycott of Coca-Cola and other firms that do business with Israel. Illogical, you say? The first night we arrived in Eilat, Isaac told us the story of the Turtle and the Scorpion. The Scorpion asked the Turtle to take it across the Red Sea on its back, to which the Turtle exclaimed, "You think I'm crazy? Half way across, you'd sting me and I'd die." The Scorpion countered, "Now why would I do a thing like that? Don't forget, I'm on your back! We'd both die!" The Turtle thought that over and decided to take the Scorpion across, and half way across, sure enough, the Scorpion stung him! With his dying breath the Turtle asked, "Why did you do that? Now we'll both die!" The Scorpion responded, "This is the Middle East -- you want logic?"

On to the dive center in Dahab where we got our tanks filled. While waiting, we thought we'd sample the local brew -- my first and last taste of Egyptian beer! That night we were going to make a night dive at "The Lighthouse," a pleasant oasis at Dahab, a little bay proclaimed to be," Di Moon Valley, Raed Sae." There were many coffee houses here at the water's edge, catering to the divers, and the tea was exceptional as we awaited darkness for our dive, lounging on rugs thrown over palm logs for pillows. This spot was also a most fascinating dive, sheer rocky cliffs stepping down through steep slopes of powdery white coral sand. On this dive, aside from various cones and cowry shells, I saw another choice murex, a large Homalocantha dovpeledi, a strange, almost skeletal shell and another of the rarer and more interesting Red Sea endemics.

We drove a short ways out of Dahab and slept on the beach under stars as brilliant as they can appear only in the desert. Soon we were awakened by the sun rising over the coastal mountains of Saudi Arabia, on the other side of the narrow Gulf of Aqaba. Our driver, Said, said his morning prayers toward Mecca, across the water, and went on to prepare our breakfast of pita bread, cheese, beans, peas, cucumbers, tuna and sardines, jam and halevah, tea and Pepsi!

Early that morning, not too far from camp, we made what was perhaps the most spectacular dive of the trip, the pleasure and wonder heightened again by our divemaster's sense of the dramatic. The site, or "Zone de Plonger," as the signs say, is called "The Blue Hole" and is a very deep, very broad "hole" in the reef and quite near shore. Enshrined on the cliffs above the sea are two memorial plaques, marble remembrances of two friends and dive buddies who had drowned at this site, a Christian and an Arab. Isaac explained that Christians and Arabs tend to die at the Blue Hole, whereas it's the Canyon that mostly gets the Jews. Thus forewarned, we followed our leader into the water, but for nothing as unimaginative as a plunge right into the virtually bottomless Blue Hole! First he led us into a narrow hole, hardly big enough for one diver, called "The Bell." This led to a larger tube-like passageway that took us under the reef wall to emerge on the outside in about 100 feet. We made our way around this eerily beautiful wall, with some of the largest specimens of plate coral I had ever seen, many meters across, looking like giant fungi! We slowly worked our way up the wall and then over the top in just a few feet of water and into the Blue Hole itself. It is so wide that, even with the exceptional visibility of the Red Sea, one can scarcely see the opposite side. It's easy to understand how divers become hypnotized by the blue clarity of the water and just keep swimming down toward the light coming from the open sea through the bottom of the hole until they have passed the point of no return. Exhilarated from our dive, we got out of our gear and tore into a lunch of -- oh, yes, -- pita bread, cheese, beans, peas, cucumbers, tuna and sardines, jams and halevah, tea and Pepsi!

After lunch we drove south to Sharm el Sheikh where our divemaster had made arrangements for us to go by boat to the Straits of Tiran. Here the Gulf of Aqaba joins the Red Sea proper through a very narrow strait whose reefs and currents offer a Scylla and Charybdis to the tankers and freighters going to and coming from Aqaba. That evening we had a very pleasant dinner at the open air restaurant of the hotel attached to the dive center, the "Tentoria," our sort-of headquarters at Sharm. We met the skipper of our dive boat, Amin from Alexandria, a marvelously gracious and gentlemanly Arab with a prodigious stomach and imposing head of equally impressive proportions. We asked him if we could spend the night on board his boat, the Nidia, as there were no convenient beaches and the floor of the dive class school room that "Tentoria" hospitably offered us was a bit too hard. Amin was somewhat distressed as he had meant to have some last-minute clean-up done before we boarded. We assured him that wasn't necessary but that we would wait an hour before boarding.

The boat was luxurious, far better than most dive boats I've seen in southern California, especially since most of them are intended for 25 to 45 divers, and the seven of us had the Nidia to ourselves with Amin and his one-man crew-and-galley combination. We had chosen to sleep outside, on the roof above the captain's bridge, and again the stars and slight breeze together with the gentle motion of the water made it a most comfortable night! We awoke to another cloudless morning sky, and to the considerate Sinai flies that only seem to bother you at sunrise and at sunset. I came to think of them as a sort of Beduin alarm clock! We were soon off towards the straits and our first dive in the Red Sea proper.

The first day on the Nidia we dived Gordon Reef, on the lee side, opposite a recent wreck on the reef, perched upright as if at any moment it would continue its voyage. Here we saw our first sharks of the trip, gray reef sharks more concerned with patrolling their territory. As we moved into the lagoon for the night, winds that must be characteristic of the Straits of Tiran came up and whipped the surface of the sea into a howling frenzy. We made a fairly shallow dive in about 10 meters, upcurrent from the boat, but throughout most of the dive I was busy berating myself for not having paid more attention to my compass courses: in no way did I want to surface short on air downwind of the boat for there would have bene nothing to stop me until I hit Egypt itself! That night I got little sleep, holding tight to my sleeping bag, which was whipping in the wind like a flag, for fear it might blow away!

During all the dives so far we had not seen another diver. Not so in the next morning at Jackson Reef, opposite another giant wreck poised on the edge of the reef in these desperate straits. We moved as early as we could to get a good mooring at Jackson, but still we were the second vessel there. Soon dive boats were streaming in from everywhere from Eilat to Sharm el Sheikh, even from Cairo! Dive boats were tied up to dive boats which were tied up to other dive boats. The water was a Keystone Cops ballet of divers. The underwater wall went down to 120 feet, and as I snooped and poked my way up the wall, I looked over my shoulder to find one diver with an underwater TV camera's zoom lens trained on me while another was focusing his Nikonos flash unit, and three or four other divers were just observing at various eccentric angles. The divers at least kept a minimum distance. A Sergeant-Major fish peered in my face mask while the absolutely fearless Black Tangs nibbled the mask straps and clown fish belligerently nipped at my knees to shove me away from their pet anemones.

On our way back to the harbor of Sharm we made a last stop to dive a site called "The Temple," and I can well appreciate why so many dive sites are given names like "The Temple," "The Cathedral," etc., for their beauty inspires an awe that is indeed religious in quality; only the most insensitive diver fails to consider himself lucky, even blessed, to experience some of the unique underwater sights.

That night we went to Embarak's near Sharm el Sheikh, where Embarak, a Beduin, has created quite a dive center/open air restaurant/lodging complex right on a small bay. The service was slow but we were in no hurry and the barbecued fish was excellent. We laid out our sleeping bags right on the beach by the restaurant. In the morning Embarak arrived and warmly greeted Isaac.

Isaac can talk knowledgeably on nearly any subject and is as much at home in Israel as in Texas as in Tanzania as in the Sinai, but he has indeed found his niche in life and is unlikely to leave the Gulf of Aqaba. While comparing notes with some of his Egyptian associates he found that in three wars: the 6-Day War, the War of Attrition, and the Yom Kippur War, he and his Egyptian divemaster counterparts had been fighting in the very same campaigns! We were there in the Sinai, in Sharm el Sheikh during Yom Kippur, 1989, the "day of atonement." How much better that we all, Americans, Egyptians and Israelis, could be there in mutual cooperation for our mutual benefit and enjoyment!

We made several more dives, working our way back north to Eilat, but the dives had subtly changed. The "chance of a lifetime" atmosphere had been replaced by a "next time we come we have to dive over there" attitude. Even Lior had changed. He was no longer a flailing menace in the water. Since Isaac had made a point of giving him the most attention under water, by the end of the safari his protege was quite relaxed and competent. I had become accustomed to seeing Isaac floating with perfect neutral buoyancy, arms crossed, perhaps upside down, but quite calm and composed. Now there was Lior behind him, equally calm, composed, arms also crossed and also floating upside down if the spirit so moved him. Our divemaster confronted him and said, "Lior! You're starting to look like me under water!" to which Lior responded, "I know, that's how I learn to become a good diver!" And he did!

Charlie was editor of American Conchologist, back when it was the COA Bulletin and he lived in Santa barbara, CA. He was the other half of Abbey Specimen Shells with Bob Foster. But he has abandoned shell collecting (our loss!) and now lives with his other loves, the cacti of Mexico; he is curator of the Botanical Garden of San Miguel de Allende, north of Mexico City.