Thursday, July 12, 2007

In Eilat

Israel's southernmost city, Eilat also is an amazing example of how geography, history, and practicality connect to create a successful nation state. Eilat sits on a tiny sliver of the Red Sea (between Jordan and Egypt with Saudi Arabia not far away). It was essentially unoccupied except for a British police post in 1948, when Israel won independence. To the north, the massive and virtually uninhabited Negev desert). To the south, the Red Sea, linking to the Indian Ocean via the Horn of Africa -- allowing ships from Asia access to Israel without having to traverse the Cape in South Africa or use the Suez Canal.

The 1967 Six Day War is attributed to Egypt's asking for U.N. observers to leave and its decision to blockade the Red Sea to Israeli shipping.

Now, with peace with both Egypt and Jordan, it is possible for travellers visit the three nations through open border crossings in one day. Eilat is certainly a much different place than the desolate site in 1948 -- it is Israel's internal 'tourist escape' with many large hotels (European visitors also fly in here for breaks as well).

Eilat is hot, very hot; the temperatures routinely get above 40 degrees C in the summer.

I wanted to see this city -- and traverse the Negev by bus -- to get a sense of the scope of this nation's geography. The distance from Tel Aviv to Eilat is about the same as from Ottawa to Toronto --it takes about 4 to 5 hours by car and is the one city in Israel served (outside of Tel Aviv) by domestic airlines (the flight takes about 1 hour).

The desert, by the way, is not totally desolate; you can see irrigated plots, industry, and other stuff on the road -- Eilat, meanwhile, besides its role as a shipping centre (I noticed rows of Japanese cars parked at the port) is a 'fun city' for Israelis -- this is not a religious town, by any means.

The main tourist attraction is the Underwater Observatory Marine Park. Here, you can descend below sea level to view the various species that inhabit in the Coral Reefs at Eilat. The observatory is like an aquarium, but the difference is this is not an artificial environment -- the fish and coral are real indeed; and truly varied.

We all agreed the strangest example of biodiversity is the phony "cleaning fish". I had heard previously about "cleaning fish" who live by cleaning parasites off other fish. In fact, these specialised fish a re so popular that sometimes they establish "cleaning stations" where other fish -- including serious predators -- put their appetite for smaller fish and marine life away to get cleaned!

Fair enough. However, it seems nature has given us the "cleaning fish impostor", with appearance and size very much like the real thing. So other fish don't run away when it shows up. Unfortunately, the victims then get a nasty bite as the fake "cleaning fish" takes pieces of flesh from its unsuspecting victim. Eric and I saw one of these operators at work today.

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