When I first signed up with GoEco to volunteer at Israel’s Coral Reef in Eilat, I didn’t know what to expect. And, to tell you the truth I was kind of nervous. I asked myself questions like: What will I be doing? How hard or fulfilling will this experience be? Does the staff even speak English? Will I encounter Sharks? What I can say in hindsight is that my volunteer experience surpassed all of my expectations and has changed me profoundly—and this is no exaggeration.
If I could describe the coral reef staff in one word it would be authentic. They were real Israelis, native to Eilat and exceedingly passionate about their ecosystem. To them, their work is more than just a means of income; it is their life, their home, their passion.
With passion comes dedication. And, dedication means hard work. I did not just chill on the beach — although there was time for that. But the first day we started at 5:30 am; we took out the boat and replaced a few buoys. Since I don’t have a diver’s license, I was responsible for marking the bouys with the correct dates and removing corals and marine life from the old bouys. No life is unimportant; so we were very careful to make sure anything alive was returned to its natural environment (this included the corals, which were returned to a nearby marine observatory for relocation). We worked for 12 hours that day but it was well worth it.
Some of my other duties included cleaning up the beach, giving instructions to visitors, lifeguarding, restoring and painting bouys, removing barnacles from the dock’s steps, and my favorite: swimming in the prohibited areas to replace bouy lines. This last part is awesome. One reason is because these areas are prohibited because they are shallow, which means they offer face-to-face contact with the corals. And, they gave me a wet suit, flippers, a snorkel and goggles, and we worked in the water until Omri’s oxygen ran out (2 hours). Prior to that I had never been in the water for that long. We also encountered amazing marine life like octopi, jellyfish, and parrotfish.
Now, the reasons why this has been a moving experience has nothing to do with the above. It has a lot to do with discovering and confronting my fears, discovering myself and creating permanent relationships.
With regards to confronting my fears, I had never swum in a body of water with rich marine life. So, when I went in for the first time, I felt frightened. I felt vulnerable and I didn’t know which animals wanted to eat me. So I jumped out. I was angry with myself. But then I realized, coming from Los Angeles, I understood the role Hollywood plays on my imagination and I then assumed that the professional staff wouldn’t let me in the water if there were any reason to suspect any danger. I was right! And I’m here today to talk about it.
One experience stands out with regards to discovering myself. One day, I was sitting in the lifeguard tower, alone, while the other staff was in a safety seminar. They told me that I hadn’t much to do that day and that I should just take it easy. But I decided to assign some duty to myself – henceforth, I was a self-proclaimed lifeguard (because there are no life guards on duty). All of a sudden, I hear an unnerving screech and I see a man drowning through my binoculars. I was frightened and I kept saying to myself “Oh no! Hell no!!” But without hesitation I ran toward him as fast as I could, and as I ran down the dock, I saw a group of people just standing there watching this guy drown. I was confused as to why no one was helping. But anyway, I jumped in the water and as my adrenaline was pumping, I swam up current and attempted to help him, although I had no flotation device. That was a little bit of an issue, but my co-workers quickly understood something was wrong and they came to help both of us immediately. It was painful; my muscles were aching, my neck was swollen and eventually the adrenalin wore off. But that feeling of being so pumped, and scared and excited and proud was wonderful and priceless. I remember as I got out of the water, some old man was standing there just looking at me. And in my befuddled state, I remember him saying “Good Job!. It felt like a dream. I felt like a hero.
But the most rewarding part of my experience was the family I gained. Omri, Ziv, Chen, Omessi, and Golan—these guys weren’t just my co-workers they are my brothers. They did everything they can to make sure I was comfortable, and I was always comfortable around them. We ate together, worked together, laughed together—rituals, which form bonds. We had developed great connections, which made the goodbyes hard, as inevitable as they were.