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Best season for snorkeling is just beginning!
With cross-border travel restricted in the north, south and east of the country in some ways Lebanon has become an island onto itself. Much like other island retreats an enchanting and alien world awaits beachgoers under the waters off its shores. Although the Mediterranean may not feature the colorful reefs of the Red or Caribbean seas its aquatic environment is home to a surprising diversity of marine life. According to the most recent report by the Ministry of Environment Lebanon hosts 6% of the world’s aquatic species, a respectable multitude given its size.
For most people, snorkeling is the best way to encounter the tranquil beauty of life under the water. Few other activities offer as immersive and dynamic an experience at such an affordable cost. A one-time investment in basic equipment can quickly pay itself back, enabling users to intimately connect with wildlife in a way that can be hard to match on land. From damselfish and seabeams to swimming crabs and octopus, Lebanon’s diversity of fauna is something to be cherished. For those interested in learning more about the species they observe there is even a Facebook Page where anyone can have aquatic animals identified by Dr. Michel Bariche, one of Lebanon’s leading marine biologists.
This summer, Lebanese seem to be donning their facemasks more than ever and exploring the Mediterranean world at their doorstep. While the hottest weather may be fading into the autumn, the best season to snorkel is actually just beginning. During the months of October and November the waves of the sea abate, greatly improving visibility and making for a more comfortable experience overall. Unfortunately, the increase in beachgoers can have a destructive affect on the marine environment, littering the sea floor with human waste. The killing of aquatic animals for sport or personal entertainment is another major cause of needless degradation. Between human interference, a varied marine ecosystem and 225 km of coastline it can be hard to decide where the snorkeler can best invest their time. But don’t worry, Secrets of Beirut is here to help.
The Cove of Anfeh
The livelihood of this historic little fishing city has long been tied to the sea. These days the economy is also sustained by tourists from around Lebanon that travel the 65 kilometers north from Beirut (or farther) to enjoy the coast. Anfeh’s cove, which insulates the shore from the waves outside, is the best place for first time snorkelers to try out the hobby. The water here is among the calmest and cleanest in Lebanon and a series of ladders makes for an easy transition into and out of the sea. Although there is admittedly little to see in terms of marine life the city’s seaside restaurants and chalets make up for the scarcity.
Naqoura is opposite of Anfeh both literally and figuratively. As the last major village before the southern border, as well as the headquarters of UNIFIL in the area, Naqoura isn’t exactly well-equipped to cater to tourists. Foreigners are even required to get clearance from the military office in Saida at least two days prior to their trip if they wish to visit. However, it’s precisely this lack of outside tourists that earns Naqoura a spot on the list. Quiet beaches, limited traffic noise and the white, coastal bluffs create an atmosphere that makes visitors feel like they’ve left Lebanon entirely. The aquatic landscape is relatively pristine in several areas, however, without protective coves travelers likely have to risk the long drive to Naqoura with less chance that the water will be calm and the visibility clear when they arrive. With that said, when the conditions are favorable snorkelers will be glad they made the commute.
Abou Ali Beach, Batroun
Batroun might just be Lebanon’s most archetypal beach town. Quaint streets, summer parties and a laid-back atmosphere make this a favorite tourism destination for Lebanese and foreigners alike. The city is also the headquarters of the National Center for Marine Sciences and its easy to see why. Rocky seabeds along the coast provide an optimal habitat for many of Lebanon’s aquatic species. The topography under the water of Abou Ali beach is especially notable for its mix of stone and sand. Relatively shallow waters here bring snorkelers up close with schools of placid fish. Be aware that the narrow walls of the inlet tend to magnify incoming surf, which can reduce visibility. Fortunately, Abou Ali’s sandy public beach makes for a comfortable camping site, enabling visitors to sleep over and hit the water in the early morning when the sea is at its calmest.
Tyre Coast Nature Reserve Snorkeling Trail
Thanks to the persistent efforts of the Tyre Coast Nature Reserve (TCNR), the city’s name has become virtually synonymous with images of its endangered sea turtle population. In addition to these gentle giants the city is also a treasure trove of sunken archeologic structures. Now, an initiative by the TCNR aims to showcase these features in a novel way. According to Nabigha Dakik who works at the reserve, years of collaboration with the NGO ARESMAR, MedPan and the municipality of Tyre have begun to pay off. In the waters opposite of the protected beach lines of floating rope demarcate the boundaries of a snorkeling trail that began its testing phase earlier this year. As early as next April, patrons will be able to hire a guide that will provide equipment, orientation and an informative swimming tour. The tour, which lasts approximately 40 minutes, passes by an ancient wave breaker, stone quarry and fallen columns with good odds of encountering a sea turtle along the way.
Inside Batroun, just to the southern end of the Phoenician wall, is the unsuspecting strip of abraded stones known as Al-Bahsa. Without fashionable restaurants or nargeleh kiosks this somewhat unremarkable beach is used almost exclusively by local families. The rocky terrain doesn’t make for the most comfortable experience either on the land or in the shallows. Further into the water however these drawbacks become Al-Bahsa’s strengths providing a flourishing habitat for an impressive diversity of creatures. Be sure to swim along the northern side of the cove where a vertical wall has created an almost reef-like environment. The beach’s encyclopedic range of species, in combination with its accessibility and wave tempering cove, make Al-Bahsa one of the top go-to snorkeling destinations in Lebanon. Remember that prudent snorkels must keep an eye out for jet skis and yachts that may carelessly intrude into the boat-free zone.
Palm Islands Nature Reserve
While the Palm Islands are famous for the sanctuary they provide to migratory birds, the islands’ original designation qualifies them as Lebanon’s only marine reserve. This year the reserve officially introduced the country’s first scuba dive trail around Ramkine Island. Khaled Merhabi, the President of the Lebanese Diving Team who contributed to the trail’s creation, says that at 425 meters it’s the longest dive route in the world. The diving sites, labeled A-N, linearly wrap around Ramkine’s marine basin including a total of 14 points. Although some of the designated locations are only accessible to scuba divers, sites A, B, C, F, H, and I close to the Island’s shore and are shallow enough for snorkelers to enjoy as well.
For the majority of the year the water around the Palm Islands remains almost perfectly clear. Nearly six miles into the Mediterranean the marine life here can be both fascinating and large compared to the coves along Lebanon’s coast. The combination of deep blue water, extremely high visibility and interesting fauna give the islands an almost tropical feel. Boats to the Palm Islands periodically set out from the port in Mina, Tripoli and operate like buses, going and returning when their seats are full. In groups its possible to hitch a ride for around 12,000 LL, but chartering a boat alone can run as high as $100. Keep in mind that those that want to snorkel in the reserve after August must obtain a permit from the administration office.
Photo credits: Dany Faddoul