National Institute for Scuba Diving
  National Institute for Scuba Diving - Established since 1980
DIVING IN BEIRUT,  by Paula Fancini-Hooper
 

My partner and I had heard on the grapevine that Beirut was the place to go for diving that was 'a bit different'. The partner, having lived in Beirut as a young child, was keen to see the city as it was now and so, after a few searches on the Internet, we duly booked ourselves a week's diving with the National Institute of Scuba Diving.

Our friends looked at us in horror when we told them where we were bound and I'm sure some of them were ready to scour the 'papers waiting to read of our capture or death, and had visions of Kate Adie leaping onto the dive boat to escape the latest outbreak of fighting. Whilst that would have been nearer the picture some 12 years ago, today, the reality is far less dramatic:

1. The civil war ended in 1990.

2. The city is now largely rebuilt and has a wonderful infrastructure in place.

3. Part Muslim, part Christian, it is extremely Westernised. Think French Riviera but with mosques and you'll get the picture.

4. However, you would be wise to avoid the southern part of the country, where outbreaks between rival factions still continue over the Lebanese / Israeli border.

We found that diving is extremely popular and is one of the fastest growing sports in Lebanon. There are approximately 25 dive centres along the 180 miles of Lebanese coast and 4 in Beirut itself. Things have come along way from the war years when diving was a hazardous pastime when common problems included being stranded out at sea whilst shelling took place or finding yourself the target of snipers who would "shoot anything that moved"! Most dives are between 16M and 37M so expect two 30M dives per day. Teccies have dives on offer up to 70M and technical diving is certainly gaining in popularity in the Lebanon.

Our choice, NISD, is a TDI, IANTD, PADI, NAUI centre run by Walid Noshie, and situated in the marina of the 4* Melia Riviera Hotel. It's an ideal location, with direct access from the kit store and compressor room to the well-equipped boats. Nitrox fills (32 and 36%) and Trimix are available. They also have a fabulous dive shop, Scuba Station; about 10 minutes walk from the marina.

Walid and his guides put the emphasis very much on enjoying your diving in safety. Dive briefs are very thorough on the safety aspects of that dive and anyone seen to flout the rules will be spoken to! However, there were a couple days where, because of weather conditions, the second dive turned out to be slightly deeper than the previous one, which does seem to be something of the norm in Lebanon, but which, we avoided. You will be expected to carry a delayed SMB for making ascents.

First dive of the day is at the extremely welcome time of midday and second dive 5 o'clock. Ideal for sampling the nightlife of Beirut without having to worry about an early start the following day!

Generally, the diving in Lebanon cannot be deemed 'world class'. Situated at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, the marine life is poor with some sites best described as 'moonscapes' rather than landscapes. The visibility is variable (we averaged 8-10m) and on some days you wouldn't want to inspect the detritus floating in the shallows too closely, although the Lebanese are making a concerted effort on improving the water quality. On the plus side however, the water temperature is an extremely pleasant 27C at 30m+ during August, (when we visited) and drops to around 18C in the winter so diving all year round is possible. The wrecks are interesting, generally in good condition and most have a good history. New sites are being discovered all the time, so there will always be something 'fresh' to dive.

During our week we managed a mixture of wreck and reef diving, of which the wrecks were the highlights. Often we dived a site more than once in order to get a good orientation and because the site warranted another look.

Worth the cost of the trip alone is the submarine 'Souffleur'. She is a French Vichy Submarine, built in 1924 and sunk by the British on April 25th 1941 with a loss of 50 lives.

I was extremely keen to dive this wreck, as I'd not dived a submarine before but this enthusiasm was starting to wane as I perched, in full kit on the edge of the boat on a very hot day on a heaving sea, whilst the skipper located the wreck. Rivers of sweat poured off my face in a very unladylike manner and I seriously entertained becoming 'man overboard' just to get in the water. "Diving is fun. Diving is fun," I repeated in mantra-like fashion as I tried to ignore the insistent churning of a stomach that wanted me to revisit breakfast.

Once in the water, with the suspension reducing to viz to practically nil, I resigned myself, in true drama-queen fashion, to disappointment. "Great. Can't see anything. I will only know I've reached the wreck when I concuss myself on it and my buddy will tell me that the lump over there is the torpedo room when it could be an elephant for all I can make out". But things improved! Below 15m the viz improved and then, suddenly, about 10m below us, there she was. And yes, she looked like a submarine. She lies in two pieces at 38M, with the bow on its starboard side and the stern on its port. Although damaged by both the torpedo that sank her and by fisherman using dynamite, she is in reasonable condition. The outer hull has gone, leaving the pressure hull on view. There was the conning tower with the periscope easily identifiable inside; there were the access hatches. Here, the torpedo tubes and the main anti-aircraft gun. Rifles litter the seabed and the 105mm canon lays roughly 150M away on the seabed.

I was thrilled, but most striking of all to me was how small she was. To think that 55 people lived inside this metal tube was a very sobering thought. Modern submariners must have it easy in comparison and you still wouldn't get me inside a modern sub!

As always, with memorable dives, it was over too soon and my first words at surface were "when can we dive this again?" I would happily have dived her all week, as there's so much to see and the added bonus of several Moray Eels (big ones!) and Scorpionfish who have made their home here.

It is worth mentioning here that penetration is only for the experienced as the passages are extremely narrow and silty. 'Papa Joe' one of the guides at the centre we used, is an authority on this particular wreck and his 'museum tour' of the Sub is a master class of dive guiding.

Another wreck, which is starting to form an artificial reef, is the 'Macedonia', the shallowest of the diveable wrecks, laying in 2 sections in 16M. She was a cargo ship who ran aground on the shallow rocks during the 1960's. The crew managed to keep her afloat until the cargo was removed and she was then sold to an individual in order to be broken up for scrap. Unfortunately, the new owner was unable to complete his task, as the remains of the ship sank during a storm! This is not a breathtaking dive as she is barely recognisable as a ship; the remains are mainly broken ribs and plates but her position next to a small reef means she has been fairly well colonised and Groupers and Morays are common. Lobsters can be seen in season and we were fortunate enough to encounter a Common Guitarfish.

The final wreck we experienced during our week was the 'Alice B', an excellent wreck for penetration dives and very photogenic due to the fact that she sits upright and largely intact at 37M. The Militia sank her during the civil war in order to make an insurance claim. She was declared 'lost at sea' and the insurance company duly paid out one million US dollars in compensation! Still, the insurance company's loss is our gain!

She is small enough to be able to see all there is to see in one dive and access to the sleeping quarters, engine room, kitchen and living quarters is possible. As the ship has had nearly everything pillaged, there are very few hazards to bump into or get caught on. I found this a very pleasant and easy wreck dive with the novelty of seeing portholes still in their place, although how these survived when everything else has been removed is a mystery! It was also extremely enjoyable to sit on the deck, looking upwards and watching your bubbles spiral up the mast towards the surface light: a very calm and peaceful moment.

Non-Wreck Dives

During July and August Smalltooth Sand Tiger Sharks make their annual visit to 'Shark Point'. No one knows exactly why they come but marine biologists believe it to be part of the breeding cycle. Males grow up to 3m and females 4m in length, so an encounter with one or more of these magnificent animals has to be a plus point in anyone's logbook! As with many of the dives here, we were enjoying a pleasant little bimble over the rocks. We had been to one end of the reef and back but no shark, such is life. But almost at the point where air consumption forced us to start our ascent, there it was, 3m of pure shark! The beast we encountered appeared in the canyon 3m below us, promenaded graciously to and fro, seemingly for our benefit alone and then disappeared. Simply awesome!

On our second dive of this site, we saw no sharks at all; a reminder that sighting these animals is not guaranteed and they are not here for our entertainment alone, but we did encounter a pair of Stingrays who were more surprised by us then we were by them! The dive site itself is made up of 5 reefs with plateaux and drop-offs starting at 28m and dropping to 50m+. Out of 'shark season' it is still possible to see the Stingray, Eagle Ray, Grouper, Tuna, Moray and Nudibranch and a statue of the Madonna, which NISD have thoughtfully added as a further point of interest.

Stingray Reef (or Alley), much like Shark Point, is a memorable dive - depending on the time of year you visit! June and July are 'Ray months' where I'm told it is possible to see not only Stingray, but also Electric, Thornback and Eagle Ray species. In August we encountered one small Ray, unidentifiable through the murky viz! However, there were a couple decent sized Moray and yes, more Nudibranch. The dive itself was quite pleasant and the seabed is a quite varied composition of sand, rocks and sea grass.

The AUB Canyon (American University Beach) site can be accessed either by boat or as a shore dive (we took the easier boat option) and is one of the few sites suitable for the less experienced diver. Basically a wall dive, you hit the rocky bottom at around 5M with the drop off starting at 25M and then dropping to more than 300M. There are plenty of nooks and crevices to peer into and we saw a very generous sized Octopus as well as the ubiquitous Nudibranch. Jellyfish can be a hazard during July and you also need to keep a watch for fishing line and nets.

So, Beirut: the water may be warm but the diving is challenging enough for your hard-nosed diving friends not to label you as a 'warm-water diver'. To get the best out of the diving on offer, I would recommend that you be an experienced Sports Diver or equivalent. Some sites can have quite a current rushing across them and the seas can be 'lumpy' to say the least. Facilities for divers are excellent. As only the wealthy Lebanese dive, their dive club / school surroundings reflect this; you won't find any clubs sat at the end of a rickety jetty. (Expect doormen and valet parking and lots of silicone sat around the hotel pool.) Very few UK divers have visited here so far: we were only the 4th non-Lebanese people to dive with NISD that year (2001), but were treated with enormous respect, which does wonders for the ego.

FACTS & FIGURES

NISD can be contacted www.nisd-online.com email info@NISD-online.com Tel + (3) 204422 Fax + (1) 739206. Walid will be happy to arrange your accommodation or you could contact one of the hotels shown below. The hotels are variable in standard as tourism is fairly new to the Lebanon, but Walid's choices are excellent and it is definitely worth paying that little bit extra to ensure comfort, cleanliness and impeccable service. We have friends who booked their own accommodation only to find their hotel was actually a brothel!

We stayed at the 3* Concorde Hotel. (5 minutes walk from the dive centre) Tel + (1) 740678 Fax + (1) 740667. Email concorde@cyberia.net.lb

Other possibilities include

The Melia Riviera (home of NISD) 4* Tel + (1) 602273 Fax + (1) 602272

Marble Tower Hotel 3* Tel + (1) 347656

Before you go:

Tetanus, Typhoid, Polio and Hepatitis 'A' are all recommended jabs at least 4 weeks before travelling.

Getting there:

British Airways and Middle Eastern Airlines fly direct from £494, but cheaper flights are available. I found the same flight dates from £239 on www.cheapflights.com

NB. If you have visited Israel and have an Israeli stamp in your passport you will not be allowed entry into Lebanon.

Visa

You must have an entry visa. This can be purchased at the airport on arrival for approx £12, although this figure seems to vary depending on the mood the clerk is in.

Language

Arabic is the official language, but French and English are widely spoken.

Money

US dollars are accepted everywhere, although change may be given in Lebanese currency, (Lebanese Pounds). There is approximately 2500 Lebanese £ to one £ Sterling.

Beirut and surrounding area

Beirut itself is a city of extremes, with an incredible amount of wealth and an equal amount of poverty. You will see families scraping a living in the bombed out buildings which are still standing. Downtown is largely rebuilt and the Lebanese are justifiably proud of the way they are getting their lives together since the civil war. There is still a large military presence on the streets. Western dress for woman is perfectly acceptable in the city but be prepared to cover up if you travel into the country. (Well worth the effort, as it is exceptionally pretty and has masses of history).

Taxis

The best way to get around town. The Government advised rate from the airport to Beirut centre is $10 so ask for a 'service' taxi and agree the price before you get in. Don't let the taxi run on meter, it'll end up costing you way over the odds. (We got stung for $30 from the airport to our hotel). If you walk anywhere EVERY passing taxi hoping to get your business will beep at you!

Eating and drinking

The local beer is Almaza and is quite good. Bottled water is preferable for drinking. Many local restaurants are not much to look at but the food is excellent, (you should try the local Meze for a selection of Lebanese dishes) and you will be made very welcome. Sushi is very popular in the Lebanon and so there are plenty of bars and restaurants offering this. McDonalds, Burger King, TGI Friday, Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks et al all have restaurants in the Hamra / Downtown area. Eating out is not cheap however, especially in the restaurant chains.

Paula Fancini-Hooper A718593 / OWI 2455 email fluffonastick31@hotmail.com

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