Last week being Eid Al Adha, a few of us set off on what has become an annual expedition to foreign parts in search of new experiences or at least different from normal. This year we opted for a return to the Lebanon, the scene of last year’s adventure. That was an excellent trip but rather disrupted by the short Eid and inclement weather causing some of us to miss out on the submarine that had been prime objective in the first place. In short, we had unfinished business and with Sami helping out with local arrangements, we headed once again for Beirut.
We travelled mostly separately and Peter arrived a day ahead of the rest of us. He filled the time with a trip to the Roman ruins of Baalbek in the Bekaa valley about 85km north-east of Beirut. Being close to the Syrian border this is not a popular destination at the moment, a fact reinforced by a number of refugee camps that he passed en route. Sure enough, the normally busy site was all but deserted apart from Peter, three tourists from Bahrain and a solitary Japanese visitor. Politely declining to buy a Hezbollah T-shirt, he returned to Beirut the same afternoon.
The rest of us arrived on Monday after experiencing various degrees of trauma from the journey. The gold medal goes to Andy: having failed to confirm one flight in time and having arrived too late to board a second, he finally made it third time lucky. As last year, we stayed at the Mozart Hotel in Al Hamra district which is conveniently placed for the dive centre. The locals tend to pronounce this “Moz-ar-rat” which should be kept in mind when ordering taxis or great confusion will ensue. We convened in the hotel bar for a few glasses of the local brew (Almaza) before retiring to for the night.
Unlike last year, the first morning dawned bright and sunny. Sami joined us after breakfast and we made our way down to the Solidere Marina, home to NISD, the dive operation who were taking us out. Currently run by Marwan and Nasser, NISD has been operating since 1980 although the wet-suits and BCD’s we hired were a bit younger than that. It took around 30 minutes to reach the dive site: the wreck of the “Souffleur”. “Souffleur” was a Vichy French submarine that was sunk by the Royal Navy in June 1941 with the loss of 52 of its crew and which currently lies in two sections at a depth of 35m.
We were please to find that the viz was very good – of the order of 15-20m – which is not uncommon but can’t be guaranteed. There is a permanent buoy attached to the bow section of the wreck which is fixed at the break between the two halves just behind the conning tower. From there we swam along the length of the vessel. Some torpedo tubes are visible and although we didn’t reach it there is a stray torpedo lying in the sand about 20m away. It is possible to get inside the vessel for a short distance at the break but this is mostly a tangle of wreckage. In any case, being a war grave, this is strictly look but don’t touch. Part of the outer hull has peeled away revealing the inner hull beneath.
The stern section was just visible and a short swim of around 20m took us there. Some ballast tanks can be seen and again the outer hull is damaged, partly due the sinking and partly due to dynamite fishing in the years after the war. Fish life generally was very sparse as is common in the Med these days. After about 30 minutes we headed for the line and back to the surface. Altogether an amazing dive. What sets the “Souffleur” and similar wrecks apart is the sense of history that goes with them – something you just don’t get with the likes of the “Victoria Star”, however much fun they might provide on normal club dives.
On surfacing it was a bit disconcerting to find that our boat had gone missing. It was apparently picking up some divers that had been dropped on to a shallower site whilst we were under water. I’m not sure that was strictly out of the Dive Boat Skipper’s Manual but anyway we were picked up after about ten minutes of bobbing around.
After a short break changing tanks at the dive centre, we were back out for the second dive. This was the “Macedonia”, a vessel that wrecked itself sailing too close to shore in the early 1960’s. Most of the vessel was salvaged leaving only some nondescript wreckage behind. We nearly didn’t find the ship as there was a current pushing us away and the Dive Master went missing with a student who couldn’t equalize her ears. After about ten minutes swimming against the current and following the edge of the reef and we found the ship but after the earlier dive it was inevitably something of an anticlimax and the viz wasn’t as good either. Apparently there is more wreckage a short distance away but we only found out about that after the event. Not to worry, an excellent day – many thanks to Marwan and Nasser.
There followed a much needed meal at a pavement café on one of the quieter roads not far from Al Hamra Street. Later that evening we had a stroll around the area, settling eventually at Danny’s Bar on a very lively street, ten minutes walk from the hotel.
There had been much discussion about what to do on Wednesday. We finally decided to dive the “Lady M Air Cave”, a site 40km north of Beirut. This turned out to be something different to say the least. We dived with Dive the Med Club out of Batroun, one of their two centres. It is run by Kamal Greig and has not been going very long, hence the smell of fresh paint and the new equipment.
The dive site was a short boat ride from the centre during which we passed a sea wall still standing from Phoenician times. There are two entrances to the cave – one wide, one narrow. There was a five minute swim to the entrance during which time Kamal concluded that we were safe to use the narrow way so in we went, single file. Half way along the salt water of the sea meets the fresh water coming off the land resulting in a halocline giving some seriously weird optical effects. These could be avoided be moving to one side although this meant letting go of the guide rope. Once inside the cave you can surface and remove your regulator – the air is good – although there’s absolutely no light, something we confirmed by switching off torches. A statue of the Virgin Mary (“Our Lady M”) has been erected inside the cave, giving the cave its name. The fresh water inside the cave was crystal clear. We exited the cave via the wide opening – blue light at the end of a dark tunnel which was a dramatic image to remember.
A few metres from the cave exit is a sort of added bonus, the remains of an unnamed WW2 shipwreck. Like the Macedonia, it has been partially cut up for scrap but still has a bit of scope for exploration, although penetration is discouraged as Cathy discovered to her cost, getting half way through a hole before being hauled out by her ankles.
Out of the water, Sami did a dance on the back of the boat and I think we all felt a bit like that. Many thanks to Kamal, Su and Anthony and also to Ena, a young lady from Ukraine doing the boat cover. Peter’s attempts to take her home along with his dive gear proved a tad optimistic. I’ll make no mention of her obvious good taste.
After the dive we moved on to Byblos, reputed to the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world, dating back 8,000 years. The architectural site contains Phoenician and Roman remains as well as the 12th century Crusader castle. We had a most welcome meal at an Italian restaurant in the old town before exploring the town and the castle in particular. The journey back was marred by heavy traffic as people returned to the capital after the Eid holiday. Think Ittihad Road at its most catastrophic. Lebanese driving is something else – you need nerves of steel, instant response times and judgment of your vehicle width accurate to the millimeter. Back in Beirut, Derek, Emma and Brian felt up for an excursion into town but the rest of us were content with a few drinks at the hotel bar before hitting the sack.
Thursday morning meant a lie-in and no diving – instead we had invites up to Sami’s inland retreat on the slopes of Mount Lebanon. Both the house itself and the afternoon’s barbecue defy description but it’s fair to say that both were equally spectacular. Enormous thanks to Sami and Vivienne for their generous hospitality not to mention Sami’s assistance with the arrangements before and during the trip.
Friday morning, as some of us were heading for the airport, saw our first rain, and it was quite heavy. Derek, Emma and Andy spent the day exploring the spectacular Jeita Caves north of Beirut after which Andy went around the National Museum. Peter in the meantime met his former Arabic teacher, Abir, and her family for Friday lunch, before leading an English-speaking workshop for Abir’s teaching colleagues. Thus a diving holiday became a busman’s holiday for Peter (though he wasn't complaining - see pic above!).
So there you have it – another successful journey. Lebanon remains a fascinating place and at least this year I left feeling I’d seen a bit more than bars and dive sites. As a diving destination the place has its limitations – the “Souffleur” and the “Lady M Air Cave” are worth anyone’s time but the “Macedonia” was probably not worth crossing oceans for. A combined diving / sightseeing tour is probably the best approach which is essentially what we’ve done particularly this year.
For those interested, there are other sites such as the “Alice B” which we dived last year and is a good wreck – also apparently a profitable one for the military who sank it to claim the insurance. There are also some deeper wrecks for the techies such as HMS Victoria (sunk 1893) and a British freighter called the “Lesbian”. How it came by that name one can only speculate. The idea of diving on the Lesbian conjures up images that perhaps… no – don’t go there. What the diving is like on other parts of the coast I don’t know but might be worth investigating although the border regions have to be avoided as they are currently very sensitive both in the north (Syria) and the south (Israel).
This year’s team was: Sami Kyriakos, Ian Hussey, Cathy Terry, Peter Jackson, Derek Roberts, Emma Roberts, Andy Balthrop and Brian Larkin who couldn’t dive having shaken hands with the Victoria Star a couple of weeks previously but came along for the ride anyway.
While all this was going on, Mike Anthony has been off on another motorbike adventure to Morocco. You can follow his progress on his blog:
Ian Hussey and guest writers.