Divernet


OH, THE ANNUAL AGONY OF CHOOSING a diving holiday, especially if youre one of those people who always wants to go somewhere different!
     Well, for anyone fond of wreck diving, Beirut could be the answer. And before you imagine Kate Adie leaping onto your dive boat to escape the latest outbreak of fighting, a brief look at the facts.
     The civil war here ended in 1990. Beirut has largely been rebuilt and has a wonderful infrastructure in place. Part-Muslim, part-Christian, it is extremely westernised. Think French Riviera but with mosques. The Foreign Office advises no more than the same level of caution as in any Middle Eastern country at present.
     Diving is one of the fastest-growing sports in Lebanon. There are some 25 dive centres along 180 miles of coast and four in the city itself. Things have come a long way since the war years, when divers might find themselves stranded at sea while shelling took place, or becoming the target of snipers who would shoot anything that moved.
     Most dives are between 16 and 37m, so expect two 30m dives per day. Technical diving is gaining in popularity, and tekkies are offered dives up to 70m.
     You couldnt call the diving world-class. The marine life is poor, some sites resemble moonscapes, visibility is variable (we averaged 8-10m) and on some days you wouldnt want to inspect the detritus floating in the shallows too closely, though the Lebanese are making a concerted effort to improve water quality.

On the plus side, however, water temperature is a pleasant 27C at 30m-plus in August and drops to around 18C in the winter. The wrecks are generally in good condition and most have interesting histories, with new sites being discovered all the time. Over a week we often dived sites several times to get a good orientation - and because they merited it.
     Worth the cost of the trip alone is the French Vichy submarine Souffleur, built in 1924 and sunk by the British on 25 April 1941, with the loss of 50 lives. I hadnt dived a submarine before, but my enthusiasm was starting to wane as I perched in full kit on the edge of the boat, in the heat and on a stomach-churning sea, waiting for the skipper to locate the wreck. Rivers of sweat poured off my face and I seriously entertained the idea of becoming man overboard just to get in the water.
     Once submerged, with the suspension reducing the viz almost to nil, I resigned myself in true drama-queen fashion to disappointment. Great, cant see anything. Ill only know Ive reached the wreck when I concuss myself on it. But below 15m the viz improved and suddenly, about 10m below us, there was the Souffleur.
     It looked like a sub, too. It lay in two pieces at 38m, with the bow on its starboard side and the stern lying to port. Although damaged by both the torpedo that sank it and by fishermen using dynamite, it 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 littered the seabed and the 105mm cannon lay some 150m away on the seabed.
     I was thrilled, but struck by how small the vessel was. To think that 55 people lived inside this metal tube!
     Papa Joe, one of the dive guides, is an authority on this submarine wreck and his museum tour of the Souffleur is a master-class of dive-guiding.

My first words at the surface were: When can we dive this again. I would happily have dived the Souffleur all week, as there was so much to see and the added bonus of big moray eels and scorpionfish which have made the submarine their home.
     The Macedonia, the shallowest of the diveable wrecks in Beirut, lies in two sections in 16m. This cargo ship ran aground on the shallow rocks during the 1960s. The crew kept her afloat until the cargo was removed and she was then sold for scrap, but sank during a storm before scrapping could begin.
     The remains consist mainly of broken ribs and plates but the Macedonias position beside a small reef means that it has been fairly well colonised.
     Groupers and morays are common, lobsters can be seen in season and we encountered a common guitarfish. Beware of the underwater signal for this fish. I had not seen it before, so interpreted my buddys (badly) mimed water guitar as something quite different!
     The Alice B is excellent for penetration dives and very photogenic, because it sits upright and largely intact at 37m.
     Declared lost at sea by the militia during the civil war, the insurance company paid out US $1 million in compensation! Still, its loss is our gain!

You can see everything on one dive, and access the sleeping quarters, engine room, kitchen and living quarters. Nearly all the fittings have been pillaged, so there is little to bump into or catch on.
     This is a pleasant, easy wreck dive offering the novel experience of seeing portholes still in place, though how they have survived is a mystery!
     It was fun to sit on deck and watch our bubbles spiral up the mast towards the surface light.
     During July and August, smalltooth sand tiger sharks arrive at Shark Point. Marine biologists believe their annual visit to be part of their breeding cycle.
     Males grow up to 3m and females 4m long, so an encounter with one or more of these magnificent animals is memorable.
     We were enjoying a pleasant bimble over the rocks, out to one end of the reef and back, and just as low air was about to force our ascent, a lone shark appeared in the canyon 3m below us, promenaded gracefully to and fro, as if for our benefit, and disappeared. Awesome!
     The site consists of five reefs with plateaux and drop-offs starting at 28m down to 50m-plus.
     We saw no sharks on our second dive here, only a pair of sting rays. Outside shark season, you can also find eagle rays, grouper, tuna and morays here, as well as nudibranchs and a statue of the Madonna, thoughtfully added as a point of interest.

Sting Ray Reef (or Alley) is another seasonal site based on sand, rocks and sea grass. June and July are ray months in which sting rays are joined by the electric, thornback and eagle varieties.
     In August we encountered only one small ray, unidentifiable through the murk, though there were a few decent-sized moray eels and more of those nudibranchs.
     AUB (American University Beach) Canyon is a wall dive and can be accessed from the shore, though we took the easier boat option.
     This is one of the few sites suitable for the less-experienced diver. You hit the rocky bottom at around 5m, with the drop-off starting at 25m and continuing to more than 300m. There are plenty of nooks and crevices into which to peer, and we saw a big octopus as well as the ubiquitous nudibranchs. Jellyfish can be a hazard during July and you need to watch out for fishing line and nets.
     The water might be warm in Beirut but the diving is challenging. Some sites can have quite a current rushing across them and the seas can be lumpy. Its just like home! However, dive briefings were very thorough, with emphasis on the safety aspects. Expect to carry a delayed SMB for making ascents.
     Facilities for divers are excellent. Only wealthy Lebanese dive, so you wont find clubs or schools sat at the end of a rickety jetty - expect doormen, valet parking and lots of silicone around the hotel pool.
     And, yes, it is different, somewhere few UK divers have gone before. Yours is guaranteed to be the only boat at a dive site, and you dont have to get up at the crack of dawn.
     First dive was at midday and the second at 5pm, making it easy to enjoy Beiruts nightlife without having to worry about an early start. Doesnt that alone make it worth considering

After
After diving at the National Institute for Scuba Diving berth
a
a collection of intact gauges
a
a torpedo in its tube on the Souffleur

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE British Airways and Middle Eastern Airlines fly direct from£494, but cheaper flights are available. Note that if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport you will not be allowed into Lebanon. An entry visa can be bought on arrival for around£12. Taxis are the best way to get around. The official advised rate from the airport to Beirut centre is US $10, so ask for a service taxi and agree the price in advance - dont let it run on meter.
DIVING: Paula Fancini dived with the National Institute for Scuba Diving (NISD), a PADI, TDI, IANTD and NAUI centre with direct access to the marina and well-equipped boats. Nitrox 32 and 36 fills and trimix are available. A recreational dive costs US $20, with nitrox $5 extra. An extended range dive costs $40 and a trimix dive $150, including mixes (00961 3204422 or www.nisd-online.com).
ACCOMODATION: NISD is based at the four-star Melia Riviera Hotel, which costs $110 a night (00961 1602273). The three-star Concorde Hotel close by costs $55 for a double room (00961 1740678), or try the Marble Tower Hotel (00961 1347656). Its worth paying a little extra for a good hotel, as tourism remains a fairly new concept in modern Lebanon.
FOOD & DRINK: Local beer Almaza is good. Restaurants are often not much to look at but welcoming and offer excellent local food. Sushi bars are very popular, and McDonalds, Burger King, TGI Friday, Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks etc can be found in the Hamra/downtown area.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Lebanese Consulate, London 0207 229 7265, e-mail: lebemb@btinternet.com




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