BEIRUT: With a 252 km long shoreline and a history that boasts of maritime resources and benefits, Lebanon is full of thalassophiles who grew up with a sacred love for the Mediterranean, and many have found the right sport to explore its blue depths.
Scuba diving, or swimming underwater with a Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, is a centuries-old water sport whose modern façade is a byproduct of centuries of scientific research.
Located on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, Lebanon’s coastal towns have become home to a diversity of water sports centers, including a wide abundance of scuba diving clubs.
For the curious pursuit of discovering what mysteries exist under the water, scuba diving has been the ultimate water sport for thousands of locals who have found meaning and tranquility in cruising the aquatic world and transforming into sea creatures for a few hours.
“Apart from swimming, scuba diving and freediving are the only aquatic activities through which the individual feels fully immersed within the sea,” Joe Chidiac, owner of the renowned Calypso diving center, told Annahar. “Scuba diving takes you back to the first nine months of your life when you were in the womb, fully enveloped by water, and all you could hear was yourself breathing,” he added.
NISD (National Institute for Scuba Diving) is the oldest operating diving center in Lebanon. Nasser Saidi, NISD’s scuba station manager and diving instructor, told Annahar that “diving is not only about what the diver sees underwater, but about the whole mind-blowing experience of floating in a zero-gravity environment.”
For Saidi, however, the exceeding number of dive centers in Lebanon is making the competition unhealthy with the rise of “dive grocery stores” selling cheap courses with low-quality training, which puts the divers at risk and jeopardizes the local diving industry.
Another vital issue that diving clubs in Lebanon are struggling with is that of the increasing rate of seawater pollution, and many of them, including the dive centers featured in this article, are taking remarkable environmental initiatives in an attempt to make a change.
NISD organizes and manages the marine and coastal zone management programs in Lebanon at their center, along with organizing annual beach cleanups as they have been doing for the past 15 years.
Chidiac, who has been diving since 1984, told Annahar about the distressing change he has witnessed in the aquatic underside of the Lebanese coast.
“Micro corals of purple and blue used to thrive there, so did mussels and sea urchins and lots of other sea creatures who have now disappeared due to coastal overpopulation and waste dumped into the sea,” he said.
He added: “That’s why Calypso diving center always participates in coastal cleanup campaigns, the last one was initiated by the Lebanese Ministry of Environment.”
Other prominent diving centers also partook in the campaign, including DivetheMedClub. As its founder and managing director Kamal Greig told Annahar, no diver can be certified with DivetheMedClub without learning the theoretical part of training dedicated to environmental awareness.
“Marine preservation and awareness is our center’s daily bread,” Greig said.
Because of the rising challenges of water pollution, DivetheMedClub relocated to the Batroun area in 2014, “where waters are cleaner, visibility is much better (almost like a different sea) and there are more chances of marine life encounters.”
After years of organizing and participating in beach cleanup efforts, the DivetheMedClub team realized that very little had changed.
“It was at that time where we decided that our club would participate in awareness campaigns near schools in primary and secondary levels,” Greig explained.
Many Lebanese schools welcomed them, and gave them the chance to speak about sea pollution and spread awareness to young students and "teach them how consumer behavior affects the waste management crisis.”
Greig has been diving since 1983, from the age of nine years old. He told Annahar of his earlier tales of the sea, when “marine life in Lebanon was much more diverse, the reefs were healthier and even the coastlines were different.”
“Now, the picture is very different,” Greig continued. “It would be a major encounter when we see dolphins or turtles or even monk seals while diving, which were spotted almost daily back in the day."
Another Lebanese freediver who has found his lifelong dream of diving affected by pollution is Mohamad Ghali, a Padi and CMAS free dive instructor, who found himself escaping to a Thai island in 2019 to be able to pursue his love for diving without fearing polluted waters.
“The Lebanese Mediterranean is a diabetic patient and we are still overfeeding him sugar,” Ghali told Annahar.
“As a professional diver and instructor, I tried to make a living out of freediving from 2015 until 2018. But seeing how hard it was to simply find a clean diving spot with decent visibility, I noticed how my drive to dive was decreasing by the day, and so I had to change directions before my love for diving completely vanished,” he added.
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