Everything’s better under Lebanon’s sea

BEIRUT: Under the water, you can be a child again. No longer does the constant stream of messages and alerts from social networks or the incessant din of an office space distract you.

Every nook can be explored, every rock upturned; you chase curiously after rainbow-colored fish, the impulse to investigate the world you have suddenly discovered takes hold.

Then a tug on the flipper. It’s Walid Ghotmeh, the scuba diving instructor, and he motions you to slow down and enjoy the show. Relax and keep your eyes open.

The easy swim is held off the coast at the American University of Beirut, about 10 meters out for the beginner divers who are just testing the waters with the “Discover Scuba Diving” program set up by the Calypso Diving Club, based at the Movenpick Hotel in Raouche. The expert divers are farther out at sea, having been dropped off earlier, flawlessly slipping under the calm waters.

Riding out to the diving spot on a clear summer day is cause enough to fall in love with water sports. The din of the boat engine drowns out the conversations around you, and there is nothing but the salty sea breeze. The sun-kissed Mediterranean Sea embraces the sky on the horizon, and Beirut lies a seeming world away, its skyline belying the traffic jams and buzz of life.

The waters off of AUB are surprisingly clean. Visibility is a few meters in all directions, enough to entice you on to the next curiosity.

The Discover Scuba Diving session, about four hours in all, begins with a theoretical introduction to the sport and basic scuba diving gear, including how to breathe underwater or inflate and deflate your diving suit.

Next, the instructors take you on a brief test drive of the equipment at the Movenpick pool. It’s quickly evident why the test run is necessary, because breathing underwater and getting used to the pressure gauge can be counterintuitive to a first-time diver who might panic if a little water gets into the breathing regulator (the water can be expelled with a small push of a button).

It’s easy to tense up and panic, said Mohammad Azzam, another driving instructor.

“That’s why we do it in the pool first,” he said.

Next is a trip out to sea by the AUB wall, where the staggered depths allow both beginner and advanced divers to explore.

Bassam Oud, the club manager at Calypso, said scuba diving was growing in popularity in Lebanon because the sport had become safer as a result of a growing understanding of the science of diving and improvements in the equipment. He added, however, that would-be divers should seek out diving centers with experienced trainers and proper safety procedures.

He said parents were now bringing their children in to learn the sport at an early age.

“We have divers from all ages and genders,” he said, adding that every year the club saw 200 “new faces.”

In addition to Discover Scuba, Calypso offers full courses where divers can get internationally certified to pursue the sport anywhere they travel, as well as rescue and first-aid classes and cave-diving sessions, among others.

The main open-sea diving course includes a series of lectures on diving science, how to use the equipment, how pressure and being underwater affects the body and so on. This is followed by a few sessions at the swimming pool and then five dives in the sea.

Calypso’s program costs $500, including equipment rentals. After that, Oud said, divers can try out specialized experiences such as night diving to decide if they want to pursue more advanced courses and eventually even become certified as a diving instructor.

Many make use of their training on travels to tropical locations. But most stay in touch with the center and continue diving, he said, even becoming instructors sometimes, teaching their close friends or family.

“That link stays,” he said.

Many of those flocking to the center now are university students on summer vacation and professionals looking to de-stress from the office.

Oud said would-be scuba divers should do their homework and research courses before taking them, comparing them to what international dive centers offer. Quality courses ensure that divers are taught proper safety procedures.

“If you don’t follow the standards, you are going to have an accident and either get hurt or lose your life.”

Oud said the regular dives occurred in Beirut, between the Movenpick’s marina and Ain al-Mreisseh. Outside the city, locations span from Batroun to Khalde, where a Vichy French submarine sunk in 1944 – a popular haunt for divers.

The center takes occasional longer trips as far south as Sidon, which has deeper wrecks to explore.

Oud said he did not have a favorite personal diving spot, given that it was his job to dive, but added that each one had a different “fragrance.”

But he sounded in awe of one particular site in Tripoli – a British frigate sunk in 1884 that stands pointing upward underwater, from a depth of 70 meters to a staggering 144 meters.

The site is off-limits to scuba divers now due to a government order to prevent theft and claims by rival dive centers. But Oud calls it the “Everest of scuba diving.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 19, 2014, on page 2.




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