Palm Island Reserve, Lebanon’s unique natural marine Park
Tripoli, Lebanon - Palm Island Reserve, 10 nautical km offshore of Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, is a chain of three small islands rich with native flora and fauna offering a natural respite for the city’s residents and visitors from across the world.
Open to the public from July until October, Lebanon’s only protected marine life area is easily reached from Tripoli’s fishing port of Al- Mina. It takes about half-an-hour for small fishing boats to get to the main Island of the Rabbits, which boasts a sandy beach and a reserve known for rare green sea turtles and other marine wildlife.
Unlike the often murky, polluted water off other cities on Lebanon’s coast, the water at the Palm Island Reserve is a very clear turquoise. Swimmers and snorkelers can clearly see the rocky seabed.
The fine white sand on the beaches is made of eroded limestone, which, in addition to creating a pristine shoreline, is believed by local fishermen to have healing properties for rheumatism and arthritis.
The island draws thousands of visitors on day trips for a ferry ticket price of $3.50. No restaurants or shops are available on the islands, only a kiosk selling water and soft drinks.
“It is the only inexpensive breathing space for the people of Tripoli where they can bring their own food and drinks, spend a day at the beach and enjoy the clean waters,” said Samih Kabbara, a frequent visitor.
“The ferry drops you off in the morning and picks you up at sunset. It is forbidden to have people on the island after nightfall.”
The Island of the Rabbits, named for the fast-breeding community of furry animals introduced to the island by French soldiers in the 1920s, is under the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea Against Pollution because of its importance for nesting and migratory birds, turtles and seals. Ruins of an old church, dating from medieval times, stand on the rocky part of the island, which also has a fresh water well.
“Fishermen are strictly forbidden to come close to the reserve or jeopardise the ecosystem, a breeding milieu for rare species threatened with extinction. It is the only place in Lebanon with such marine life diversity,” said Ghassan Jaradi, a conservation activist and president of the Palm Islands Nature Reserve Management Committee.
The committee employs two full-time guards but they can hardly monitor violations and trespassing. “We need a comprehensive and well-equipped apparatus to prevent violations. With just two people, we cannot have a proper surveillance of the three islands making up the reserve,” Jaradi said.
“Protecting the islands entails setting floating decks and a mooring space away from the shore so boats won’t need to throw their anchors in the sea and damage underwater fauna.”.
Gaby Srour, a former member of Tripoli’s municipality, expressed his frustration with the government’s neglect of the islands, which he said “have a great potential as a tourist attraction”.
“We have tried for many years to place the reserve on Lebanon’s tourism map and to secure funds for development and rehabilitation projects without success. The reserve needs funds to be able to play its role as a tourism and ecological site, especially after it was recognised internationally as a secure stopover for migrating birds,” Srour said.
Amer Haddad, head of the Environment Protection Committee in Tripoli, is as disillusioned as Srour. “The Ministry of Environment has been totally inattentive to the Palm Islands. These natural islands are an environmental treasure, which need a little attention to become a special tourist spot not only in Lebanon but in the whole Arab region,” Haddad said. One of the environmental committee’s proposals, the Biaa Bay, would establish a marine park and specific sea routes to the islands and offer official ferries for visitors departing from Beirut’s Zaitunay Bay marina, Haddad says. He insisted that “the project won’t jeopardise the marine life on the islands but takes into consideration the preservation of the natural reserve and the unique ecosystem”.
Haddad argues that coastal development projects would provide jobs and improve the social and economic situation for residents of Tripoli.
Khaled al-Mohamad, a frequent visitor of the island, argues that the site needs basic renovation to make it more restful and suitable for tourists. “It should be equipped with proper showers and toilets and have a bigger number of umbrellas to make it more comfortable. I believe the state should also impose an entry fee to control the number of daily visitors,” he said.
But many people in Tripoli fear development could be harmful. “I am glad that there is no financing for development. We prefer the island stay as it is, to remain virgin and natural without development,” Kabbara said.
Despite the remote location, the islands had their share of violence during Lebanon’s conflicts. In 1984, Israel bombed the islands alleging that Palestinian guerrillas were hiding there. The Lebanese Army spent the next decade cleaning them of unexploded ordnance.
The islands suffered again during the 2006 war, when Israel, when Israel bombed the Jiyeh power plant, triggering an oil spill that washed over the islands’ shores, killing algae and other marine plant life that the delicate ecosystem depends on for survival. An internationally funded clean-up effort and implementation of a strict monitoring system revived the islands.