The Mediterranean breeze waves wash upon a soothsayer sand beach whispering love poems between each sigh. Lustrous sunshine, massaging with temperate, beams beneath the waves. Turtles twist in tubular turnabouts as the shimmering sunshine shines through waves casting shadows and light amongst a sea spectrum. A faint breeze ghosts through the swaying banana trees. Crabs scuttle along the precipice of the sea and sand, as the waves wash the crooked edges of stones. This is the idyllic habitation where sea turtles meet the sand to lay their eggs in hope that one day those tiny creatures left defenseless will meet their sea again.
Mansouri and Kolaila beaches are two of the most beautiful and clean beaches in Lebanon and are also well protected turtle reserves. The local municipalities, thanks to the Orange House Project, have recognized both beaches as protected natural areas.
The history of the sea turtle dates back 100 million years. It’s the story of an animal that has succeeded where the almighty dinosaurs failed, survive, despite climate changes. Today, a greater threat to the turtle, a danger that was not intended by nature: the destructive hand of man. In Lebanon, it was barely mentioned until the day when a woman met them by chance on a beach in the South. From that day forward, Mona el Khalil’s life was transformed and she was committed to their cause.
For millennia, sea turtles have swum ashore every summer to lay their eggs on beaches in southern Lebanon. After incubation, the hatchlings race across the sand from their nests to the sea at night.
Mona, then living in the Netherlands, had returned to Lebanon to visit her family’s beachfront farm. One moonless night, she was amazed to spy a green turtle laying eggs on the beach. She then discovered that turtles were in danger of vanishing from Lebanon, she immediately knew what she would do when she came back to live here.
The loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), and the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) are two endangered species that lay their eggs on Lebanon’s beaches. After they’ve hatched and begun their solitary journey in the ocean, female turtles return to the same shore they were born in after about 25 years to nest their eggs. The alteration of those sites modifies the turtles’ birth rate behaviors drastically, noting that a decrease in the population could lead to an imbalance in the marine ecosystem.
In 2000, just after Israel withdrew its troops from south Lebanon, Mona began restoring the farmhouse, researching turtles and consulting experts on how they could protect them. This turned out to be labor-intensive, keeping the beach clean, daily monitoring to gather data during the nesting season from May to September, relocating nests higher up the beach if they were threatened by agriculture runoff or sea flooding and installing metal grids to protect them from predators.
Part guesthouse and part turtle conservation project, the large, tangerine-colored building, The Orange House Project, an ode to Netherlands’ color, sits just past a military checkpoint halfway between Tyre and Naqoura in southern Lebanon.
Walking through the banana field you reach a gate that opens onto a golden, un-spoilt stretch of sandy beach. There a one square meter metal grid, anchored with iron hooks, to keep the predators out while allowing the hatchlings to leave, covers each nest. There little leathery eggs start hatching instantaneously. Placed in a bucket, counted, measured and then there are set free. Instinctively the hatchlings orient themselves towards the sea and start their almost impossible mission, pushing themselves against all odds to reach the water.
Once they hit the water they immediately start swimming. They were so tiny compared to the vast and dangerous sea that I couldn’t help but wonder how many would survive and whether this sandy beach, to which they are now programed to return to lay their eggs, will be there one day waiting for them.
Every morning at dawn Mona Khalil walks down to the beach to check for traces of Mediterranean Sea turtles, which climb ashore during the night to lay their eggs in the sand. The turtles have picked a very sensitive area for their progeny, as the beach lies right against the Lebanon-Israel border.
“This place is my heaven on earth. There is no other heaven for me, this is it.” Mona
As I walked through this desolated beach I couldn’t help but feel that amongst this equilibrium we are infinite. Just like those beautiful sea turtles with eyes still closed, my mind awakes to the sea upon my door, it knocks with salty insolence, my land locked soul to lure.
And maybe Mona was like a turtle, itching for and inching her way to the sea, dying to taste that salty, blue, and earth liquid. Like a sea turtle left in the sand to hatch on her own and bravely voyage into the ocean, escaping her idle life in a pure, white shell for a treacherous journey into a polluted, dark ocean, she guards this beach.
With the sound of the ocean and the light of the moon as their only guides, they pause at the shoreline, both the turtles and Mona. The tide comes in, sweeps them off their feet and welcomes them in a beautiful embrace.
With independent instinct, they head straight for the open seas, the bravest, most definitive act. And just like us no matter the tides, the seas, and the oceans, no matter the time is takes, we somehow manage to find our way back home where the sand is soft and the skies are blue.
If every beach in Lebanon had a Mona, our shores would have looked much different! To the great spirits of Lebanon, fighting to keep this country humane and away from the hands of greed.