September 05, 2011

A Weekend at the Orange House

I spent a wonderful weekend way down south, under Sour (Tyre), some 15 kilometers from the Israeli border, in the company of a lovely lady, Mona Khalil, who dedicates her life to the preservation of sea turtles.

After the cliff there’s Naqoura, a small village, and then there’s the border fence with Israel.

The place – The Orange House  – is a Bed & Breakfast situated among date palms and banana plantations, on one of the nicest beaches in Lebanon. It is nice, because it is pristine and deserted. We were pretty much the only people on a 2 kilometer stretch of beautiful beach.

Mona leading the kids, at 6 in the morning, checking on the turtles.

These beaches are not as busy as the ones in Beirut because for one thing, the ladies in the south just cover up more, and you don’t see as many women on the beach. And there are just not that many people down south anyway, since the Israelis have made living down there quite difficult at times (although some people will argue that Hezbollah add to the hardship factor. Finding a bottle of wine turned out to be quite an expedition. Spinneys sells alcohol, but in a little room on the side).

She educates children before adults.

Mona Khalil, the owner of the Orange House, has turned her house into a very pleasant Bed & Breakfast, and invites her guests to actually observe sea turtles hatch (“but I can’t promise anything, you never know when they will hatch,” she says).

Mona uncovering the nest that has been hatching.

She happened to inherit a house on a beach that – she found out some 10 years ago – was the traditional nesting grounds for loggerhead turtles. And since then, she has been going to the beach every single morning, very early, to clear the garbage, because sea turtles love jellyfish, and plastic bags, and other garbage, are often mistaken for jellyfish. In addition to that – 6 months a year – she keeps track of the nests and the hatchlings. She marks where turtles have made nests, relocates them when they’re too close to the shoreline, covers them with wire mesh so that foxes and local dogs don’t dig up the eggs and eat them, and tracks when a nest needs to hatch. Once hatching, she tries her best to make as many turtles reach the water.
She doesn’t get paid for this, she isn’t supported by an organization, and she finances it all herself. And she does it with great passion.

The metal grid protects the turtle eggs from predators such as dogs and foxes.

Loggerhead turtles are the main turtles that come, and they make their nests on the beach where – it is said – they were once born themselves, but this year she saw some green turtles nesting as well.

Here goes number #1

Sea turtles take 20-30 years to mature and may live up to a 100 years. Tagging programs show that female turtles return to the same beach to nest. The mother turtle nests at night, up to 4 times a season, every 2 to 3 years. The 40 cm deep nest contains 100 soft-shelled eggs, like ping pong balls. Two months later (between 45 to 60 days) the hatchlings emerge at night.’ (Orange House Website)

The kids were eager to pick up the turtles and put them into the water.
No, they need to do it on their own,” said Mona “They need this time to orientate themselves, so that in 20 years time, they can find their way back to this same spot.”

And so, at 6 in the morning, we went, with 4 kids in tow, to search the beach for signs of nest makings and hatching. "I can’t promise anything,” Mona had said, but at the end of the beach the traces of little creatures waddling into the surf caught her eye. A nest that had been hatching before, and was now releasing it’s very last baby sea turtles. She helped them out of the nest, as they were the last ones, and covered by many layers of sand, which makes them often the weakest ones.
Totally fascinated.

And so we saw 6 little loggerhead turtles crawl their way over the sand into the sea, and off they were. If they are female (gender is determined by the temperature during incubation), in some 20 to 30 years – and if they make it, since they have many predators, men being the most important one – they will return to this very beach and lay their eggs in return.
Almost there. This was the nest of a young female, who do not lay as many eggs as the older ones.

It’s the kind of stuff you see on Discovery Channel, and to actually see it for yourself, in Lebanon, is quite an amazing experience. The children were initiated into the Turtle Club, and have promised that from now on they will do everything they can to preserve turtles. I am waiting for a Minister of Environment who has the balls to outlaw plastic bags at the supermarket.

Watching them go off.

And that, was my amazing weekend at the Orange House.  It’s quite humbling to see how one person can make such a difference.
If you’d like to contact Mona, you can mail her. Orange House has a Facebook page as well as a web site. It is in the former Security Zone, and if you are not Lebanese, you’d need to ask permission from the Lebanese Army. Organize a stay at her place well in advance; it's often fully-booked.


phil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
philippek said...

Amazing report.. I have linked to this post in a public Google+ post:

Life with Subtitles said...

I'm always surprised by the stuff you come across that most of us Lebanese never even knew about. Sounds like an awesome place, I'm definitely going to try to check it out someday.
Cheers !

Anonymous said...

I just realized that H.'s hair has grown long (and at a faster rate than when she was in Lebanon)during the summer break.
It the 12th... It has been 7 days since you last wrote. Get busy!

I miss you guys.

H. (who cut her beautiful tresses and is sporting short hair now).

Sietske said...

Thank you Philippek!
@ Life with Subttiles; I probably have seen more things in Lebanon than I have in Holland, so don't feel guilty. And you should definitely check out the Orange House. Very Zen.
H!!! You're moving today!!!!!! And H (my H, not you) cut her hair!

Anonymous said...

I couldn't post on the new blog.... No poodle bangs???....


CBipp said...

Hi Sietske! In states, checking out info for Orange House, a place I've wanted to visit. Found YOUR blog post, 4 yrs old, but still great. When I return to Lebanon, hope to visit this turtle beach. Maybe see a turtle! Next, must find out what time of year is best for turtle visit. Best to you my friend. Love your article! Carolyn