The sea museum is in a traditional Lebanese house, tucked away and invisible from the main road. Watch out for a small seahorse sign next to a gas station, your only clue that you have arrived. Drive up to the parking and leave the chaos of Beirut behind.
The first thing that I always have to stand and admire, even before I’ve walked into the museum, is the giant eucalyptus tree in the garden. Then of course there is the garden, green and fresh and lovely. And then the house itself. There is a special kind of feeling I think everyone gets when they see the stone walls, large arched windows and terracotta roof-tiles of a fully preserved traditional Lebanese house. Maybe it’s because so few of them are left intact, or maybe it’s because these houses are really quite unique and beautiful. In any case, you have to stop and take the house in, appreciate its simple perfection, before you climb up the stairs and go inside. Until this point, you will probably be wondering, ‘but where is this sea museum?’ And it’s not until Janine opens the door for you on the first floor that this gem of a museum reveals itself.
Glass boxes, beautifully lit, and containing shells of all shapes and sizes and colours are the first thing you see. This is actually Janine’s childhood home, and the museum started out with her private shell collection. Today it houses to not only these spectacular shells, but also an amazing array of fish, turtles, eels, crabs, lobsters, sponges, even sharks. All under the high ceilings and arches that old traditional Lebanese houses are known for.
Jeanine Yazbek’s passion for the creatures living in her house is clear. I could sit and watch fish swimming around for ages, but Janine adds a whole other layer to the experience. ‘These clown fish are taking care of their babies”, she says to me as I watch what looks like one clownfish grazing on some black bits of coral, while the other swims near. “These black things are the fish eggs. The father eats the ones that die, while the mother stands guard”. What about that other clownfish in the corner of the tank, I ask. “Well he is the other male, she didn’t choose him, so he has to live on the other side of the tank and stay away from the couple and their family.” Hearing her tell stories about the creatures in the exhibits brings a new life to them. She loves watching her housemates and spends hours filming them. In the museum projection room you can watch these beautiful images. I will never forget the video of courting seahorses, tails wrapped around each other and swaying in the water. Janine is especially fond of these strange and wonderful creatures. She had started a small seahorse breeding project, and I had seen the tiny seahorse babies the last time I was there. Unfortunately none of them survived. She has however rescued an albino turtle, Alby, who is growing well and doing great. She hopes to release her sometime this year.
The museum’s collection is simple and impressive, like the house that holds it. It is a wonder, not only of the sea but also of architecture, and a wonder that it survives in the Lebanon of today.