Beauty of Rosh Hanikra Islands belies complex reality

Photo gallery: Pirates, illegal fishermen, offshore development taint otherwise idyllic nature reserve on Israel's northern border.

Gil's island gallery 311 (photo credit: Gil Shefler)
Gil's island gallery 311
(photo credit: Gil Shefler)
Eyal Miller has what many would consider an enviable job.
The 34-year-old park ranger is charged with protecting the Rosh Hanikra Islands on behalf of the Israel Nature and Park Authority. The islands are an archipelago surrounded by nothing but sea and sun, and are part of the Achziv Nature Reserve in the North.

Gallery: Love and seagulls on the Lebanese border
Last week, Miller took me on a special tour of the tiny, uninhabited islands – four rocky outcrops and a few reefs at a distance of 800 meters to 1.8 kilometers from the shore – the country’s only significant offshore territory.
Out at sea, aboard a Nature and Park Authority’s Ribcraft motorboat, cruising at 17 knots, it’s easy to leave one’s worries behind. But don’t be fooled by the scenic surroundings of his work environment, Miller cautioned.
While his job is peaceful for the most part, it can require dealing with the occasional “pirate” or two, and turn violent.
“There are many pirates here,only we call them ‘illegal fishermen,’” he said, pointing toward several boats in the distance sailing just outside the area protected by the nature reserve. “They come here at night from Acre wearing masks and sailing like maniacs to avoid being caught.
On several occasions when I caught them they tried to ram my boat.”
The Rosh Hanikra Islands are part of an ancient coastline submerged by the sea. Only their peaks, a series of wind-blasted, perforated rocks – the largest of which is not much larger than the size of two tennis courts – are currently above sea level.
Nonetheless, they are home to a surprisingly rich eco-system, and as such are protected by the authorities.
Segavion Island, the first item on the tour of Miller’s maritime kingdom, is located just outside the nature reserve limits, about 1 km. by sea from the northern neighborhoods of Nahariya.
When we arrived on an ingloriously overcast day, its only visitors were about a dozen seagulls.
But Miller remembers when it used to cater to a very different crowd.
Back in the ’80s, he recalled, a local entrepreneur rebranded the place Love Island, and set up a successful business on it.
“They’d put up a wooden deck in the summer months and sell popsicles and cold beers that they’d bring from the shore,” Miller said.
Hundreds of bathers came for the offshore experience. Even former US vice president Al Gore, then a senator on a visit to Israel, is said to have dropped by.
After two years, the island escape was closed down by the authorities – not out of concern for the environment, but due to the notoriously fractious politics of Nahariya’s municipality.
“There was a big row between Labor and Likud over the restaurant, and the owners had to close,” Miller said. “It was the ’80s, don’t ask.”
Now, the only living beings feasting on the island are the seagulls that come to nosh on the small fish swimming in the shallow ponds.
After visiting Segavion and its adjacent and uninspiring twin, Achziv, we kept sailing north towards the border with Lebanon, where the largest island in the archipelago is located. On the way we passed the aptly named Shunit, which means reef in Hebrew; a small and rather unremarkable rock with a few lonely seabirds circling above.
Suddenly, a splash a few meters away from the boat caught Miller’s eye and he slowed the motorboat to take a closer look.
“That’s either a dolphin or a large tuna,” he said looking at the foamy wake.
We waited a few moments for the mysterious creature to reemerge, but whatever it was had left in a hurry.
“It was probably a shark,” he said. “Sharks, when they surface, usually move fast and quick, and then they disappear.”
Nahlieli Island, the largest island in the chain and the furthest from the shore, is markedly different from the others.
While not considerably larger, it has some plant coverage and is about one to two meters above sea level. As we approached, Miller said that the hundreds of sea terns crowing above us had arrived on the island only a few days before.
We anchored in its shallow shores with the seabed clearly visible through the translucent waters, to take in its sights and sounds. A sign on the island says landing is strictly prohibited.
Occasionally, a white-grey tern took its turn to swoop down at a patch of water nearby where Miller suspected a school of fish had gathered, plucking out its prey using its sharp, yellow beak.
Half an hour later, we said good-bye to the tranquility of Nahlieli Island and continued towards Rosh Hanikra, the northernmost point of the nation’s coastline.
As we drew nearer to the border, we came across one of a couple of Israel Navy vessels that patrol the area frequently, and seem just as much part of the scenery as the flocks of predatory birds circling the sky in search of prey.
Three of the crew members of the Dabur patrol boat sat lazily on the deck passing around a bottle of RC Cola, and waved at us as we sailed by.
At the Rosh Hanikra grottoes, a thick rope descends from the IDF outpost down the milky limestone cliffs into the sea where several buoys mark where Israel ends and Lebanon begins.
Miller took our motorboat within about 10 meters of the rope, almost close enough to reach out and grab it. On the Lebanese side we saw a series of seemingly abandoned rusty lookout towers surrounded by rows of barbed wire and fences.
No sign of life was visible from our vantage point.

“I don’t think there are islands like these immediately on the Lebanese shore, but I really don’t know,” Miller said before he turned the motorboat around and took us back to our point of departure, adding to the sense of mystery about what lay beyond the border.

Back on shore, Miller reflected on the dangers facing the Achziv Nature Reserve: illegal fishing, the “pirates” he mentioned before, and offshore development of the gas fields that are 80 to 130 km. out to sea (“closer to Cyprus than to Israel,” he said.) In Israel, he said, the archipelago was unique and needed protection, although he admitted that as far as desert islands go they aren’t exactly what most people have in mind.

“The first association is of the Maldives or a place like that – an island with a sandy beach and a palm tree,” Miller said.

“We have a lot of places like that in Israel, but they’re on shore, not our islands.”