Habibas Islands, Algeria

Photo: Fureuretmystere [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
The Galapagos of the Mediterranean might be off the north coast of Africa. The volcanic Habibas Islands are pristine and largely undisturbed. The small archipelago—made up of one large island surrounded by a bunch of little ones—has no permanent inhabitants. Rare birds rule the shell-covered islands. A large pod of dolphins patrols the surrounding waters. Plus they’re a marine nature reserve undergoing an extensive rehabilitation project. So where is this Eden exactly?

The Habibas Islands lie off the northwestern coast of Algeria. Most of the North African country is sandy, hot, and empty. The Algerian Desert, which is part of the Sahara, covers more than four-fifths of Africa’s largest country. It’s therefore often overlooked by travelers, save for French and Italians with adventurous spirits. But its coast is lovely. Lush mountains and green foothills overlook the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. Wheat fields and fruit orchards sit along fertile riverbanks. While rarely visited islands aren’t very far off the coast.

In 2003, the Habibas Islands became the first protected marine area in Algeria. Three years later, the Algerian and French governments jointly provided funding to begin supporting its fragile ecosystem. Technically, access is now forbidden. Boats are supposed to circle, but not dock, on the islands. Scuba divers are still allowed to explore the warm, clear water, though.

You depart from Oran, a beautiful coastal city known for its hilltop Ottoman citadel, Fort Santa Cruz. The Habibas Islands lie just eight miles offshore. You can see the Îles Habibas Lighthouse long before you reach the islands. The flashing light in its white tower, built in the late 1870s, still operates to this day. As the boat moves closer, you can see a few small buildings and a jetty in a rugged cove. They’re surrounded by Audouin’s gulls’ nests. The large gulls, easily recognized by their dark red bills, build their nests right in the ground. Eleonora’s falcons, graceful birds of prey, use the islands for breeding, as well.

Meanwhile, bottlenose dolphins have surrounded the small boat. The captain cuts the engine as they playfully jump out of the water and splash you as they dive back in. You’re mesmerized by both the dolphins and these little islands. There’s nothing better than finding beauty where you least expect it.

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