Thousands flock to France's Mont Saint-Michel for 'supertide'

LE MONT-SAINT-MICHEL, France (AFP) - Thousands of people flocked to Mont Saint-Michel on Saturday hoping to see the "tide of the century" surround the picturesque landmark on France's northern coast.

Perched on a rocky island topped with a Gothic Benedictine abbey, the Unesco World Heritage Site is exposed to some of Europe's strongest tides.

But the high tide due on Saturday evening is expected to be exceptional because of the effects from Friday's solar eclipse, with predictions that it could reach as high as 14.15m - a wall of water as high as a four-storey building.

The predictions are based on tide coefficients which are used to measure wave size, with Saturday's high tide expected to peak at 119. The maximum possible coefficient is 120.

Even before dawn, tourists from France and the world over - Japanese, Germans and Belgians in particular - were on the bridge leading up to Mont Saint Michel, a site visited by three million people a year.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian were also among the curious.

At low tide, fisherman took advantage of the sea pulling out to look for cockles, clams and other shell fish on the beach.

Officials at France's Navy Oceanic and Hydrological Service (SHOM) have urged caution, warning that the high tide, expected to peak around 2000 GMT (4am on Sunday, Singapore time), would pose a danger to people venturing out too far.

In the bay of Mont Saint-Michel, as the saying goes, the sea rises "at the speed of a galloping horse."

A 70-year-old fisherman in the southwestern Gironde region got caught in the high tide and drowned on Saturday, firefighters said.

Some 10,000 people had already turned up at Mont Saint-Michel on Friday evening, when the tide failed to reach the predicted highs.

Although dubbed the "tide of the century," the "supertide" phenomenon occurs once every 18 years.

In the coastal town of Saint Malo in Brittany, to the west of Mont Saint-Michel, around 20,000 people gathered to watch massive waves crash onto the shore.

Among them, an Italian couple Francesca and Gianni had travelled 1,400km just to witness this special event.

The spectacular phenomenon is also happening in other parts of the globe, with Canada's Bay of Fundy on the Atlantic Coast expected to see a tidal surge of 16m.

The "supertide" will also be felt in Tierra del Fuego off the southernmost tip of the South American mainland, the northern coast of Australia and the Bristol Channel in Britain.

The last so-called tide of the century was on March 10, 1997 and the next will be on March 3, 2033.

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