A motley group of adults and kids set off on the Turtle Trail to Ras Al Hadd beach, Sur, on a sultry July afternoon. We had what was needed. A couple of holidays, an adventurous spirit and a love of nature and wildlife. It was a long journey, approximately 325 kilometers from Muscat to Sur, but we were in high spirits (not those kind) and the anticipation of seeing some rare species of turtles at the end of the journey made it seem worthwhile. From Sur, it was another one hour?s journey. The terrain was rough and very rugged but the scenery, breathtakingly beautiful.
An Endangered Species
Many of us know that Turtles lived in the age of the reptiles and that probably makes them older than the dinosaurs. This year, 2006, has been named as ‘The Year of the Turtle’ by the Indian Ocean and South-East Asian Region. Special conservation programs have been set up across 24 countries in this region. Oman is one such country and it has the highest nesting population in the Indian Ocean.
It is a mystery to most environmentalists, that Turtles have managed to survive all these years considering the odds against their survival. However, their population is dwindling very fast. They are hunted extensively, as their meat and eggs are considered a delicacy in some countries. Combs and spectacle frames are made out of their sturdy shells and their bones and leather is used in the cosmetic industry. Not surprising then, that they are considered ‘critically endangered’ today.
Marine Turtles in Oman
Oman is one of the rare places in the world that has breeding and nesting grounds for turtles and the ancestors of these turtles have lived in these waters for more than 7,000 years. At present it is home to more than 10,000 green marine turtles. One of the incomprehensible miracles of nature is that the females that are hatched on this beach return to the exact same beach as adults to lay eggs. The males, once they get to the water never return to land again.
Ras Al Hadd, the beach where the nesting takes place, is a government protected area and you need a permit to get to the turtle beach to witness the egg-laying. A couple of rangers accompany you to make sure you follow the rules and believe me not many do. Some of them show a blatant disregard for the turtles and poke and prod them. Others even try to sit on them.
Our guide and ranger informed us that each turtle that comes here to lay eggs weighs as much as 150 kgs. The age of the turtle could be anywhere between 50 to 100 years. The first time the female lays a maximum of 60 eggs after which she can lay as many as 140 at a time. The female turtle visits the beach three times a year to deposit her eggs.
Tourists are allowed to watch this amazing spectacle in silence. The rangers strictly prohibit camera flashes as they can disturb the turtles in this timeless deed of procreation.
The female turtles come out of the sea on a dark night usually when the moon is hidden behind the clouds; this to avoid the eagle eyes of lurking predators. They make their way laboriously up the beach and start making a number of makeshift holes in the sand to mislead the predators who will come looking for their eggs during the day. When the turtle is ready to lay the eggs, she uses her front bigger flippers to dig out the sand and make a wide depression. The hind flippers are used in a downward rotating motion to scoop out the sand and make a hole which is about a half meter in depth. When the turtle is satisfied that the hole is deep enough, she starts laying the eggs, her tail acting as a support for each egg as it falls into the hole.
Once the last egg is laid, she is one tired turtle. But her work is not yet done. She now spends another half an hour covering the eggs carefully with the sand, then turns around and uses her front flippers to smoothen the sand, making a perfect camouflage for her little ones. Finally, she carefully surveys the beach and if she is still not satisfied with the fake depressions she has made before, she makes a couple more as far away from her eggs as possible.
This hard work takes all night. Early morning around 4:30 a.m. the turtles are all ready to return to the beach, leaving nature to take its course. We were told by the rangers that at times there are hundreds of huge turtles heading back to sea after laying their eggs in the night. Unfortunately we were unable to witness this spectacle and for this reason we intend to visit the turtle beach yet again.
What happens to the eggs?
The eggs are perfectly round and resemble tennis balls. The predators come looking for them soon and here the proverbial law of nature plays its part. Some of the eggs are dug out by foxes and birds (Oman beaches are the breeding grounds for the bird migration between Africa and Asia) and eaten. We found a large number of empty egg shells lying on the beach.
The rest of the eggs that manage to remain safe, hatch after a period of two months. And then they know safety no more. Thousands and thousands of them race to the sea in a desperate attempt to hide in the safety of the waters. But the foxes and the sea-gulls are ready and waiting. Some of them have their heads and limbs bitten off by huge crabs.
On a happier note, hundreds of these hatchlings are collected by the rangers and environmentalists and deposited in the sea. But, once in the sea, a good many of them can also be eaten by carnivorous fish.
Other than these, one in a thousand survives the onslaught of predators and if she is a female she will visit Ras Al Hadd beach again to continue this never ending cycle of life.
*Note: The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been studying these marine turtles in Oman for the past 12 years. The United Nations has also lauded Oman?s environmental and conservation efforts in this regard.
Tourists from all over the world visit this beach. Comfortable resorts, hotels and thatched beach huts with all modern amenities are available within driving distance of the Ras Al Hadd beach in Sur, but not too close to it. All accommodation has to be booked in advance.
Author: Shaly Pereira- Oman