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Oman: the Native Shore of Turtles

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Alternate Routes · Asia · oman · Oman · Kristaps Liepiņš

Oman: the Native Shore of Turtles

Author: Kristaps Liepiņš0 COMMENTS

Oman: the Native Shore of Turtles

Life sometimes brings us completely unexpected yet marvellous encounters. This is going to be a story of one of such - a sudden and an unpredicted, yet so remarkable one!

Foto: Oman: the Native Shore of TurtlesFoto: Oman: the Native Shore of TurtlesFoto: Oman: the Native Shore of Turtles

A couple of years ago, thanks to coincidences and random circumstances, I found myself in Oman, one of the most beautiful and diverse countries of the Arabian Peninsula. My impressions turned out to be so bright and abundant that less than a year later, in winter 2010, I returned there again, and my third visit to Oman took place just in November. Three trips and all-in-all 8 weeks spent there is perfectly enough to fall in love with this country, yet not at all enough to get to know it. Our trips were packed with diverse pursuits (mountaineering and rock-climbing, watching sunset and sunrise in the desert, hiking to Oman's highest peak, Jebel Shams, swimming in the ocean, descending several hundreds of metres into underground cave system, sightseeing of historic forts and fortresses, exploring narrow, winding ravines, watching turtles, riding our jeep along local roads and complete off-roads as well, etc.), yet the list of things "we definitely should" and "I wish we could" experience is still very long, and therefore it's no wonder that I catch myself contemplating on which dates in the new year's calendar would suit the best for yet another trip to Oman.

Foto: Oman: the Native Shore of TurtlesFoto: Oman: the Native Shore of TurtlesFoto: Oman: the Native Shore of Turtles

The last winter's trip took us all the way to Ras al Jinz coastline at the eastern side of the easternmost headland of the Arabian Peninsula. It is washed by Gulf of Oman of the Arabian Sea (the Indian Ocean). Uniqueness of this place lies in the fact that it is a native shore of several species of sea turtles. One of them - green sea turtles (Sul Hafah Al Khuthera, Hamas or Shiree in Arabic), is the most strictly protected one. It's estimated that about 20.000 female sea turtles come ashore every year at over 275 sandy beaches along the entire Oman coastline to make their nests and lay eggs in the sand where soon after baby sea turtles hatch. In the same way as salmons, the instinct brings sea turtles back to the same place where they once were hatched, to lay their eggs when mature. In Ras al Jinz and a little upwards, in Ras al Hadd neighbourhood, there are lots of secluded beaches, enclosed by steep cliffs just perfect for nesting.

Foto: Oman: the Native Shore of TurtlesFoto: Oman: the Native Shore of TurtlesFoto: Oman: the Native Shore of Turtles

Up to 185.000.000 years old fossil finds have led scientists to conclude that turtles in the course of their evolution haven't changed that much. In fact, they can be regarded as live prehistoric wonders! Unfortunately, people and their activities greatly endanger their existence. According to archaeological explorations, turtles were hunted at Oman's shores already at least 7.000 years ago, their eggs and meat were used for food while bones and shells for jewellery and various household objects. Now the hunting is strictly prohibited. Nevertheless, coastal development, fishing nets and other business activity has negative impact on these beautiful marine creatures. There is a special patrol established in Oman that inspects the beaches to protect the turtles and their eggs, especially in their traditional hatching places.

Wishing to have a closer look at those amazing animals, we decide to go to Ras al Jinz. Previous year, our friends in Oman had shown us a remote spot very good for this purpose, located quite a bit off the road yet reachable by jeep. Oman's landscape there features low, rocky mountains, stone-covered fields and a jagged coastline, scattered with small coves. In many places, the sheer shores make beaches inaccessible from the rocky plateau, providing turtles with a natural shield from at least one of their enemies - foxes that are fond of freshly laid eggs buried in the sand.

Foto: Oman: the Native Shore of TurtlesFoto: Oman: the Native Shore of TurtlesFoto: Oman: the Native Shore of Turtles

Turtles come ashore only at night, so after sunset and a late meal made on small fire, we climb into our tents to get some sleep. It's very warm (air temperature in November is about +28°C in day and +20°C at night), and a bit humid due to the nearby ocean. I set the alarm at 3am on my mobile phone, cover myself with a corner of a sleeping bag and start to watch the stars through the translucent material of the top of my tent. A light evening breeze flutters the flap of the tent, small ripples splash against the cliffs and some crackling sounds come from the smouldering fireplace. It's impossible to fall asleep instantly as it's only around 7pm in Latvia. Yet soon the day's tiredness takes over and a slumber slowly overpowers my thoughts and turns them into dreams.

Foto: Oman: the Native Shore of TurtlesFoto: Oman: the Native Shore of TurtlesFoto: Oman: the Native Shore of Turtles

In the middle of the night, we wake, put some clothes on and walk towards the nearby crescent-shaped beach, split by a wadi that stretches for about 100 metres (wadi is a term referring to a valley or a dry riverbed), lined with a thick layer of pale, yellowish-grey sand. Sand is riddled with many rather big and wide holes - places where turtles use to lay their eggs. The moon has just risen and although still low at the horizon, it casts sufficient light over the sandy beach. There are no turtles, however. We continue to walk to the adjacent beach about 100m ahead. It looks much the same, just the sandy strip stretches much deeper into the rocky shoreline, compelling turtles to cover a longer distance from the waterside in order to reach the best nesting spots. Consequently, as we expect, it takes more time for them to get back into water, hopefully until the very daybreak, so we might have a chance to take some photos. We hadn't had any luck previously - all the turtles went back into the sea under the cover of night.

Eyes quickly adjust to darkness. It's not very dark, in fact. We cast a glance over the sandy area and instantly notice some turtles busily bustling in the sand. Using powerful flippers of their forefeet, they throw sand out of the chosen nests. It's our chance now to sit in the silence and look, realizing what a thrilling chance it is to be so close to those amazing sea creatures in such quite an intimate moment for them.

I decide to see if perhaps there are more turtles in other nearby beaches and start slowly to walk alone towards the place that we had visited during our previous trip. It's not far off, just about 1km. The moonlight is so bright that there is no need for a head-flashlight. I pace with no hurry down the flat rocky terrain along the steep edge of cliffs that break the rhythm of surfs coming ashore. What an indescribable feeling it is to be there, almost in the middle of nowhere under millions of stars glittering above, to feel the warm breeze and to sense the very heartbeat of the sea, resonating with my own heart. Along the water-eroded path in the rock, I make my way down to the sandy beach, stretching below. Wishing to stay unnoticed and not to disturb turtles, I sneak slowly along the moist, wave-smoothened sand the furthest from the edge of water. The beach is quite narrow, yet much longer than in other places and I find four nesting turtles there. It's not difficult to spot them as walking out of the sea they leave a wide trace of peculiar pattern in the sand.

Having inspected what's going on, I settle down for a while near one of the turtles. A little later, I decide to stay there and wait for the sunrise. I move to an abandoned fisherman's boat, make myself comfortable and...fall asleep. When I wake up, I see that the nearest turtle is still shovelling sand, covering up the freshly laid eggs. Very gently, I climb out of the boat to see what the other ones are doing. Oh, well, two of them have already gone back into the sea. One at the moment is just crossing the wave-formed elevation of sand near the water. It looks amusing, so I sit down to watch it. It's too dark to take any photos yet. The turtle is huge, almost 1 metre in length. The next big wave washes its shell with white splashes, another one drags still deeper. A few more, and the turtle disappears into the sea. I get back on my feet and walk to see how the last one is doing. On my way, I notice a fox trotting towards the turtles' nests. Oh, not this time! I grab a stick from the ground and throw it in the direction of the fox. Off you go! This time I am responsible for the eggs!

I make sure that "my" turtle is still there hustling in the nest and again get back in the boat. I feel exhilarated as the first rays of light come up over the horizon above the ocean. Maybe I will manage to take some photos after all... I am still waiting but suddenly - what's that? Something small and dark slips by in the sand, then another one and some more. Maybe sand crabs? Sure, they also love to feast upon fresh turtles' eggs. They cannot be driven off that easily either - crabs know how to swiftly escape in a peculiar sideways manner or hide in the sand. These most certainly are not crabs, however. I peer keenly in the direction of small creatures. Tiny baby turtles! Moving their little paddle-like forefeet at incredible speed, they run towards the water to take the very first dip into the sea. This is their native shore, yet the entire ocean is their home.

Ten...fifteen...and more are coming. I stop counting and follow then to the edge of water. They are so fast that seem almost flying, leaving behind just a slight trace in the sand. Each wave, rolling ashore grabs some of the tiny turtles and takes along with it into yet undiscovered vastness of the ocean. What a magical moment it is! I cast my sight across the beach - one more nest is bursting open and I move closer to watch. Suddenly a flock of sea gulls appear from above. They try to swoop down but do not dare whilst I am there. No, don't even dream to get baby turtles for breakfast this time!

The sight just experienced seems like a miracle. I estimate that around 60 to 70 little turtles have hatched from five or six nests and have made their way to the ocean. An adult female turtle nests every two or three years, laying up to three clutches of eggs per nesting season with an interval of about two weeks. On average, a sea turtle lays approximately 110 eggs each time with an incubation period of eight weeks. Yet most of these eggs are found by crabs, foxes and sea birds and therefore little sea turtles have very low chances of survival. Their life in the sea is full of threats, too. Statistical data reveal the harsh reality - the age of maturity reach only one to two turtles from each 4000 to 5000 eggs.

Carried away with watching the small turtles and keeping the sea gulls away, I had forgotten about the big mama turtle on the other end of the beach. The first orange sun rays appear above the purplish-blue horizon as I walk to check out the last turtle. Strange as it may seem, it is still there shovelling the sand. I walk across the beach once more and spot a couple of small turtles in the sand near the cliff. Evidently, their instinct has failed them in leading into the correct direction. I carefully take them into my palms together with a handful of sand and carry closer to the water. One after another, they quickly disappear into the waves while the sunrise paints the beach into purplish-rosy and orange tinges.

When the sun is already above the horizon, I finally decide to go closer to see what's happening with the big turtle in the nest. It moves slowly with big intervals. Definitely there is something wrong with it. I go still closer. Oh dear! I notice a fragment of an old rope stretching right into the nest. It's clear that the turtle is stuck there against its own will and cannot get back into the sea! The rope has twisted around the forelegs the large animal and has rubbed deeply into its shoulder. I feel so sorry seeing the big animal so helpless that my eyes fill with tears. I rush up and tug at the rope, but to no avail. Then I kneel and try to lift it in order to free one of its forefeet and then the other. If only you knew how big the turtle's eyes are and what an expression they have, looking at you...

Released from the rope, the turtle slowly walks towards the sea. It moves at much slower pace than I have observer with other turtles and makes long pauses. Evidently, the struggle with the rope has exhausted it. Wishing to help, I try to push it a little but it's not so easy at all. With joined efforts, we manage to get across the stretch of dry sand. I fill a bottle found in the boat and pour some water on the turtle. Please, girl, you are almost there! I step aside now and once again assume the role of an observer. Slowly yet steadily, the one of the most amazing creature of this planet leaves its native shore and the waves sweep away the trace it has left in the sand. I dearly hope that, back in its natural habitat, the turtle will rest and regain its strength.

Foto: Oman: the Native Shore of Turtles

So, that's the story. That's Oman. Certainly, not everything that my travel and adventure companions and I experienced can be found in booklets of mainstream tour operators. Yet the good news is that anything is possible for those who have enough determination and courage to start off in spite of difficulties and lack of accustomed comfort. The allure of travelling indeed lies in the joy of discovering and exploring the unknown.

Ras al Jinz seacoast
The distance from Muscat, the capital of Oman: ~275 km
The closest city, Sura: ~60 km
The best season to observe turtle: September - November
The distance from a parking place to beaches: 15 - 30 min walk

Warning! There are strict turtle-watching regulations that forbid camping overnight on the beach, smoking, loud behaviour, disturbing and touching turtles, use of flashlights and flash photography!

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