05:42 pm - Thursday 24 July 2014
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Oman now is the peak time for turtle watching

By staff - Wed Jul 20, 6:01 am

Ras al Hadd is part of the Wilayat of Sur. It overlooks the sea and it is a natural harbour for sailing ships, and so tourists have many things to see and do.

Experts say an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 green turtle egg clutches are laid each year in the Sultanate, the effort of about 20,000 turtles or more. This gives Oman probably the greatest number of nesting green turtles of any single Indian Ocean.

Except for Ras al Jinz, Oman has closed all the 275 turtle nesting beaches on its coastline in order to protect their habitat from any kind of harm. Green turtles are among the most endangered of all the ocean’s creatures.

The sandy secluded beaches that provide suitable conditions for the turtles to lay their eggs are littered with turtle pits high above the waterline. The four main species of turtles nesting in Oman are Greenback turtles, Olive Ridley turtles, Hawksbill turtles and Loggerhead turtles. A fifth species called Leatherback turtles live and feed in the waters adjacent to the coasts of the Sultanate.

The Greenback turtles are most commonly seen in Ras al Hadd. Greenback turtle is the fastest swimming turtle, reaching speeds up to 32 km (20 mph). Adults may reach a shell length of more than 1m (more than 3 ft) and a body weight of more than 180 kg. The male never leaves the sea; the female leaves it only to lay her eggs.
Turtle tracks are visible from the waters edge like huge tyre tracks. The turtle lifts herself up above the high water mark and starts digging a nesting pit. The pit is deeper than she is and wide enough to move freely. She labours with her front flippers, resting and looking for danger at regular intervals. When the pit is ready she uses her back flippers to make an egg chamber 15 cm wide and 50 cm deep. White spherical glistening eggs drop into the chamber, three and four at a time. After laying about 120 eggs she begins to pack the sand down into the egg chamber, using her front flippers to cover the entire nest. Watching this entire process indeed offers a thrilling experience.

A trip to the beach, as the sun begins to rise, will not only give you the opportunity to have the glimpse of the first sunrise in the Arabian Peninsula but also to see the tiny, perfectly formed turtles racing towards the water. They hatch en mass after 50 days. Although only 5 cm long, they are exact replicas of the adult turtles. About 20,000 green turtles nest in Oman, with 6,000-13,000 of these in Ras al Had alone.

A baby turtle has to face many challenges in its journey to adulthood. Their major predator is man, who digs up the nests for their valuable eggs. When they are left alone, the sun provides incubation heat. The baby turtles hatch out in two months and scramble to the sea. Then the natural predators take over. Birds and crabs prey on these tiny, soft-shelled and defenceless creatures. The lucky ones who manage to reach the shallows. The turtle protection programme of Oman screens out all these risks.

Omani scientists have discovered a wealth of information about them through a tag-in programme. If a female turtle has been tagged this year, she will show up in the beach about two to four times for nesting. After nesting for a few times, they migrate to far-off places and do not return until after two or three years.

Experts say generally speaking the turtle tracking experiences of visitors in Oman are incredibly exciting. The vision of an adult female turtle hauling herself from the ocean to lay eggs in golden sands, as this prehistoric species has done for millennia, is a breathtaking one.

Sharqiyah region is known for the densest population of G|reenback turtles. Ras al Hadd offers hundreds of most significant locations for turtle watching. Situated at about 400 km southeast of Muscat and not far from the ancient dhow-building port of Sur, this stunning bay is nested in by green turtles all year round in numbers greater than anywhere else in the Indian Ocean.

The Sultanate’s eastern Sharqiyah region endowed with a spectacular coast steeped in antiquity is abuzz with the annual fertility rite of Green turtles.

Oman is home to several types of turtles. The Greenback turtle, Loggerhead, Olive Ridley and Hawksbill all return year after year to fill sandy nests with hundreds of eggs. The country also boasts 500 species of birds and 930 species of fishes, including 13 types of whales and dolphins.

Ras al Hadd Turtle Reserve covers 120 sq km of beaches, coastal lands, seabed and two khawrs. It is estimated that the protected area hosts 6,000 to 13,000 turtles annually. They arrive from the Arabian Gulf, remote areas of the Red Sea and the Somali coast.

Every year, thousands of visitors arrive on the beaches to see for themselves the giant turtles coming from the sea to lay eggs. Most of the nesters are Green Turtles along the 45-km stretch of coasts from Ras al Hadd to Ras al Ruwais, considered as one of the significant destinations for turtles nesting in the country. It is indeed breathtaking scene.

Turtles spend most of their lives in the sea. But during May to July, the endangered Green turtles swim closer to Omani waters for feeding and mating.

The stretch of beaches, including the Ras al Hadd Turtle Reserve, is a safe haven for turtles. At night, female turtles weighing on average 150 kg swim ashore for nesting. Up to 100 of them converge every night at Ras al Jinz, only beach where visitors are allowed to view the nesting process.

With the upgradation of facilities, the Ras Al Jinz Scientific and Visitors Centre expects a big increase in visitor turnout. Last year, 9,700 tourists watched the turtles nesting on the beach in Ras al Jinz during the season.

Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve Centre’s showroom on turtles is worth visiting. It showcases the life cycle of sea turtles and the archaeological findings at the site, in addition to an array of new museographical display systems.

Masirah Island has the world’s densest population of Loggerhead turtles. Of the four species found in Oman, over 50,000 turtles have been tagged in Oman.

The Sultanate has at least 20,000 Green Turtles which mature at 40 years and whose lifespan is above 100 years. Green Turtles are an endangered species, but the Sultanate has a large population due to the strict conservation measures initiated by the government.

The nesting process takes place in the cover of darkness to the accompaniment of roaring winds and lashing waves. During moonlit nights, the aquamarine blue of the Arabian Sea and the contrasting hues of adjoining mountains weave a stunning setting at the serene coast.

The Green turtles adopt an ingenious decoy to divert foxes and other predators away from the eggs, which take about two months to hatch. Using their flippers, the turtles strenuously work and remove sand to make a half-metre-deep nest. After laying eggs in the sandy nest, the turtles deftly cover the nest and proceed ahead to make a larger hole, which is mistaken by predators as the nest with eggs. On an average, a Green turtle lays a clutch of 100 eggs.

A permit is required to visit Ras al Jinz and the document can be obtained either from the ministry or on arrival at the camp office in Ras al Jinz. Importantly, advance booking is necessary to visit Ras al Jinz during the peak nesting months of September and October.

The Green turtle is a very common species in the region. It is a popular food in many parts of the world. The use of its meat and eggs by humans has seriously endangered its survival. Green turtles feed on luxuriant seaweeds and other green plants. They are found everywhere in Omani waters and travel further than other sea turtles. They can be seen in the hundreds, even thousands over the larger feeding areas. Green turtles lay about 110 eggs in a clutch.

The beaches of the peninsula of Ras al Hadd, which stretches between Ras Ar Ruwais and Khuwr Jaramah, attract the largest number of Green turtles nesting in Oman. This is one of the only three very large nesting aggregations of Green turtles known in the region.

Hawksbill turtles: The Hawksbill turtle is one of the smallest of all the sea turtles. They resemble small green turtles and occur wherever there are coral reefs. In local Arabic it is called ‘Al Sherfaf’. It eats just about anything it can find in the water. The Hawksbill turtle is the only sea turtle that is classified as a critically endangered species. They lay about 100 to 160 eggs in a clutch. This is a difficult species to protect because they nest in low numbers spread over a wide area.

Loggerhead turtles: The Loggerhead turtles, locally called ‘Rimani’ or ‘Murah’, have a relatively flat carapace (upper shell), which is often light brown in colour. They are carnivorous.

Their heavy powerful jaws enable them to easily crush even the thickest of shells. In Oman, the majority of Loggerheads nest on beaches of the Masirah Island, which is the world’s largest nesting population. Their egg clutches average 100 eggs.

Olive Ridley turtles: These are best known for their huge synchronised nesting. It is a small turtle, which feeds on crabs, shrimps, jellyfish and seasquirts. The local name for this Turtle is ‘Al Zaytooni’. They lay about 100 eggs per clutch. The migration of this species is not known.

Leatherback turtles: Called ‘Al Niml’ locally, this is an unusual turtle. It does not have plates like other turtles but a leathery skin over its shell. It reaches a weight of more than 600 kg and is a giant among turtles. The largest on record is reputed to have weighed nearly 1,000 kgs and measured 3 metres in length — about the weight of 10 large men! The Leatherback turtle is carnivorous. In Oman the Leatherback turtle feeds regularly in offshore waters. Roughly 85 eggs are laid per clutch.

Turtles have been around on earth for 200 million years. It is only in the last 200 years that their numbers have fallen to a critical level due to rapid development and intrusion into their habitat.In different parts of the world, thousands of turtles die every year from eating plastic bags floating in the sea. They usually mistake the litter for jellyfish — a part of their diet.

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