13 September 2012

Masirah Turtle Adventure!

A version of this article appeared in the Oman Observer on 12th September 2012

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks on the island of Masirah, volunteering on a turtle project. When I was contacted about it, I first had to look up exactly where Masirah was, and how to get there.  Surprisingly for somewhere with so much to boast about, the island is still relatively unknown.  With a small population centred in the town of Hilf, and accessible only by a 1.5 – 2 hour ferry journey from the mainland (and a long drive depending on your point of origin), Masirah remains somewhat inaccessible.   That is something to be grateful for and probably the island’s saving grace, for Masirah is much more than just a sleepy Omani outpost, the island is of real global significance as it is home to arguably the largest population of nesting loggerhead turtles in the world.  This is no small accolade and one that is not without responsibility.  Nature has blessed Masirah with four species of nesting marine turtle (loggerhead, green, hawksbill and olive ridley) and Oman must recognise and fulfill its duty to do everything in its power to protect these endangered species.

Masirah is still, thankfully, relatively unspoilt, but nonetheless human actions are already causing significant threats to the turtles, and this is only likely to worsen as increasing development takes place. 

Nature is already tough on turtles before man-made problems are even taken into account.   Turtle hatchlings have an incredibly difficult start in life and, witnessing at first-hand their battle to emerge from their nests and reach the ocean, it can be hard to imagine how any survive into adulthood at all.  

As a scuba diver I am used to seeing turtles underwater – where they move swiftly and with graceful ease.  Seeing them on land is a different experience entirely. It’s so abundantly clear how difficult the journey is for them. The large, heavy females drag their bodies up the beach in search of a suitable nesting spot, and many cover huge, exhausting distances before they even begin the process of digging, laying and covering their nests, before heading back to the sea. 

Here, at a new nest, the circle of life begins (or ends prematurely, depending on circumstance).  Turtle eggs are hugely vulnerable to predation by numerous animals, and humans have also been known to harvest eggs for consumption.  Furthermore, nests that are close to the shore can become water submerged causing the eggs to rot.  For those that survive to full-term, their troubles have only just begun.  The hatchlings have to dig their way out, orientate themselves and run the gauntlet of seagulls and crabs to reach the ocean.  Make no mistake - the seagulls and crabs on Masirah are vicious and plentiful - and nature has not been kind to hatchlings, making them a colour that is camouflaged neither on land nor in water.  For those that make it to the ocean currents, a whole host of new predators awaits and only very few will survive to reach an age where they can reproduce and begin the process again.  Loggerhead turtles (which are most abundant on Masirah) are deemed to have reached sexual maturity when their carapace (the hard shell) reaches a length of 90 cm or more.  Unbelievably, this can take up to 35 years!

Whilst nature might appear to have given turtles a raw deal, it is all part of the larger eco system, and the low turtle survival rates have been balanced out by the sheer number of eggs laid by individual turtles (100+).  Unfortunately though, that delicate balance is being destroyed by avoidable human actions that are putting the survival of the world’s sea turtles at serious risk.

dead turtle lost far from the ocean
In just the short time I was there, I witnessed a number of troubling incidents which raised concern over just how many turtles are dying needlessly. One adult female turtle was caught in a fishing net abandoned on the beach (2 of her flippers had become entangled). Luckily we were able to free her and she made her way back to the ocean. We also found a hatchling, which looked like it was emerging from a nest, but on closer inspection had become entangled in some plastic cord which was preventing it from moving. Again, on this occasion, we were fortunately able to save it.  In the space of 2 weeks I also saw three dead adult turtles on the beach. Following their tracks, the most likely explanation seemed to be that they got lost.  This is a common problem which can occur due to light pollution which plays havoc with a turtle’s internal navigation system. Turtles normally rely on natural light from the moon to help guide them to the sea, but artificial light can cause them to inadvertently navigate towards the source of that light, finding themselves lost far from the ocean.  Lost turtles will quickly dehydrate and die once the sun comes up.  On one evening we also witnessed a 4x4 parked on the beach right next to an adult female turtle, with its full-beam headlights pointing directly at her.  Whilst this may have seemed like an enjoyable outing for the occupants of the car, for the turtle it was a life-threatening experience.  As soon as we approached, the car sped off, but at least we were able to ensure the turtle found her way back to the water.  It makes me wonder how often this kind of selfish act goes by unnoticed.
turtle trapped in fishing line
another turtle life extinguished :-(

Turtles are officially protected in Oman by Royal Decree (which is great news), but the problem of course lies with awareness and enforcement.  I only saw one sign on the whole of Masirah with instructions for visitors to the turtle nesting beaches.  Whilst the content was good, the sign was falling apart and, with only one of them, how many people would happen to see it?  Anyhow, prohibiting people from doing certain things isn’t in itself useful unless there are consequences for those that disobey.  Whilst restricting access to the beaches would undoubtedly be unpopular with locals, it really does seem like a necessity if the turtles are to have a secure future.  Some simple fencing could prevent vehicle access and also stop the turtles straying into the road, whilst still leaving beaches open to the public.  The existing tar road already runs very close by the beach, along with several graded tracks. There really is no need for people to drive right down to the surf! 
visitor information sign

Masirah is a rugged island of exceptional natural beauty with a turtle population to be extremely proud of.  It is also home to an impressive number of bird species, including the endangered Egyptian vulture.  As is common to many island communities, the residents of Masirah seem closely bonded and somehow different to their mainland counterparts.  There is huge potential for eco-tourism on the island, but the prospect of it terrifies me as it has the scope to cause enormous and irrevocable damage unless it is extremely well managed.  Already there is a new luxury hotel on Masirah, and continued development in the name of ‘progress’ is likely.  The Masirah Island Resort, to be fair to it, is much more understated and low key than I expected, and their lighting (for a hotel) is very minimal.  I was also impressed to see information displays about turtles and other island wildlife in its lobby (something Ras Al Jinz could take note of).  Unfortunately though, and despite these efforts, the nearby turtles will still likely be adversely effected by the existence of the hotel.  I witnessed the effects at first-hand whilst assisting with a study on the impact of artificial light on turtle hatchlings.  Whilst data has not yet been analysed or reported, it was clear to see that the majority of hatchlings released on beaches in the vicinity of artifical light (streetlights, building light etc.) travelled towards the source of that light and hence away from the sea.