A version of this article appeared in the Oman Observer on 12th September 2012
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|
|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.
Tourism on the island is currently still minimal and Western tourists at least, travel there more for kite-surfing than anything else. In fact, some seemed surprised to know that turtles even existed there! Turtles certainly do keep anti-social hours so it would be easy to miss them, although their telltale tracks are everywhere.
Some efforts are being made on Masirah with regard to the turtles. Numerous research projects have been undertaken (and I believe are ongoing) and ESO employ resident rangers who patrol the beaches to collect data. More, however, can and should be done. A simple initiative to remove abandoned fishing nets and other litter from the beaches could make an enormous difference.
Turtles are truly amazing creatures and spending time on Masirah was an incredible and unforgettable experience. I will forever be grateful to have had the opportunity to see so many turtles and hatchlings close-up in their natural habitat on deserted, isolated beaches. Masirah is a wonderful place inhabited by a proud and friendly community. I hope it can move forward into the future whilst still retaining its charm and, even more importantly, creating a safe haven for its unique marine visitors!
Human threats specific to Masirah include the following:
- Abandoned fishing line & other litter on beaches (nesting females & hatchlings get caught in nets and other debris, become dehydrated and die.
- Cars driving on nesting beaches (this disturbs nesting turtles, meaning they may return to the ocean without laying. Furthermore, hatchlings are often crushed by vehicles or get stuck in deep tyre tracks from which they can’t escape. Nests can also be damaged. Also, cars driving at night with lights on cause a significant danger to turtles as the lights disorientate them and they can become lost and not find their way back to the ocean. Lost turtles will quickly dehydrate and die when the sun comes up)
- Artificial lighting from street lights, buildings etc. (artificial light plays havoc with a turtle’s internal navigation system, which relies on natural light from the moon to help guide it to the sea. Turtles inadvertently navigate towards the source of the artificial light, finding themselves lost far from the ocean)
- Human consumption of turtle eggs & meat (whilst I have no direct evidence of this taking place, some of the locals I spoke to said that this has been known to occur. How prolific or not this is I have no idea. It may well have been more common historically when, as an isolated island nation, they had no other easy access to meat.)
- Capture in fishing nets (Masirah is very much a fishing community and relies heavily on fishing for much of its income. It is inevitable that some turtles will become accidentally entangled in nets and may also be struck by boats)
A version of this article appeared in the Oman Observer on 12th September 2012