07 December 2012

Why All The Dead Fish?!

Something concerning is happening in Salalah's waters. The fish are dying and nobody seems to know why. 

I first heard about dead fish floating around Raysut fishing port around 10 days ago. Subsequently, I heard of dead fish, baby sharks and eels washing up around the beach near the Hilton. Initially I thought nothing of it - assuming they were by-catch or discards.  Sadly it seems to be common practice here for fishermen to throw what they don't want from their catch onto the beach rather than back into the sea.  It has become clear, however, that what is going on just now is an entirely different, and unexplained, phenomenon. 

I went to take a look for myself a couple of days ago and found that the beach in Raysut was absolutely covered in dead fish. Similarly, the surface of the water was dotted with bloated, silvery carcasses.  It was a similar story in front of the Hilton (though to a lesser extent).  

Rumours are rife and there has been much speculation as to what is going on, but I have yet to come across a plausible explanation.  Some are claiming it's a natural phenomenon - talking about oxygen deprivation and the effects of khareef on water temperatures and currents. To me this doesn't ring true. Khareef is an annual occurrence in this part of the world and I know people who've lived here more than a decade who've never seen anything like this before.  Furthermore, why would the 'death zone' be isolated to the Raysut/Port/Hilton area (which it mostly appears to be)?

Dead fish at Raysut
Another reason (given by Hilton hotel staff I believe) is that a fishing vessel overturned.  There are a couple of reasons why this doesn't add up.  Firstly, sources at Salalah Port have told me that they haven't heard of any such incident (and basically, anything bigger than a small, local boat, they would know about).  Secondly, fish are continuing to die more than 10 days later. How could that be if they'd all just tipped into the ocean from a boat?  When I went to Raysut there were fish in varying stages of decay. Some had clearly been dead a long time, whilst others were relatively fresh, and some were still alive - flapping and gasping for breath in the surf.  These were not healthy fish. I tried to throw some of them back into deeper water but they seemed unable to swim - tilting onto their sides and being thrown back up the beach in the waves.

I am no expert and any reasons I give are also pure speculation. All I do know is that something is very wrong - it's clear to see.  Salalah has a lot of industry, especially in this area, and it concerns me that there may have been some kind of leak (oil, fuel, chemicals? who knows?).  Either way, surely there has to be some kind of investigation. Has the water been tested? If there is any kind of contaminant then people have a right to know, and action needs to be taken to minimise the environmental impact.  For now, fishing continues as normal, but who can say if the fish are safe to eat?  I have heard some reports of dead seabirds but I haven't seen any for myself.  I can't know if this is related or not and, if so, whether they were killed by whatever killed the fish, or died as a result of eating the fish. 

To the best of my knowledge, there has been no reporting on this issue.  If anyone knows otherwise, or has any information at all, then please do get in touch.

Fishermen heading out in a sea of dead fish

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.  

19 June 2012

Could We Grow Fruit Trees in the Omani Desert?!

Well, if a certain Dutch inventor is to be believed, then the answer is a resounding yes - and we could do so without irrigation!

Pieter Hoff is the founder of a company that has pioneered a planting technology called Groasis. Yesterday he was in Salalah to give a presentation at Dhofar University and introduce the concept to us.

Mr. Hoff began by talking about the global problem of depletion of groundwater reserves. He stated that 4 countries in the world have no groundwater at all. He didn't say which countries these were, but if that statistic is true then it is truly shocking.  He also went on to talk about how groundwater is becoming contaminated with salt water (an issue which apparently exists here in Oman).  With this shortage of water and a growing population (expected to hit 10 billion in the next 25-35 years) he concluded that there needed to be a way for agriculture to use less water.  It was this thinking that led him to develop the 'waterboxx'.  

Mr. Hoff pointed out that, in nature, trees can and do grow in the desert and in rocky areas. Anyone who has visited the desert here will know this to be true. In other words, there is enough rainfall in the desert to sustain plant life.  The problem isn't actually the quantity of rainfall (more rain falls in the desert than we imagine) but the fact that it all falls in a very short time period (perhaps 2 weeks).  Seeds therefore germinate when the rain falls, but then everything dries up and the young plants die.  Without getting too scientific, Mr. Hoff's 'waterboxx' is a bio-mimicry technology - in other words it copies how Mother Nature solves the problem of growing trees in desert regions. The waterboxx assists the tree through the planting period until it can reach natural water and self-sustain. A lot of this is to do with having the right kind of roots (called primary roots) which allow a plant to break through hard ground (even rock) to reach water.  Mr. Hoff explained this very well, but I suspect I'm failing to! Anyone wishing to understand the subject better would be well advised to look at the website!

Overall, the technology came across as simple yet clever and, importantly, affordable. No irrigation is necessary and it appears to have an excellent success rate, judging by existing projects in various countries around the world.  In future there are also plans to make the waterboxxes from cellulose material. In a country like Oman, that would mean being able to make the system from readily available materials like palm leaves.

Whilst Groasis is evidently a business and Mr. Hoff will of course have a vested interest in its success, I really found his argument to be very persuasive.  If this technology works and is adopted it could have multiple positive effects - reduced reliance on groundwater, reforestation of desert areas, food production and a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions due to an increase in trees. It seems like a very good result.  Interestingly, a planting experiment using this technology has already taken place in Sohar Free Zone. I don't know when it was initiated, but it would certainly be of interest to know how it is proceeding.

Incidentally, I should say that I am in no way affiliated to the company - I just found the product to be very interesting and thought you might too! 

Mr. Hoff says that his dream is to replant the 2 billion hectares of land that man has cut over the last 2000 years. I wish him every success!

Groasis planting experiment at Sohar Free Zone, Oman.         

 Image reproduced from http://www.groasis.com/en/photos/photoalbum/oman

18 April 2012

Volunteer to plant trees in Salalah!!

To mark Earth Day on 22nd April, several tree planting events are taking place in Salalah. The events will see native trees (including frankincense) planted in a number of locations. Everyone is welcome, and encouraged, to join in.  Details are as follows:

Sunday 22nd April: 8am - College of Applied Science, Salalah

Monday 23rd April: 8am - Frankincense Park, Adoneb

Monday 23rd - Wednesday 25th April: 8am - Rakhyout, Dhalkout, Al Mazyoona 

If you would like to take part, please confirm your participation to:

Mohammed Al Mashani (for Frankincense Park event): 92866643
Mr Majed Akaak (for other events): 95340050

Happy Planting! :-) 

Boswellia Sacra (frankincense tree)

30 March 2012

Earth Hour & Apathy

Tomorrow, 31st March 2012, marks 'Earth Hour' - the global initiative organised by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to encourage people across the world to switch off their lights for an hour.  The first Earth Hour took place in Australia in 2007 and over the following years has expanded to include participation by millions of people across 135 countries. Here in Oman the event has been championed by ESO, with landmark buildings like the Royal Opera House Muscat agreeing to dim their lights between 8.30 - 9.30pm.

Earth Hour is designed to raise awareness of sustainability issues and to send a message for action on climate change.  Whilst I'm all for raising awareness, we have to ensure that that awareness leads to real action and change.  My concern is that initiatives like Earth Hour actually allow a lot of people to simply feel like they've done their bit. It assuages their guilty conscience and they carry on as normal until next year. One hour, annually, of turning out the lights is not going to make any difference.  People need to live the changes. A token gesture is not enough.  I personally will not be taking part in Earth Hour. Not in protest and not because I would find it difficult to sit by candlelight for an hour, but simply because I don't believe that me switching everything off for an hour changes anything. I prefer to be aware of my energy usage every day and to do my best to save resources at all times.

I don't mean to denigrate those who do take part, and I do think awareness raising is crucial, but I do want to make it clear that people need to do so much more.  It often feels to me like I am surrounded by complete apathy.  So many people talk a lot but so few are willing to actually do anything.  Whilst social media can be a powerful networking tool, it seems also to have bred a generation of people who think that by Facebook 'liking' something they have made a difference. They may, in some abstract way, be showing their support for a cause, but they're changing absolutely nothing.  The petition to stop Lulu selling sharks is a case in point. Many people 'liked' the link to it on Facebook but didn't actually sign it! I don't care about being 'liked', I care about making a difference - and so should you!

On that note, Happy Earth Hour and, remember, "Be the change you wish to see in the world..."

27 March 2012

Clean Up Oman - this weekend! 29th March!

This weekend (Thursday 29th March) will see Oman's biggest ever clean-up taking place nationwide! Here in Dhofar there will be 4 clean-up teams at the following places:
  • Al Dahariz Beach, Salalah
  • Next to Municipality Playground, Taqa
  • East of Fisheries Harbour, Mirbat
  • Next to the Mosque in Town Centre, Maqshan
Start time is 4.30pm. Please go along and help out and spread the word to your friends/family and colleagues.  This should be a fun event which will also raise much needed awareness of the problem of littering. Water, T-shirts and bin-bags will be provided to participants and the Municipality rubbish trucks will be there to collect the bin bags at the end.
To find out about other locations across Oman check out the Oman Clean Up group on facebook.

26 March 2012

Sea Legends - Shark Expedition

I would like to extend a very warm welcome to Sea Legends, who are currently in Salalah as part of a 3-week long shark expedition.  The team is made up of a very driven, committed and passionate group of volunteers who have come together over a common cause - to protect Oman's sharks and to explore sustainable alternatives to fishing.  Over the coming weeks, this team of divers, activists & cameramen will be documenting shark fishing across Oman and its influence on fishing communities and the local economy.  You can follow their progress on facebook and also read more in this interview with Avi Bernstein - a marine protection activist and one of the core team members.  The expedition is only in its infancy, but already shocking images are emerging of scores of dead bull sharks (including pregnant ones), endangered hammerheads and eagle rays.  I wish these guys every success and the best of luck, and I sincerely hope that Oman wakes up to this issue before it is too late.  It is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problem here, but it is also inspirational to be around people who care enough to self-fund and undertake a project like this.  I urge you to show your support!  The image below was taken this morning in Salalah fish market where over 50 dead baby sharks were seen, including endangered scalloped hammerheads!

Photo courtesy of Sea Legends

18 March 2012

Arabian Leopards in Dhofar!!

I had the pleasure earlier this month of meeting Phil Dickinson, who works for Earthwatch. Although I had heard of the organisation I was surprised (and delighted!) to learn that they run a programme of research in Oman, including right here in Dhofar!  It turns out that Phil was here working with Dhofari colleagues to run Field Skills training for rangers from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (MECA).  The rangers manage the Jebel Samhan protected area which is home to the critically endangered Arabian leopard.  The current status of the Arabian leopards and their environment in Jebel Samhan is, I learned, being researched jointly by staff from MECA, the Office for Conservation of the Environment (OCE), the National Field Research Centre for Environmental Conservation, and Earthwatch

Although I was vaguely aware that Arabian leopards existed in small numbers in Oman, I am ashamed to admit that my knowledge did not extend beyond that.  It was fascinating therefore to learn that this work is taking place locally and to know that there are several dedicated organisations and individuals working to conserve this magnificent species.  Seeing some of the project's photographs of these rare leopards (captured on camera traps) was a privilege. They are incredibly beautiful and something Oman should be very proud of.  Leopards are, however, increasingly under threat and it is therefore crucial that all necessary efforts are made to conserve Oman's population of these creatures.

It is my understanding that two local experts are at the core of the leopard work - Hadi al Hikmani and Khaled al Hikmani. I hope to organise a talk by them in the near future to allow us to learn more about their work and have them share their expertise.  If you would be interested in attending a presentation on the Arabian leopards of Jebel Samhan please leave a comment or email me and I will keep you updated!

Photo reproduced from http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com (photographer: Andrew Spalton)

17 March 2012

Press Bug!

It's been a good month for Dhofar Eco Bug, with an article in The Week and a mention in RasKrabbel (a magazine for Dutch ex-pats).  I've always been conscious that this blog likely preaches to the converted - after all if you don't have an interest in the environment you probably wouldn't be here - therefore, any chance to get the message out to the wider public is always very welcome.  Thanks to everyone who has shown an interest and I hope to see an increase in readers and, more importantly, in local action!!  Oddly, the article in The Week  didn't actually include the blog's web address, but hopefully people will find their way here nonetheless...

The Week - published Wednesday 7th March 2012

11 February 2012

Petition to Stop Lulu Selling Sharks!

Everyone reading - PLEASE sign this petition to stop Lulu selling sharks, and ask your friends and family to do the same.  Whilst this wont solve the problem of shark fishing in Oman and beyond, it would be a small step in the right direction.  We need to do what we can!  I have also written a template letter that you can use to write directly to Lulu and their parent company EMKE.  If you would like a copy of the letter please email me: dhofar.eco@gmail.com 

P.S. If you are a blogger and you support this cause, please promote it on your own blog! Similarly, the more this gets around Facebook/Twitter etc. the more chance we have of collecting a significant number of signatures. Please do your bit to be part of the solution! Many thanks!!

07 February 2012

Oman's Shame!

As a scuba-diver and someone who likes to see marine life in its natural habitat, I have always been saddened by the piles of little sharks evident in fish markets and on fish counters at Lulu supermarkets across the country.  Some of these small sharks might be a diminutive species, but I suspect many are simply babies - whipped out of the ocean at a tender age and denied the chance to grow and reproduce.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the grave consequences of that.  Where will the next generation of sharks come from?

Everyday I see more and more disturbing evidence of unregulated and unsustainable fishing practices and I am becoming increasingly angry.  Why is nothing being done??

Oman is currently basking in the glory of having Muscat voted one of Lonely Planet's top 10 cities to visit as well as Arab Tourism Capital 2012.  I wonder what tourists would make of what is going on? Oman undoubtedly has much to offer foreign visitors, but for how long? Just like it's oil wont last forever, it's ocean bounty wont either.  Once Oman has finished pillaging the sea and building monstrosities on every last unspoilt coastline, what will be left? An opera house and some shopping malls?! Oman's point of difference from it's GCC neighbours lies in its natural beauty, its ruggedness, its lack of in-your-face commercialism.  Much of Oman is still like travelling back in time. This is the beauty of the country and what makes it so unique and appealing.  It is incredibly distressing that short-term thinking is likely to be responsible for the destruction of all that for future generations.  And let me be clear - this isn't just about tourism (an industry Oman will become increasingly reliant on). It's about Omani children, and their children's children.  In the words of an Italian friend commenting on a shocking photo on Facebook: "Dear Omanis you are breaking the chain of the natural balance and tomorrow your children will eat the sand....."   The picture which inspired this response was this:

Yes, that entire truck is full of tiny (baby?) sharks.  Here's another one:

We can't go on like this! Sharks are absolutely essential for a healthy reef and, without them, a decline in the numbers of other fish is bound to follow.  This is a fact which few seem to understand.  More predators actually results in greater diversity.  Sharks play a vital role in the health of ocean ecosystems.  The pictures above show hundreds of dead sharks - and this is just one catch on one day. How many are being caught every other day by different people in different places? These particular photos were taken in Dhofar.  Such an abundance of juveniles could suggest that the region is an area for shark breeding.  These creatures need protection!!!

Policing fishing isn't an easy task - even where regulations exist.  The government needs to work on this as a matter of urgency.  There is no doubt that the relevant Ministries are aware of what's going on, so why aren't they doing anything about it? At this rate, by the time they get their act together it will be too late!  It is such a contradiction that whilst the Ministry of Tourism proudly fills its web pages with beautiful underwater shots to entice snorkellers & divers, elsewhere those very creatures are being hauled out of the ocean to make a quick buck.  It doesn't add up!

At the same time, companies like Lulu are complicit in supporting the shark-fishing industry by continuing to stock shark products.  At a time when companies are under increasing pressure to conduct business in a socially responsible way, a supermarket of this stature should know better.  I often see sharks like those in the images above sitting on the fish counter for under a rial per kilo.  They're cheap! In the ocean they are worth so, so much more. You can't place a value on it.  So whilst seeing sharks in Lulu is sadly unsurprising to me, I was nonetheless shocked by the following image which depicts not just any shark, but a baby HAMMERHEAD SHARK! 

I don't know what particular type of hammerhead this is, but many hammerheads are endangered.  I urge you to contact Lulu and request that they cease their trade in sharks.  I have heard that Carrefour (the other main player in Oman) have already done so, but have been unable to get confirmation of this thus far.  I have written to them requesting clarification and will report back when I receive a reply.  I would also suggest that you contact EMKE who are the Abu-Dhabi based parent company operating Lulu.  I plan to draft a template letter to Lulu which I will post on here for those of you who wish to use it.

Sometimes there is so much frustration and heart-break in trying to campaign against these practices that you wonder if the uphill struggle is worth it.  It is! It has to be! If only to never have to see another picture like this:

For those who don't know, this is not a typical shark, but a whale shark - a magnificent, majestic, completely harmless, plankton-eating creature.  Here you see one being caught recently by fishermen in Oman. This is a shocking image that brings shame on the Sultanate.  Whale sharks are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).  Aside from their conservation status, they are also worth a hell of a lot more alive than they are dead.  For most divers it would be a life-long dream to have the opportunity to swim with one.  Divers travel to whale shark hot-spots across the globe in the hope of seeing one.  If Oman were known as a whale-shark diving location it would bring divers from far and wide, along with the cash they would inject into dive shops, boats, hotels, restaurants and other attractions.  I had the great fortune to dive with a whale shark in Thailand and it was an incredible, life-affirming experience.  I truly hope to see one in Oman in the ocean where it belongs.

I should say at this point that it is not my intention to vilify local fishermen with this post.  Most fishermen are simply trying to earn a living and provide for their families.  No-one wants to deny them that.  The fishing community need to become part of the solution, and they need to be offered alternative income streams.  The fishermen already know the oceans, know their boats.  Their expertise could be put to other uses (e.g. running dive shops, boat tours etc.).  Regulating fishing isn't about denying anyone a job.  It is about ensuring there will still be fish to catch in generations to come.  Conservation efforts need to involve local communities if they are to be successful.

Fortunately there are others out there who feel the same way and are committed to tackling these issues.  To that end, I ask that you support both Sea Legends and Shark Watch Oman who are doing great work in this field. Please 'like' their facebook pages to stay up to date with what's going on.

09 January 2012

Turtles Versus Tourists!

With family coming to visit Oman for the festive season I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet them in Muscat and make a trip to the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve.  I'd heard a lot about Ras Al Jinz and their website looks very professional and says all the right things about "promoting social responsibility and sound environmental practices" and raising awareness.  Unfortunately, our experience was about as far from eco-tourism as you could get and more like a tourist cattle market.  We stayed at nearby Ras Al Hadd and made the journey to Ras Al Jinz in plenty of time for our pre-booked 9pm turtle viewing tour.  On arrival we were confronted by a foyer swarming with other tourists - there were literally hundreds of them.  We tried to book in for our tour but were simply told to wait.  We were struggling to understand how the tour was going to work. No-one seemed to be accounting for who did or didn't show up and there were just SO many people.  Anyway, we were still early, so we waited... and waited... and waited.  There was no information and no sign of movement (except the mass of bored people stretching their legs or finding a corner to sit).  Getting increasingly fed up we approached the reception desk again.  They re-iterated that they were waiting for information from the beach and that we should wait.  By 10pm, and with a young child in tow, we again tried to get some information.  By utilising our limited Arabic, the reception staff became a little more open and told us that the previous nights there had only been one turtle and that it had spent around 20 minutes on the beach.  It became increasingly obvious that there was no way all these hundreds of people would be taken down to the beach, let alone see a turtle. We eventually gave up and went back to our accommodation feeling very dissatisfied.  We saw many other people leave over the course of the evening too.

We knew it was low season for the turtles and we always acknowledged that we would have to be lucky to see any.  As with anything in nature, there are no guarantees.  Our complaint doesn't lie with not seeing turtles - our complaint lies with the shambolic handling of visitors. Even more so, our concern lies with the potential impact of this tourism on the turtles.  We always knew that late December would be a busy time to visit, but surely the centre must place some limits on how many tours they sell? The number of people waiting was overwhelming and completely at odds with the idea of unobtrusive, small-group eco-tourism.  More so, the centre missed every opportunity to raise awareness about the work they do, the plight of the turtles etc.  People left the centre having learnt nothing.  Usually on these type of trips you would expect guides to impart their knowledge, to share their passion for the subject at hand and to leave you feeling motivated to want to be a part of the conservation effort.  It may well be that Ras Al Jinz does a lot of good work, but sadly we were shown no evidence of it.  There are plans to open a visitor centre which will house some kind of exhibits, but at the time of visiting this was not yet completed.  Ras Al Jinz would do well to limit the numbers of tourists they accommodate and to ensure a fulfilling and educational visit for those who secure a place.  We expected to be guided to the beach as part of a small group and we expected to learn something, perhaps to be shown a presentation or see some pictures even if we couldn't see the real thing.  We had no interaction at all with staff regarding the turtles. We could have been waiting for anything, anywhere. Nothing made it unique or special.

I am fortunate enough to have witnessed turtles nesting elsewhere in the world and the experience couldn't have been more different.  I visited Borneo's Selingan Island a few years ago.  There, limited numbers of visitors had the chance to stay overnight to see the turtles, and strict rules and regulations were enforced to ensure the turtles weren't disturbed. Rangers took just a handful of people at a time to where the turtles were and, during any time not spent on the beach, the work of the national park was explained in detail. Visitors also had the opportunity to visit the island's hatchery and release baby turtles into the sea.  Even if we hadn't seen the nesting turtles, it would nonetheless have been an incredible experience.  Sabah in Borneo has the oldest turtle conservation programme in the world and it seems like Oman could learn something from them.

I am almost glad that no turtles came to the beach at Ras Al Jinz whilst we were there. If they had, I can only imagine that there would have been a stampede of people.  Ras Al Jinz doesn't charge much to visit. It might be better if they increased their prices but limited access and put money back into both visitor education & awareness raising, as well as conservation.  

After our trip I sought out some online reviews of other peoples' experiences.  Whilst, in fairness, there are many positive reviews, I also came across people describing their experience as "turtle torture" and describing groups of over 50 people descending on the beach at the same time. Another review talks of adjacent beaches being polluted with oil and litter, whilst someone else mentions a crowd of over 200 visitors over Eid. The same person goes on to say that the number of people resulted in some turtles returning to the sea without laying - something one would want to avoid at all costs.

It is fantastic that Oman has created a turtle reserve and is conscious of the need to conserve this magnificent species. I simply hope that it prioritises turtle welfare over tourists, whilst also ensuring that tourists receive the enlightening educational experience they deserve.

07 January 2012

New Year, New Beginnings...

Happy New Year to all my readers! Here's hoping that 2012 brings positive environmental changes in Oman and beyond. A New Year is always a good time for a fresh start and, with Oman Environment Day taking place tomorrow (8th January), I hope that people will feel inspired and motivated to play their part.  If we all do a little bit then, collectively, we can truly make a difference.

ESO have announced their calendar of events for the year, although sadly, as usual, Dhofar remains completely unrepresented.  This is frustrating,  but it's all the more reason why we need to shout that bit louder to be heard! Let ESO know that you want events to take place in the South too. I get the feeling that they don't think there is enough interest down here to justify it. Let's prove them wrong!!  If you have ideas for specific events you'd like to see here or presentations/lectures you'd be interested in hearing then let me know and I will pass your suggestions on to ESO.

Well in the latter days of 2011 I'm sorry to report that I had quite a depressing Omani 'eco-tourism' encounter at the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve. I will write about it in my next post and, meanwhile, will remain hopeful that things will improve for the better in 2012...