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.  

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


ynotoman said...

that must have been a wonderful experience. Did you find out if other hotels are to be built next to the main nesting beach where the Masirah Swiss-Bel is now?
The locals who you spoke to about Human consumption of turtle eggs & meat should have used the current tense to be more accurate.

Dhofar Eco Bug said...

ynotoman - I am not specifically aware of other proposed hotel developments, but I did read about plans to build a causeway between Masirah and the mainland. Further development seems inevitable. I just hope it is done in an environmentally sensitive way. As for my conversations with the locals - with my limited Arabic and their limited English, correct tenses were the least of our problems! Consumption of turtles is a controversial issue and not something I would wish to accuse anyone of without real proof.

The Linoleum Surfer said...

Good for you, Bug. I know ESO has some work in this area, but I do wonder sometimes at the apparent lack of information, articles and campaign material in Arabic.

I think it's important for the Government (and eco-activists) to ask the question as to how the people of Masirah, Sur, etc., get their news and information. Those media need to be targeted.

Anonymous said...

When we visited a while back and stayed at the hotel, we were relatively impressed by the hotel's lighting. However, not very far away, there is an ROP compound with very bright lights all around it. In the morning there were several turtle tracks that indicated that some females had been confused by these lights but fortunately found the sea. Someone needs to tell the ROP to TURN ITS LIGHTS OFF.

Dhofar Eco Bug said...

Anon, If the compound you're talking about is the one I'm thinking of (with huge spotlights at the North end of the island) then it's not ROP but RAFO. I totally agree that these lights cause significant problems. Unfortunately, it is extremely unlikely that a military institution will ever be persuaded to turn its lights off as they consider them a security measure. The only plus side about RAFO is that much of the beach there is fenced off meaning that turtles are at least protected from some other dangers. But yes - I agree - the lights are hugely problematic. I just think though that sadly this is a battle we wouldn't win :-(

Ali said...

I went to Masirah a couple of years ago and stayed at the beach.

I had no idea there were turtle beachs in Masirah. I did end up driving near some of the beaches to camp there. They really ought to raise more awareness about this and have more signs, all I say was some signs warning people from strong tides in the beach!

Anonymous said...

wow..thank you for the information. I think
there are alternative light colors and types of light
that could deter the turtles. I am not a scientist but suspect this could be the use of purple light or other...

Had no idea that the turtle population could be destroyed because of that crappy '4 star' hotel on Masirah Island...depressing thought.

That hotel is not worth even one turtle.