This article was originally published on the Tourism Concern blog in April 2018
There are seven species of sea turtle found around the world, of which five can be found on the beaches of Oman. These magnificent creatures can live to be 250 years old and can grow to be more than two metres in length.
Tourism in Oman has developed at a rapid pace over the past ten years, as the nation, like many others in the Middle East attempts to shift its economic reliance on oil to tourism revenues. At first glance, it might seem that turtle nesting sites on some of the most popular beaches in the sultanate might be at odds with the tourism development that has taken place there, however the stakeholders within tourism in the country have, so far, managed to delicately balance the needs of both sides.
I recently had the opportunity to stay at the Shangri La Bar Al Jissah resort on the outskirts of Muscat, which opened in 2006. The resort is sandwiched between rocky cliffs and the warm waters of the Gulf of Oman, and is only accessible via a tunnel cut into the rock, so it is easy to see why the turtles made this once isolated beach one of their nesting spots.
The beach where the turtles nest at dusk
The resort appointed Mohammed Al Hasani as the first turtle ranger in the country. He is responsible for monitoring and protecting the nesting turtles and later their hatchlings as well as providing daily talks to the guests in the hotel’s eco centre about his work. In his talk he explains to guests how he and his colleague identify where the female turtles have made their nests, either through observing the turtles or by identifying the tracks made in the sand by the two different species which are found here. During the talk we also discovered that the ratio of female to male turtles born is influenced by the temperature of the sand which incubates the eggs, at higher temperatures, hatchlings are more likely to be female, whereas in lower temperatures, more males hatch.
At the end of the talk, we had the opportunity to leave our name and phone number so that the rangers could call our room if there were any turtle sightings during the night, unfortunately there were none to be seen on the nights we were there. The rangers also explain the rules that need to be followed when turtle watching, including not using flashes on cameras as these disorientate the turtles and make it difficult for them to find their way to the sea.
The beach at the Shangri La Barr Al Jissah Resort – one of the turtle nesting areas can be seen in the bottom left corner.
Along the soft sandy beach in front of the hotel, there are several roped off areas, which bear laminated notices detailing when the eggs were laid, the species of turtle that they were laid by and the approximate dates when the turtles are expected to hatch. These help to generate interest and enthusiasm for the turtle care project amongst the guests.
During the day, Mohammed can be seen around the beach area, chatting to guests and answering their questions about the turtles and the vital work that he does to keep them safe. The passion that the turtle rangers display in their work enthuses visitors and colleagues alike and it is clear that the work they are doing is highly valued and respected, not only by the guests, but also by the hotel management as well.
The talks and turtle watching opportunities at the Shangri La Bar Al Jissah resort are only available to guests of the hotel, but 150 miles along Oman’s rocky coastline lies another key site for turtle nesting, the Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve, which was established by the Omani government in 1996. The reserve also incorporates the Ras Al Jinz Turtle Centre, which describes itself as being a “truly Eco-tourism project”. This is the only official site in the country where the general public can watch the turtles nesting.
The reserve is not only an opportunity to visit the beach and see the turtles nesting; there is also accommodation available for visitors wishing to stay for a longer visit, which naturally increases the chances of seeing the turtles. The reserve seeks to both educate visitors about the turtles, and their delicate habitat as well as protecting the turtles from what they describe as being “human induced threats” such as pollution, poaching and disturbance. The reserve is also home to an interactive museum about turtles and the local area and scientific research facilities.
There are many challenges which turtles around the world face from humans, both directly and indirectly. In some parts of the world, turtles are bred for their meat and for use in traditional medicines, whilst in other areas the rising temperatures linked to global warming have been found to increase the percentage of females born as high as 99%. However in Oman it appears, at least for the time being, that the authorities and businesses are actively engaging visitors and the host communities to ensure the ongoing protection of these beautiful creatures.