Sunday, October 21, 2012

Turtle Watching in Oman

In the heart of darkness, life’s throbbing beats. In the semantic of the night, the possibility of survival. In the blackness of the Ras Al-Jinz, a quiet beach on the eastern shore of the Arabian Peninsula, the potential of life is fulfilled, or thwarted. Here, in inkblot holes created in the sand in slow, slow strokes, the travails of giving birth, the long, invisible dawn of incubation, the swift process of emergence and the launching of a career at sea are all realised.

The Green Sea Turtle (chelonia mydas) has preferred to nest in the sands of just one beach in the Sultanate of Oman. The fragility of this choice has made it an endangered species. Human presence over the years has frequently interfered in the precise motions necessary for the successful breeding of this species. Natural predators have been adroitly faced off by the turtles themselves, but they really cannot handle the potentially lethal presence of the one man-made threat- a flash of light in a moonless night.

Photograph above courtesy Sanjay Austa (c).

Less than a week ago, I was privileged to witness the entire egg laying cycle of the giant Green Sea Turtle on the Ras AI-Jinz beach, a fishing village on the Arabian Sea in the Ras Al-Hadd Turtle Reserve in Eastern Oman. The moonless night was moot to my being able to do so. Turtle watching is a popular tourist activity, but sensitively controlled at the Reserve. Its researchers are very careful about bringing humans close to the turtle mothers, who would really like to get on and get over their labour without being chased by gawkers and paparazzi.

The walk to the beach from the Reserve is a long one. Not easy, as the sand is not very firm. Often, each step you take puts you ankle deep in the sand and you have to drag yourself out of this rather wobbly position and take another step. It hardly helps that there is almost zero visibility other than the small light of the guide’s torch that you follow like a newborn turtle. My efforts slowed me down considerably, allowing me to appreciate the night’s moonlessness. Above me, the Milky Way was arrayed in swathe of sparkle and I could discern interstellar gases in dimly glowing patches around the stars with the naked eye (or with numbered spectacles, as in my case). Watching nebula in our upended galaxy was probably reason enough to be here on this beach. But this was the prelude to the main event.

Our guide and researcher, Kamiz, asked us to wait while an associate vanished into the night looking for nesting sites. As we fretted, he showed us other presences- small scorpions that inhabit the beach, or in absentia, the paw prints of foxes, the chief predators of turtle eggs. A mommy chelonia mydas, or the Green Sea Turtle is one of the biggest in the turtle species, reaching four feet from snout to shell. These lumbering female giants weigh anything between a hundred to a hundred and fifty kilograms. Most important, each fully grown mum may be between 60 and 70 years old. That’s twenty years older than I am, and I am no spring chicken. They come to the Ras Al-Jinz, once or twice a year and, if all the portents are well, lay upto a hundred eggs at one go.

 The attendant returned with news. In the dark, the green turtles had come out to lay. They did this by spreading out all over the beach finding their own space to do their duty. On the night we were there, only maybe ten or a dozen turtles had found beach-head. That’s how endangered they are. We walked to what looked like a boulder on the sand. Nothing moved. The breeze had stopped. Kamiz used a small flashlight to show us a dugout, about seven or eight inches across and a foot or so deep. Here was a large green turtle, nearly buried in the sand. Cantilevered over the dugout was a mother green’s rear, from which she quietly ejected egg after egg, bright white, catching the light of the torch, soft at the time of laying, covered with mucous, going plop! into the hole at the rate of perhaps one per minute. James Cameron got this right in Aliens(1986), where the alien queen lays her eggs with similar deliberation. The business of birthing is a patient one.

We all watched in quiet awe, standing in a hushed semicircle behind the mother, ensuring no inadvertent distractions. The turtle herself remained stoic and stationary, only the eggs emerged, one after another. Some light illuminated part of the giant lady’s enormous shell, oval like a Grecian shield, hued in a deep Chinese jade, with textures and patterns on her back like a piece of the Jade Hut on the golden beach of Keelawee from the Lee Falk’s Phantom comics. Then we walked away, backwards, and the mother was slowly smothered into the sand and negritude.

Kamiz walked us along a deliberate path, showing us may bumps and troughs. ‘Under this here, two feet below’, he would say occasionally, ‘are eggs, laid several days ago, being incubated in the sand. You can walk on the mound; they are safe below it, from both humans and predators. Watch out for the hollows.’ The eggs take around two months to hatch. We came upon another boulder on the beach.

After laying all her eggs a mother turtle crawls forward by one body length. This one had done so, her eggs well below the level of the beach. Here, she was slowly covering them up, shovelling sand behind her over her potential brood with paddle-like forearms. Once more we took up a position behind her and watched. There was zen-like calm to her shovelling: one stroke every once in awhile. One. Two. One. Two. Very mystic. We drew closer, and some of us got a faceful of grit. We had entered the parabolic catenaries of her slinging motion. The whole act would last more than two hours. When she was satisfied, she would move away, leaving a modest mound behind her. She would then dig up another trough in the sand- a decoy hole to misdirect foxes, crabs and gulls that would inevitably come out, day or night, seeking succulence in the sand.

Her annual chore done, the old lady took off sea-wards, and we followed her, like supplicants, and said our goodbyes as she hit the waves, which consumed her as she swam away, eastwards in the direction of Bombay. The Green Sea Turtle never looks back. Once done, she plays no maternal role in the upbringing of her baby turtles, which fend for themselves after hatching. She lays a large number of eggs, and very few of those will survive into full grown adulthood to live their lives out over a century or so. She will repeat this process decade after decade until she is 80, then stop coming to the Ras Al-Jinz and live out the rest of her retirement years in the sea.

Then suddenly, out of the darkness, to the surprise of all, including Kamiz, three hatchlings scuttled into the torchlight, babies pitch-black in their infancy, which made their toddler’s way towards our guide. 'I am not your father!' Kamiz scolded the 4 inch turtlets, wagging his finger at them like a school marm. We became self-conscious, and checked around our feet so as not to step upon any more babies of the night.

This is the speed bump in the green sea turtle’s cycle of life. The hatchlings should ideally make their way back to the sea, immediately after breaking out of their eggs. This increases many-fold the possibility of their survival. To hit the surf, they use the ambient light of the galaxy reflected on the waves to find direction. Any other light source, and they scuttle towards it instinctively; and this is potentially lethal. The guardians of the turtle reserve have ensured that the beach remains in total darkness throughout the year, and that no ambient or reflected light from the Reserve reaches the beach.

Kamiz then mounted an impromptu rescue operation, pointing the beam of his torch on the sand. The babies moved towards this circular patch, which moved too, this time to the water and the surf. Bye, bye babies!

What are the odds that this cycle could get accomplished successfully? There are so many obstructions in the way. Even the consistency of the sand (its chemical properties and temperature will determine the sex of the babies) is tested by the mother Greens before they decide to lay their eggs or abort. The Ras Al-Jinz is a safe haven. The Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs have made significant inroads to alleviate threats from humans and have tried to preserve the habitat of the turtles in as pristine a manner as possible, preventing excessive footfalls, littering and light. The encouragement of sensitive and sustainable tourism probably helps in this preservation. The Reserve’s commitment to their charges is probably the only bulwark against the extinction of these lovely giants.

The father turtles are an absent presence, never leaving the sea for land; the only visible males may be some of the babies who sprint to the surf with the first light they see. But I am touched to witness these matriarchs at their most intimate and vulnerable moment. It is an honour. As a friend would later describe: a bucket list moment. 

All the images above are by Vipasha Rathore (c) , except where mentioned, for which many thanks!

No comments: