Oman: a haven for rare turtles

We all know that the marine environment is home to a number of endangered species as well. That is why conservationists throughout the world have taken serious steps to prevent these species from fading into extinction.

One of the many turtle nesting beaches at Ras al Hadd

One such species whose origin cannot be taken for granted is the turtle that lived at a time when reptiles ruled the earth. The first turtles lived more than 185 million years ago. Fossils of marine turtles date back to 200,000,000 years ago. It is understood that they were witnesses to the emergence of many dominant species like the dinosaurs.

Well, considering the great odds against their survival, it is amazing that turtles have successfully braved through massive upheavals in the world's environment witnessing the tragic extinction of other species of their times.

The turtles, therefore, belong to a very ancient species that deserves a lot of respect. But unfortunately it is threatened with extinction! People hunt them for their meat and eggs to be used as food. Turtle shells are used as ornaments and for purposes like combs and frames for glasses. They are also hunted for their bone, oil and leather. In fact the most threatened species are the most economically valuable ones. With demands for modernisation barging in, their natural homes are destroyed too! However, scientists are experimenting on methods to raise certain species on turtle farms.

Coming to Oman, turtles are amongst the oldest and important marine species living in the Omani waters. Archaeological evidence shows that turtles have been hunted here for more than 7000 years.

Marine turtles are cold-blooded reptiles and their distribution is restricted to the warmer areas of the world. Oman is one of the very rare places in the world where turtles can be watched freely and calmly. Turtle nesting attracts hundreds of visitors to Ras al Hadd each year to watch the site at close quarters.

Five different species of turtles swim the Omani waters. Four of them nest here. These include the endangered Green Turtle, Loggerhead Turtle and the Olive Ridley Turtle and the critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle. The — the Leatherback Turtle is a visitor in offshore waters.

It is believed that turtles live longer than any other backboned animal. Turtles that live in water have a flatter, more streamlined shell than turtles that live on land. Sea Turtles cannot withdraw into their shell and so they depend on their size and swimming speed for defence. They have large flattened limbs or flippers, which they beat while swimming. They move clumsily on land but are excellent swimmers. The fastest reptile in water is the Pacific Leatherback Turtle, which can swim at over 30 km/hr.

Hard scales cover the head of most species of turtles. They have no teeth. Instead they have a beak with a sharp cutting edge with which they cut food. All turtles lay their eggs on land. Female sea turtles do not normally leave the water except to lay their eggs. Most of the males never return to land after entering the sea as hatchlings.

Nesting activity is carried out on beaches like the Ras al Hadd, famous for its Green Turtles nesting population, which is probably the largest in the Indian Ocean. The Masirah Island hosts all four of Oman's nesting turtles. The Loggerhead nesting population on Masirah is probably the largest in the world, and may constitute nearly half of the Global nesting population. The nesting population of the Hawksbill Turtles occurs on the Damaniyat Islands. Their global significance here is due to its size and density.

The Green Turtles: The Green Turtle's local Arabic names are 'Sul Hafah Al Khuthera', 'Hamas' or 'Shiree'. This is a very common species in the Indian Ocean. It is a popular food in many parts of the world. The use of its meat and eggs by humans has seriously endangered its survival. Green Turtles feed on luxuriant seaweeds and other green plants. They are found everywhere in Omani waters and travel further than other sea turtles. They can be seen in the hundreds, even thousands over the larger feeding areas. Green Turtles lay about 110 eggs in a clutch.

The beaches of the peninsula of Ras al Hadd, which stretches between Ras Ar Ruwais and Khuwr Jaramah, attract the largest number of Green Turtles nesting in Oman. This is one of the only three very large nesting aggregations of Green Turtles known in the Indian Ocean.

The Hawksbill Turtles: The Hawksbill turtle is one of the smallest of all the sea turtles. They resemble small green turtles and occur wherever there are coral reefs. In local Arabic it is called 'Al Sherfaf'. It eats just about anything it can find in the water. The Hawksbill turtle is the only sea turtle that is classified as a critically endangered species. They lay about 100 to 160 eggs in a clutch. This is a difficult species to protect because they nest in low numbers spread over a wide area.

The Loggerhead Turtles: The Loggerhead Turtles, locally called 'Rimani' or 'Murah', have a relatively flat carapace (upper shell), which is often light brown in colour. They are carnivorous. Their heavy powerful jaws enable them to easily crush even the thickest of shells. In Oman, the majority of Loggerheads nest on beaches of the Masirah Island, which is the world's largest nesting population. Their egg clutches average 100 eggs.

The Olive Ridley Turtles: These are best known for their huge synchronised nesting. It is a small turtle, which feeds on crabs, shrimps, jellyfish and seasquirts. The local name for this Turtle is 'Al Zaytooni'. They lay about 100 eggs per clutch. The migration of this species is not known.

The Leatherback Turtle: Called 'Al Niml' locally, this is an unusual turtle. It does not have plates like other turtles but a leathery skin over its shell. It reaches a weight of more than 600 kgs and is a giant among turtles. The largest on record is reputed to have weighed nearly 1000 kgs and measured 3 metres in length — about the weight of 10 large men! The Leatherback Turtle is carnivorous. In Oman the Leatherback Turtle feeds regularly in offshore waters. Roughly 85 eggs are laid per clutch.

* Adapted from Oman Observer. Nizwa.NET is not responsible for errors.