x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A privileged view

Feature The nightly arrival of green sea turtles on a beach in Oman to lay their eggs is something else.

Galen Clarke / The National The beach at Ras al Jinz is lit by moonlight and the red recording-lights of around 20 cameras. A 150-strong crowd has gathered around a discernible movement in the sand from where streaks of the turtle's metre-and-a-half-long, dome-shaped green shell peek through. With cupped flippers, the animal scoops the fine grains around her and tucks them underneath her front. Ali Salem al Oraimi, a ranger with the Omani ministry of environment and climate, shuffles in front of the turtle, shining his flashlight. "Everybody sit down," he said to the encircled crowd. He steps behind the turtle and holds back her hind flipper; heads crane to peer into the deep tube-shaped hole as the eggs plop in. "It's like ping pong balls," observed one man. "It's like dim sum," a woman said. The turtle turns to its right and the group of 150 tourists parts to clear a path back to the ocean. The creature hurls sand backwards, hitting the people standing more than two metres behind. She moves methodically towards the crashing waves, her flat flippers pulling her torso forward. Thump, thump, thump - she gasps and lays motionless before starting again. She leaves a tyre-tread-like trail in the sand; the crowd again masses around her and a chorus of chatter follows every movement before she disappears under a wave at last. Mercifully, such crowded spectacles are now a thing of the past. Since the launch of a new ecotourism project at Ras al Jinz last month, concern for the welfare of the animals has limited turtle-watching groups to a maximum of 12. Cars and camping are banned and the new Ras al Jinz Scientific and Visitors' Centre, set well back from the main beach, houses a museum, a research centre and 12 hotel suites for paying guests. For rangers such as Oraimi, who have patrolled the reserve's beaches for decades but whose future under the new project is still uncertain, the new rules are just part of a process of change which has taken place at Ras al Jinz over the past 20 years. "Fifteen years ago, a lot of tourists stayed near the beach, cooking on the beach," Oraimi said. Their bright flashlights would distract the turtles and some of the tourists even rode the turtles and ate their eggs, he said. The rangers began tightening security and eventually started hosting tours to satiate tourists' appetite for turtles in a controlled way. And as the tourist numbers grew, being a turtle guide became Oraimi's full-time job. Oficially declared a nature reserve in 1996, Ras al Jinz, 400km south of Muscat, is the largest nesting beach for green turtles on the Indian Ocean, and the second-largest in the world after Australia. Every year some 30,000 green turtles return to Ras al Jinz from around the world - travelling from places as far as South Africa and as near as Yemen to lay their eggs under the cover of darkness. Scientists believe that the shape of the beach at Ras al Jinz, the protection afforded by the mountains behind and its location as a point where both warm and cold currents meet, make it attractive for turtles. A turtle will lay between 80 and 120 eggs at any one time and they will hatch 55 days later. The peak season for egg-laying is June to September, but every night throughout the year at least one turtle emerges from the seas of the Gulf of Oman onto its beaches to lay eggs. Thousands of baby turtles hatch and crawl back to the sea.

Click here for a slideshow on the sea turtles' egg laying. Until now, hundreds of tourists, sometimes as many as 1,000 in a single evening, arrive to witness this ritual. Despite its obscure locale, new paved roads towards the remote site and write-ups in tourist guidebooks have made the site a popular stop for tour groups. The beach, once known only by scientists and through word-of-mouth, used to see more than 36,000 tourists every year. Pierre Abi-Aoun, the director of the new scientific and visitors centre, said that the project's aim is to keep the beach at Ras al Jinz as natural an environment as possible. "We are trying to take it back to a virgin beach, the way it is supposed to be," he said. The centre with its environmental and archaeological research facilities for staff, is the biggest public-private partnership of its kind in the GCC, he said. The new project is a not-for-profit partnership between the ministry of tourism, ministry of environment and the Oman Liquefied Gas Comany (Oman LNG). "It's a pioneering project in eco-tourism for this part of the world," Abi-Aoun said. "It is a pilot project: if it works, hopefully, it will generate more projects like this in GCC countries." Money raised from tourists at the site will be used to maintain the centre, he added. Abi-Aoun explained that human activities on the beach had to be restricted because the number of sea turtles is dwindling worldwide. "We're very strict. We don't allowpeople to camp or to barbecue. There is less littering on the beach, less garbage and less impact on the turtles." Turtles were particularly threatened by littering according to Abi-Aoun. "Any plastic bag in the sea looks like a big fish to a turtle - it will eat it and the bag will get stuck in its stomach." According to the 2008 Red List of Threatened Species produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which monitors species' status in the wild, green turtles are endangered and are declining in numbers all over the world due to overexploitation. Dr Abdulaziz al Kindi, a biology professor at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, who has been conducting research on the turtles and the nature reserve since 1999, said the level of protection afforded to turtles at Ras al Jinz is currently good but that large numbers of tourists create a stressful environment for the animals. Light pollution is also a problem: turtles use moonlight to navigate back to the ocean and they can become confused by artificial light. In Ras al Hadd, just 20km north of Ras al Jinz along the Omani coast, female turtles and hatchlings often end up lost inland, fooled by streetlights and flashlights. Rangers and local residents regularly collect hatchlings and return them to the ocean every night. A seven-kilometre long and one-metre high barrier is currently being built along Ras al Hadd's coast to block out these lights, Dr Kindi added. Expeditions International EMC, a Lebanese company which specialises in managing ecotourism projects, has been brought in to oversee the centre and most of the new staff have been recruited from surrounding towns - around 92 per cent of the centre's employees are Omani. Apart from the sustainable management of the natural environment, one of the project's main aims is to provide employment to local people. "It's not just a tourism project, another of its main objectives is to contribute to the socioeconomic development of this area", Abi-Aoun said.

Yet it is unclear whether guides such as Oraimi, who have acted as the gatekeepers and unofficial tourist guides on the turtle beach, will be incorporated into the new centre or phased out. Oraimi, 38, who grew up in Ras al Hadd and has been patrolling the area's beaches for the past 22 years, watching turtles drag themselves onto the shore, and rescuing hatchlings that had wandered too far in the wrong direction, said that he was wary of the changes to the reserve. He hopes to keep hosting tours here and yet in the short time since the centre opened. Abi-Aoun says that for the turtles, things have already improved. "Already we are witnessing more nesting on the beach. If you compare it to the past year, the numbers of turtles during this time has increased. It is definitely improving. It is better for the whole ecosystem." To book a turtle-watching tour or for more information visit www.rasaljinz.org or call 00968 96 55 0606. Tours cost three Riyals (Dh30); a double room, including two turtle tours (at night and at dawn), plus breakfast and dinner costs OR120 (Dh1,445) per night excluding tax. aligaya@thenational.ae