Published: February 16th 2012February 16th 2012
The Midnight Summit on Green Turtle Conservation….
Shortly after Oman relaxed their rules on foreign visitors, two friends (Sally and Susan) and I decided to go see that country. We were living in the Middle East at the time, so we thought we knew what to expect. Oh how delightfully wrong we were. Oman was not like any place I had been….
Our introduction was not the best. Although they had made it easier for foreigners to visit, and although we were able to stand in a special line reserved for Gulf residents, the passport control process still took three hours. I’m glad we arrived after they relaxed the rules and with some status, otherwise we might still be in line! However, our second impression was much better. Unlike the rest of the Middle East, this country was missing the modern, western development enjoyed by Bahrain, Kuwait, and the Emirates. Also missing was the underlying tension that was so prevalent in the immediate post-9/11 world. I felt as though I had stepped back in time and I was enchanted.
At the airport, we rented a 4-wheel drive vehicle, perfect for touring off-road and through the deserts. We spent
time in Muscat, which was more like a series of villages, separated by hills, than a large city. There were lively markets and a lovely harbor, bright colors, and smiling residents. My friend Susan, who had lived in Tanzania, immediately discovered that many Omanis speak Swahili. We learned about their long history with Zanzibar and how the lines blur between Omani and East African culture.
But, I gloss over many of these details because this trip was 10 years ago and it is a bit fuzzy now. Also, as wonderful and interesting as I found Muscat and Sur and Nizwa, this is not why I had come to Oman. Nor was it for the unique culture, the history, the food, the delightful people, or the wadis (lush, green oases in the middle of barren desert). I was interested in the seeing the turtles!
Ever since I was young and saw a TV special on large sea turtles, I have been interested in these creatures. In the documentary that I saw, they showed a mother laying her eggs. They explained how, even though turtles traverse the globe, they return to the same beach to lay their eggs.
They don’t look around and say, “There’s a nice, quiet beach to bring forth my young”. They always go back to the same place. No choice is involved. Once the eggs are in the sand, the mother returns to the sea, and the eggs sit in pit for about 2 months on their own. The maternal instinct is not strong in these creatures. What happened next was truly astounding. The special showed animals like crocodiles attacking the nest and eating the eggs. Once the eggs hatched, birds, crabs and other sea creatures looked on the small turtles as a tasty delight. It was one thing after another. After starting with around 100 eggs, there were only about 8 baby turtles crawling into the sea. This was high drama! Then, what comes crawling out the sea? Another mama turtle had come to lay her eggs. She promptly crushes about half the remaining turtles. I think, in the program that I saw, about 4 made it back into the sea.
Oman has several places where turtles come to nest. They have 5 species of large, sea turtles, but the Green Turtle is the most prevalent. We were headed to a beach
south of the town of Sur to witness this event. When we made this trip, the beach was very underdeveloped. They let a limited number of people camp and we came armed with tents and sleeping bags. We were told to stake out our spot because they limit the number of guests to 50. We got there early and set up our camp.
After dark, all guests were told to gather at the beach. There were far more than 50 people, but they split us up into smaller groups. The guide gave a speech about the turtles and their delicate habitat. We were told to stay in our groups, not to get too close, to avoid shining flashlights directly at them and to avoid flash photography, as it upsets the mothers-to-be.
We walked with our group to a large hole that mama turtle had dug in the sand. She was perched over this depression and spewing out perfect, white eggs. They looked like ping pong balls. The group immediately started to misbehave. Flashlights lit up the night. Photographers apparently didn’t think that the warning about upsetting the turtle applied to them. My friend Sally, a former guide at
a penguin reserve in New Zealand, couldn’t take it. She told people they were horrible and stormed off – back to the campsite. I stayed for a short while; this was what I came to see. I was horrified to see the guide pick up the delicate eggs and pass them around the crowd. I refused to take it. But, my horror reached new heights when he started violently kicking the turtle so people could get a better view of the nest! At that point, I stormed off, but not before I gave the crowd a very loud and vocal piece of my mind. These turtles have a hard enough time. The TV program didn’t even show human dangers. I had learned in Costa Rica that locals often collect the eggs to sell. But this wasn’t poor people trying to feed their families; this was just plain abuse by guides and tourists.
My friend Susan returned to the campsite about 10 minutes after I did, shaking her head in disgust. About a half hour later, the head security guard and our guide showed up. The guard started yelling at us. He said that we were “upsetting the tourists”. He
had come all the way to our campsite to tell us that we were wrong! However, the guide knew we weren’t. He actually cared and understood that speech he had given. He lingered after the guard was moving away and whispered to us that some high ranking minister of the environment, or the interior, or turtles, or whatever was coming for a visit that night. He said that if we went to the front desk and asked to see this minister, they would arrange it. So, that is exactly what we did.
A little while later, another guard came back and said that the minister was arriving soon and would meet with us at midnight. So, at the appointed time, the three of us went to the main visitor’s center. The minister and a large contingent of guards were seating on cushions around a large circle. We were the only women. The guard who had yelled at us was now respectfully serving us tea. The collective attitude toward the outspoken, annoying western women had changed dramatically. The minister, a young, handsome member of the Omani royal family, asked why we had asked to see him. For the most part,
Sally was our spokesperson. She explained that, although their intentions were good - allowing visitors to see these magnificent creatures and giving a good speech on the rules at the onset – the rules were not being followed and these endangered creatures were suffering. She explained that, as a permanent nesting ground, Oman had an obligation to protect the turtles. The minister was very gracious and a perfect host. He listened, treated us with respect, and asked for our suggestions. We made several that we thought would help the situation. By far, this meeting at midnight was one of my most memorable and unique travel experiences.
Nearly every year I consider returning to Oman. Not just because it is a wonderful country to visit, but to see if our late night summit had any effect. I admit some guilt. I also messed with evolution the next morning. I woke early and decided to go down to the beach to see the sun rise. On the way, I saw a small, baby turtle headed for the parking lot and camp ground. Now, Darwin tells us that the fittest survive and clearly this turtle did not have the brains to know
which direction it was to the sea. Still, I carefully picked him up and walked him down to the surf, gently placing him in the shallow water. I spent the next hour or so looking around the beach for other turtles and when I found them, making sure they made it into the sea. Was I messing with nature, or just balancing the scales from the previous night?