David Whitley steps out into the moonlight on a remote Omani beach in order to watch turtles giving birth.
When it comes to childbirth, humans have it relatively easy. Well, they do when compared with mummy turtle anyway. There’s no-one to drive her to the hospital, no bed to lie on and no-one to pump her full of epidurals. She has to do the whole job on her own, and she’s giving birth to 100 or more littl’uns rather than just the solitary baby.
Under the light of the moon on the beach at Ras Al-Jinz, we sneak up on one such mother. She is lying in a pit that she has created in the sand, having dug the hole by relentlessly flapping away with her front flippers. After creating a sufficient indent in the beach, she then put her back flippers into action, tunnelling down to create a smaller, bigger hole. This done to her satisfaction, she sidled into position and started on the sloppy bit.
As we join her, around forty ping pong ball-like eggs are sat in the deeper hole. She’s popping them out like she’s auditioning for a job in a seedy Thai bar. It’s one of nature’s most incredible sights, and we’re privileged to be able to observe.
45km of coastline around Ras Al-Jinz is protected. On the far east of the Arabian Peninsula, and a good four hours away from the Omani capital, Muscat, it is regarded as worth the drive for most visitors. In truth, there are too many people allowed on the beach. It can become a bit circus-like as twenty or so tourists crowd around each tour guide, angling for a better view. It’s the wrong place for very young children – silence is required for the benefit of the turtles and you’re essentially standing around in the dark – but some idiots see fit to bring a baby or two along anyway.
But, crowd or not, the turtle-watching night tour is extraordinary – especially when you start to learn about the turtle’s journey. Apparently, every female turtle gives birth to her own young on the very beach that she was born. This can’t actually be true in every case, as there’d be only one beach in the world where turtles were born, but scientists accept that it’s broadly true even if they can’t quite explain why. Over a period of a couple of months, the turtle will give birth every few weeks, before disappearing and going on something of an Indian Ocean tour. In the two or three years out of the birthing cycle, the tagged turtles will be tracked off the coasts of India, Madagascar, Somalia and even.
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It’s not just one turtle on this beach we’ve come to see, however. We branch off from Mummy Turtle One to see Mummy Turtle Two painstakingly trudge her way down the sands, lifting her weight with her flippers for each exhausted step. She finally makes it to the water’s edge, and a wave comes in to lift her back out into the ocean. She has completed the process that Mummy Turtle One is soon to go through. Once all the eggs are out, she will shuffle forwards and start filling in the hole with her back flippers. That done, she will try to disguise the exact location by heading up the beach, violently throwing sand behind her with her front flippers. It leaves a smooth indented groove in the sand, and hopefully her eggs are free from predators such as foxes.
But it’s not just foxes that the turtles have to worry about. In the sea, sharks try and take them, and on the land there are damaging human influences. Poachers are the most obvious, but artificial light from car headlamps and streetlights is arguably more dangerous. Four or five days after the eggs are dropped into the nest, the baby turtles make an incredible breakaway up through the sand. The instinct is to follow the natural horizon light to the sea, but in practice, they head to wherever is brightest. The Visitor Centre as Ras Al-Jinz is deliberately kept back (a fifteen minute walk) so that the turtles don’t go the wrong way. And while mum huffed and puffed off a few days ago, the babies opt for a heart-breakingly cute scamper.
Suddenly, we’re warned to stand back and not move. It soon becomes clear why. Four of the tiny turtles have broken out of their next and are toddling towards the ocean like spiders flitting up a wall. The hushed “awwwwwwwwws” fill the night air, as the kids plunge into footprints and up the other side again like they’re giant sand dunes. Eventually, their madcap sprint sees them, like mum a few days before, at the water’s edge. The ocean laps, the turtles have their escort to another world, and they wash away to a whole new set of battles. Good luck little guys.
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