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Close your eyes,” said our guide Khamis Abdullah Khamis all of a sudden. To our motley group of tourists on that dark, deserted beach, this made no sense. The moon was but a thin sliver that night and it was not as if we could see much anyway.
“Now open your eyes. What do you see?” Well, we could still see nothing, only hear the roar of the sea behind us. He grinned at our blank faces before opening his palm and pointing his weak flashlight towards it.
A tiny turtle, born just minutes ago, came into view. Khamis set it down gently on the sand, delighted by the admiring oohs and aahs of the gang. The baby was clearly flustered, turning this side and that, thinking of his next move. Giving us a moment to watch it, Khamis then slowly walked towards the sea, just a hundred metres away, pointing the flashlight towards it.
And the darling baby followed him. Rather, he followed the source of light faithfully, before making his entry into the cool waters of the Oman Sea that was his home. I remembered Khamis saying that turtles tend to follow the nearest source of light; from heading in the direction of the moon to fetching up at the nearest hotel with its yellow lights, Khamis had seen it all.
We were at the Ras al-Jinz Turtle Reserve in Oman, one of the largest turtle nesting sites in the Indian Ocean. Every night, nature enthusiasts and curious tourists alike make their way to this reserve, close to the town of Sur, for a turtle walk on the beach. Four of the seven known species of sea turtles —
Loggerhead, Hawksbill, Olive Ridley and Green Turtle — are found on the Oman seas.
Of these, we were there in search of the endangered Green Turtle (Chelonia Mydas), which visits the shore mostly during the hot months, between June and August, to lay eggs. The female Green Turtle lays over 100 eggs at each go — over 15,000 in her life — but only up to four of these survive per batch to reach adulthood. Predators abound in their ecosystem, from foxes to crabs, not to mention callous humans.
Although this was clearly low season, we were driven by a desire to see this play of nature and, therefore, willing to take the chance of spending two hours walking on the seaside late at night. After a quick dinner at the resort adjoining the reserve, our group of 20 adults and children (visitors are broken up into two-three small groups so as to minimise noise and movement on the sands) gathered outside at 9 pm, where Khamis gave us a thorough briefing about the rules — loud noises, bright lights and flash photography were strictly prohibited, among other things. He also set expectations straight — in peak season, there are hundreds of them, but now, inshallah!
We then started walking towards the sea, first crossing an uneven mud path for about 500 m in complete silence. Apart from Khamis leading at the front and another guide bringing up the rear, nobody else had any source of light.
“Look, mummy, so many stars!” a small and excited voice suddenly punctuated the salty air. All of us looked up as if on cue, and I gasped. To my city eyes, unaccustomed to clear skies covered with a thick blanket of stars, this was as magical as the wildlife experience we were hoping to have later.
Soon, my feet sank into soft sand, powdery and cold. We had reached the beach and Khamis brought us all to a halt, as his colleague ventured further into the dark, scouting for green turtles. At a signal from him a few minutes on, we headed towards his flashlight, in silent anticipation.
All of a sudden, I stumbled into a shallow sand pit, and found others around me suffering similar missteps. This happened several times on my way to the shore where a turtle had already been spotted by some; my friend and I held hands, giggling as we lurched on like a pair of drunks in the near total darkness.
It was only later that Khamis explained that these were fake nests made by astute mama turtles to throw predators off the scent. The real nest holding the eggs is immediately covered up by her and flattened to make it blend with the landscape.
Near the shore, a giant Green Turtle was slowly flapping her way towards the water — the sand on her back from all the nest digging, glistening like a pretty pattern. Once she disappeared into the water, we moved on to where another one of these mommies had been spotted by our vigilant guide.
On the way, Khamis suddenly shushed our group. A large boulder in the distance had unexpectedly shown signs of life. It was a female turtle in the process of nesting, and at the first sign of disturbance, she would return to the sea without completing it. So we gave her a wide berth, walking towards our original destination, where yet another of these gentle giants had just started her slow march homewards.
After a quick chat with our guide, I learned that his father was a fisherman from the local village, and had taken Khamis with him into the deep sea from the age of five. “How you see your friends every day, we used to see them all the time,” he said, explaining his passion for turtle preservation.
“Three turtles tonight, you are lucky folks,” Khamis exclaimed on our way back. Three and a half, to be precise. We were lucky indeed!