We have always wanted to catch a first-hand glimpse of turtles laying eggs and hatching. We previously tried to catch them one night in Costa Rica, but the turtles weren’t cooperating that evening. In spite of spending 6 hours waiting in the visitor’s area for some action (we weren’t allowed to go to the beach until the turtles appeared), the turtles were not cooperating. At 2 AM, we finally gave up and returned disappointed to our hotel. We tried again in Oman at the Ra’s Al Hadd Turtle Beach where thousands of turtles build their nests each year and lay their eggs before making their way back to the sea. If the turtles appeared, this was one of our anticipated highlights of our trip to Oman.
The experience started at 8 PM when we were first taken to tour the Green Turtle Nesting museum before heading to the the beach to catch the expectant mother turtles in action.
We learned a lot about turtles during this trip, including how how green turtles, the second largest of all sea turtles (after leatherbacks):
- Can live more than 50 years, grow to about 120 centimeters (about 47 inches) in length and weigh about 200 kilograms (about 440 pounds);
- Typically migrated around the entire Arabian peninsula;
- Can sleep either above or below water for hours at a time, and can dive to about 1 kilometer (about 6/10 of a mile) and swim underwater for up to an hour;
- Begin life as carnivores (eating food such as soft corals, sponges and sea slugs) for their first year, and then, as they develop the bacteria that allows them to digest seaweed and sea grasses, become vegetarians (unlike most other sea turtles that remain omnivores their entire lives);
- Cry, not because they are sad, but as a means of expelling excess salt from their systems;
- Don’t so much swim as they "fly" through the water, using their front flippers as wings to propel them and their back flippers for steering; and that
- A mere two or three of every every 1,000 hatchlings survive to maturity.
We also learned about the egg laying and hatching process. Green turtles, for example:
- Lay between 32 and 162 eggs (and an average of about 100) three times during the birthing season;
- Eggs incubate in about 55 days at which time the hatchings break from their shells and begin the perilous journey into the sea;
- Sex of hatchling is determined almost solely by the temperature of the sand, with those in lower temperature sand becoming males, higher temperature females, and in between being a mix of both sexes–unless that is, the sand is outside a relatively narrow survival zone in which case all will die;
- Females will dig one large hole about 18 inches deep with their front and back flippers, another smaller 18-inch hole inside the first one with their back flippers and then, if conditions are right, will lay their egg in the second hole. Then, after covering and packing down these holes it will create a third hole, outside the original large circle, as a decoy to fool predators;
- The female will dig attempt to dig one, two or three large holes per evening until it senses that the temperature and moisture level of the sand are correct. If none of the holes suffice, it must return to the sea within about three hours without laying her eggs, or risk dehydrating;
- If it fails to find a proper spot after the first night, it will try again a second night, in which it must lay its eggs, whether or not conditions are right;
- The processes of crawling 20 or 30 meters out of the water, combined with that of digging these holes is so exhausting, that the mother must frequently rest during the processes and sometimes, expends so much energy that she is unable to make it back into the sea.
While learning all this was fascinating, we were there to watch the process. Unfortunately, to protect the turtles, photos were not allowed. But we did watch a turtle attempt to dig her first hole of the night, before being forced to abandon it because the sand was too dry to allow her to dig to the proper depth. She moved on to another location to try again in a second spot, only to again fail to dig a proper hole. Exhausted, she began to make her way back to the water. Hopefully she had better luck the next night.
In addition to wanting to see turtles lay eggs, we also wanted to see hatchlings. We were lucky to see three new, inch-long cute hatchlings who had dug their ways out of their nests and began the hazardous journey to the sea. Those who are able to avoid birds and other predators on the sand to make it to the sea, then face many predators in the sea. It’s no wonder so few live.
Two of the little ones that we saw took a relatively direct path to the water. The third one was having a little trouble with directions (sounds like Joyce) and got an assist to the water from one of the guides.
As groups are only allowed to watch turtles for an hour, we had to return to the visitor’s center. While we didn’t bat 1,000 by seeing Mom lay her eggs, we did hit 666 by getting a change to see Mom trying to dig a nest and the three hatchlings. Not bad for being on the beach for an hour. And much better that our experience in Costa Rica.