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HindustanTimes Mon,21 Apr 2014

Turtle’s mother

Sarit Ray, Hindustan Times  Mumbai, June 30, 2013
First Published: 13:44 IST(30/6/2013) | Last Updated: 15:17 IST(30/6/2013)

The phone rings. Bleary-eyed, I look at my watch. It’s 3.30 am. Part of me wants to tell the receptionist that I’m on vacation before slamming the receiver. Instead, I tell him I’ll be down in 15 minutes. This isn’t your usual holiday. You don’t wake up late, go for brunch and stroll down to the beach (just a kilometre away) in your shorts. The beach at Ras Al Jinz (which translates to ‘the circle of life’) in Oman belongs to turtles. And I’m here to meet them. Which means, I’ve got to be down in 15 minutes. In time for the
4 am tour conducted by the Turtle Reserve.

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Circle of life
Sea turtles have fascinating life cycles. The males almost never leave the water, so it’s just the females that come on shore to lay eggs. And they often travel hundreds or thousands of miles to do so. Different species prefer different beaches for reasons not entirely known, and amazingly, females return to the same beach every time. Once the eggs are laid (we’ll get to that in a bit), they return to the water. The newborns must make their way out of the egg, through the sand and into the water on their own. This circle clearly works well, or has worked well for so long. Evidence suggests that turtles might be older than dinosaurs. But now, human activity, beach erosion and artificial lighting have significantly hurt the egg-laying process and led to some turtles becoming endangered.

Meet the turtles
Back at Ras Al Jinz, our dawn party looks like a platoon of sleepy soldiers. It’s a good thing. Turtles are terribly shy, and we’re going to watch them in a rather intimate performance. You’d rather be the sedate, gently amazed tourist than the super-excited sort trying to capture it all on a pocket digicam. It’s pitch dark, save for the light from the platoon leader’s (our guide) dim torch. He issues a warning about scorpions in the sand. I can’t tell if he’s joking, but I’m glad I’m wearing shoes.

We start the march
We meet our first Green Turtle; it’s very big, very slow, and right now, very busy laying eggs. I feel like an intruder spying on a private moment. But then, I’m Indian and toughened by shows like Bigg Boss. Besides, Mrs Turtle doesn’t seem to mind. Some believe turtles go into a trance of sorts while laying eggs. I just think it would take some serious disturbing after all the work she’s done. Mrs Turtle has first used her flippers to dig a body pit slightly bigger than herself. Then, just using the rear flippers, she has dug the egg cavity. This is where she is dropping eggs (they can lay over a hundred at a time) that look like the hardboiled poultry variety, but covered in mucus. Yum! Once this is done, she will cover the pit with sand and drag herself back to the water.

At the reserve
July is one of the best times to go to Ras Al Jinz. This is when the Green Turtles come ashore. The Reserve itself is a shining example of animal conservation and responsible tourism. Apart from star-hotel-like facilities, they also ensure that the beach (a 40-km protected stretch) is maintained in its pristine state. The museum at the centre is also a must visit. But right now, that can wait. I’m famished,and I need breakfast. I’m hoping the buffet won’t have boiled eggs.
 
The writer travelled as a guest of the Oman Ministry of Tourism

Know the turtles
Green Turtle: They are among the biggest (they can measure up to 5 ft and weight upto 300 kg). Seen in June-August.
Olive Ridley Turtle: A small, heart-shaped variety also found in India. Here, they visit in February.
Loggerhead Turtle: Another large variety, with a reddish-brown shell. Seen here in June.
Hawksbill Turtle: They have tapered heads, like a bird’s beak. Seen here in April.
Visit www.rasaljinz-turtlereserve.com for more information


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