Surprise at Ras al Hadd
All around us it’s sprouting turtles – literally. And we are not even inside the protected turtle breeding ground at Ras al Hadd. It’s 7:30pm and pitch dark, rendering a surreal atmosphere possible only on empty stretches on winter new moon nights as this. The only relief is the glare of the headlights of our saloon cars which, a few minutes ago had screeched to halt on the dirt track, shocked at the sight of four palm-sized baby turtles that were hurtling straight towards us as if in some suicide pact.
Startled by this unexpected sight we had got out, leaving the headlights on, to have a closer look. Now we are standing transfixed as the most amazing and almost surreal sight unfolds around us – baby turtles sprouting from the sand and rushing towards us, probably attracted by the headlights.
We can hear more cars grinding to a halt behind – two of our cars have effectively blocked the graded road that leads to the protected area where the turtles are supposed to nest. Someone calls out in the dark, “Hey, get those pails from the beach set.” Someone else wonders aloud, “Are we supposed to touch them?” No one has the answer.
All we know is left alone, these tiny lives will be crushed, ironically by the vehicles of the very people rushing to have a glimpse of them. Of course that’s not the destiny we want for these little ones, so we pick them up, one by one, and place them in the buckets and a cardboard box someone has handed over.
As we ponder the series of coincidences that led us here tonight we can’t but think there is a reason for everything. It had been a jinxed trip from the word go. Half way to Salalah we had to turn around and cancel the hotel bookings. The youth hostel at Al Ashkarah was fully booked, Sur was too mundane and the whiff of an idea to camp at Ras al Jinz had to be abandoned as none of us were carrying camping gear. Only those who would be camping were being allowed on the turtle beach at Ras al Jinz. It was the government official who was manning the ticket counter there who suggested Ra’s al Hadd. The journey had seemed like an anticlimax in comparison to the spirit with which we had set out that morning to Salalah.
But now as we rush to pick up the baby turtles none of us have any regrets. After all it is not every day that you get to see baby turtles, let alone rescue them. We’ve friends who had camped on the beach for two days and still not seen a single turtle. The gentleman from the ministry seems pleased as we hand over our catch, about 60.
Soon we are on the protected beach, guided by the ministry of tourism officials, scouting for more turtles. The group has swelled by now, but there is a hush as we move ahead with torches in hand in an otherwise pitch-dark landscape. Ra’s al Hadd, the easternmost point of Arabia is one of the favourite nesting grounds of green turtles (Chelonia mydas). It is estimated that only about 20 per cent of the hatchlings make it to the sea, but then tonight, except the ones we are carrying there seems to be none. We worried too early, suddenly, out of nowhere there is this rush of baby turtles, hundreds of them scrambling towards the sea.
As our eyes follow their journey to the sea we understand why so few survive. There, as if standing guard to the sea, is a line of large ghostly white crabs ready to feast on the baby turtles. It’s sad, but we know it’s better to let nature take its own course.
I swallow hard and look up the night sky, illuminated by a million stars and a startlingly clear Milky Way and say a silent prayer for these little ones. I turn back quickly not wanting to see how many actually make it to the sea. Of course, even in the water the little ones will have their battles to wage to reach adulthood. That would be a life played out in the depths of the ocean, away from my vision but here there is no escaping the reality if I choose to look. It’s just a matter of turning 180 degrees.
There are some things in life that one would rather not know, where ignorance is bliss. I add this to my list of things that I would rather not know and walk back to the car, alone.
Published on 3/29/09