Stay at Ras al Jinz turtle reserve, Oman
In the pale light of the torch, we knelt silently on the sand as the turtle started to lay her eggs. Awestruck at getting a glimpse of this experience, no-one needed to be hushed by the guide, even the youngest children in the group watching open-mouthed as the shining white eggs dropped softly into the nest.
When we had booked in to stay at Ras al Jinz turtle reserve in Oman, I’d been hoping we might get a glimpse of one of the green turtles which come ashore here to make their nests in this protected stretch.
But I hadn’t expected to be quite this lucky: not only seeing the eggs being laid but watching another turtle bury her eggs in the sand, getting to hold a broken shell and most magical of all, seeing a newly hatched baby making its way into the waves.
In fact I’d been in two minds about how well the night-time viewing would go with a small girl. Rules for the two daily guided viewings – one at around 8.30/9pm and the other just before dawn – include staying quiet on the beach and I had a five-year-old who gets easily bored, grumpy when tired and chatty when excited. I even went prepared with my own torch in case we had to make a sharp exit.
In the event, she was on her best behaviour, desperate to see the turtles and with several new friends in the shape of another family staying there, happy to stay up late for a glimpse.
We’d arrived at Ras al Jinz turtle reserve in late afternoon, after our drive from Wahiba Sands via Wadi Bani Khalid and Sur – a cross between offices (overseeing the conservation and protection projects) and a hotel, it has both rooms and some eco-tents, as well as a restaurant and small museum.
Having booked relatively late, we managed to get the last room: simple but stylish, the air con was a welcome change after the desert. The beach itself was closed in the afternoon (although if you had a car, you could drive along the coast to another stretch of sand) so having broken the news to Minnie that there was no swimming, after chilling out and enjoying decent WiFi once more, we headed to the museum to kill some time before dinner.
Which turned out to be something of a turtle treasure trove. It’s small but beautifully done, with a mix of information about the different species of turtle found here to the history of the coast, and even exhibits on turtles in myth, from Greek to Native American mythology, as well as the story of Vishnu which we’d seen carved on the walls at Angkor Wat.
And there was plenty for younger kids to enjoy as well, although Minnie fled to the next room as soon as she saw the turtle skeleton hanging up.
With an audio guide which adapts to where you’re standing (mostly), we watched a video on the early settlers in the area in around 4000BCE, who traded dried and smoked fish, and left stone, shell and tortoiseshell jewellery and tools behind – and tried our hands at a game to get your baby turtle across the beach to the sea, avoiding the predators.
A slightly depressing game, it turned out – after three failed attempts I gave up. In reality, only around three to four per thousand make it.
Unsurprisingly, female turtles have a lot of work to try to combat those odds laying on average 110 eggs in a nest… and between two to eight nests each season.
Which explained the baby turtles in the small pool in the last room. Surprised to see them swimming around, something which felt entirely contrary to the centre’s ethos, we were told that these had hatched too late in the morning to have any chance of making it to the sea without being caught by predators. Instead they would be released after dark.
While the centre avoids interfering with the natural balance in the area, it does try to even the odds a little at times with the result that these endangered species are seeing their numbers begin to increase.
And after dinner – a buffet on the night we stayed, and the only option unless you’re prepared to drive elsewhere – it was time to head out for our own turtle spotting.
It’s open to non-guests who book as well, but if you’re staying in the hotel, you get to go out in the first group – ideal if you have younger kids, and means you can fall straight into bed afterwards rather than having a half-hour drive to Sur.
And almost as soon as we reached the sand, we got to see our first turtle. Having laid her eggs, she was busy covering them with sand, her powerful flippers showering it over our guide in the process – standing behind the nest to avoid disturbing or distressing her, he quite literally shook it off with a grin and continued to tell us about these amazing creatures.
After choosing the perfect spot, which might well be on top of another nest, the turtle lays and buries the eggs, stays for an hour and then heads back into the sea leaving the babies to take their chances. Around 55-60 days later, they hatch – sometimes all together, sometimes over as much of five days, with the temperature of the sand determining the sex of each egg.
Guided by instinct, they head towards the light. The centre itself is built back from the nesting grounds so nothing can confuse them on their way to the moonlit waves – as our guide proved with his torch, this instinct is so strong, they will follow the strongest beam regardless.
Watching the tiny, newly hatched baby, struggling determinedly over piles of sand several times his height, tiny flippers persevering in his quest to reach the sea, the torchlight could lead it anywhere – in this case, straight to its goal.
If they avoid land predators like foxes and geckos, they spend the next three days close to the surface where they’re at risk from seagulls and crabs among others. It is hard work being a turtle- and that’s before they have to contend with the damage humans can inflict.
Which makes opportunities like this all the more valuable. Discovering a fake hole – an abandoned nest or fake to put predators off the trail – and a broken shell, very white and more flexible than a bird’s egg, we got a glimpse into a cycle where turtles already have to survive against the odds. The more we can learn, the more likely we are to look at the impact people are having on this wonderful but endangered species.
Wishing this little hatchling luck, our night had its final magical moment to come, with another clutch laid in front of our eyes. Squeezing my daughter’s hand and looking at her face shining with wonder, this was one trip I knew we would always remember.
Need to know
The walks are included for anyone staying at the hotel. For non-guests, it costs 7 rials for adults, 1 rial for children aged five to 12. Four-year-olds and under are free. Advance booking is essential as there are limited numbers and you cannot visit the reserve without joining the guided walk.
Although you don’t have to be absolutely silent on the beach, you do need to be quiet and be able to follow instructions so I wouldn’t recommend it with toddlers – it is worth having a torch for the walk down too.
Multiple groups do go to the beach, but the guides stagger the start times and ensure people are spread out, so it never felt too crowded. Our guided walk in October was due to start around 8.30pm, although we left a little later and were back at about 10pm. There’s a 15 minute walk to and from the beach in the dark, so it’s worth taking a torch, although you won’t be able to use it on the beach.
The early morning walk leaves at around 4.30/5am – we chose not to do both, but you are more likely to see baby turtles in the pre-dawn (and get to see the sunrise too).
There are rules about behaviour on the beach, including no camera flashes or standing in front of a turtle which is laying or covering eggs, or disturbing them before they have begun their nests. Touching is entirely prohibited. The guides will ensure the rules are kept, and also carry special red light torches.
July to October is the peak season to see turtles nesting, although they may come to the beach as early as May and later into November. However while the guides will do their best, be prepared not to see anything.
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Disclosure: This post contains some affiliate links – any purchases you might make are unaffected but I might get a few pennies towards our travels. Our holiday in Oman was arranged and booked through Stubborn Mule and we paid for the holiday including the hotel ourselves.
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