Turtle discovery – spending a night on the eco reserve in Ras al Jinz, Oman

We’ve been practising quiet voices for months, not very successfully for some of the smaller members of our adventure crew. It wasn’t just to generally keep the volume down (that would be an added bonus), but in preparation for our adventure to see the turtles near Sur in the Gulf of Oman. When researching Oman as a possible holiday destination I had discovered that they have a protected area of beach where a number of species of turtles including the Green Turtle and Loggerhead turtles come and lay their eggs and return to the ocean. Most days of the year a turtle can be found, however July is turtle season. Both in terms of the Mummy turtles laying their eggs and the babies hatching and making their journey to the ocean. Our quiet voice practice was in anticipation of being lucky enough to do a beach walk and see a turtle. I had some concerns that this little adventure crew would disrupt the annual breeding of this protected species. I need not have worried, the wonderment on the children’s faces when they witnessed the incredible sight of a Mummy turtle laying her eggs in the darkness of night and returning to her ocean home the next morning ensured the quietest of whispers.

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Wonderment

Situated on the coast, near the city of of Sur, Ras al Jinz Turtle reserve is a functioning research centre that seeks to protect the turtles and educate people on how vulnerable the population is.

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Three excited adventurers about their journey ahead

Turtles don’t come on the beach during the day due to the heat of the sun. So you need to either join one of the guided tours around 8/9pm at night (check with the reserve on their timings). Or if you stay over you get to do the night time guided walk and an exclusive sunrise walk only for those resident in the facility.

Leaving the Muscat area we travelled for around 2.5 hours (plus a stop in the marvellous Burham Sinkhole) down the coastline to an area called Sur. The mountainous landscape transformed to sandy desert areas into a raised coral reef with crystal clear blue waters along the coast.

Upon arrival at Ras al Jinz, we checked in and experienced a fast speed golf buggy up to our tented home for the evening. Beautifully kitted out with two glorious king sized beds, an air conditioning unit, and adjoining full bathroom with hot water, we were able to relax. Within the complex there were 12 similar tents situated on a cliff above the beach. There are hotel rooms within the research facility as well.

After unpacking, we headed back to the main centre to visit the educational museum that informed us all about turtles, their species and the perils that they experience. With handy audio guides the children were engaged in listening to all the information shared. At the end of the museum there was a little tank, with a tiny turtle that had got lost on his journey to sea, swimming there – he was going to be returned to the sea following sunset that evening. The children were enthralled with him or her, delighted that we had already seen our first turtle. There was a small additional charge for the museum visit. It was a little run down in places, but there was plenty of information and well pitched for the children.

We had time to sample the buffet on site, before preparing for our first accompanied walk in darkness to see if there were any turtles. Some external visitors joined this trip, however we were divided into on-site guests and others. On-site do seem to get priority access, remember your room key as it’s the access to the reserve instead of the ticket.

Following a briefing, about the need to be quiet and not using flashes on cameras due to the impact of confusing the turtle. Our guide led the 10 minute stony route walk to the beach, and as our eyes adjusted to the starry seascape, we began to see a number of turtles working away, digging their holes and preparing to lay their eggs. At first, I thought there was one, but quickly realised that there were numerous stretching across the beach. Incredible.

The guides ensured that visitors paid attention to the guidelines and were particularly keen to make sure that the children had a good view and knew what was happening. In the darkness, the guides used some red lights (not as harsh as the white light) and explained the behaviours of the turtles. There were two groups and it was carefully managed so that people were quiet, respectful and not shining lights. There’s no flash photography allowed and of course there were one or two who used it despite the guidelines. I was pleased to see that their phones were confiscated by the guides. In some of the reviews I had been concerned about too many people and not well managed. That was not the case for us at all.

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A mummy turtle working on digging her hole

We learnt that the turtles come on shore, and dig a large hole of around 3 metres. First we saw a turtle working on her hole, spraying sand around us she dug until she had created a large circle of around 2 meters. Next they dig down deep to create an egg cavity, a smaller little nest to lay their eggs.

 

Quietly the guide called us over in small groups and shone his torch through the darkness. Incredibly, we witnessed a turtle laying her eggs into the cavity. Up to 100 can be laid in a small amount of time. Glisining in the moonlight, the brilliant white eggs were carefully covered by the mother turtle. Burying them deep, she then set to work, creating a second hole a few metres in front of this one. This is the ‘fake hole’, amazingly it is a distraction for predators, hoping that the foxes dig in the wrong place.

There are a wide number of predators including birds and foxes, not to mention the possibility of humans trying to take the eggs hence the protection in the eco reserve. The researchers told us that only 2 or 3 out of each 1000 eggs successfully hatch and make it to the ocean. Incredibly low statistics of survival.

 

The sex of the baby turtles depends on the temperature of the sand. If the eggs incubate at temperatures of 27.7 degrees Celsius and below then the babies will be male and if above 31 degrees Celsius then they will be female. If the incubation happens in between these then some may be male and some female. Suddenly we were able to realise the crisis that is climate change even more – there will be even less male turtles.

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As we looked around the beach, in the reflection of the stars on the sea, we could see countless shapes of turtles working away on the beach. Tired, but with our minds alive of the wonder of it all, we returned to our tent and straight to sleep for a few hours, before rising at 4am for a sunrise adventure.

 

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Three tired little people ready for the morning adventure

 

This guided walk was only open to hotel guests, so at 4.20am with the day beginning to appear on the horizon, a more select number of us made our way back to the beach. It was a little colder, and very peaceful as the bleary eyed small group returned down the stony path. In the pre-sunrise brightness, it becomes quickly apparent just how many turtles had been working all night at the beach. We could also see the marks of the predators widespread with foxes footprints galore.

First we were brought over to watch one turtle dig her way out of the hole she was in. It was incredibly slow work, moving the sand to get over the ridge and return to the ocean. She looked exhausted, flapping the sand out of her way. I was struck by the sheer size of her as she looked me in the eye as she worked away. Suddenly with a few powerful movements she made it over the edge and started on a much quicker descent down the beach to the sea. With the powerful movements, she made it rhythmically down before the only remaining sight was her taking a few breathes before she dived into the Ocean deep.

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That is the last time that Mummy turtles do anything with their offspring. Job done – imagine that! When the little babies hatch they make their perilous journey across the beach and into the ocean running the high number of risks along the way. As we stood, watching other turtles appearing out of their nesting holes and making their way down the beach in awe, the researcher called us over, to see a baby turtle on his or her way. I had thought it was a difficult journey for the Mum, but then I saw this little thing with incredibly fast moving flippers working hard down the beach. He even fell into a footprint one of us had left behind and it took a lot of work to get back out again. Birds circled, but with humans watching they didn’t come near. How easily disoriented these little guys could be at night. We named him Lucky, and he made it to the waters edge. A wave came in and suddenly he was upside down, he righted himself and off he went on his lifetime adventure.

 

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Incredibly, the researchers told us that they have put trackers on many turtles over the years and learnt that they travel wide, they have picked up Omani beach turtles off the coast of Australia, around the Malaysian coastline and towards America too. When they reach around 37-40 years old and are ready to have their own babies, they come back to their beach of birth to lay eggs. Isn’t nature amazing?

 

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We stayed and watched the rise of the sun, all amazed in the wonderment of what we had witnessed. Three little minds exploding with all the information they had learned, and determined to do things diffierenlty when we get home to keep their oceans cleaner and work at stopping the rapid pace of climate change. When it was time to leave the beach, we reluctantly wandered up to the reserve, now that it was fully light, we realise that there were many little baby turtles who hadn’t made on their journey, either their eggs had been opened by predators, or one little guy seemed to go in the wrong direction and when the sun came up he didn’t survive. Cue tears from little middle adventurers, devastated to see the reality of the dangers and adversity they experience. I wonder, in many years to come whether she will be there rescuing the little turtles and ensuring they make it to their destination?

 

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We arrived back for a well needed buffet breakfast, and began to contemplate the amazing sights we had witnessed. I’m not normally emotional about much, but as we reflected on our morning and previous evening activities I was struck by the incredible planet we live on and how nature works. I’d really recommend this experience if you ever go to Oman. It was one of those unforgettable and ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences that I’m sure the children will remember for a long time. I’d really encourage you if you go to Dubai, to take the adventure, go a bit further, explore Oman and get to visit the turtles. Let us know if you make it that way!

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We booked through booking.com although you can book directly and do chose one of the tents (well worth a few quid extra in my opinion) and booking was inclusive of the two tours on the beach and a lovely buffet breakfast afterwards. Prices are between £160-300 for the night depending on party size and time of year.

 

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Arabian nights- Camping in the desert with kids.

Travelling towards the desert area during our Oman road trip, suddenly the landscape seemed cloudy and overcast with poor visibility. From inside the car looking out it felt cooler, however the temperature gauge was increasing steadily. The wind picked up slightly and we realised that the cloud was indeed sand. We were in a sandstorm.  Thankfully not a big or long lived one, but amazing to see how the whole sky transforms. 

Our desert adventure began on the petrol station forecourt,  as all good adventures do, learning how to deflate your tyres before driving across sand dunes. A necessary step to ensure we did not get stuck en route. We met some fellow explorers on the way to our camp so set off in tandem or perhaps in caravan is the way to describe. Much like driving in snow, Daddy the driver declared. Though I’m not sure how much we take that seriously since he also declared upon arrival at our camp that, and I quote, ‘there’s more sand in the desert than I expected’. Hmmm the Geography degree may need revisited. 

Anyway we journeyed first through what seems like a sandy road but then quickly were directed up a steep sand dune and off road we went. This is why I hired the 4WD. There would be no chance without it, you would be stuck. A 14km journey took about 30 mins through the spectacular  red sands of the Wahiba or  Sharqiya Sands as it is known. Dunes after dunes, red sand as far as the eye could see, with a few hardy desert bushes and trees thrown in. A few solo camels wandered past and we found a few families of them at various routes. Nestled in the flat plain surrounded by dunes either side we arrived at our destination the Sama Al Wasil Desert Camp. If you are feeling a little more cautious or don’t have a 4WD you can arrange that the camp meets you at the nearest town and transports you. 

Sama Al Wasil – our home for the night

We were met by friendly and helpful staff who showed us our room. We had a little house, with 2 bedrooms and a bathroom and the all important air conditioning. We would not have survived the 47 degrees centigrade temperature otherwise! The camp is set up with small houses surrounding a central tent for relaxing. There’s some tents further back and dining tent. All meals are provided with the fee. It’s well set out, clean although as it’s situated in the desert there are some creatures that appear at night. The children were not fans of the large beetles that scuttled across the floor. We were given bug spray in our room but didn’t need to use it and no one seemed to get any bites. 

We headed off up the sand dune to witness the sunset. It was hard, hot work clambering up. The two little ones didn’t make it the full way to the top. There was a handy rope provided to help pull yourself up. I discovered Miss 10 is much fitter than me! Roasted, soon the winds picked up and a small rain shower cooled us down. It was strange to see and feel the large raindrops coming down the sand dunes. As quickly as it started it ended. Standing at the top of the dunes, all you can see is sand dune after sand dune across the horizon. The silence and the emptiness struck me, other than the sight below of our little desert camp. The view of the sunset was spectacular- the golden sun reflecting over the red and golden sands. The most fun part – running down the warm sand with my feet sinking in up to my waist.

The darkness dropped quickly, and we retired to get ready for our evening meal in a Bedouin styled tent below a tapestry of stars. Traditional Omani fare, the children enjoyed experimenting with grilled camel, curries, bread and rice. There was plenty to choose from, and the little adventurers got stuck right in. Mr 5 declared the camel delicious (tough as anything it was). Miss 7 tried it, and since the camel ride the following morning has now become a half hearted vegetarian. The Bedouin people are nomadic desert dwellers who have travelled across the region. With modernisation and urbanisation, there are concerns that this way of life is eradicating. Little bellies full, and tired after our drive, and our desert exploration we headed to bed before an early start.

We stayed in the family accommodation, a two bedroom chalet with comfy beds and a good bathroom. It was clean, cool and perfect for our requirements. The little adventures slept well, with dreams of nights and the stories they have heard.

We were up not long after sunrise, to meet our new travelling companions, three camels and their young guides. First, the fascinating prints of all the nocturnal life of the desert was evident around the camp. We wondered and guessed who had been exploring, David Attenborough eat your heart out! Mr 5 and I went together, and the girls had their own camel each. It was a jerky transition from sitting to standing, but we were off. We went on a 30 minute ‘safari’ around the flat plain, then across some sand dunes. Again muscles that are evidently not used regularly made their presence known as I gripped on. Skinny Mr 5 declared a sore bottom after a while, and Miss 7 delighted beamed throughout. Thirty minutes was long enough for most of us, I think Miss 7 and her camel could have continued under the sweltering sun for much longer.

We worked up a healthy appetite for breakfast, and returned to our tented dining area for delicious and filling buffet breakfast. We said goodbye to our desert friends, and set off to the next destination in our road trip, with pockets and shoes unintentionally full of seemingly half the Wahiba desert that we continued to find for days afterwards, and our hearts full and memories a plenty of our magical escape in the middle of the desert.

There are other activities you can arrange for the desert including dune bashing for extra costs. There are a number of other camps in the area, with different degrees of luxury. As summer is not peak tourist season there were not many operating. We would recommend Sama Al Wasil, they were very attentive and made it a memorable experience. If you go to Oman, do not miss out this experience, it is something you and the children will never forget.

Practical tips

  • It’s very warm in the desert, bring long sleeved light clothes to give you as much coverage as possible. We used our head scarves that we had bought early on in the trip which protected the children’s heads and necks.
  • Book your camel ride for early in the morning before it gets too hot. We found 30 minutes plenty, I think any longer would have been too much.
  • Hire a 4WD car, and do some research into desert driving. Go to a garage just before you go off road and get your tyres deflated. Remember when you come back from the desert to re-inflate them. If you are not feeling so adventurous, then request someone to meet you and guide you or pick you up from the local garage
  • Sama al Wasil is situated near Bidiyah in Oman. It’s a 2.5 hour drive from Muscat, but we came from the turtles in Ras al Jinz. Route coming soon to the blog.
  • Pack a small overnight bag with your essentials for the night – you can safely leave everything else in the car.
  • We didn’t need to use it, but insect repellant could be necessary at other times of the year.