Lots of people ask about the turtles in Qatar. They are inspiring creatures and are really very cute. It is also exciting when you realise that they have been laying their eggs on the shores of Qatar, much like their reptilian dinosaur companions did, for the last 100 million years.
Whilst the Green Turtle (Cheloniamydas) forages on seagrass and green algae beds in Qatari waters, you are unlikely to see them unless you spend time at sea. The one you may see on land is the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), which nests on north eastern beaches. However, I am always hesitant to be overly enthusiastic as the hawksbill species -is critically endangered. So whilst they survived the dinosaurs, they may not survive us.
The main areas for nesting are Umm Taes (or Umm Tays), Fuwariat, Al Ghariyah and Ras Laffan beaches, plus a few offshore islands. The main nesting period occurs between April to July each year, with the peak in mid-May. The males and females need to be over 25 years old to breed. They migrate from their feeding grounds to nesting areas where they mate. Approximately one month later the females emerge on to their beach and lay their eggs. They can repeat laying several times each nesting season. After one and half or two months in the sand, turtle hatchlings emerge. This is usually at night as the sand is cooler.
Fuwariat is the best place to go in Qatar to watch the turtles nest. The peak time is usually between sun down and midnight, although turtles do nest after this, it is less frequent. Furwariat beach (to the south of the rocky area) is cordoned off during the nesting season by turtle wardens. A warden is usually present during nesting season. Always follow the warden’s advice.
To visit the nesting or emerging turtles in Qatar, it is imperative that due to their conservation status that we do not disturb the nesting cycle. When a female heads up a beach to lay her eggs she is easily disturbed by humans and may dump her eggs in the sea where they will perish.
Hatchlings are phototactic, attracted by the brightest lights, which usually is the moon reflecting on the sea surface. Any lights, such as a flashlight, car lights or fire, can distract them from heading to the ocean waves causing them to head inland where they die from predation and exhaustion.
To help them survive here are a few guidelines that are imperative to follow, if you visit the turtle beaches.
Turtle watching guidelines:
- Keep it dark and quiet: Lights and noise affects both nesting females and hatchlings. This means no fires, no flash photography & no flashlights. If you must use a flashlight, cover with a red filter. Also if your child is restless, talking, or crying, please leave the beach.
- Wear dark clothing on the beach.
- Walking on moist sand will prevent surprising a female or emerging hatchlings. If you encounter an adult emerging from the sea, stop moving, be quiet and allow her to travel up the beach.
- Do not approach the turtles. If a warden is around, they may tell you when it is safe to approach. Normally this is after she has started laying eggs. At this moment, she is highly focused on nesting and your presence is less likely to disturb her. Always stay behind their front flippers and away from her head and be sure to speak softly and move slowly.
- Never touch the sea turtles, hatchlings or their eggs.
- When she is finished nesting, make sure to leave plenty of space for her to return to the ocean.
- Leave pets at home.
- Watch out for hatchlings during the emergence season in Qatar, they need to walk down at least part of the beach by themselves, they do not need help except for a clear path to the ocean. Do not touch.
- Always throw litter in the bin, never leave it on the beach or flush litter down the toilet – it ends up in the sea.
- Try not to drive at the back of the turtle nesting beaches in Qatar during nesting season as it may squash the eggs in nest chambers, try to avoid walking on any nests or putting up beach shades near them. Wardens place small flags near the nests; avoid these.
- Get your children to fill in any sand holes dug during your visit to a beach or flatten sandcastles as these can be a hazard for the hatchlings struggling to get to the sea.
Most of all enjoy yourselves, have fun responsibly and the turtles will continue to visit these shores. For further information about Arabian Gulf Turtles and work on-going to conserve them in the Arabian Gulf go to: http://www.mrf-asia.org/index.cfm or http://www.gulfturtles.com/