Born in the fishing village of Qantab, Mohammad Al Hassani grew up as a child of the sea who loved playing in the lap of waves and discovering the myriad mysteries of the deep. Having known the sea intimately, it was no wonder that he was privy to its secrets. He never doubted that whatever his future held, it would always be connected with the great blue world.
And so it turned out, that Hassani is the only turtle ranger in Oman today. It didn’t take him long to figure out his passion for turtles. “Right from childhood, when I was eight to ten years old, whenever I used to go snorkelling and fishing, I used to see a lot of turtles getting stuck in the fishing nets. So from then, the love for turtles was born in me and I wanted to learn more about them,” he says.
Hassani has been a turtle ranger for 11 years now, and works with Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa as a dedicated turtle ranger. He patrols the beaches of the resort at night to ensure that mother turtles are able to nest in peace and their hatchlings make it to the sea.
Oman boasts of three species of turles, says Hassani. Hawksbill Turtles, Green Turtles and the Loggerhead Turtles are found along the coasts of the sultanate, of which the first two are found where Hassani works.
Hassani explains the hatching sequence – a sight that will never grow weary to his eyes. “The mother turtle takes about ten to 15 minutes to find a place to hatch. She then digs a hole about half a metre into the sand, which takes about one and a half hours. Then she starts laying eggs, which number about 100-120. She then covers the eggs and goes back into the water. She never comes back again to see her eggs.”
The sex of the hatchlings is dependent upon the atmospheric temperature, says Hassani. “If it is hot, females are born, and if it is cold, males are born.” Out of a batch of 120, about 90 survive. “They are lucky here because we are looking after them. Otherwise, there are fewer chances of survival for most among those who grow in the wild,” said the seasoned ranger.
Sometimes, when the temperature gets too hot at the beach, the eggs tend to break. In such cases, Hassani moves the eggs to cooler locations at the beaches. While he tries as much as possible to not interfere in the natural processes, and stay as close to nature, Hassani’s job is to facilitate the hatching process and see that the development takes place smoothly. In this way, he is also able to protect them from the heat as well as predators.
When the turtles lay eggs, Hassani puts fences around the nests to prevent people from walking into them. Turtle nesting season is from January till September, he says. The incubation period is two months.
After birth, the turtle hatchlings make their way into the sea, an action that takes place after sunset. Hassani releases them at 6pm when it gets a bit dark, so they are safe from the heat and predators.
Turtle hatching is a much sought-after sight that people from all parts of Oman and even abroad flock to. It is an unforgettable emotive experience that one will cherish and take back. It is also an educative experience that teaches about the Green Turtle which is endangered and the Hawksbill Turtle, which is critically endangered.
“We have strict guidelines for visitors – they are not allowed to use flashlights at night, and the use of flash from cameras is also prohibited, as exposure to strong light hampers their development,” says Hassani. “The lights at the hotel are specialised in such a way that they do not affect the turtles. Guests are also not allowed to touch the turtles,” he says.
Hassani creates a roadway with his hands on the sand, like a red carpet path, from the nest till the sea. This simplifies the journey for the baby turtles. “It is a way of making sure that they don’t lose their way or deviate onto difficult paths filled with pebbles,” he says.
The experienced ranger demonstrates the manner in which the baby turtles should be handled. He says that the hatchlings should be picked up only from underneath – by their bellies – and never from the top – their shells – as the shells are soft and undeveloped and will be damaged by handling.
A turtle hatchling that is born and survives, never forgets its place of birth, says the turtle whisperer. They go into the sea after they are born and return to the same beach after 20 years. The females always come back to the same beach to lay eggs.
Being a turtle ranger, looking at the tiny hatchlings struggling to make their way into the vast waters, it might be tempting to make life easier for them by lifting them and placing them directly into the sea; but Hassani warns against it. He says, “It is important to let the hatchlings find their course into the sea by themselves because that is how they will remember their path and the place of their birth for them to return 20 years later.”
Hassani is a sentimental ranger. He likes to name his turtles as he sends them out into the sea. The first ever batch of turtles that he cast away was named Alia.
The seas of Oman are considered favourable for turtles as the coast of the sultanate is free from pollution. The only problem, Hassani points out, is the problem of fishing nets in which the turtles get stuck and die if not rescued.
Hassani says that the Green Turtles travel wide distances. The ones from Oman travel as far as India, Indonesia, Philippines and even Australia. The other species are restricted to local regions of birth.
Being a storehouse of information on turtles, Hassani disseminates his knowledge through Turtle Talks held at the Eco Centre at Al Bandar Hotel, from Saturday to Wednesday at 5pm.