A life at sea
Written by Kate Lord Brown
For 100 million years the shores of Qatar have cradled the graceful hawksbill turtle.
The white-sand beach of Fuwairit is a favourite with Qatar’s residents. The peaceful, shallow shore and turquoise Gulf waters attract families and campers year round, but in the spring the beach plays an important role as the hatching ground for the endangered hawksbill turtle.
Sea turtles avoid deep water, preferring coastal areas and quiet, sandy nesting sites. The turtles are solitary creatures and meet only to mate every two to three years. Male turtles spend their lives at sea, but remarkably the female turtles return to the beach on which they were born to lay their eggs. In the Gulf, a female reaches maturity at the age of 30, and can lay up to three clutches of eggs with around 80 to 120 eggs in each nest.
May is the peak time for the turtles to scramble ashore and dig their nests, and from April to July a small part of Fuwairit beach is fenced off to protect the eggs. Incubation takes 60 days, and on average 90 per cent will hatch successfully. It takes two or three days for all the tiny 24g hatchlings to scramble to the surface, and their instinct is to head to the sea under the cover of night, following the guiding light of the moon. Once in the water, the hatchlings will swim offshore and find sea plants to rest on while they grow.
The Environmental Studies Center (ESC) and Qatar University have been working together, with support from the Ministry of Environment and Qatar Petroleum, to protect and monitor Qatar’s turtles. Although Fuwairit has become a favourite place to see the turtles, other locations including Umm Tays, Al Ghariyah, and Ras Laffan are important nesting areas. ‘Turtle Teams’ of conservationists carefully check the beaches for nests that are too shallow, or overflowing, and relocate them to protected areas. So far five turtles have had trackers attached to their shells to monitor their migration. Although some turtles migrate great distances between their feeding and breeding grounds, all five have remained in the Gulf.
The turtles are born with heart-shaped shells, which elongate as they grow to around 114cm, and the top shell, or carapace, has overlapping scales. The hawksbill turtle gets its name from its pointed, beak-like head which is perfectly designed for foraging in coral reefs. The turtles are an important part of the marine ecosystem. Although they are omnivorous, eating fish and sea creatures, their main diet is sponges, and the turtles stop them engulfing the coral reefs. Hawksbill turtles can live to around 50 years of age, and the heaviest recorded was 127kg.
These graceful, armoured creatures have few predators – sharks, crocodiles, and man. While the male turtle has brighter colours than the female, it is the beautiful brown, orange, and yellow markings of the shell that make all the turtles attractive to their human predators. Highly prized ‘tortoiseshell’ has nothing to do with tortoises – it is hawksbill turtles which have been hunted so relentlessly that they are now an endangered species. The world population has declined by 80 per cent in the last century. Thankfully Qatar’s marine conservationists are doing much to monitor and protect these graceful visitors to the country’s beaches, and to ensure that they will continue to make the journey their ancestors have made for millions of years.
Marine Turtle Conservation Project
Qatar’s Ministry of Environment is working with the Marine Turtle Conservation Project (gulfturtles.com). When visiting the nesting sites it is important to follow the conservation advice to ‘leave only footprints’:
- Do not touch the baby turtles
- No flash photography, fires, or bright lights
- Take away all rubbish from the beaches
- No cars on the beaches during nesting season