Assisting the Sea Turtles on RT Beach
Female sea turtles come to the Ras Tanura
beach in the spring to lay eggs, a process
that can be precarious and easily disturbed.

In the spring, hawksbill turtles come to Ras Tanura (RT) Beach at night to lay their eggs. Recently, EPD researchers and volunteers have monitored the nesting turtles as part of a turtle management program developed with support from RT Community Services.

The idea is to protect these creatures during their nesting process by halting routine cleaning and beach raking using tractors, as well as by erecting light screens at the back of the beach using trees. (Light can distract hatchling turtles and send them away from the water instead of toward it.)

Coming Ashore

Female marine turtles spend almost their entire lives in the ocean, coming ashore only to lay eggs. Males never come ashore.

At the nesting beach, usually on the rising tide, the female crawls out of the water to find a place to lay her eggs. After resting, she’ll enter the nesting area and begin digging a body pit. Once she digs the body pit, she uses her hind flippers to excavate the egg chamber. When finished, the egg chamber is flask-shaped with a narrow neck and a larger, rounded chamber. The bottom of the chamber is about 45 centimeters deep, the maximum depth she can reach with her hind flipper.

After resting for a few minutes, the turtle begins to lay her eggs, which are softshelled, so the short drop does not harm them. The eggs are about 1.5 inches in diameter and weigh about 1 ounce. When she has laid 60 to 100 eggs, the turtle pushes sand into the chamber and packs it using her hind flippers. Then she scrapes even more sand over the nest and packs it further. When she is finished, she returns to the sea, where she will wait for about two weeks before repeating the nesting process. Each female will lay 2 to 5 clutches of eggs (between 120 and 500 eggs) in a nesting season.

The female turtle leaves her eggs to incubate in the sand. It’s a risky time, as the eggs are subject to being washed out by the tides or succumbing to attack by predators. After about six to eight weeks (depending on the temperature of the sand), the hatchling turtles dig to the surface of the beach. Emergence usually occurs after dark, after the sands have cooled from the daytime heat. The hatchlings waddle their way to the ocean and begin to swim immediately.

The Dangers of Digging

Although the entire nesting process requires about an hour, it is not always successful. Her nesting efforts can be disrupted by human activity on the beach or by debris on the beach. Turtles are not accustomed to being on land and may be deterred from nesting by close movement or moving shadows.

When she is trying to dig, the turtle may encounter rocks or buried debris in the sand. If the obstruction does not come out easily, she will abandon the effort, move to a new spot and try again. After digging three or four unsuccessful egg chambers, she may abandon the effort and return to the sea. Therefore, it is important to do everything possible to keep our beaches clean, from avoiding littering, to casually picking up trash or even participate in Saudi Aramco beach cleanup programs.

Recently, volunteers and employees conducted beach cleanups to remove accumulated plastic, wood and other debris from the tide-line and nesting areas. Not only do the beaches look better, but the turtles have an easier time nesting and the emerging young turtles have an easier time reaching the sea. The researchers are finding that most of the turtles are nesting successfully.

Hints for Turtle Watching

When walking on the beach, do not use a flashlight; the moon and starlight will let you see where you are walking. Using a light will likely scare the turtle. If you encounter a turtle, do not approach closely, and be patient. Remember, she is on the beach to lay her eggs. You can watch from a distance of 2 or 3 meters without disturbing her. When you see a turtle, sit down behind her where she cannot see you. If you are patient and do not disturb the turtle, you should be able to watch the entire process.

If you see turtles on the beach (alive or dead), please notify Ron Loughland by email at [email protected] or by phone or WhatsApp at 055-344-7142. Provide a photograph, date, and location, if possible.

"green matters" is a regular column offered by the Environmental Protection Department highlighting challenges and potential solutions to some of the most pressing environmental issues of the day.