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Volume 19, Number 3May/June 1968

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Of Turtles And Terns

Some jottings and musings on the wildlife of Juraid Island.

Written by Timothy J. Barger
Photographed by Khalil Abou El Nasr

On a hot, pitch-black early morning last summer, six American college students, all sons of employes of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), set out from one of the boys' houses to spend four days and nights on Juraid Island, a tiny, remote island in the Arabian Gulf. They were going to Juraid to study marine and wildlife and collect specimens under the guidance of a Medical Department epidemiologist and a natural history specialist and to star in a documentary motion picture being filmed by Aramco's supervisor of film projects.

Into a huge Kenworth truck standing on a dark street beside the meeting place, they piled all the gear and supplies needed for the trip: tents, aluminum boats, fishing gear, scuba tanks, electric generators, emergency two-way radio equipment and a newly-fabricated cage to protect underwater cameramen from sharks while they filmed the teeming marine life in the reefs off the island. There was also enough food to sink the island. The boys themselves, who had grown up in Saudi Arabia before going away to school, brought with them such important equipment as a deep understanding of the ways of their adopted country and an enthusiasm for exploration. Each, furthermore, was a practiced scuba diver.

From Dhahran they drove to Jubail, loaded the gear onto dhows, made the three-hour trip to the island, pitched their tents and went to work. The boys were: Charlie Armstrong, San Jose State College; Tim Barger and Jeff Jones, University of Santa Clara, all of California; Steve Bates, Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont; Mike Benjamin, University of Oregon; and Jim Mandis, who attends Regis College in Denver. —The Editors

The first thing we noticed about Juraid Island were the birds.

There were thousands of them, it seemed, and they rose in flocks from the beaches and wheeled into the sky screeching and cawing. Some of us who had seen Hitchcock's The Birds thought the continual screeching added an eerie flavor to the place and all of us were delighted since it was the profusion of wildlife that had brought us there in the first place.

Juraid Island is a low, sandy, shrub-covered islet, bigger than it looks and located about 20 miles northeast of Jubail, an old port on the coast of Saudi Arabia. We had picked it because it was supposed to be an important biological center of the Arabian Gulf. We were not disappointed. In addition to the birds the island is alive with sea turtles, crabs, lizards and mice. One skittish member of the expedition even reported seeing a tiger so we assumed there might be some wild cats prowling about too.

Our first research, however, had to do with terns not tigers and we immediately made a most interesting discovery: three varieties of this graceful sea bird had apparently divided up the island in accord with the "territorial imperative." This is the theory that each species of animal and sometimes each animal has a drive to possess his own bit of property—a drive, according to the theory, that is as important as the drives for food and sex. In any case the terns had divided up the island: the yellow billed or lesser crested tern (Sterna bengalensis) occupying the northern shore and using it as nesting grounds, the bridled tern (Sterna anaethetus) inhabiting the shrubs and bushes of the island itself and the smaller flocks of white cheeked terns (Sterna repressa) clinging to the less desirable beaches.

The terns, of course, were not the only kind of birds we saw. There were also some Upupa epops commonly known as the "hud-hud." The Arabs regard the hud-hud as a good omen and since our trip so do I; we sighted them only on our arrival at Juraid and at our departure, and our stay was not only without mishap but blessed with extraordinary luck: the chance to observe the nesting of the green sea turtles from beginning to end.

For the great green sea turtle—a 300-pound creature known scientifically as Chelonia mydas and popularly as the main source of turtle soup—nesting is no easy matter. Not, at least, for the female. During the nesting season—June to October—the turtles mate offshore after which, on some subsequent dark night, the female swims to the island to lay her eggs. She may go ashore as many as seven times, at 13-day intervals.

Once on the beach the going gets rough. She has to make her way uphill to a point above the high water mark. Unvised to moving her 300-pound body on land, she climbs slowly, panting and gasping, resting for a minute every 30 seconds, her eyes streaming tears. The tears purge sand from her eyes and possibly rid her system of excess salt, but her climb is so hard that we found ourselves wondering if the tears weren't really for the young which she will never see.

Reaching her destination the mother digs a nest, using her fore and hind flippers. The nest is a pit about four to five feet across and two feet deep and the shore of juraid is dotted with them. Within this pit she digs a secondary hole; this is the actual nest and she prepares it by first loosening the sand with her rear flippers and then carefully lifting it out until she has a depression eight inches in diameter and a foot deep. In this hole she lays her eggs. There are maybe 75 to 100 eggs, each shiny-white, leathery and the size of golf balls. She then covers the hole thoroughly, kneading the sand in her flippers much as a baker kneads his dough. After the sand is sufficiently kneaded she partially fills the main pit and then, her body exhausted and her eyes weeping profusely, she waddles back to the sea and swims away.

Through all this, she gets no help from the male. He never comes ashore unless he has either some irritation of the shell or a disease. This peculiarity is used to advantage by Iranian turtle hunters. They enlodge a small dart, attached to a line and a small buoy, in the turtle's shell. Then they follow the turtle to the beach where they easily capture the helpless creature.

About 60 days later—between August and late November—the eggs begin to hatch and the baby turtles dig themselves out of their nests and make their journey to the sea. Comic creatures, with bodies the size of silver dollars and oversized flippers, they rush straight to the sea tripping over their flippers all the way. It's a funny performance, but one touched with poignancy too, because their awkwardness makes them easy prey to their enemies. In the daytime the terns swoop down on them; in the night hermit crabs, sinister sand crabs and rodents. One member of our expedition just turned away for a few minutes while he was playing with a baby turtle and when he returned, it wras dead—beheaded by a large hermit crab.

In the water the baby turtle has even more enemies than on land for it is defenseless against any large fish, and in the reefs that extend out from Juraid more than a quarter of a mile into the Gulf, there are many, many large fish.

These reefs, though basically composed of brain coral (Meandra) and antler coral (Acropora palmata) are embellished with countless other types of coral and marine growth that have created in the reefs gaily-colored mazes of canyons, tunnels and plateaus.

The inhabitants of these reefs are as varied as the inhabitants of any big city, There are the invertebrates. There is the cone shell, a mollusk which sheathes within its beautiful shell a lethal barb that can kill a man. There are the delicate sea anemones (anthozoas) ranging in color from deep purple to bright green and sometimes, living among the anemones in amused immunity to the poisonous tentacles, there are also the lowly sea urchins (echinoderms of the genus Diademd) safe behind their needle-sharp spines.

The reefs teem with fish of every sort: the stately angelfish, the smaller more brightly-hued butterfly fish, the proletarian parrot fish loudly colored in wild schemes of yellows, pinks, greens, blacks, countless schools of pelagic fish, some nearly transparent, others reflecting light off their bodies like tiny mirrors. Amid this flurry of color and activity lies the lethargic grouper basking in the sun.

As in all communities, however, there are deadly elements too. There is the ornate, delicately colored zebra fish (Scopaenidae pterois) confident in its possession of 21 deadly spines. The antisocial moray eel (family Muraedinae) waits in its hole for a victim, its powerful jaws working slowly. Inoffensive sting rays (Dasyatidae) flap their winglike bodies as they drift through coral canyons apparently unaware of the lethal barb at the base of their whiplike tails.

Occasionally we sighted sea snakes too (Hydrophis) ominously moving their ribbonlike bodies through the water. The Gulf sea snake is one of the deadliest creatures in the world. Its venom, although it's an academic point, is fifty times as potent as that of a king cobra, to which, in fact, it is related. Fortunately the sea snakes are generally timid, but nevertheless we kept a wary eye on them; they're too dangerous to ignore.

In the waters off Juraid, there are also many types of sharks. We sighted a six-foot Hammerhead shark (Sphyna sygaena) one of the fastest of the shark family and a proven man-eater. However, one member of our expedition equipped with a special spearhead that explodes a shotgun shell on contact went out and killed it with ease.

Four days was not nearly long enough to do more than make superficial observations on Juraid but the wildlife was so varied and rich that when we left, tired and unshaven, our specimens in hand, we carried away memories almost as colorful as the creatures that live there. Memories and a determination to return.

Timothy J. Barger, a student at the University of Santa Clara in California, grew up in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and still spends summers there.

This article appeared on pages 16-21 of the May/June 1968 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1968 images.