Home to 35,000 sea turtles, 400 species of birds and pristine coral reefs, Masirah, Oman's largest island, is a celebration of nature. But only if it remains this way.

At first sight, the shore resembled a carnage of upturned soil till she noticed hundreds of neatly ploughed rows leading to the sea.

She thought they were tractor trails.

The scene, illuminated by the golden glow of dawn, stretched for several kilometres. She walked, gathering speed, stopping occasionally to hunker down to take a closer look.

She still couldn't believe her eyes.

These were sea turtle tracks inscribed all over the Dahriya beach in Masirah, Oman's largest island. In the spectral light she also spotted a few turtles scuffing towards the foaming eddies of the Arabian waters.

"Turtles come out at night and these were obviously late for nesting. Usually one has to wait for hours, even days, to spot a second turtle. I was overwhelmed," recalls Nancy Papathanasopoulou, field coordinator and adviser to the Masirah Turtle Conservation Project (MTCP) that conducted a three-year beach and endangered turtle survey and launched the first satellite tracking operation in Masirah.

The incident occurred in 2004, the year she started work on the project.

"Now the turtles, which are endangered according to the International Union of Conservation for Nature [IUCN], seem to be moving their nests gradually to areas unfrequented by tourists," she says, explaining the project was inspired by Masirah's ecological wealth and the need to protect it during development.

Masirah is an efflorescence of nature with its beaches, mudflats, wadis and tiny offshore islets that are home to four species comprising 35,000 sea turtles, 400 species of birds, endemic gazelles, two species of whales, three species of dolphins, 250 molluscs, fossils and pristine coral reefs with hundreds of marine species.

This 65-km long and 15-km wide island is also the location of a Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO) base, the former Royal Air Force (RAF) military airfield.

Until a few years ago, Masirah, which lies 24 km off Oman's eastern coast, was untouched by the ravages of progress. Today, as it sits uncomfortably on the cusp of tourism, people like Papathanasopoulou wonder if its natural beauty will be tampered with economic growth.

She remembers a handful of tourists during her first year, mostly surfers who came to enjoy the island's high waves. "Last year in August there were approximately 150 SUVs and 4x4s on the island," she says.

Her observation is a reflection of Masirah's growing popularity and an indicator of concern when local Masirian, 65-year-old Nasser Mohammad Al Sayeed, says, "Some tourists clean up, some don't. When I find dirt on the streets, I pick it up."

The government of Oman plans to promote ecotourism in Masirah to ensure the survival of its amazing ecology. The proposed guidelines are based on marine life and avifauna data collated by various experts. While the presence of research teams like the MTCP has made a difference, much needs to be done to educate residents and tourists.

The impressions that stayed

When Papathanasopoulou first arrived by ferry at Masirah, the horizon was dull and the waves, choppy. The June winds were strong due to the monsoon current from the Indian Ocean.

"It was remote, harsh, desolate and inhospitable. I thought to myself, "Where am I going?'" she says.

Papathanasopoulou knew little about the island.

She had agreed to visit Masirah with Maurice Drapier, environment coordinator from Ipedex (now SPIE), to research the initial project proposal for the sponsor Total Corporate Foundation for Biodiversity and the Sea and Total SA Muscat office.

"I knew it was conservative and undeveloped," she says.
The moment she disembarked, a bunch of rambunctious children ran towards her shouting, "Najmah, Najmah". At the time, she didn't know it meant star in Arabic.

"I was a stranger, yet they embraced me. I knelt down and they started playing with my hair. It must have been rare for them to see a woman in Western attire," she says, admitting
the project was a challenge because of her gender and the fact that she didn't speak Arabic.

But Masirians, she discovered, shed their insular sensibilities quickly and display curiosity, kindness and friendliness. Young local men holler from their dusty 4x4s and children play freely in the streets, often chasing visitors in souq areas for a hug. Some voluble old-timers eagerly narrate island tales to visitors.

They recount stories of Alexander the Great who made Masirah his base, referring to it as Serepsis. And that Masirah was the former home to the British Eastern Relay Station (BERS) where the BBC programmes were beamed to the eastern Gulf and the sub-continent.

Al Sayeed for instance is a legendary figure in Masirah, known for his animated manner of talking, stentorian voice, infectious humour and wisdom of knowing the place before it had roads.

He is affectionately called Tommy, a sobriquet he earned from his days with the RAFO. He retired four years ago and does odd jobs like driving and working at a local power station.

"When I was young, I walked the length and breadth of the island in five hours. I still do. Now everything has changed. We have paved roads and cars, but less fish and more debris. I am happy with the medical centres and hotels. Though I hope tourists respect our beautiful land," says Al Sayeed, who lives with his wife and four children in Ras Hilf, the town where the ferries dock.

Nature's bounty

Masirah hosts all four of Oman's nesting species of turtle – Olive Ridley, Hawksbill, Green and Loggerhead. The Loggerheads are the most important nesting population worldwide, and Masirah houses the world's largest nesting population of this species.

The island has a large number of seashells, some rare like the Acteon eloiseae, molluscs and a coral reef considered one of the most beautiful in Oman.

The beauty in Masirah goes beyond its marine life. Take its extraordinary bird population for instance. One can spot birds in thousands, even hundreds of thousands on its mudflats.

On one of her field trips to Ras Hilf with Martin Gaethlich, a passionate and experienced ornithologist, Papathanasopoulou sighted a "funny-looking plover".

Gaethlich however knew better.

"He almost hit the roof of the truck in the excitement. 'Turn the engine off!' he demanded. It was a roving Pheasant-tailed Jacana previously unrecorded in Masirah," she says.

There are countless other accounts. The time a beautiful African spoonbill showed up at the sewage pond in Ras Hilf and pretended to be a part of the flock of flamingos; the Peregrine falcon who scared off all the seabirds with its prey; and the Greylag goose that didn't migrate for a year because its mate disappeared.

The wadis in Masirah lead to secret trails to its centre and its mountains in the south. Some areas are refreshingly verdant with date, olive, pomegranate and mango plantations.

Masirah's bounty also inspired former RAF pilot Colin Richardson to write a vivid description of its landscape, people and RAF history in his book Masirah – Tales from a Desert Island. He lived in Masirah till 1994, the year he retired; he was 60.

New development, new problems

The 8,000 Masirians earn their livelihood mainly from fishing and weaving nets. The military bases have provided employment for the local men since the 1930s and offer locals free flights to Muscat, the capital of Oman.

Papathanasopoulou has witnessed advancements from paved sidewalks, new hotels, shops, wadi barriers to healthcare facilities and revamped sewage and desalination plants.

"New housing units have been built. In addition, residents rent out guest rooms to help tourism. Many of the island's tourist activities are coordinated by its only ecotourism operator Explore Masirah," she says.

Masirah has also generated realty interest from GCC nationals who want to build holiday homes. While improvement is positive, she says the island is grappling with inveterate internal issues.

The Masirians have traditionally killed Green turtles for their meat and harvested their eggs as a delicacy. Unfortunately this local custom is inimical to the island's ecology. A few locals abet expatriates from surrounding regions in turtle hunts.

There are only six rangers on the island to prevent this butchery and trade. And "though international conventions and Omani legislation prohibit such activity, the rangers cannot possibly patrol the whole island day and night through the year", says Papathanasopoulou, who has worked with sea turtles at several levels for 15 years.

Then there is over-fishing, exacerbated when non-Masirians fish commercially. "Local fishermen often complain of boats from the Far East and the sub-continent, and say the catches have reduced along with the size of fish," she says.

Tourists on the other hand often inflict damage unknowingly. If a 4x4 drives on a nesting beach, it can scare away female turtles, she explains. "This act destroys the nests buried in the sand. Along a kilometre there are around 150 nests that contain approximately 120 eggs each."

Environmental reforms

The Omani government has vast data on Masirah's environment and has introduced strict policies for ecotourism. Education has made a difference in the Masirian attitude towards Green turtle meat and eggs and fishermen understand the importance of species for fish stocks.

"Research has helped policy-makers understand why some areas needed more protection. A few wadis, wetlands and beaches have to be denied egress. And driving on all nesting beaches should be forbidden," says Papathanasopoulou, who is proud of MTCP's association with Masirah's first Environmental Information Centre (EIC), a concept modelled on EICs in the US and Europe.

"We couldn't have done it without the RAFO. They allowed us free flights to Muscat and provided assistance on the island. They helped the project extensively," she says.

The centre, designed by a team of Greek, German, Irish and British experts, is set in a naturally lit 85-square metre room in the newly built Masirah Municipality building. It displays information on sea turtles, birds, coral reef, whales, dolphins and molluscs. "It aims to educate tourists and local residents on Masirah's environmental and cultural assets.

We even have school expeditions to the centre," says Papathanasopoulou, hoping the proposed guidelines for sustainable development will prove to be Masirah's insurance plan for its future.

Satellite tracking

Masirah hosts four species of endangered sea turtles, including the Loggerheads; turtle populations that are in decline worldwide.

The largest known Loggerhead nesting populations are those in Masirah and in Florida, US. In most countries, the law protects sea turtle nesting beaches.

"It is crucial we protect their migration route because Loggerheads do not migrate far from their nesting site in Masirah, unlike other Loggerhead populations. They [Masirah Loggerheads] only swim up and down the coasts of Oman and Yemen, only a few enter the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea," says Nancy Papathanasopoulou, field coordinator and adviser to the Masirah Turtle Conservation Project (MTCP).

Papathanasopoulou and other researchers were based in Masirah for three years and conducted surveys for three Loggerhead nesting seasons. The project, sponsored by Total Corporate Foundation for Biodiversity and the Sea, Total SA Muscat office and IPEDEX Productions L.L.C, was carried out under the auspices of the Directorate-General of the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs in the Sultanate. The project launched the first telemetry action to track the Masirah Loggerhead population. "Satellite tracking is essential for conservation of migratory animal species as it reveals critical information on the routes they follow," she says. In May 2006 the team attached satellite transmitters to 10 Loggerheads and last March they tagged nine Olive Ridleys and in August, Greens were included in the telemetry project.

Fragile beauty

Paul Croome and Hannah Wilson run Explore Masirah, the first ecotourism company in Masirah. As wildlife enthusiasts, Paul spends his time with the locals or out at sea while Hannah spends much of her spare time on the beaches of Masirah. "When I first came here to meet my friend Paul in 2005, I fell in love with the simple beauty of the island, the people and its attractions. As time passed, we both realised tourism was going to be an integral part and we wanted to involve ourselves positively," says Hannah.

The project to raise awareness of ecotourism began as a website. "But the growing popularity of the island" led to the opening of Explore Masirah. Paul and Hannah promote camping, diving, fishing, kite and wind surfing, turtle and bird watching as well as encourage ecotourism activities like beach litter sweeps and net clearing. "The island has a fragile beauty that needs to be sustained. Our priority is to unite conservation with the community and its mores so we work with residents and the ministry," says Hannah. They also organise tours, hire of equipment and help dialogue between the visitors and Masirian community. "There is a steady stream of locals," she says.

Explore Masirah has appointed a local tour guide, 65-year-old Nasser Mohammad Al Sayeed who is affectionately called Tommy. He has lived in Masirah all his life and has an incredible amount of knowledge on the island's history.

Paul and Hannah's interaction on the island has included wildlife conservation projects and Masirians. At the moment they are working with ex-RAFO employee Mohammad Al Farsi who owns what they believe is "the only horse in Masirah. He is building stables closer to our office; it will grow into another attraction", she says.

The best dive

Simone Caprodossi, amateur naturalist and photographer, is a keen diver. One of his best dives in Oman took place in Masirah earlier this year.

"It was in an area called coral garden. The coral landscape was stunning with huge brain corals in myriad colours. When we were about 10 minutes into the dive, we spotted a nurse shark sleeping under a rock. We also passed a huge crocodile fish, schools of morays and clownfish and all kinds of anemones," he says.

Caprodossi has dived in sites around Indonesia, Madagascar and the Red Sea. And in the region, around the East Coast, Musandam, Kuwait, Dymaniyat Islands and Salalah.

He loves the peace and the unspoilt Arcadian environment of Oman. He had heard of Masirah's incredible turtle nesting grounds and that the island is a great place for camping. His first visit was in last February. He recalls, "We had the beach to ourselves with an erected tent right next to a fisherman's shack. The place is so wild, yet so easily accessible by car and ferry."

Caprodossi, who is based in Dubai, went back last month during the Eid break. "This time there were clearly more tourists and hence busier. But we still managed to find a secluded spot."

- Carolina D'Souza is Lifestyle Features Coordinator, Friday.