Friday, September 16, 2011

Turtles tutorial at Orange House

A visit to the Orange House Project in South Lebanon
On the spur of the moment, as it is so easy to do in Lebanon, my cousin Lillian and I decided to go to Tyre for Saturday lunch (September 4). We were joined by our friend Dunia Kabbani. On the road down South, we thought we would check on the Orange House Project.

That’s not recommended, but I had heard so much about this magical House and the turtle conservation plan it runs I thought it was worth a try. We were lucky to catch owner Mona Khalil at home and welcoming.

 The Orange House is about 20 minutes south of Tyre
The Orange House is a Bed and Breakfast, some 20 minutes south of Tyre, promoting an eco-tourism lodge and a turtle conservation effort. I had heard so much about it from friends who stay there often to get away from the city and help in the care of the turtles. It is also a wow on Facebook, where videos are often posted on hatchlings and their return to the sea.

Walking through the banana groves to get to the beach
The guesthouse itself is Mona’s family beachfront farm stretching from the main road, just before Kolaila and Mansouri, right down to the yet unspoiled beaches of the South. The five-minute walk to the waterfront is through the famous South Lebanon banana groves dotted with palm trees -- all heavily in fruit at this time of year.

From talking to Mona, checking out the project’s website and other research, it seems sea turtles swim to lay their eggs on beaches and it is by chance that she saw one swimming ashore in 1999. This led to a labor of love in trying to conserve those that come ashore in front of the house and to get the shores of South Lebanon internationally branded turtle conservation areas.
The “labor” part of the “love” involves keeping the beach clean and daily surveying to gather data during the nesting season from May to September. It also requires relocating nests threatened by agriculture runoff or sea flooding and installing metal grids to protect them from predators.

Guests have the privilege of helping Mona and her team, But be warned, the turtles swim ashore during the night but also go back to sea at daybreak. This means the team has to be out by 3-or-4 a.m. until 6 a.m., when all the turtles and hatchlings have all headed back to sea.

A turtle eggshell, the size of a ping-pong ball
Scattered eggshells from the morning's hatchlings
Sea turtles take 20 to 30 years to be of age to lay eggs. Even if information about the lifespan of sea turtles is motley, it is thought that they live up to 70-80 years. Mona relates that females return to nest at the same beach where they were born. They do that up to two to four times a season every two or three years. Nests typically contain on average 100 soft-shelled eggs. Around one hatchling per 1,000 reaches adult age. The turtle can lay around 70 eggs at a time.

The B&B and eco-tourism venture is mostly to help raise funds for the project that has been adopted by countless people locally and internationally.

Flowers growing on the beach
Keeping the beach clean is vital and a daily effort, says Mona. The turtles are threatened by plastic bags, hospital waste, factory chemicals and fertilizer run-off from farms in the region. Plastic bags in the water can suffocate turtles, which mistake them for jellyfish and try to eat them. 

During the nesting season, the team tries to find the eggs, which need 45 to 65 days to hatch. The nests are protected from dogs and foxes by a metal grid. As we visited late in the morning, we couldn’t see any turtles, but Ali, a member of the team, showed me that morning’s empty nests that still had some eggshells the size of ping-pong balls.

The upstairs guest terrace
One of the Orange House guest rooms
Orange House has three double rooms for guests on the second floor of the farmhouse. For $50 per person a night, it is an excellent way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and relax in the magical gardens and terraces of Orange House. There is a kitchen for guests to prepare meals or they can go to the many restaurants of Tyre.

Mona and her team were trained by the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles (MEDASSET). Her aim is to persuade the Lebanese government to declare the beach at Mansouri and Kolaila a national nature reserve. The local municipalities have already recognized Mansouri and Kolaila beach.

Although we didn’t want to take up too much of Mona’s time, as she had been up since 4 a.m., she still kindly explained about the two species she comes across and regularly nest on the beaches of South Lebanon and along the Mediterranean. They are the Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) and Loggerheads (Caretta caretta).

The Green Turtle lives for 60 to 100 years. It can grow to 1.60 meters long and one meter wide. It weighs at least 360 kg. A vegetarian, it feeds on sea grass. The Loggerhead Turtle has a larger head but its body is smaller at little more than a meter long and weighs around 160 kg. Loggerheads use their powerful beaks to break the shells of crustaceans, mollusks and urchins. They also eat fish, algae and seaweed.

Prickly pears...
... and marrows growing between the banana groves
We walked down to the beach through the banana groves and palm trees with marrows growing between. I hadn’t seen marrows in groves for a longtime and it is a great favorite of this season. The shoots, leaves and tendrils of the creeper can be eaten as greens and its flowers often mixed in salads.

I couldn't stop picking and eating jujube
The garden is full of citrus fruit
The resident Orange House goats
After admiring the coast and the startling blue Mediterranean, we walked back to the house, passing the goats and admiring the garden full of citrus fruit and even a Flame Tree. I couldn’t believe it when I spotted jujube trees. I hadn’t had any jujube for at least 25 years and couldn’t stop picking and eating some direct from the branches.

Lillian, Dunia and Mona
Although guests were arriving to spend the day at the Orange House beach, Mona still found time to offer us coffee and sit with us. She showed us photos and hatchlings that didn’t make it and are preserved in jars.

We then got a tour of the second floor houseguest area before thanking her profusely for taking the time to show us around. Pictures captured on my camera can take you on a “virtual tour” of Orange House.

After taking leave we headed back to Tyre for lunch and a visit to the old city’s ruins. But that’s for the next post.

A weekend at Orange House is something I hope to do on one of my next trips to Lebanon.
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