My best experience of swimming with sea turtles was in Ad Dimaniyat Islands Nature Reserve, Oman. It happened when I wasn’t even intending to swim with turtles. I actually meant to go scuba diving in the nature reserve. But it turned out to be the perfect experience to show how magical a marine wildlife encounter could be, when you do it ethically.

I found out about the marine reserve from former colleagues who were in Muscat as expatriate workers. You see, I had begun wondering whether Oman has scuba dive sites, after I saw hints of its maritime identity from a previous trip.

So, when I was lucky enough to have yet another chance to return to Muscat, I made sure to schedule in some scuba diving.

Healthy plate coral in Daymaniyat Nature Reserve
Intact and healthy reefs of Ad Dimaniyat Islands Nature Reserve

Staying in Al Mouj Marina is convenient but expensive

Oman is not a cheap country to visit. Moreover, marine excursions depart either from the dive shops at 5 star hotels, or from the swank Al Mouj Marina in the newer part of Muscat, Saab.

This is the kind of marina complex that makes you question a little bit whether you’re rich enough to be there. But logistically, my best option for scuba diving in Muscat was with SeaOman, and they are located at Al Mouj Marina.

I found it expensive to stay in accommodations within the marina complex as a solo traveller. Even the Airbnbs are generally priced high for me, but I did find one that was not too bad. I really wanted to stay within the complex, so that there was no chance of missing the boat! And besides, it’s nice to have a posh vacation sometimes.

In fairness, you get a lot for what you pay for in Oman. Because Middle Easterners tend to travel in family groups, accommodations are provided with this assumption. The Airbnb that I got was a very spacious townhouse. I had several rooms to myself across two floors. I guess if I were travelling as a family, it wouldn’t be that expensive.

Rising sun over Arabic houses in Muscat, Oman
Al Mouj sunrise

Looking for whale sharks with SeaOman

As you may have guessed from the title, I didn’t get to scuba dive. There were reports of whale sharks in the area, so all the boats were converted to whale shark sighting excursions for the time being. It was snorkelling only.

I was a bit disappointed. Don’t get me wrong – whale sharks are amazing! But I’d already gone volunteering for whale shark surveys with MWSRP in the Maldives, and I doubt that Dimaniyat could top Dhigurah in terms of whale shark encounters!

Sure enough, our boat went out to the spot where the SeaOman scout had reported the sighting, but there was nothing there. After looking around for a little while longer, the skipper called it quits and headed for our plan B: snorkeling around the turtle sanctuary island in the Nature Reserve.

Snorkeling in Ad Dimaniyat Islands

I didn’t know what to expect from Dimaniyat Islands. By this time, I’d been to coral reefs in Southeast Asia, and in the Maldives. Some were good, but all locations showed stress and damage. Oman is in a hot climate zone, and the reef location is not too deep. Would the heat stress mean that there’s bleaching damage?

But the moment I dropped into the water, I was awestruck.

Acropora of all sorts almost completely covered the seafloor. Pinks and browns, with touches of orange and yellow. No bleaching anywhere, completely intact.

A school of butterfly fish streamed together to a food spot. Elsewhere, surgeonfish swam around in the water, foraging. There was no algal smothering, and a closer look reveals a diversity of bryozoa connecting the spaces between coral structures.

As I swam, I recalled the briefing on the boat about the complete protected status of the nature park. There are no resorts on the reserve islands, and visiting boats are few. So the coral reef is healthy, and could withstand just one stress – heat.

Turtle nesting season in Oman

The reason why SeaOman chose this location was that, if we were lucky, we might get to swim with turtles. On the nearby island was a turtle nesting beach, and in September we were still within nesting season (usually July-October).

The snorkeling guide apologised in advance. We were not allowed to visit the beach at this time, because it is completely off-limits during nesting season. He pointed out the ranger station at the tip of the island, where the Omani flag was flying.

There were no ifs, ands, or buts. The turtles are nesting, therefore humans get shooed away. Why couldn’t it be that simple back home?

Don’t swim with turtles. (What do I mean?)

The water was calm that day. Only light ripples on the surface. The snorkeling guide gauged my water confidence and decided to give his attention to the other snorkelers instead.

I marked the location of the boat, and decided to strike out in a different direction from the other tourists hoping to swim with turtles. I already experienced turtle encounters before, so I was more open to exploring what else I could find in the reef. Besides, most people do not have good snorkeling form, whereas I wanted to simply float patiently, which is the best way to catch marine life doing their usual stuff.

If you want ethical turtle encounters summarised down to just one thing, this is it: You don’t swim with turtles. You approach, hang around, and see if the turtle wants to swim with you.

Incoming turtle bathed in rays of light | swim with sea turtles ethically
The ethical way to swim with turtles is that you don’t. You let the turtle decide if it wants to swim with you.

How to approach turtles (and other marine wildlife)

This diffident attitude is probably a good rule of thumb, although it is more important for shy animals who are normally solitary and are not apex predators.

The reason is fairly obvious, isn’t it? If your normal life is just you blissfully swimming around by your introvert self, you’re not going to deal well with a sudden influx of paparazzi humans swarming after you. And if you’re typically a prey species, a larger thing you may never have seen before, swimming purposely towards you, could be a monster predator!

But what if you’re snorkelling, and then come across a turtle. If you don’t want to be weird and annoying, how should you approach the turtle?

1. Approach the turtle slowly.

Just be cool. I know that’s hard when you’re so excited inside, but chill. Swim like you’re just browsing the reef, not like you’re in pursuit! This way, the turtle has time to notice you, and decide whether it’s comfortable that you’re around.

2. Once you’re near, stop.

I don’t mean, right up to its nose. Near means, you could almost swim to the turtle, but far enough that a random current wouldn’t push you into its face.

If it continues with what it was doing, then you can hover at a closer distance as long as you can maintain your place in the water without having to swim much. (Yes, this means that the worse swimmer you are, the further this distance is.)

If it swims purposefully away from you, respect that and don’t pursue. If they don’t swim away but ignore you, that’s great! Just watch, and don’t disturb their routine.

"How to Swim with Turtles Ethically in Daymaniyat Islands Nature Reserve" travel guide on sustainable travel blog Teja on the Horizon | Green turtle over coral reef
So far so good. It hasn’t skedaddled.

3. Turtles come to swim with you

OK, you’re hovering. But what if the turtle didn’t leave, and better – it noticed you!

Perhaps you’re lucky enough that the turtle is approaching you. You’re excited. This is it. How should you act in this situation, when the turtle is coming to swim with you?

4. Be cool. Stay still.

The turtle is curious about you. You’ve done the approach right, you don’t come across as a threat. But it hasn’t seen you around before.

All you need to do to have an amazing turtle encounter, is stay as still as possible. You could twirl in place if you can do it gracefully in the water, if you want to maintain sight of the turtle as it swims around examining you.

Essentially, be like the lady in an old-fashioned ball. The guy should come to you. (In the case of wildlife encounters, the turtle is the guy.) If you wanna pretend you’re dancing, then the turtle leads – you follow.

5. Do not touch the turtle.

Very little inter-species touching happens in the ocean, unless someone is eating someone else. So, I guess you can say that unsolicited touching is probably seen by most marine life to be as rude as President Trump touching the British Queen!

So, even if the turtle has begun to swim around you, do not touch it. You might have the incredible experience of being touched by marine wildlife. But you should not initiate.

Why are ethical wildlife experiences important for marine species?

There are many reasons why an ethical approach to wildlife experiences is important for marine animals, including turtles. Depending on the species, human contact may be experienced as stressful. Even in areas used to tourism, many marine species are stressed by excessive attention. This can causes them to change behaviour to avoid the harassment.

Turtles may be discouraged to go to the shallows to find food, or will only bask briefly on the surface rather than rest for longer. This could mean they feed less to avoid people in their feeding grounds, and don’t rest as much. All of it affects their overall health.

Additionally, many marine species have protective mucus on their bodies. Touching them, for example, disrupts this mucus layer and opens them up to infection.

So, as you can imagine, we won’t have the opportunities for wildlife experiences for long, if we do not do it ethically.

Green turtle against a backdrop of coral reef
The less you move, the more you’ll see.

Ethical wildlife interaction is also a better experience

But above all, it doesn’t even make sense to have an unethical wildlife experience, if only because a forced experience is such a poorer quality experience.

True, an ethical approach to wildlife experiences cannot guarantee that you will have the interaction. But, when you do encounter the animal, you would be able to see it in its natural setting, with its natural behaviour.

It’s just no comparison.

Carbon offsetting information to Oman

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Muscat produces carbon emissions of approximately 4,184 lbs CO2e. It costs about $21 to offset this. 

I hope you are empowered now to swim with turtles the ethical way! Pin and spread these tips!

"How to Swim with Turtles Ethically in Daymaniyat Islands Nature Reserve" travel guide on sustainable travel blog Teja on the Horizon | Green turtle over coral reef

6 Responses

  1. Julie says:

    Thank you for this! I have snorkeled with turtles before with an island hopping tour in the Philippines. We didn’t do any of the things you suggested. Even when I was there, the experience felt wrong. It felt like we were harassing these poor turtles.

    • Teja says:

      Oh yes! It is much worse when the first example modelled by your actual tour guide, is not responsible. I thought the footage I got from this encounter was perfect to show people how the turtle ought to be moving, if it does not mind that you’re there, and how and when these ethical decisions are made when you’re really in the moment. Plus, isn’t the encounter way more awesome?

  2. Lynnette says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this information. As divers ourselves, we see way too often people touching or chasing marine life without any idea the effects it has. We are always educating people on the correct way to observe creatures, above and below the waves.

    • Teja says:

      Yes, we need to continue educating people! I think the touching problem is worse in the water, because we seem to act as though sea creatures are touchy-feely mammals, like dogs and cats, when the vast majority of sea creatures are just not.

  3. Alma says:

    So lovely to see such healthy coral! Such important tips on how to swim ethically with any of our marine animals. Great post!

    • Teja says:

      Thank you! Yes, I was surprised to see it so healthy when it’s so warm there.

      I tried to keep the tips as short as possible to make it easy to remember. Really just two on the approach, and two in the encounter itself.

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