MANSOURI BEACH, South Lebanon — Dozens gather to witness newly hatched sea turtles advance on hard-packed sand, at the edge of the water, into their forever home in the sea.
Gentle waves lap against the shore as children leap across the sand with sun rays touching their faces, eager to see the baby turtles.
The event marks the revival of the Mansouri turtle project after a two-year hiatus.
Hima Mansouri, also known as the “Mansouri Sanctuary,” has been a haven for South Lebanon’s famed sea turtles over the past two decades, save for the past two years when it temporarily shut down.
Mona Khalil, 74, the driving force behind the initiative, dedicated over 20 years of her life to the conservation of these magnificent creatures.
In 2000, Khalil returned to Lebanon after years of living abroad. Her return led her to a parcel of property she inherited from her grandmother.
Khalil soon made an intriguing discovery. The secluded Mansouri beach nearby was a nesting ground for both the endangered green turtle and the loggerhead turtle, a species categorized as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Khalil owns a bed and breakfast near the beach called the Orange House, which she used to lease to finance the sea turtle project.
To raise awareness and showcase conservation efforts, Khalil organized multiple public sea turtle hatchling releases every summer since 2013.
The events take place right before sunset and are attended by people from across the country.
Fadia Joumaa, who volunteered alongside Khalil since 2016, took special training courses at the Sea Turtles Rescue Centre in Italy to gain expertise for the Mansouri beach project.
Two years ago, Khalil made the difficult decision to step away from the project, leaving a void that threatened the existence of sea turtles in the region.
"Mona told me she no longer has the ability to care for the turtles,” Joumaa told L’Orient Today, expressing concern. “She had done her homework all these years. Now someone else had to step in."
Joumaa, who was determined to carry on the legacy of the Mansouri turtle project, initially couldn’t finance the equipment needed to protect the turtles' nests, like mesh cages and buckets for makeshift turtle nests.
Refusing to give up, she contacted the nearby Sour municipality and gave them a firsthand account of the dire situation on the beach.
With predators like foxes, dogs and birds posing a threat to sea turtle eggs and hatchlings, the turtle conservation project on Mansouri beach is crucial, Joumaa explained.
The Mansouri team was eventually connected with the environmental organization Blue Tyre, which is founded by the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation and led by Tricase municipality in south-east Italy.
The funding that the Italian agency provided covers equipment fees and the costs associated with beach maintenance, transportation and compensation for team members.
While the funding covers only the current year, Joumaa said she is optimistic about securing future support from the Italian agency.
Having started the project late this year — in August instead of the beginning of June — the team found remnants of egg shells that had been devoured by dogs and foxes and at least 25 ravaged nests when they arrived at the beach.
"Since the beginning of August, the team and I have been able to clean the beach and save seven nests — six loggerhead turtle nests and one green turtle nest,” Joumaa said. “This is what we were able to do this season.”
On average, the Mansouri beach turtle project has saved over 30 sea turtle nests each summer, with occasional peaks of 40 nests, Joumaa noted. Individual nests contain between 45 to 110 eggs.
To safeguard the eggs from hungry predators, they are taken out of their sand nests and carefully transferred to artificial nests constructed in buckets. The team ensures the eggs are nestled in the same sand they were laid in to maintain the right temperature for survival, Joumaa said.
The eggs incubate for around 46 days before they hatch, she explained.
Meanwhile, a disturbing trend of fishermen in Mansouri using dynamite for fishing has posed a significant threat to the sea turtles that do make it out to sea after hatching, Joumaa lamented.
"[The dynamite] affects all marine life, not only turtles," she said, "It may also drive the mother turtle to feel that the area is dangerous, which would then lead her to look for another beach where it is safer to lay her eggs."