Water Turtles

Sea Turtles

Two species of sea turtle breed in Lebanon and swim off the coast. Both are highly endangered, internationally, and within the East Mediterranean just a relic population remains. Never the less they are still with us and breed on southern beaches where development has not been as heavy compared to other areas along the national coast line, such as Tyre Coast Nature Reserve and Palm Islands Nature Reserve.

Although they are at the centre of conservation efforts, both species remain highly vulnerable. They continue to face threats from dynamite fishing, ensnarement in nets, loss of breeding habitat and death from pollution. Many turtles die each year from eating plastic bags that look like their jelly fish prey.

Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas)

Female green turtles lay up to 240 eggs in excavated nests on sandy beaches above the high tide line. They haul themselves up the beaches every third year to lay eggs. After hatching under the sand, baby turtles (like the one on the left) dig themselves out and make a dash for the sea where they will spend the rest of their lives eating mostly sea grasses and algae and marine invertebrates.

Listed on the IUCN red list as Endangered (see Conservation).

Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta)

Young Loggerheads will spend time in shallow waters but as adults they typically inhabit the open ocean and are capable of deep diving, feeding on jelly fish and fish.

Listed on the IUCN red list as Endangered (see Conservation).

Note that the Leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) crosses the Lebanese waters, but does not breed on our beaches.

Freshwater Turtles also called Terrapins

Although you would be fortunate to spot a sea turtle in Lebanon – if you know where to go – you are almost guaranteed to catch a glimpse of a freshwater turtle. There is one main species; the Caspian or Stripe Necked Turtle (Mauremys rivulata – previously M. caspica) and it is quite commonly found in the right habitats.

Living up to its common name – the stripes help identify this species. However as it is the only freshwater species in Lebanon – it is not hard to work out what it is. If you ever see a similar looking turtle with a red spot behind the eye Lebanese wildlife is in trouble as it will be an “alien” called the Red-eared Terrapin (Trechemys scripta). Don’t worry it doesn’t come from Mars! An “alien” means it is an introduced species (in this case released pets originally from the U.S.A.). In Europe where they are thriving, having been abandoned by their owners, they are killing many local species. Never release exotic pets into the wild!

Strong swimmers, the Stripe Necked Turtle lives in lakes, rivers, ditches and wetlands. Although it is quite tolerant of all sorts of water bodies it needs some permanent water through the year to survive. Hence the best places to see them are in the wetlands of the Bekaa Valley or muddy rivers. It is omnivorous eating live and dead animals such as fish, mollusks, insects and amphibians and also plant material. They spend long periods of time out of water, often in groups, but disturb them and plop! They hide under the water for several minutes. The best time to spot them is in autumn when permanent water bodies shrink and many congregate at favored sites.

African Softshell Turtle (Trionyx triunguis)

Nothing less than Ramy Khashab’s endurance on field work was necessary to observe the African softshell turtle quasi extinct in Lebanon. They are called “softshell” because their carapace lacks horny scutes (scales). The carapace is leathery and pliable, particularly at the sides. Softshell turtles are able to “breathe” underwater with rhythmic movements of their mouth cavity, which contains numerous processes copiously supplied with blood, acting similarly to gill filaments in fish. It lives in fresh water but can also travel and fish in sea water.

Trionyx triunguis © Ramy Khashab