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A Giant in the Gulf

The Gulf is a hotspot for the Hawksbill and Green varieties of turtle, both on IUCN lists of endangered animals. These ancient creatures have evolved little over thousands of years and have few natural predators once they are fully grown. But they have suffered at the hands of man, through hunting, fishing and the loss of their natural nesting beaches. Turtles are only ever on shore a few times in their lives. They hatch from eggs on the beach — the females lay their eggs on the same beach every time — and get washed ashore if they’re sick or injured. Luckily, Dubai has a variety of organisations who are here to help in both cases. The Environmental Marine Emirates Group (EMEG) focuses on monitoring the nests, protecting them if needs be from natural predators like Arabian foxes and disruption from construction. The group also has many projects monitoring sea life off the coast of the Emirates.

For fully grown turtles that are sick or injured, The Wildlife Office, together with the Turtle Rehabilitation Unit at Burj Al Arab, are on hand. “You could say that the recession has been good for turtles,” says Keith Wilson at EMEG. “The slower pace of construction has meant that their traditional nesting beaches have been left alone.” The organisation moved eight nests last year, which generally have 80-100 eggs each and have also found a nest on the Palm. It reckons there may be as many as 200 nests on and around the islands off Abu Dhabi. The main threats to turtles’ global survival are unfortunately man-made. Intensive fishing nets catch or injure the creatures and they can also eat plastics floating in the sea. Turtles mostly eat sea grasses and molluscs but also eat jellyfish, which they mistake plastic bags for. It is this, more than the unprecedented construction boom, that can be blamed for their decline. “The water quality has remained unchanged since the construction started,” says Wilson. “Construction companies here have learnt from older towns elsewhere and built into their plans ways of avoiding dumping sewage into the water. Also hotels now have to take turtles’ nesting sites into consideration when they’re building.”

“We monitor the life off the coast of Dubai and Abu Dhabi and have been finding that although some traditional feeding grounds for Hawksbills turtles have gone, other sites have evolved in new areas.” Palm Jebel Ali has added 28 kilometres of coast line, along which, on the outside breakers facing the sea, new coral deposits have started forming, so far covering 20 per cent of the coast. On the inside fronds, oysters are being found in the slower waters. “We have new sea grass beds forming,” says Wilson. “These are attracting turtles and also we’re finding fan clams growing there, which never grew before. Fan clams are large. Thirty centimetre clams are eaten as delicacies in the Far East and we can now look into farming them.” Fish farming has been a threat to turtles’ survival for decades but the Emirates isn’t home to the same trawl fishing practises seen elsewhere in the world and legislation that has made it illegal to hunt turtles and their eggs is helping. Nonetheless, Dubai does see a fair few Green and Hawksbill turtles washed ashore, suffering from physical injuries to being covered in barnacles and oysters to general lethargy, which for Hawksbill turtles, are brought on sometimes by colder winter seas.

This is where the Wildlife Office and the Turtle Rehabilitation Unit at the Burj Al Arab step in. They are responsible for the health and release of the washed ashore animals. Under the shadow of the Burj’s sail, Mina A’ Salam Hotel’s waterways are home to several turtles recuperating after their various ordeals, but these turtles are not hotel tourist attractions. The rehabilitation unit uses the shallow waterways as a halfway house, readying their patients for their eventual release into the sea, often as close to where the turtle was found as possible. In the last year, the unit received 90 turtles that had been washed ashore. Most of them have been released. “We don’t keep them to be decorative for the hotel,” says Kevin Hyland, from the Wildlife Protection Office. “We have combined our existing facilities to give these animals the best chance of survival, so we can get them back into the sea as soon as possible.” Last month the team released a lot of their patients, including Jade, a 150 kilo green turtle. “She was huge!” exclaims Warren Baverstock, aquarium operations manager, Burj Al Arab. “We had her from February last year, and to begin with she needed to be force fed. It took four men to do that.” Jade is the third green turtle to be satellite tagged so the team can monitor her progress. They plan to satellite tag three more this year. “We’ve got another green turtle called Dredger, she’s almost ready to be released,” says Warren.

Turtles at the rehabilitation unit are all female by default; there’s no way except for surgery for people to tell what gender they are — female and male turtles have the same DNA. The temperature they are born at determines which sex they are. Dibba (named after where she was found) is the unit’s global success story. She was washed ashore and was mistaken for a rock by a dog and its walker. Upon inspection, the 80 kilo green turtle had a massive head injury (possibly from someone trying to hunt her) and had to be force fed for three months. Upon being let go, she travelled many miles to reach Thailand, via the Maldives and Sri Lanka, obviously desperate for a bit of a holiday after her extended stay in turtle rehab. Because she was fitted with a tracking device from the unit, interested people around the globe could see her progress, which helped change the opinion that Gulf turtles mainly stay in Gulf waters. “It was so satisfying to see her released back into the sea,” says Hyland. “To go from being basically dead to making the second longest recorded journey by a green turtle, is just amazing.”

The Jumeriah hotel group have paid for the expensive trackers which the unit fit to some of the green turtles to track their progress. The satellite GPS style battery packs, unfortunately, have a limited lifespan, but nevertheless provide essential information about the migrating patterns of the green turtles. Jade is, at the moment, unwilling to follow Dibba’s long haul style. She has been tracked to the site of an old sea grass bed off Jebel Ali. Since female turtles return to the same beach to lay their eggs every time, it’s more than possible they remember feeding locations as well. These much larger Green turtles are far rarer than the Hawksbill, which tend to be the size of a large dinner plate, so are unsuitable for 
satellite tagging. All the turtles are tagged with a microchip and metal flipper tags so that if they end up washed ashore again the unit can recognise them. The good news is that not one of the released turtles has returned dead or alive;  proving releasing them back into the wild is extremely effective. There is no set time period for when this happens, it is simply when each turtle is deemed fit, Dibba was with the team for over 500 days before making her exciting journey east.

The unit, which has been operating since 2004, has a variety of supporters from top royalty to local clinics such as Al Wasl vets and Central Vet Research Lab, who work alongside each other to provide state of the art medical assistance to the sick animals. Since the Jumeriah Group started to sponsor the unit, it has had a lot more turtles being brought to it, thanks to raised public awareness and education. The team had over 1,000 school children in 2008 visit them to learn about the turtles, who could then log onto the tracking website at home and follow the creatures’ journeys. “Thanks to the hotel, more people know what we do,” says Baverstock. “It was all very much behind the scenes before then. The turtles are only here until they are fit to be released but whilst they are here, any school can come down to learn more and we have feeding demonstrations for the hotel guests and brunch guests on a Friday.” And it’s not all doom and gloom as far as the turtles go. Despite their place on the endangered lists, both Hyland and Wilson feel that more steps are being taken locally to help these beautiful animals, than ever before.

“There have been some positive changes,” says Hyland. “You see fishermen now when they haul in their catch, pick out the turtles and throw them back. That never used to happen.” Turtles have their shore supporters here in Dubai. They wash up onshore every year and winter is the worst time. But at least between the dedicated efforts of EMEG, the Wildlife Office, the Dubai Rehabilitation Unit and many more individuals behind the scenes, there is far more hope for those that need help, than at first you would believe.

What can you do to help?

If you find a turtle washed ashore, only pick it up if it isn’t moving. Place it in a washing up bowl or something similar and cover the bowl with a damp cloth. Don’t put it in water and if it’s covered with barnacles, leave it for the specialists to deal with. It always does more harm than good when people try to help take off the attached barnacles. The turtle rehabilitation unit is open 24/7 and can be contacted on 04 301 7198.

You can help the turtles in general by being more aware of any rubbish thrown away. Plastics, cigarette lighters and packets can end up in the sea, if they’re not disposed of properly, and end up being eaten by animals and sea life. If you see rubbish on the beach, pick it up and put it in a recycling bin — the whole sea will thank you for it.

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