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Back to the Big Blue – 7 Days

Twelve nautical miles out to sea, the waters off the coast of Dubai are calm, except for the occasional splash of a turtle making a break for freedom.  After spending six months regaining their strength at Jumeirah’s Turtle Rehabilitation Unit, 22 critically endangered hawksbill and two endangered green turtles were yesterday returned to their natural habitat – the deep blue sea.  This is the second wave of rehabilitated turtles to be returned to the ocean this year, and 7DAYS was invited along to document the momentous occasion.

Dubai’s only turtle rehabilitation project is a joint collaboration between The Wildlife Protection Office and Jumeirah’s Aquarium team, with essential veterinary support provided by Al Wasl Veterinary Clinic.  The reasons for establishing the turtle project are varied, but the main aim is to nurse back to full health turtles that are commonly found in distress on the shores of the UAE.  The 24 turtles released yesterday were found approximately six months ago, and in need of assistance. It is thought they were travelling from their nesting ground in Abu Dhabi, but ran into trouble along the Dubai coastline.

Rehabilitating turtles and getting them back into the ocean is the main priority for the team behind the turtle project.  Before departure on a Hatteras Collection yacht – kindly donated for yesterday’s release – Kevin Hyland, an ecologist at the Dubai Wildlife Protection Office tagged all 24 turtles with unique titanium flipper tags, so that they can be identified in the future.  Each front flipper was pierced to attach a tag – and while some of the turtles looked like they flinched with discomfort, we were assured it wasn’t as painful as it looked.

“A little bit of pain for a lot of freedom,” remarked Burj Al Arab aquarium operations manager, Warren Baverstock.  These tags, including satellite trackers, are extremely important to the research work of the Dubai-based turtle team. Last year the Turtle Rehabilitation Unit released 20 turtles, including a mature green turtle called ‘Dibba’, who was satellite tagged and followed on an amazing 8,600km journey to the coast of Thailand. This is one of the longest recorded distances for a green turtle and is the first example in the species of a migration from the Middle East towards Eastern Asia.

Once tagged, the turtles were packed up in plastic containers – with a drop of water on them – and the yacht sped out to sea.  The drop-off point is not specific, just far enough out so that the turtles don’t get washed up on the Dubai shoreline once again.  On arrival at yesterday’s chosen point, a wild turtle was spotted swimming past at a leisurely pace. “Perfect spot,” said Hyland, so we prepared for the release.

One by one, each of the turtles was picked up and gently let go in the clear water. Some scurried quickly away, only popping up for a breath after about 30 seconds of swimming, while others looked a little bewildered and swam slowly away from the boat.  But all were headed for an exciting new life of freedom in their natural habitat. It will be a lonely life however, as turtles are not social creatures and go their separate ways unless mating or feeding.  Talking numbers, while these releases are not going to put a stop to the rapid decline of the turtle population, they will build a lot more awareness of the plight of these beautiful reptiles, according to Hyland.

“We’re not releasing massive numbers back into the wild, but we are helping to build awareness,” said Hyland. “Many people don’t realise the work we do and the importance of saving turtles from extinction, but these types of exercises help generate awareness and promote education.  “There’s a good chance turtles could be on the brink of extinction in ten or 20 years, because of rapid loss of habitat as well as many other environmental reasons.

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