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Barnacle-covered sea turtles washed up on UAE beaches

More than 100 young sea turtles have been handed over to a rehabilitation project in the past three months after being washed up on beaches across the UAE.

Beachgoers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been sending the turtles, many of which are only a year old, to the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP) to help them recover.

Warren Baverstock, aquarium operations manager at the Burj Al Arab, which runs the DTRP, said they have been inundated with rescued turtles.

"The season runs from the end of November to the end of March, and so far we’ve received 130 turtles," he said.

"The hawksbill is a tropical species and likes warm waters; when the water temperatures drop into the low 20s, they become very lethargic and weak which leads to eventual debilitation and an increase in parasites."

The yearling hawksbills, which are the majority of turtles the project is receiving, are particularly susceptible to the cold because of their small size.

"This is why we are seeing them wash up in the winter months on a yearly basis. Cold winters like this one are particularly bad," said Mr Baverstock.

"Many are covered in barnacles, but this is not the problem, the barnacles are a secondary indicator that they are sick."

The barnacles that cover the turtle’s shell can be a symptom of issues including bacterial infection, ingestion of foreign objects or injury.

Under normal circumstances turtles are able to remove the barnacles themselves by rubbing against rocks, but once they become weakened or sick, more can quickly develop on their shells, making them heavier and more difficult to swim.

After posting a message on the DTRP Facebook page staff received 25 turtles on Sunday alone.

Beachgoers have been urged to be careful when handling the marine reptiles.

"When they wash up on a beach they look like small rocks and are easily distinguishable from the sand," said Mr Baverstock.

"It’s very important that they are carefully handled so as to reduce the amount of stress on them as much as possible," he said.

He warned members of the public not to try to remove the barnacles from the turtles shells themselves.

"It can do more harm than good so we advise people to put the animal in a plastic container like a bucket, partially fill it with fresh water and cover the shell with a wet cloth," he said.

Once the turtles reach the rehabilitation centre at the Burj Al Arab they undergo an intensive programme of nutrition, antibiotics and vitamins so that they gain weight and any underlying condition can be dealt with.

A special technique developed by the DTRP is used to slowly remove the barnacles.

Once they have recovered enough they are sent to the project’s enclosures within the Mina A’Salam waterways where they are monitored until their rehabilitation is complete.

To report a stranded turtle, contact the project on 04 3017198.

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