Pupils cheer as a team from the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project release nine juvenile hawksbills and an adult green turtle back to the sea off Saadiyat Island.
ABU DHABI // The children crowded fearlessly close to the enormous turtle, staring in disbelief at the size of the green, three-flippered sea creature.
"She’s huge," one pupil marvelled as Al Ouda, as the children have named her, lay quietly in an open container on the sands at Saadiyat Beach Club, her eyes open wide.
Asked how much he thought the turtle weighed, one boy yelled: "100,000 tonnes."
The turtle, who acquired her name because she is like a big, round, old grandma, actually weighs a healthy 120 kilograms and is about 1.3 metres in length. But when the green turtle washed up on the shores of the island last year, she was underweight and severely injured.
"It could have been a fishing net, it could have been a boat strike, but when that animal came to us, it had an open wound with the front flipper missing," said Warren Baverstock, aquarium operations manager at Burj Al Arab. Her shell had also been damaged.
The adult turtle, thought to be between 40 and 60 years old, received months of intensive care at the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project, based at the Burj Al Arab. Yesterday, Al Ouda, along with nine rehabilitated juvenile hawksbill turtles who had also washed ashore with injuries, were released back to the sea by their rescuers and cheering children from nearby Cranleigh School Abu Dhabi.
Each year, between 70 and 100 turtles get stranded on the shores of Saadiyat Island, usually during the winter months when water temperatures drop.
"That’s when the hawksbill turtles tend to be more vulnerable and get washed up on the shore with all its underlying challenges – bacterial infections, entanglement in fishing lines, fishing nets, ingestion of foreign items, plastics – all those sorts of things that turtles just hate," Mr Baverstock said.
Over the years, the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), which owns Saadiyat Island, has rescued more than 300 turtles and taken them to the rehabilitation centre to be nursed back to health. The island is also a feeding and nesting destination for the hawksbill turtles.
Buthaina Al Qubaisi, environment manager for TDIC, said this was the first time the turtles were released where they had been found. Normally, they would have been returned to the ocean in Dubai, but Ms Al Qubaisi said the event was a good opportunity to educate children about local wildlife and the importance of being good stewards of the environment.
"We would like them to know that the turtle is one of our society’s creatures in Abu Dhabi," she said. "They are [an] endangered species and we have to protect them. We need the effort from society, especially from the kids because they are the future."
The hawksbill turtles are critically endangered, with only about 8,000 nesting females left in the world, said Mr Baverstock. Anyone who comes in contact with an injured or stranded turtle should alert security, if on Saadiyat Island, or call the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project. Nests found along the island’s dune protection zones should not be disturbed.
When it came time to release Al Ouda, it took five men to lift and move her closer to the crashing waves. At first, she did not move.
"Wow," said eight-year-old Tomi Adetona as she watched the massive animal. "She’s not moving. She doesn’t want to go. It’s not deep enough."
The men picked up Al Ouda a second time and rested her at the water’s edge.
"C’mon, you can do it," Tomi yelled, along with other children who cheered her on. The green turtle edged forward just enough to enter a wave, and with a final gentle push from a rescuer, was carried back into the sea.