How joining a sea turtle patrol in Abu Dhabi gave me hope for a better future

Finding a turtle nest on Saadiyat beach was a life-affirming moment

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It was a hazy dawn, about halfway into the turtle nesting season, when I spotted my first tracks on Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Beach. The churned-up trail of sand leading from the water's edge was similar to the tracks of a big lorry tyre, but its deeply curved indents could only have been created by one thing: a set of flippers.

Alongside my fellow beach patrol volunteer, I followed the tracks up to the nesting spot and marvelled at the hollow left behind by a female hawksbill sea turtle who had visited during the night to lay her eggs. A second trail revealed her path back into the sea, well before our arrival.

We marked the spot with a stick and finished walking our designated stretch of beach to make sure no other nests had appeared overnight before the tractors started their daily sweep. Then we came back and helped take measurements and erect the poles and tape required to protect the site.

I was elated. In the weeks I had been walking the beach at dawn, I hadn't found any evidence of turtles. Now, on World Turtle Day of all days, I had spotted a nest. It was one of six found and protected by Saadiyat Beach patrol volunteers this year, with more than 200 hawksbill turtle hatchlings making it into the sea.

Up until this point I had seen plenty of things to put a smile on my face, from playful dolphins to curious stingrays seemingly following us along the water's edge. I gawped at the unique sand sculptures left behind by the translucent ghost crabs that colonise the far reaches of the beach, occasionally whipping across the shore at lightning speed after being caught out by our presence.

One morning I rescued a grapelike bunch of eggs from the already baking sand that had washed up during a storm the night before. A series of tiny, tentacled creatures began hatching in front of my eyes, squirting little jets of black ink into their bucket of seawater.

"Congratulations, cuttlefish mama!" our patrol leader Emily Armstrong – a marine conservationist working for Jumeirah Saadiyat Island Resort – texted later. And, like any proud parent, I showed the video clip of my little ones to everyone I talked to that day.

On another morning, we were lucky enough to take part in a turtle release. The juvenile hawksbills had all been rehabilitated after washing up earlier in the year, exhausted after a colder-than-usual winter. We looked on in awe as they made their way, one by one, into the lapping waves. But after weeks of dragging ourselves from our warm beds at 4.30am to walk miles of beach, finding an actual turtle nest felt like confirmation that we were doing the right thing.

Amid the deluge of awful news stories about climate change and plastic pollution, it is easy to feel helpless and depressed about the state of the planet – and of the uncertain future of its increasingly imperilled creatures.

Turtles, in particular, are so evocative of this plight.

Anyone who regularly goes snorkelling or diving can tell you about the times they have strayed from their path – or even become dangerously lost – after being mesmerised by a sea turtle meandering through its coral garden.

And they are not just delightful and charismatic – turtles play a critical role in the ecosystem by helping to maintain seagrass beds and coral reefs, as well as being excellent scavengers, cleaning up the environment around them.

But these graceful creatures are among the most vulnerable to what has been labelled Earth’s sixth mass extinction. Recent estimates suggest that as much as 61 per cent of global turtle and tortoise diversity is under threat from extinction – if not already lost.

Turtles face multiple threats, from illegal poaching, rogue fishing nets and plastic bags mistaken for edible jellyfish, to development encroaching on their nesting grounds and the increasing frequency and ferocity of heatwaves killing their eggs.

Many species, such as Australia's "punk turtle" are already on the brink, while the fate of others, such as the Yangtze giant softshell turtle, which is down to three males, is already sealed.

I joined the turtle patrol shortly after arriving in Abu Dhabi mostly as a way to meet new people and get some regular exercise, but in doing so I also found an effective – if not total – antidote to my growing anxiety about the state of the global environment.

As individuals, we may have to accept that we cannot reverse environmental catastrophes alone, but that doesn’t mean we should give up all hope of a better future.

And if we want turtles to have a fair chance of existing in that future, the first step is to make sure they have a safe place to nest and hatch. We have that opportunity here in Abu Dhabi.