What is better than a critically endangered hawksbill turtle being rescued from a beach in Dubai? Seeing it released into the sea after being nursed back to health.
As part of ongoing conservation efforts, the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project and Jumeirah Group sent 26 turtles back into the wild on Thursday morning, from the beach at Jumeirah Al Naseem hotel in Dubai.
Timed to mark World Sea Turtle Day, which falls on June 16 every year, and watched by a crowd of rescuers and holidaymakers, 21 critically endangered hawksbill turtles and five endangered green turtles were released back into the sea next to Burj Al Arab.
The event comes after an agreement was signed between the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project and the Fujairah Environment Authority and Fujairah Research Centre, to help increase awareness of turtles and the UAE’s unique marine ecosystems.
The release of 26 creatures on Thursday, plus another 10 in May, in partnership with MS Porrima — the world’s first vessel that runs solely on renewable energy — brings the total to 2,050 rehabilitated turtles sent back into the Arabian Gulf since the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project was founded in 2004.
The project, which has its home at Burj Al Arab, has a state-of-the-art medical facility, where injured, sick or distressed turtles are brought. There is an additional rehabilitation tank at Jumeirah Al Naseem, where the creatures are held before being released back into the wild.
Most of the rescued animals are found on UAE beaches during the winter months, because, as reptiles, turtles rely on the environment for body heat. The cooler winter water makes the animals sluggish and susceptible to illness, and in turn allows barnacles to attach themselves to the carapace, or shell, making it heavier and less streamlined. In a vicious cycle, the turtle is then less able to feed or clean itself, and eventually, the exhausted and malnourished creature washes up on a beach.
Both hawksbill and green turtles are indigenous to this region, yet face a wide variety of threats both here and abroad, such as marine pollution, loss of nesting habitat, climate change, illegal poaching, getting caught in fishing nets and lines, boat and jet ski strikes, and even getting trapped in industry seawater intake pipes.
Hawksbill turtles are still hunted for their shells, despite being protected under an international treaty, and in 2021, the Olive Ridley Project estimated as few as 57,000 survive worldwide. A 2019 study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meanwhile, estimated that perhaps only 25,000 breeding females may still exist, making the rehabilitation and release of every single hawksbill vital for the survival of the species.
Green turtles, in contrast, are faring better, with an estimated 1.5 million females. Yet, while this seems a reassuring figure, it exposes a new threat that turtles face: like crocodiles and alligators, the gender of turtle hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the nest, with males needing a temperature of 27.7ºC or below. As the planet heats up, so do the nests, resulting in a disproportionate number of females hatching.
Unlike females that come to land for laying eggs, male turtles live their entire life at sea, and to help conservationists understand where males go, the largest green turtle — a male — to be released on Thursday had a tracker glued to its back with marine putty, to send back vital data each time he surfaces.
“We can see from the tags that a number of turtles spend prolonged periods of time in protected areas, including Ras Al Hadd in Oman and a number of habitats in Abu Dhabi,” says Barbara Lang-Lenton Arrizabalaga, director of aquarium at Burj Al Arab Jumeirah. “These are critical for providing food and shelter for our sea turtles, and it is great to see the positive impact the UAE’s marine reserves are having on turtle rehabilitation.”
Green turtles normally come up for air every few minutes, but can easily stay submerged for 45 minutes, and have been documented as staying underwater for as long as two hours on a single breath.
The project treats scores of turtles every year, nursing injuries from damage to the shell, to the loss of a limb after being struck by a jet ski.
For the public to help this cause, the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project has launched a dedicated hotline — 800TURTLE (800 887853) — to connect rescuers directly with the headquarters and that advice can be given.
“We are delighted to share that most animals this year have come to us through the toll-free 800TURTLE number,” Lang-Lenton Arrizabalaga says. “This tells us that the community is engaged with what we’re doing and want to support.
"Anyone who finds a sick or injured sea turtle can reach out to us on this number and our team will guide them through the correct process until we are able to get to the turtle and transport it to our facility."