Documentary reveals where Abu Dhabi's green turtles go to nest

'Wild Abu Dhabi: The Turtles of Al Dhafra' was produced by Environment Agency Abu Dhabi

Green turtles have foraged in the UAE's waters for centuries, but where they went to nest was not known until relatively recently.

The story of how scientists learnt the answer to the mystery is featured in a new documentary made and produced in Abu Dhabi.

Wild Abu Dhabi: The Turtles of Al Dhafra, is Environment Agency Abu Dhabi's fourth documentary and charts its quest to learn more about the marine reptiles.

The documentary, produced using footage filmed over a period of years, follows the team as they monitor the nests and movements of the turtles.

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This documentary has allowed us to present some of the key threats facing our turtles ... and demonstrate why as society our behavioural change is necessary

Hind Al Ameri, assistant scientist for marine species at the agency, who features heavily in the film, said the team did not initially set out to produce a documentary.

“The plan was to go out in the field and film parts of what we do so we could post that on social media,” she said.

“Then looking at all the footage we had, we decided, if we put it all together, it could result in a documentary.

“It’s very raw. You can see us being stressed in the field, the humidity, and so on.”

The agency is in talks with various media companies to show it to the public, but no deals have been signed as yet, she said.

There are an estimated 5,500 turtles living in the waters off Abu Dhabi. About 1,500 of these are critically endangered hawksbill turtles.

The agency recorded more than 150 hawksbill nests in the waters off Al Dhafra.

But the behaviour of Abu Dhabi’s green turtles, which make up the majority and forage off Abu Dhabi’s seagrass-rich waters, was more of an enigma.

Abu Dhabi's environment agency is working to protect Hawksbill and Green turtles which live in the emirate's waters. Courtesy TDIC

The documentary follows the team’s attempts to find out more, attaching satellite trackers to turtles of mating age to see where they went.

They revealed the epic 10,000-kilometre journey of two turtles that set off from Bu Tinah.

The turtles swam through the Strait of Hormuz, past Iran and Pakistan, stopped in Oman to nest, then returned following the same route.

“We knew there were a lot of green turtles. And we knew they foraged in the seagrass-rich waters, but we didn’t know where they went to nest,” said Winston Cowie, the agency’s marine policy manager, who directed the video.

“That’s why we put satellite tags on them. We watched them, and watched them, and they went all the way to Oman and back, which was pretty incredible.”

The documentary also focuses on the many threats the creatures face, including plastic, which was found in the vast majority of the stomachs of turtles that washed up dead.

"Despite being a challenging feat, with some parts filmed during the height of summer, the creation of Wild Abu Dhabi: The Turtles of Al Dhafra was an extremely memorable experience and one that has enabled us to present to the public how our team researches the turtles that reside in Abu Dhabi waters," said Shaikha Al Dhaheri, secretary general of the agency.

“This documentary has allowed us to present some of the key threats facing our turtles including the impacts of climate change, single-use plastics and abandoned fishing gear, and demonstrate why as a society our behavioural change is necessary – to give our turtles their best chance of surviving into the future.

“Our work with the turtles and mitigating these challenges is just the beginning of what we plan to do in the future.”

The documentary features Bu Tinah, a tiny cluster of islands in the Marawah marine reserve. It is in one of the most important sanctuaries for turtles in the Indian Ocean region and is under the protection of the UN Environment Programme’s Indian Ocean-South-East Asian Turtle pact.

The archipelago, in Abu Dhabi’s Al Dhafra region, is home to coral reefs, dugongs, natural mangroves, dolphins, ospreys and Socotra cormorants.

It narrowly missed out on being named one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature after appearing on a shortlist of 28 locations in 2011.