A turtle rescued by Sheikh Fahim Al Qassimi will hopefully be released back into the wild after recovering from surgery at the Burj Al Arab Turtle Rehabilitation Sanctuary.
Sheikh Fahim spotted the 20-year-old turtle tangled up in fishing wire while on a free-diving trip off Sir Bu Nuair, a protected area 100km west of Dubai.
The Sharjah royal dived down seven metres to bring the distressed turtle to the surface.
About two metres from the surface, he discovered the wire wrapped around the turtle’s neck and flipper was attached to the seabed and holding her below the surface.
Treading water and holding his breath, he managed to cut it free with a knife, and bring the turtle to the surface.
Turtles can hold their breath for between four and seven hours, but eventually drown if they are trapped under water.
“It was clear the turtle was badly injured, so I called the Environment and Protected Areas Authority [in Sharjah], who sent a boat to take her to Sharjah Aquarium. They said it was a bigger job than they could handle, so they contacted the Turtle Rehabilitation Sanctuary at the Burj Al Arab,” Sheikh Fahim said.
Dr Panos Azmanis, a vet from the Dubai Falcon Hospital, operated on the turtle at the sanctuary, but was sadly unable to save her flipper.
Despite her traumatic experience, the amphibian – named Farah – is now recovering well after surgery and started to eat normally over the weekend. She is still on antibiotics and the wound is healing well. The vets hope she will learn how to dive with one flipper, and be released back into the wild.
The turtle sanctuary based at the Burj Al Arab saves about 250 turtles each year.
The project started in 2004, and is funded by Jumeirah Group and Dubai Holding as part of their community outreach programme. In future, they hope to encourage schools to sponsor the treatment of injured turtles to teach children about conservation.
Once recovered, the turtles could be tracked by radar by the schools after their release.
A world-class turtle treatment centre in Dubai
"We have treated over 2,000 turtles over 16 years," said Tristan Delmas, manager of the Burj Al Arab.
"Some of the turtles come in to the sanctuary in a really bad way. Sometimes it is plastic in the water, and the turtles swallow it and it blocks their stomach so they can not feed.
"Sometimes plastic or rubbish gets stuck around their flipper, and this means they can not swim and find food, so eventually they die.
"Quite often jet skis hit the turtles on the back, and in this situation they need to be treated quickly.
"We have two rehabilitation areas. We have one in the hotel where we actually first receive the turtles in the care centre.
"Then the second phase comes to the release in the lagoon, where the turtles can get even stronger – start to swim by themselves, feed by themselves, and when we feel that they're strong enough, we will release," Mr Delmas said.
Tagged turtles are monitored from the Burj Al Arab. One amphibian called Dibba travelled 8,600km from the UAE to Thailand in 2008, before the transmitter stopped working. That journey has been beaten by only one other turtle, which swam from South Africa to Australia.
Four out of the five turtle breeds can be found in the waters of the UAE. Green turtles and endangered hawksbills can be found in the Gulf, and loggerheads and olive ridley turtles live in the Sea of Oman and the Arabian Sea.
In February, the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi and the emirate's National Aquarium collaborate to help turtles “cold-stunned” by the cooler water temperatures.
At least 300 turtles affected by the condition are rescued every year on Abu Dhabi's beaches.
Members of the public are asked to call the Abu Dhabi Government Contact Centre at 800 555 if they spot a stunned turtle. In Dubai, turtles can be brought to the Burj Al Arab where the aquarium team take care of them.
Last year, in celebration of World Sea Turtle Day, the Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, participated in the release of 65 hawksbills after they were nursed back to health in the sanctuary.
"We are very lucky that the community rallies round to save the turtles," Mr Delmas said.
"We work with many conservation organisations, including in Abu Dhabi, and the Prime Minister's office and Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed have given us assistance with boats, equipment and medicine."
Sheikh Fahim has always had a close relationship with the sea, and co-founded Seafood Souk, a company set up in 2019 to improve the traceability of seafood as it makes its journey from fisherman to fishmonger.
“I grew up on the ocean, going out fishing, and I see turtles most weekends. But I was taken aback when I had to rescue two in nine months,” he said.
“The first was an easy save. We were diving off the coast of Northern Fujairah, near the Dibba Bay Oyster Farm, when I spotted a small turtle tangled in plastic and struggling to swim.
"I quickly removed the rubbish and released it back into the ocean. It was a magical moment."
Sheikh Fahim's interaction with the two turtles galvanised him into action, and he is now planning several projects to raise awareness of the amphibians' plight.
“It’s shocking to discover how many turtles are injured each year in the waters of the UAE. There are plenty of ways to help protect them,” he said.
“Boat strikes are a major problem, so if people drive their boats slower, that will immediately reduce the chance of a turtle being injured or killed."
Sheikh Fahim visited the turtle shortly after its surgery at the Burj Al Arab and joked about the level of emotion he felt.
“I’m not embarrassed to tell you it brought tears to my eyes to see her safe. My friends are already calling me the 'hero of the half shells'.”