Ten turtally awesome facts in celebration of World Sea Turtle Day

Here is what you may or may not know about the friendly reptiles

They can live to 100 years old, are long-distance travellers and many of the world’s species call the UAE their home.

To mark World Sea Turtle Day on Sunday, here are 10 things you may not know about them:

1. Sea turtles can live a long time - possibly more than 100 years

One of the oldest living turtles is a green turtle named Myrtle, who has lived in the Giant Ocean Tank in New England Aquarium since 1970.

She is more than 90 years old, weighs more than 200 kilograms and eats lettuce, cabbage, squids and Brussels sprouts.

Contrary to popular belief, you can not tell the age of a turtle by its size, although older turtles do tend to be larger than juveniles.

The order of reptiles to which turtles belong – Testudines – is also one of the oldest, more ancient than snakes or crocodilians.

The reptiles date from the Middle Jurassic period, 164 million to 174 million years ago, when dinosaurs such as the megalosaurus roamed the Earth.

2. Of the seven species of turtles found in the world’s oceans, five can be found in the UAE

The hawksbill turtle, loggerhead turtle, and green turtle have settled in the Emirates, while the leatherback turtle and olive ridley sea turtle are migratory species.

Nearly all seven species of sea turtle are classified as endangered and that is mostly a result of human activity.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, accidental capture by fishing gear is the greatest threat to most sea turtles, plus the beaches upon which they depend for nesting are disappearing.

The best place to see turtles in the UAE in the wild is along the coast of Fujairah in springtime.

3. Dubai’s Crown Prince is a big fan of turtles

Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed personally released several hatchlings in 2020, and he posted pictures of himself with some of the rehabilitated animals on World Sea Turtle Day last year.

But he’s not the only Emirati sheikh making turtle conservation a priority.

Sheikh Fahim Al Qasimi from Sharjah has also rescued two turtles in the past 12 months, including one he named Farah, who had to have a flipper amputated after fishing wire cut into her limb.

Fortunately, thanks to the team at Burj Al Arab Aquarium, Farah is swimming once again and recuperating in the Turtle Rehabilitation Sanctuary at Jumeirah Al Naseem hotel.

4. The UAE is home to the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project

The project is run in collaboration with Dubai’s Wildlife Protection Office.

And its managers say it is the only scheme of its kind in the Middle East and Red Sea region.

Marine biologists there have successfully returned more than 2,000 turtles to the Arabian Gulf from all over the UAE since the project’s inception in 2004, with an average annual rescue of 225 turtles in recent years.

Veterinary support is provided by the Dubai Falcon Hospital and the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory, and funding is in part provided by Dubai’s Crown Prince.

5. Turtles are not as quiet as you might expect

They do not have vocal cords but they can still make a variety of sounds depending on their species.

Some turtles can cluck, some make dog-like barks, while others make a high-pitched whining sound.

Baby sea turtles even make noises before hatching. Scientists have recorded them chirping and grunting and speculate that the sounds help them to co-ordinate hatching.

6. Male sea turtles never leave the ocean

But females come ashore to lay their eggs on sandy beaches during the nesting season.

They always lay their eggs on the same beach but once they are buried, the females return to the sea.

The eggs hatch after several months and the hatchlings race for the sea before they can be eaten by crabs or seagulls.

Hawksbills are the only sea turtles that lay their eggs in the UAE and hatchlings have been spotted on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat beach and on Bu Tinah, a tiny cluster of islands located in the Marawah marine reserve.

In a single nesting season, females lay between two and six clutches of eggs, each containing 65 to 180 eggs.

The clutches are laid approximately every two weeks, but females do not necessarily lay every year.

Sometimes there can be a gap of nine years in between each nesting season, and it can take more than 20 years for sea turtles to reach breeding age.

Climate change seems to affect the sex of the hatchlings, with warmer nests leading to more females.

7. Depending on their species, sea turtles eat a variety of different foods

Everything from seaweed to jellyfish, plus barnacles, sponges and sea anemones.

Green turtles are herbivores and primarily eat sea grasses and algae.

The turtles in the Turtle Rehabilitation Sanctuary at Jumeirah Al Naseem are fed on a diet of premium squid.

Unfortunately, baby sea turtles and adults frequently mistake rubbish and objects such as tar balls for food and ingest them.

This is another reason why they are endangered.

8. Few predators for adult sea turtles

Only sharks and other large fish hunt and consume juvenile and adult sea turtles.

But the babies and ping-pong sized eggs are much more vulnerable, with foxes, weasels, cats, dogs, raccoons, crabs and other animals vying to eat them on land.

It is estimated that only one in 1,000 hatchlings will survive to adulthood.

A hawksbill turtle. The hawksbill turtle, loggerhead turtle and green turtle have settled in the Emirates. Jaime Puebla / The National
A hawksbill turtle. The hawksbill turtle, loggerhead turtle and green turtle have settled in the Emirates. Jaime Puebla / The National

9. Sea turtles are long-distance swimmers

They migrate between foraging and nesting grounds, and seasonally to warmer waters.

Often these migrations take them hundreds and even thousands of miles, and several tagged turtles have been monitored from the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project at Burj Al Arab.

One amphibian called Dibba travelled 8,600 kilometres from the UAE to Thailand in 2008, before the transmitter stopped working.

Globally that journey was beaten a turtle named Yoshi that swam from Australia to the waters of Angola – and back – in a record trip of 35,400km.

10. No one really knows where baby sea turtles live

Until recently scientists had little understanding of the location of hatchlings in the time period between their first dip in the ocean, and a decade later, when they return to coastal areas as juveniles.

Marine biologists called this period the “lost years”.

The mystery was solved once radio transmitters become small enough to fix them to baby turtle shells.

Now scientists know that oceanic currents disperse the tiny creatures out into the open ocean, away from the predators that live in shallow water near the shore, but much more research is needed.

Updated: May 25, 2021 11:13 AM

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