DUBAI // More than 1,000 people crammed on to the beach at the Mina A'Salam hotel early yesterday as turtles that had been found stranded were returned to the wild.
Seven adults and 150 yearlings were released. The animals had been washed up on the shore and were nursed back to health through a rehabilitation project run by Jumeirah and Dubai's Wildlife Protection Office.
The larger turtles, each in square wooden pens, were placed near the water's edge. The enclosures were then lifted away to enable them to make their way into the water.
The sluggish animals did not make an immediate dash for freedom, and some needed a little encouragement. Kris Fade of Virgin Radio, who was dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, had to turn one around to prevent it wandering off in the wrong direction.
Cheers rang out as each turtle finally entered the water and the waves started washing over its shell. Once submerged, they swam strongly away from the shore past the Burj Al Arab hotel. Jumeirah lifeguards in canoes were on hand in case any needed help.
The yearlings were then brought to the shore in grey plastic boxes. Children lifted them out and placed them on the sand. Unlike the larger turtles, they made straight for the water.
Camilla Lammertyn, 8, who was at the beach with her mum Mariana and 5-year-old brother Matias, freed one of the yearlings. "I was happy to see it go into the water, it felt really nice to help the animals," she said. "But it felt weird to pick up the turtle, it seemed ticklish."
The largest animal released yesterday was a loggerhead weighing 100 kilograms and thought to be 60 to 80 years old. Another mature loggerhead, two hawksbills and three green turtles were also freed.
Six of the turtles were fitted with satellite tracking devices and each has been adopted by a different Jumeirah property. The animal that travels the furthest will earn its sponsor a trophy, and their progress can be followed on the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project's Facebook page. Most of the yearlings are critically endangered hawksbills.
Previous releases at the beach had been private, but the team decided to open this one up to everyone. The event proved so popular that some in the large crowd could not see the turtles as they entered the sea.
Kevin Hyland, an ecologist at the Wildlife Protection Office, launched the project in the 1990s and kept the first rescued turtles in the bath at his home.
"I'm thrilled by the number of people, the response is fabulous," he said. "I love the enthusiasm."
Warren Baverstock, the aquariums operations manager at the Burj Al Arab, where some of the stranded turtles are kept, stressed the need for outreach. "We felt really strongly about opening it to the public. Our goal is to raise awareness of the plight of the sea turtles, so these events are just perfect."