Turtles covered in barnacles

Sick young marine turtles are washing up on beaches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi covered in barnacles.

Sick young marine turtles are washing up on beaches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi covered in barnacles. More than 12 young hawksbill turtles, one of two species common to UAE waters, were recovered by the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG) on Wednesday and Thursday, the group said yesterday. Most of the animals were found along Dubai's coastline struggling to stay alive under the weight of barnacles and other marine organisms that had attached to their bodies.

They were all transported to the Madinat Jumeirah turtle rehabilitation unit at Mina A'Salam Hotel. This is the second time an incident of this kind has been recorded in the Emirates. "Last year, we were getting many turtles in the same condition washing ashore, between January to April," said Rima Jabado, the organisation's marine programme director. "We thought it is a one-off event, but this year it started again."

All the animals were helpless when found. Many had not been able to eat or breathe properly because of the barnacles. "They could not go back to the water as they cannot swim," she said. One young turtle, discovered off Jebel Ali yesterday, had to be put down. It was believed to have been attacked by a fox and, unable to fend for itself, suffered wounds that meant it was going to die in agony. The turtles were discovered all over Dubai. On Tuesday morning, a man jogging along the beach opposite the Mercato shopping mall discovered three of them. Another three were found a day later near EMEG's reserve near Jebel Ali.

The problem could also be affecting Abu Dhabi, where a sick hawksbill in a similar condition was discovered last week on a beach at Sir Bani Yas Island. The organisation has appealed to the public to help save any sick turtles they find by contacting them immediately. "EMEG is appealing to the public to support our efforts to conserve marine turtles in the UAE," it said, but added: "To avoid potential harm to these turtles, please refrain from cleaning or attempting to remove any barnacles."

"Removing the barnacles by force hurts the turtles," said Ms Jabado. The best way to help is to ensure any sick turtles quickly reach the rehabilitation centre, where they can receive specialised care. The centre places the turtles in fresh water, which they can withstand for a few days. The procedure ensures that, within two to three days, any growth of barnacles and algae falls off or becomes much easier to remove.

The staff at the centre also carry out blood tests on the turtles and help those whose mouths have been sealed shut by the barnacles. "Most of the turtles improve within a couple of weeks," said Ms Jabado. No one knows the cause of the condition or how many animals it affects. One of the few known facts is that the sick animals appear between January and April. The EMEG is calling for government agencies to look into the matter.

"There need to be some proper scientific studies to investigate this," she said. Hawksbill turtles are listed as critically endangered on the Red List, prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They feed largely on sea sponges, nibbling away at the sponges' hard crust. They leave the softer, inside parts to many species of fish to eat. If not for the turtles, fisheries can collapse, experts say.

EMEG is appealing for help to save the turtles. Anyone who finds one washed ashore should contact the organisation immediately by calling 04-363-0581. vtodorova@thenational.ae