UAE turtles in race to increase awareness of their plight

Seven turtles have been released from the beach at Mina A'Salam hotel as part of an ongoing project to rehabilitate sick and injured turtles.

A turtle released by the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project swims into deeper water after leaving the Mina A'Salaam hotel beach. Seven of the rehabilitated turtles have been satellite tagged and are participating in the Jumeirah Turtle Race. Antonie Robertson/The National
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DUBAI // A loggerhead turtle called Joey had some tough records to beat when he set off along with six others from a Dubai beach on Thursday in this year’s turtle race.

Weighing in at 50 kilograms, Joey lumbered from the beach beside Mina A’Salam hotel and into the sea, playing his part in efforts to raise awareness of the rehabilitation of sick and injured sea turtles.

A satellite transmitter on his shell will track whether he travels farther than Storm, another loggerhead, who swam 5,098km last year.

Along with his six rivals in this year’s competition, five hawksbill turtles and another loggerhead, Joey will also have a shot at breaking the record set three years ago by Dibba, an 80kg green turtle who swam 8,700km in a year.

She travelled from the UAE’s eastern coast to Africa, then to the Maldives, across to Sri Lanka and on to the Andaman Islands, where her satellite transmitter stopped functioning.

More than 100 people, including dozens of children, gathered on the Dubai beach to watch as the turtles’ wooden pens were opened and they scuttled into the sea.

The event was part of a drive by the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP) to return stranded turtles to the wild.

“I learnt that the turtles can be big, but they can also get hurt and they can get scared,” said Khamis Khalifa, 10, a grade-4 pupil at Al Shaab Primary.

“It has been interesting because I learnt that turtles can be eaten by other fish,” said Sultanate Khudaibergenova, 17, from Raffles World Academy.

“I thought their hard shells protected them. We will track them to see where they reach.”

Each of the seven turtles have been adopted by a different Jumeirah Group hotel. The animal that travels the farthest wins the race, and their progress can be followed on the DTRP’s Facebook page.

The hawksbill turtle is classified as critically endangered, while the green sea turtle is a threatened species, according to The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

There has been an 87 per cent decline in the hawksbill population over the past three decades, with only an estimated 8,000 nesting females left in the world, according to IUCN statistics.

DTRP is based at the Burj Al Arab and runs in collaboration with the emirate’s Wildlife Protection Office.

The rehabilitation centre at Mina A’Salam, which aims to explain and publicise the threats faced by marine turtles, is open to children and adults from 11am on Wednesdays and 1pm on Fridays. Admission is free.

The number of malnourished animals, often dehydrated and covered in barnacles, washed up on UAE shores increases when the weather turns cold and waters are rough. It usually takes a couple of years to nurse rescued animals back to health and release them back into the sea.

A total of 562 turtles have been rescued and released since the project began in 2004.

“We want to encourage people to learn about sea turtles,” said Warren Baverstock, the Burj Al Arab aquarium’s operations manager.

“The turtles are brought in with different ailments, some with impact traumas, ingestion problems, amputations, and entanglements due to fishing lines and hooks.”

He said turtles rarely survived when people tried to pry off barnacles – small, shell-like creatures that attach themselves in dense clusters to the shell.

“People try to force barnacles off with chisels, hammers and screwdrivers and they end up damaging the carapace (shell). Of the turtles that come in to us, the ones that have been tampered with like that, nearly all of them die,” Mr Baverstock said.

Anyone who finds an injured turtle on UAE shores, can contact the centre on its Facebook page or by calling 04 301 7198.