By Harriet Shephard
For us big-city dwellers, it can be easy to forget that the UAE’s wildlife consists of anything more interesting than birds and insects. However, our beloved home is actually brimming with countless exotic animals, and one of its most famous inhabitants is the rather adorable sea turtle.
Every spring, hundreds of turtles nest here and they also frequent our waters throughout the year.
Of course, you’re probably thinking that there’s no chance at all of seeing a turtle when you’re out lapping up some vitamin D.
But, that’s where you’re wrong.
I’ve been lucky enough to spot two turtles in less than two months, and both incidents left me feeling very giddy indeed.
One popped up to say hello when I was standing just a couple of metres offshore from a luxury Saadiyat Island hotel, and the other cruised by when I was about to embark on a rather rowdy boat party from downtown Abu Dhabi.
Neither setting was exactly remote, quiet or wild...
So, I decided to turn to the experts to find out more about these amazing creatures, and when and where we are most likely to see them.
Maitha Al Hameli, Manager of the Marine Biodiversity Sector at the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) explains that turtles like feeding around Abu Dhabi’s islands because they offer vast seagrass beds, marine algae and coral reef habitats.
“The hawksbill turtle is generally the only species that nests in Abu Dhabi, but green turtles also like to forage on the seagrass meadows of the UAE,” she notes.
“Hawksbills nest on at least 17 offshore islands and we normally record around 160 nests between mid-March to mid-June.”
While most turtles prefer the quiet of these uninhabited islands, at least 10 females return to nest on Saadiyat Island every year and the Fujairah coastline is another renowned turtle hotspot.
According to the EAD, hawksbill turtles lay around 110 eggs in every nest, and average between two to eight nests a season.
Don’t forget to keep this in mind next time you’re away on a staycation or out for a beach day. You might well be fortunate enough to glimpse some tiny turtles heading to the waves, or a mother dragging herself over the sand.
Marine Biologist Emily Armstrong has played a key part in protecting Saadiyat Island’s turtle population for many years.
Through her experience leading environmental projects at Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort and Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, she has discovered that tiny plastic pellets called nurdles are killing increasing numbers of turtles.
“Thousands of clear nurdles are making their way onto Saadiyat beach and into the sea, and sadly turtles are eating them because they look a lot like fish eggs,” she explains.
“Whenever we find a dead turtle, I’ll do a necropsy to find out how they’ve died and I’ve found large clusters of nurdles inside their stomachs. It’s really damaging the health of even the very young ones. Even though the water looks clean and our visitors are always very respectful, general plastic pollution is an issue and every morning we find bags and bags of trash on the shore, things like disposable masks and plastic bottles.”
Although spring is the prime season for turtle watching, many turtles are washed up onto the UAE’s beaches during the winter, too. This is generally because the drop in water temperature makes them fall sick, or due to extreme barnacle growths that make it difficult for them to swim. Any turtles that are fortunate enough to be rescued are then nursed back to health throughout the colder season, and released when the weather warms up again.
There are several places in the UAE where you can learn about turtles and see them being rehabilitated.
The National Aquarium in Abu Dhabi has successfully rehabilitated more than 500 turtles since it launched the Wildlife Rescue Program with the EAD in 2020.
A loggerhead turtle with a missing flipper is a permanent resident at the Al Qana facility, and the facility is also currently rehabilitating an olive ridley turtle, the second-smallest of all turtles and a species that is seldom seen in UAE waters.
Home to state-of-the-art facilities, it even has a ‘turtle ambulance’ that allows staff to reach distressed turtles as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project, based at Jumeirah Al Naseem, has released almost 2,000 turtles back into the Gulf since it was launched in 2004. Visitors are welcome to watch the rescued turtles swimming in the ‘Turtle Lagoon’, and even join in with feeding time.
The EAD and other turtle conservation organisations rely heavily on the support of the public.
Maitha says: “It’s important not to disturb nesting turtles but we do urge people to tell us about any nests they spot so that we can protect them if needed. Volunteer turtle patrols cover many different coastlines throughout the UAE, and their sighting reports really help us better understand the marine ecosystem. Joining beach clean ups is another way that people can assist us with our work.
“Finally, if you do come across a stranded turtle, whether it’s sick, weak or dead, please inform the EAD straight away on 800 555.”
Want to get involved with protecting the UAE’s turtles?
Everyone is welcome to join Saadiyat Island’s turtle patrol walks and nurdle hunts. To find out more visit https://connectwithnature.ae/activities.