Dubai: After spending six months in a rehabilitation sanctuary, her flippers finally touched sand again. Gina Al Wasl, the 60-year-old green turtle, waited patiently in a large wooden frame, soon to be lifted.
It was finally time to head back home, into the sea.
Gina is one of the 13 turtles released back into its marine environment on November 8, after being rescued and rehabilitated by the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP) at Jumeirah Al Naseem.
Weighing around 95 kgs, it took five volunteers to carry her to the beach.
When Gina was rescued in May, earlier this year, she was found with five cuts in her carapace (shell) from a boat strike. One of the cuts had caused deep damage, cutting through her bones.
Bárbara Lang-Lenton, the Director of Burj Al Arab Aquarium and Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project, explained to Gulf News how injured and rescued turtles like Gina are rehabilitated under expert care, at the Jumeirah Al Naseem Turtle Lagoon, till they regain enough strength to be released.
Stages of rescue and rehabilitation
“The project has three stages. The first is the rescue,” said Lang-Lenton.
“This is done by any member of the public, who finds a sick or injured turtle at the beach or in the ocean (in the UAE). They contact us and when the turtles come in, we have the physical care part of the project in Burj Al Arab’s aquarium facilities.
“We do an initial medical evaluation, to see if the turtles need any special medical care like x-rays or surgery. We work with the Dubai Falcon Hospital and the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL) to help the turtles with the medical attention needed,” she explained.
Once the turtles complete the initial recovery and start moving and feeding on their own, they are moved to Jumeirah Al Naseem Turtle Sanctuary, a lagoon where they spend some time building up fitness levels.
“The rehabilitation process can take anywhere between one month to up to two years if we have a critical case like a boat strike, like in Gina’s case. Sometimes a bit more, depending on what’s wrong with the turtle.
“We make sure before the turtles are released that they have enough muscle strength and weight to have a healthy return into the sea. And then they get released usually from the Jumeirah Al Naseem beach and occasionally from boats,” she said.
Over 2,000 endangered turtles released
Jumeirah started rehabilitating sea turtles in 2004.
“[In 2004,] the wildlife protection office from the Dubai authorities reached out to us since Burj Al Arab was the first large aquarium facility with a team and equipment to look after sick and injured sea turtles. At the time, we had a small enclosure where the turtles would build enough fitness levels before being released,” added Lang-Lenton.
According to her, so far, DTRP has released 2,109 sea turtles of four different species, all of them classified as ‘endangered’ (in danger of extinction), with the Hawksbill classified as ‘critically endangered’ on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) list.
“Most of the animals we receive are Hawksbill turtles,” said Lang-Lenton.
Named for their narrow, pointed beak, these turtle species are born in this part of the Gulf region.
“When they hit their first winter, their immune system is weak, the water is cold, sometimes they get infections, and then they get washed onto the beach. That would constitute 60 to 70 per cent of the animals we receive, and those are the easier ones to treat.
“We also have a lot of green turtles. They are usually not born in this part of the Gulf – they are born along the east coast, like Oman, but they come to Dubai because we have a large seagrass bed area.
“Occasionally we also receive Loggerheads and a very few times Olive Ridleys.”
Microchipped and tracked
Gina is one of the 77 turtles released so far, who has been fitted with a satellite transmitter donated by the Emirates Health Economic Society.
The satellite transmitters help the DTRP team track the success of the rehabilitation.
“All the turtles that we receive, get microchipped. In case one of them is stranded back on the beach, we get notified by the environmental authorities or by other rehabilitation centers in the region. Some of them get fitted with satellite transmitters that give us important information on sea turtle migratory patterns. We can also record the temperature of the water and understand preferences for different turtle species, and we can also record if they go out to nest after they are released,” the marine expert explained.
Sea turtles are migratory species, and what DPRT does has a global impact.
From Dubai to Maldives, Thailand, and beyond
“We had turtles come to us, which were not native to Dubai. But, when we released them, they would go to their nesting site, with the record being a turtle that we released from here and went all the way to Thailand, and another to Maldives and other regions around South Asia,” added Lang-Lenton.
In 2017, a large green turtle named Dibba, also a boat strike case like Gina, was released from Dibba in Fujairah, where she had been found.
The transmitter tracked that she crossed the Maldives and travelled close to Thailand, covering 8,283 kms in less than nine months.
That year, Dibba’s journey was the longest published track of a green turtle, according to an international research paper about satellite tagging of rehabilitated green sea turtles, published in September 2017.
Another DTRP success story was that of Ollie, an Olive Ridley. “She stayed with us a couple of years and she went to her nesting site in India,” said Lang-Lenton.
“When sea turtles are born on a certain beach, they have an internal GPS (Global Positioning System), and they can kind of pinpoint that specific location. They travel through different feeding grounds until they reach the age at which they can go back and nest at the same place where they were born."
Turtle releases are happy and emotional occasions for her. But the turtle rehabilitation process before it is quite challenging, she explained.
Plastic ingestion and other challenges
Next to Gina Al Wasl’s wooden frame was a tub of water with a little green turtle inside. She was named Tangle.
“A fisherman found her in Mina Salam, entangled in a plastic bag. With the help of two lifeguards, he rescued her and brought her to Jumeirah Al Naseem.
“Every year, we receive several turtles with the risk of infection from eating debris, mainly plastic, entanglement in fishing gear, plastic bags, and so on,” said Lang-Lenton.
The most challenging cases of rehabilitation for the DTRP team are cases of intestinal impactions.
“Sea turtles are reptiles, and reptiles are very resilient animals. Very often, by the time they get to us, they have been sick for a while, and they stop feeding for a very long time.
“In the case of intestine impactions, the digestive system gets blocked, mostly from eating plastic debris, and no food can go in. The turtles also suffer from dehydration and so on. Sometimes they already have necrotic tissues (a medical condition in which there are dead cells in your body organ) in the intestine, and the whole system is shutdown,” explained Lang-Lenton.
Biggest threats to sea turtle population
A few boxes away from Gina and Tangle was another turtle missing one eye and parts of the lower and upper jaw.
“We believe this injury was from a big fishing hook. We named this turtle Captain Jack Sparrow,” she said.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) website, the single greatest threat to most sea turtles, is fishing gear.
Hundreds of thousands of turtles accidentally get caught in gillnets, shrimp trawl nets, and longline hooks every year.
“Sea turtles have been with us since the time of the dinosaurs. We have fossil records that show that sea turtles have not changed much for 120 million years. However, in the last 200 years, because of human actions, we have reduced some of the [global] sea turtle population by 80 per cent. Some of the biggest threats are ... plastic debris, poaching of sea turtle eggs, and killing of adult sea turtles for their meat or shell,” said Lang-Lenton.
“Global warming is affecting the oceans quite drastically because of ocean acidification and very high temperatures for long periods. Sea turtles depend on coral reefs, seagrass beds, and algae habitats for their survival. They are also responsible for keeping these habitats healthy. Due to the impact on their feeding habitats, there is less food availability and less shelter.
"Also, rising sea levels cause turtle nesting sites to become steep and sometimes narrow. There are many places in the world where we don’t have beaches anymore for sea turtles to nest on."
Sea turtles take a very long time to reach adulthood – it takes them 20 or 30 years, depending on the turtle species and how much food availability is there for them. So, very few animals of these reach sexual maturity, she explained.
“Also, the gender of sea turtles is determined by the temperature of the nest. As the beaches are getting hotter, we are getting more female sea turtles. There are studies around the world, including a Ph.D (Doctor of Philosophy) research by Dr Hind Al Ameri, an Emirati marine conservation scientist and sea turtle biologist at the Environment Agency, Abu Dhabi (EAD), that demonstrate that the sea turtle gender ratio is shifting towards a higher number of females.”
Weak in winters
The DTRP receives turtles throughout the year, with the highest number being in winter months.
“As the weather gets cold, sea turtles become more prone to being lethargic and getting sick,” said Lang-Lenton.
“We ask people to be our eyes in the ocean, especially when the weather is bad, or in the winters when there are Shamal [sandstorm] winds, we tend to get a lot of stranded turtles. We can get up to 10 in one week.
“The public are our eyes in the sea. If you find a sick or injured turtle stranded on the beach, first make sure the turtle is not dead. Call our toll-free number 800-Turtle (800 887853), and we will give you directions,” she urges people in the UAE.
“If you are out at sea, and you find a turtle that’s floating at the surface and is not able to dive down, usually they will be covered in algae, occasionally they will also have barnacles growing on them. If you can grab the turtle, it means that the turtle is very sick, because sea turtles are very fast and strong. Try to take the turtle with you, because if the turtle is out in the sea, by the time we arrive, it can drift away.”
Dos and don’ts when rescuing turtles
According to Lang-Lenton, after rescuing an injured turtle, it is advisable to wrap it in a wet towel.
“Don’t put it in the water. Turtles come up to the surface of water bodies to breathe air and can hold their breath for a very long time when healthy. But, when they are weak, they remain on the surface and sometimes they are not even strong enough to lift their head.
“Don’t try to remove anything growing on the turtle, all these barnacles and oysters are encrusting creatures that grow with the turtle’s carapace, and turtles have nerve endings in the carapace. When you pull any of these off, you cause a lot of pain, and they get wounds and secondary infections in the carapace. If a sea turtle has barnacles, it usually means it got sick from something else and stopped swimming for a long time. So, you are not going to help sort the issue by pulling barnacles off. A healthy turtle doesn’t have many barnacles, only when they stop actively swimming. Not only will you not fix the initial problem, but you might also cause a secondary problem,” she warned.
Meeting and feeding the turtles
People living in or visiting the UAE can learn more about DTRP’s efforts through their daily educational program.
Every day at 11am, the team hosts an educational session at Jumeirah Al Naseem Turtle Lagoon, where anyone can come and visit.
“We educate the international hotel guests, UAE residents, and nationals about the issues of the oceans and how they affect sea turtles. The importance of sea turtles in keeping marine ecosystems healthy, and what we do in the project. And, we also have schools from all the seven emirates, around 2000 school kids come to visit us and learn everything about what we do. We have an interactive talk with them,” said Lang-Lenton.
After the session, children can also join Jumeirah’s volunteering staff members in safely feeding the recovering turtles.