Hawksbill turtle hatchlings make their way to the sea. Picture for illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Supplied picture

Dubai: A total of 65 Hawksbill sea turtle hatchlings are set to be released today by Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG) at Jebel Ali Wildlife Sanctuary to celebrate World Sea-Turtle Day, which falls on June 16 every year.

Last month, around 150 hatchlings were also successfully released by EMEG to the seas as part of its active marine conservation campaign.

Dr Tiffany Delport, director of Marine Environmental Operations at EMEG, told Gulf News: “At EMEG, it is our mission to contribute to Hawksbill turtle regional conservation management strategy. Hawksbill turtles are an important inhabitant of coastal ecosystems in Dubai, as population numbers continue to decline globally, protecting this species is of crucial importance.”

Turtle tale

The Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is a critically endangered member of the Arabian Gulf marine ecosystem. Over the last three generations, global populations of the Hawksbill turtle have declined more than 80 per cent and it is estimated there are currently only 8,000 nesting turtles annually.

Marine species conversation is high on the agenda of the UAE. Dr Delport noted: “The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MoCCE) has developed a three-year National Plan of Action for the Conservation of Marine Turtles in the UAE. The National Plan aims to expedite local laws to protect turtles and reduce factors associated with mortality rates such as marine debris pollution and destruction of turtle habitats through coastal developments, desalination and climate change.”

She added: “Hawksbill turtles are a valuable member of the Jebel Ali Marine Sanctuary ecosystem. Each year, typically between February to June — at Jebel Ali Wildlife Sanctuary — female turtles drag their bodies onto coastal beaches using flipper-like limbs to lay nests. Once a suitable nest area is selected, turtles clear the area and deposit a clutch of eggs before returning to the ocean. Currently there are 51 critically endangered Hawksbill turtle nests on coastal beaches of Jebel Ali Wildlife Sanctuary.”

Major Ali Saqer Sultan Alsuwaidi, president of EMEG, underlined: “The collaboration between Dubai Municipality and marine conservation groups that support long-term conservation management of the endangered species, ensure protection of nesting habitats for future generations of residents in the UAE.”

Endangered species

World Sea-Turtle Day is celebrated annually on June 16. Conservationists say everyone has role to play to protect the marine turtles that have been in our oceans for over 100 million years.

According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), six out of seven species of marine turtles worldwide are threatened with extinction because of around eight million tonnes of plastic dumped in our oceans every year. “Plastic pollution is one major threat to sea turtles. In fact, one sea turtle out of two has ingested plastic — often mistaking it for food such as jellyfish.”

Here are some tidbits about turtles from WWF:

Turtles don’t have teeth. Their upper and lower jaws have sheaths made of keratin that serve like a pair of false teeth. Turtle shells are made of over 50 bones fused together.

Turtles are amazing marine navigators, swimming hundreds or thousands of kilometres between feeding and nesting grounds. The record is for a female leatherback that swam nearly 20,921km over 647 days from Indonesia to the west coast of America.

Female marine turtles return to the same beach they hatched on to nest. Marine turtles’ amazing ability to navigate comes from their sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic fields. Female leatherbacks also make some interesting noises when they are nesting — some of which sound similar to a human belch.

It’s estimated that as few as 1 in 1,000 marine turtle eggs will survive to adulthood. And if beaches are strewn with litter, it can prevent hatchlings reaching the sea.

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The first few years of a marine turtle’s life are often referred to as the ‘lost years’. That’s because the time between when the hatchlings emerge until they return to coastal shallow waters to forage is incredibly difficult to study. The lost years they spend at sea — which can be up to 20 years — largely remain a mystery to humans.

Marine turtle species vary greatly in size. The smallest, Kemp’s ridley, are around 70cm long and up to 40kg in weight whilst the leatherback can reach up to 180cm and 500kg in weight.