Beach clean-up: Gina Fernandes and her team Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: A turtle made from cigarette butts collected from beach clean-ups in Dubai has become a global mascot for awareness campaigns on beach litter and its harmful impact on marine life.

Named Tilly the Turtle, the reptile-inspired mascot is the brainchild of Indian expat Gina Fernandes, 41, who along with a group of volunteers has created eight models of the mascot and distributed them to schools in Dubai, Romania and also the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Tilly the Turtle at Kite Beach, Dubai.

The models were created using over 183,000 cigarette butts collected over a period of five months during clean-up drives at Mamzar, Umm Sequeim, Kite Beach and Sofouh. The group also collected 128 kilos of plastic waste.

How did it all begin?

“Every weekend my family and I would visit the beaches in Dubai. After spending the day swimming, we would clear the beach of litter. A lot of rubbish, especially plastic and cigarette butts, get thrown on the beach. Unfortunately it ends up in the sea, polluting it. This is extremely harmful to marine life. So around last year I decided to do something about it and came up with the idea of Tilly the Turtle,” said Fernandes.

“The reason I chose a turtle for my campaign was because I learnt that a lot of these marine animals ingest the cigarette butts. This makes them sick, with many ending up dying,” she said.

“With Tilly, I wanted to drive home a strong message: say no to littering.”

Fernandes then teamed up with seven women, all mothers of school children, to promote Tilly. They created the first mascot in October and by November they were taking their message to schools in Dubai.

Another model of Tilly the Turtle.

In January, the women took part in Global Goals World Cup (GGWC), an open women activists soccer tournament organised by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Copenhagen-based EIR Soccer, which aims to merge sports with a cause. The teams have to adopt one of the 17 global goals set out by the United Nations. Fernandes and her team took up Goal Number 14 – ‘life underwater’. Tilly was the mascot of the campaign.

Tilly goes to schools

Fernandes and her team of mums, who call themselves the Spectacular 8, have taken Tilly to seven schools so far: Gems Modern Academy, Gems Wellington Academy – Silicon Oasis, Sunmarke School Dubai, Emirates International School - Jumeirah, American School Dubai, Swiss International Scientific School Dubai, Oltea Doamna Secondary School in Romania.

“I first took Tilly to the GEMS Modern academy school where my children study. The students were very excited to meet Tilly. They were curious and asked many questions about the environment. The principal of the school too has taken up Tilly in a big way at the school,” said Fernandes. “As part of our campaign we encourage students to get involved via creative arts and other forms of expression. The response has been amazing so far.”

Nargish Kambatta, principal, Gems Modern Academy, said: “Gina and her band of merry mums have created a movement. They have redefined education through their beach clean-up drives. Taking inspiration from Tilly the Turtle, our school has taken three pledges to save the oceans. We have declared GEMS Modern Academy a ‘single-use plastic free’ zone by banning the use of straws and we have declared our school a ‘No Balloon’ zone.”

David Hicks, principal, Emirates International School, Jumeirah, said: “Tilly is being showcased in our school assemblies to raise awareness on beach litter and its impact on marine life. We are keen to raise awareness about ocean pollution alongside many other eco-drives, including single use plastics, reduction of electricity and water consumption and a commitment to grow organic vegetable on campus.”

Cigarette butts collected by Gina Fernandes and her team.

Interestingly, Tilly has gone global as a school in Romania has adopted it as its mascot to educate students on the ways to save the environment. Mirela Tanc, language teacher of the Oltea Doamna Secondary School in Romania, said: “I have collaborated with Gina Fernandes over Microsoft Skype Education to share Tilly the Turtle’s journey to schools and showcase the number of cigarette butts collected in Dubai. We have introduced Tilly the Turtle at a number of public events including the International Symposium Romania 2018, Education Exchange E2 Romania among others to raise awareness against beach litter.”

Only last week Fernandes and her team created a huge sand sculpture of Tilly at the Kite Beach. “Surfers and tourists dropped by to find out what we were doing. Some were smokers and they swore to never litter cigarette butts. This is a huge achievement for us.”