ABU DHABI // When scientists and volunteers travel to Musandam Peninsula in Oman to study the coral reef there, some children's books by a local author went along with them on the expedition. The books, Aisha and the Turtle, and its follow-up, Aisha Saves the Reef, were written by Dr Barbara Steinbauer-Groetsch and illustrated by the Dubai-based artist Ines A Landmesser.
Biosphere Expeditions, a non-profit group that offers hands-on conservation volunteer work, took copies of the books to hand out to everyone who took part in two expeditions to Oman, the second of which concludes today. Participants came from countries including the US, the UK, Germany, Brazil, the UAE and Oman. Dr Steinbauer-Groetsch found the inspiration for the books when she came across the remains of a dead turtle on a beach in Ras al Khaimah as she wandered along searching for shells to collect. She could not imagine then how the encounter with the turtle would result in two books.
"I had never seen a thing like that," said Dr Steinbauer-Groetsch, who had been living in Abu Dhabi for 18 months at the time and had just given birth to her first daughter. "I began to read a bit more about marine turtles and became interested in the topic and learned they are endangered because of swallowing plastic bags in the water, and they die. "And then slowly, it started developing into a story in my head," she said. "I felt this is really something children should know about as they are the future grown-ups and have to deal with these future things.
"Maybe, as a new mother, I was more sensitive to maintaining our environment and living sustainably, but I wanted to do something interesting and educational for children on this topic." The books are meant to foster environmental awareness in children and encourage efforts to protect the marine ecosystems of the Middle East. Schools have used both volumes, which have been published in Arabic and English, to educate pupils on the importance of protecting their heritage for themselves and future generations.
"If you want to educate someone, especially children," said Dr Steinbauer-Groetsch, "you have to make it interesting and exciting, and hide messages in your pictures and words that come out through imagination." Ms Landmesser, an artist who came to Abu Dhabi from Germany in 1989, said that the illustrations in the book were meant not only to be visually pleasing for children, but historically and environmentally correct as well.
"I created a totally new world of pictures around this theme," said Ms Landmesser. She included pictures of the original dhow design, and smatterings of original jewellery and embroidery from local clothing, to provide a "real-life representation, or a kind of history", that children will be able to relate to when reading the books. The books were published by Motivate in 2000 and 2002 but have continued to show popularity in local bookstores, libraries and classrooms.
A few months ago, Dr Steinbauer-Groetsch was contacted by Dr Matthias Hammer, managing director of Biosphere Expeditions, and the book distribution was arranged. Through assistance from the Emirates Diving Association, Reef Check, Sultan Qaboos University and Six Senses Zighy Bay, Biosphere will make the results of the study available to the government of Oman for use in supporting sustainable eco-tourism and conservation policies.
The study will also run an outreach and educational programme aimed at local children and fishermen, to highlight the value of marine resources and how to protect them and local livelihoods. "The encounter with Dr Hammer shows that the books are sustainable and, even now, the topic is really still an issue," said Dr Steinbauer-Groetsch. "The books click with children, and make them realise, through a fairy tale, that their own behaviour has an influence on our environment."