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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

On World Turtle Day, conservation projects like Saadiyat's strike a balance with the need to develop

Dawn walkers are part of the effort to protect the beach and its hawksbill turtles, writes Deborah Lindsay Williams

Successful hatching of the first hawksbill turtle nest on Saadiyat beach in 2015, when more than 80 baby turtles emerged / courtesy TDIC
Successful hatching of the first hawksbill turtle nest on Saadiyat beach in 2015, when more than 80 baby turtles emerged / courtesy TDIC

If you’re an early riser and live near Saadiyat beach, you might have noticed recently that the dawn light brings a group of walkers to the beach, who look intently at the ground rather than the sunrise.

I was among those dawn walkers the other day, straggling along with everyone else who had volunteered to be part of the turtle patrol. We were looking at the sand rather than the sunrise to try to spot signs of turtle nesting sites. It’s hawksbill nesting season and as we mark World Turtle Day today, it's also a moment to remember that turtle populations around the world have significantly decreased over the past few decades.

Abu Dhabi is making a concerted effort to do what it can to help maintain a hospitable environment for turtles who want to lay their eggs on Saadiyat beach. Hawksbills, like other marine turtles, are creatures of habit and will always try to return to the same beach to lay their eggs.

Turtle patrolling is not hard work (other than waking before dawn, which perhaps during Ramadan is easier than usual) and it’s lovely to be on the beach before the crowds.

We were instructed to walk above the tide line so that we could spot the turtle tracks that might indicate the presence of a nest. If a nest had been found, the spot would have been cordoned off so that no heavy-footed beachgoer would inadvertently jostle the eggs.

We walked from the Park Hyatt hotel past the St Regis hotel to the new iron wall that marks off the beach from the apartments being built along the water’s edge near Louvre Abu Dhabi.

No signs of turtles anywhere. Lots of signs of humans, however: scads of plastic water bottles, an abandoned towel, a forgotten flip-flop, a soggy football, a few waterlogged vegetables.

The leader of the turtle patrol warned us it was still early in the nesting season and so we might not see any turtles but their absence made me wonder if Saadiyat beach – like so many other beautiful places around the world – isn’t another illustration of the struggle between conservation and development, a struggle in which, all too often, development triumphs.

With the newly opened Rotana hotel, there are now three huge resorts on Saadiyat, plus the Saadiyat Beach Club and there are several other resorts that are in various stages of construction.

And while the constant construction is less than lovely, I confess to loving the convenience of having restaurants and shops within bicycling distance of my apartment.

All that development is part of a grand plan to transform this sandy archipelago into a world-class tourist destination – but of course, one of the main selling points is the unspoiled beauty of Saadiyat beach and its unique status as a habitat for hawksbill turtles.

Can a beach with six five-star resorts and several housing complexes tucked in its nine-kilometre span be considered “unspoilt”, I wonder?

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Read more from Deborah Lindsay Williams:

Literary prizes have their value but do they foster standardisation?

The female adventurer who disproved Virginia Woolf's theory

Nostalgia makes us long for the past even as we enjoy the present

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I know that they are being as responsible as they can in building on Saadiyat: no Miami-style skyscrapers jut out over the sand and during nesting season, outside lights are turned low and furniture is brought in from the beach to make things as hospitable as possible for the turtles.

Even my dawn ramble was itself part of the effort to balance conservation with development.

And yet it’s impossible to walk that beautiful stretch of beach, especially in the early morning stillness and not see the sensitive balance that needs to be struck between our efforts to share this natural beauty and not eradicate it.

Granted, the colours of development made for some gorgeous photos: the ochre rust of the wall juxtaposed with the teal water and the bright pink buoys bobbing parallel to the beach, warning swimmers away from the construction site. My photo looked like colourful modernist abstractions.

But I would have dearly loved to get a picture of a turtle.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi