Abu Dhabi's sanctuary for bird and marine life
BU TINAH // Most people will never set foot on the beautiful island of Bu Tinah off the coast of Abu Dhabi.
The island and its surrounding waters have been declared off-bounds to the public in order to protect the rare and often shy creatures that call it home. For this reason, sightseeing is reserved for a small circle of conservation scientists at the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi, who patrol the crescent-shaped islet and its surrounds.
But even though the public is not allowed to visit Bu Tinah, here, everyone is encouraged to vote. The island is one of 28 contestants in an online contest, the New 7 Wonders of Nature, with winners to be announced on November 11.
"Every vote for Bu Tinah is a vote for conservation in this region," says Ayesha al Blooshi, an aquaculture scientist at the agency's biodiversity management sector.
Ms al Blooshi jokingly refers to the island and its surrounding waters as "prime real estate for wildlife", and it becomes clear why during an hour-long speedboat journey to the island from the town of Mirfa in the Western Region.
Halfway there, the silver outline of a dolphin emerges from the water. A few minutes later, a patch of a dugong's brown skin appears quickly at the surface. These large marine mammals reach up to three metres in length, but they are shy creatures. The sighting only lasts a few seconds - enough time for the animal to take a breath of air and disappear into the ocean again.
As the boat nears Bu Tinah, the waters change from a uniform deep blue to light turquoise, with dots of dark green and grey marking small coral reefs.
Startled by the approaching boat, large marine turtles zip away in the clear, shallow water. The visibility is so good here that small reef fish are as visible as they would be if they were swimming behind the glass of an aquarium.
On shore, a small jetty, a two-bedroom bungalow, a toolshed and a communications tower are the only signs of human life on Bu Tinah.
The long, narrow island is shaped in a semi-circle with a long stretch of sand dunes at its middle. The eastern banks of the island are muddy and surrounded by shallow lagoons. The landscape is one of interchanging patches of green and sometimes pink algae and mangroves.
"Mangroves are usually a bird watcher's heaven," says Ms al Blooshi. "If you come here early in the morning or in the evening you will see many birds."
Today, a flock of flamingoes is pecking for food in the shallow mudflats. Others birds can be heard among the mangrove trees, hunting for small fish in the shallows. Then there are the birds you can smell. Namely, the Socotra cormorant - a slender black bird that lives in large colonies and gives off a pungent odour.
"If you come here in the morning the whole place is covered by them," says Ms al Blooshi, pointing to a patch of sand, perhaps half a kilometre wide. Bu Tinah is also a refuge for marine creatures. Rare hawksbill turtles use its sandy eastern banks to lay their eggs. Amin al Balooshi, from Muscat, is one of three rangers who patrol the island to keep their nests safe. He spends a week on guard at Bu Tinah, followed by a week's rest in his hometown.
On Bu Tinah, his day starts at 6am and is spent looking for turtle nests on shore and dugong feeding sites offshore. He is also responsible for ensuring no one fishes illegally in the area. Such incidents, he said, are rare.
A man of few words, Mr al Balooshi says he has never grown bored during his week-long shifts.
"A week is not long. It is like a picnic," he said. "It is fun here."
Shy and peaceful, dugongs thrive in calm waters. With 2,500 of them, Abu Dhabi is home to the world’s second-largest population, exceeded only by Australia. Many of Abu Dhabi’s dugongs prefer the shallow waters around Bu Tinah, where there are abundant seagrass beds for them to feed on. One of the main threats to dugongs in the UAE is the destruction of the seagrass beds. Boat strikes are also a significant cause of death.
They live among coral reefs, where they feed on sea sponges and jellyfish. Together with the green turtle, the hawksbill is the most widespread marine turtle species in the region. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists it as critically endangered. Hawksbill turtles need undisturbed beaches on which to lay their eggs. The presence of buildings with strong artificial lights are known to confuse hatchlings, reducing their chances of survival, while vehicles driving along beaches can destroy nests.
Bu Tinah and other low-lying islands off the coast of Abu Dhabi have global significance for these water birds. Because of coastal development, Abu Dhabi is losing many of the islands suitable for these birds and studies suggest there were less than 10,000 pairs in 2009, compared with up to 30,000 in 1994. Extremely sensitive to human presence, the Socotra cormorants need remote, flat sandy islands with uninterrupted terrain. Their eggs were targeted by fishermen, and the outlawed practice still continues today, although to a lesser degree.
* Vesela Todorova
* As one of 28 finalists in the global New 7 Wonders of Nature poll, Bu Tinah is competing against places such as the Maldives archipelago and the Galapagos in Ecuador. The seven winners are to be announced on November 11. People can vote for the UAE site by visiting www.new7wonders.com or by texting Bu Tinah to 3888.