Species from four countries across the Gulf region 'compete' in satellite-tracked event to see who can migrate the fastest.
Great Gulf Turtle Race results just in
ABU DHABI // They have inhuman endurance, attract big-name sponsors and race in distinctive, one-piece swimming costumes.
They are the competitors in the Great Gulf Turtle Race.
Each year endangered marine turtles travel thousands of kilometres through the ocean, moving between distant mating, nesting and foraging grounds.
The "race", which is part of a much larger conservation project, measured the distances covered by 22 female hawksbill turtles in the five weeks after laying their eggs on beaches in the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Iran.
Judging by her speed the winner, who covered an impressive 670km - an average of 19km a day - must have been very hungry indeed.
Named Speedy by her sponsor, the Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa in Dubai, the turtle travelled from an island near Iran to feeding grounds just off Abu Dhabi.
Lisa Perry, the scientist behind the project, said although the distances covered by the competitors varied from just a few kilometres to more than 600km, the purpose of their journeys was always the same.
"We know that once turtles finish nesting they have used up a lot of their energy," said Ms Perry, the programme director for the Emirates Wildlife Society, in co-operation with the World Wide Fund for Nature (EWS-WWF).
"After they are finished we know their migration is going to be towards a feeding ground."
The turtles were fitted with satellite transmitters that reported their whereabouts every time they came to the surface to breathe. Although they can spend as long as 45 minutes under water, turtles need to surface regularly.
More than 6,000 people monitored the creatures' progress on the website gulfturtles.com, which showed weekly progress and allowed visitors to vote for the most popular turtle.
The runner-up, which had no sponsor, travelled 537km, while most turtles swam for 300km to 400km between their nesting and foraging grounds.
Ms Perry said most females would make a beeline for their preferred reef, slowing down as they neared it. But others found it hard to settle on one area, travelling back and forth between sites.
Listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, hawksbill turtles need healthy coral reefs, where they feed off sea sponges and jellyfish.
The project's goal is far more serious than finding the Gulf's fastest turtle, said Ms Perry.
In an area where fast coastal development, increasing boat traffic and pollution make it harder for marine turtles to survive, discovering and protecting important feeding grounds is vital.
"Although the race is finished, the work is not," Ms Perry said.
Initial results from last year, when 20 turtles were tagged, show the waters around Qatar are an important hawksbill habitat.
Other areas in the Gulf are emerging as crucial, although scientists need more data. "It is too soon to say what the results are. The turtles have not finished their migration yet," Ms Perry said, explaining the satellite transmitters send information for between four and 11 months after an animal is tagged.
EWS-WWF is also looking for sponsors to help fit the transmitters to a similar number of turtles next year, when the project comes to an end. Companies can name a turtle after paying Dh30,000 to mount the transmitter.
Individuals can also contribute by buying adoption packs.
For more information, visit the website, gulfturtles.com/adopt-turtle.
Tagged at Nahiloo Island off the coast of Iran, this female swam furthest, covering 670km to islands off the coast of Abu Dhabi.
The 67cm-long creature was tagged with a transmitter courtesy of the Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa in Dubai.
Although she finished fifth, Amal won the popularity contest, with 1,844 people visiting the race website to vote for her. She was tagged on a beach on Sir Bu Nair Island in Sharjah and travelled to an area near Qatar, which is thought to be important for hawksbill turtles. Amal was sponsored by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.
After finishing 20th in the race and 10th in the popularity contest, Estidama will be remembered for her name – after Abu Dhabi’s green construction benchmark system. Sponsored by the Urban Planning Council, she spent her time swimming around Abu Dhabi’s offshore islands.