x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Operation Hawksbill: TDIC swings into action to secure Saadiyat nesting sites

Saadiyat is renowned for its hotels and beach clubs, but it is also a vital breeding ground for the endangered sea turtle.

The mother Hawksbill turtle on her way back to sea after laying eggs on Saadiyat beachfront yesterday. She is the first sea turtle to nest on the island at the start of the season. Photo Courtesy Tourism Development Investment Company
The mother Hawksbill turtle on her way back to sea after laying eggs on Saadiyat beachfront yesterday. She is the first sea turtle to nest on the island at the start of the season. Photo Courtesy Tourism Development Investment Company

Like many an expectant mother before her, she decided to give birth at a time that suited her best.

And so, about 6am and with the rest of the city barely awake yesterday, the first Hawksbill turtle of this year's nesting season crawled out of the sea to deposit her eggs on the beach at Saadiyat Island.

Acting as midwives on this occasion were members of the island's beach patrol, trained as first responders in turtle birthing.

Keeping a respectful distance, they put a call through to Dr Nathalie Staelens, the head of environmental services at the Tourism Development Investment Company, whose task is not just to build hotels and museums on Saadiyat, but also protect the island's wildlife and outstanding natural beauty.

Dr Staelens says she rushed to the beach: "But she had just gone back to sea." Instead, she set about securing the nesting site, which in about 60 days will produce perhaps as many as 70 baby turtles.

Hawksbills are a critically endangered species and Saadiyat is an important breeding ground.

But it is also home to a growing number of visitors, drawn by its hotels and beach clubs. Keeping the balance between man and nature is a key part of TDIC's environmental mission. According to Dr Staelens: "Turtles dig in a few spots to confuse potential predators before laying, so we don't necessarily know which hole contains the eggs."

To protect the site, TDIC's team of environmentalists has staked out the sand around the nest and marked it with warning tape.

Hawksbill turtle populations have declined by about 80 per cent over the past three generations, with poaching and man-made habitat destruction the major causes. Fencing off the site alerts passing beachcombers, and Saadiyat's beach-cleaning team, who normally like to keep the sand scrupulously clean but whose vehicles would not be good news for turtle eggs.

Guests at the St Regis and Park Hyatt hotels, and the Monte Carlo Beach club, will also be able to do their bit for turtle conservation.

Hotels will remove beach furniture at night and dim their outdoor lights during the hatching season, with guests asked to stay off the beach after dark and make sure that their bedroom curtains are tightly drawn. The problem, explains Dr Staelens, is that baby turtles find their way back to the sea by following the reflection of the moon on the water: "So hatchlings get confused by other lights and can become disorientated."

Based on previous years, between four and 10 female Hawksbills can be expected to nest on Saadiyat between now and the end of the nesting season in July. Since 2010, TDIC's Hawksbill Conservation Programme estimates that about 650 eggs have hatched on the island's main beach. Saadiyat's deep sand and natural dunes make it ideal for Hawksbills, which are the only species of turtle to breed in the Arabian Gulf. The island's building code requires all construction to be 60 metres back from the seaward edge of the dunes, which are further protected by a series of boardwalks.

After typically reaching maturity at the age of 30, females like to return to their birthplace to nest. In the case of the youngest Saadiyat mothers, this means coming back to a landscape utterly changed since they first swam away in the early 1980s.

Not that the presence of man is necessarily a bad thing. Being watched as closely as they are on Saadiyat means that the eggs, and subsequently baby turtles, can be protected far more effectively than they might be under other circumstances. "If the beach was totally left by itself there could be predators or poachers," says Dr Staelens.

jlangton@thenational.ae