x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Rehab turtles go back to nature

The sight of 24 shells disappearing into the Gulf "made it all worthwhile" for those who rescued the animals from certain death.

DUBAI // Two dozen healthy turtles swam to freedom 12 miles off the coast of Dubai yesterday, after a dedicated group of specialists nursed them back from illness and injury. As the last of the creatures bobbed lazily on the surface for a moment before diving beneath the waves, Kevin Hyland, who works for the Wildlife Protection Office and runs the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project, had a huge smile on his face. "It's a great feeling to see them swim away like this," he said. "A few months ago they were all absolutely at death's door - in every case, if they had not been rescued, they would have died."

The 24 hawksbill and green turtles released yesterday had been treated for a variety of afflictions, ranging from physical injuries to simply being underfed and malnourished. Most were young and had probably hatched last year, apart from one green turtle, much larger than the others, which Mr Hyland said was probably four or five years old. Green turtles are thought to live for up to 80 years, and hawksbills between 30 and 50, but he said it was hard to be sure of the ages and what they might indicate about the population in the Gulf.

"They grow much faster in rehab than they do in the wild, partly because we are giving them a super diet, and partly because there is no winter in the aquariums - the turtles that were in rehab over the winter would have kept growing at the same rate, whereas in the wild their growth rate slows down when the water gets colder," he said. This was the second batch to be released this year, and another 50 or so are still in rehabilitation at various locations around Dubai.

The turtle rehabilitation project does not have its own dedicated rescue centre, but instead uses the quarantine facilities at various aquariums in the city, with the majority being housed at the Burj al Arab. Other turtles that have had a chance to recover most of their strength are kept in a section of water at the Madinat Jumeirah. "We wait until we have enough that are healthy to make it worthwhile to release a batch - in general we want to get them back into the sea as quickly as possible," Mr Hyland said.

"The only exception is where we are waiting to fit them with a satellite tag - there are two at the Burj at the moment that we are just trying to get funding together to tag, and then they'll be released as well." The satellite tags, which cost around US$2,300 (Dh8,400) to fit and several thousand dirhams more to monitor, record not only where the turtles go but also the depths to which they dive and the temperature of water they are in, and have already shown that Gulf turtles swim at least as far as Pakistan.

Although none of the turtles released yesterday had a satellite device, each was fitted with a metal ring for identification. "So far, we haven't had any of the turtles we've tagged like this come back to us, which is a good sign," Mr Hyland said. "If we had three or four come back it would be very worrying, as it would indicate that there was an extremely small population out there." Many of the turtles were found by members of the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG), which regularly patrols the coast around Jebel Ali, collecting data and monitoring marine life.

"So far this year we've found more than 60 - the ones that have been hit by boats are usually dead when we find them, but we also find a lot of juveniles that have got covered in algae," said Rima Jabado, from the EMEG. "The problem is that nobody really knows anything about turtles in this area. We don't know how many there are, how far they travel, and it is very hard to tell what impact humans are having on them. There is very little research being done on them at all."

In some cases, rehabilitation is just a question of cleaning them up and feeding them until they are back to full strength, but in others more serious intervention is needed. "We do get some that require surgery, that have caught their fins in plastic bags or fishing nets and damaged themselves, and there are some that appear to have been attacked by people," said Mirjam Hampel, a vet at the Al Wasl Veterinary Clinic, who usually specialises in falcons, but takes care of the turtles when they are in need of intensive care.

"We do operate on them - we had one recently that had a huge gash in its side which needed to be stitched. When we are performing surgery on them we wrap them in a wet towel and try to keep them calm, but they are always more comfortable once they are back in the water." For Mr Hyland, who started dealing with rescued turtles in the late 1990s, their rehabilitation is only possible thanks to people and organisations giving up time and money to help.

"Everyone plays a part, from the people bringing them in, to the vets, to the aquariums letting us use their facilities and the guys on the boat from Hatteras Collection taking us out to release them - it's a team effort. "Anyone involved will tell you that when you see them swim away, it's all worthwhile." gmclenaghan@thenational.ae