x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Turtle recall as rescued reptiles return to the sea

A family of turtles which had been rehabilitated sped into the ocean as soon as being released from a holding tank at the Sharjah Aquarium.

Workers from the Sharjah Museums Department and the Ministry of Environment and Water release rehabilitated sea turtles into the ocean, to mark World Ocean Day,  in the back of Sharjah Aquarium at Al Khan Beach.
Workers from the Sharjah Museums Department and the Ministry of Environment and Water release rehabilitated sea turtles into the ocean, to mark World Ocean Day, in the back of Sharjah Aquarium at Al Khan Beach.

SHARJAH // A family of 13 sea turtles shuffled back into the wild yesterday after living for more than a year in a rehabilitation tank.

And some of the group of 12 juveniles and their adopted mother, an adult green turtle, needed less help than others to make the journey to the open waters.

The smallest one - about 15cm long and the only baby green turtle among the batch of 11 hawksbills - was the first to find its bearings when taken out of the blue plastic tank and placed on the sands of Al Khan beach.

Named Sagheer, or "Tiny", it raced straight to the water and dived in. Sagheer was soon followed by the adult, who also knew exactly where she needed to go. Some of the other youngsters struggled and had to be redirected towards the sea.

"Come on, you can do it," said Mahmoud Deemas as he rotated one of the turtles heading back towards the portable tank. "I don't think this one wants to leave us."

The group of rehabilitated turtles, which arrived at the Sharjah Aquarium sick and covered in barnacles, was released back into the sea in an event organised by the Sharjah Museums Department and the aquarium for World Oceans Day.

The release site, just behind the aquarium, turned into a paparazzi frenzy about noon with photographers pushing to take photos of the turtles as they crawled back home.

Some turtles were accidentally dropped by overeager media and environmentalists from local agencies who were trying to take their photos.

"Please be careful," said Mr Deemas, the marine operations supervisor at Sharjah Aquarium.

He tried to avoid being overprotective but then stationed two divers in a nearby tent to keep a lookout for any returning turtles.

"A turtle may come back because something went wrong or it can't find food. Or the turtle may simply miss us," Mr Deemas said, smiling.

This batch was the reason the rehabilitation centre was created at the aquarium just a year ago.

"We kept getting these random turtle lovers coming to the aquarium carrying a turtle they rescued from the beaches and asking us if we can save it," Mr Deemas said.

"Some of the barnacles were bigger than the turtle itself and we had to scrap it off layer by layer."

If a turtle remained lethargic, it would be tube-fed mineral oils to help it excrete foreign objects it had ingested.

"All sea turtles are either endangered or threatened, so we need to do our best to save them," Mr Deemas said.

The aquarium has received 20 turtles in the past year and saved 17. The rehabilitation staff decided not to name all of them as they were to be released without being tagged.

"Back to nature, as they were before they got sick," Mr Deemas said. "Often they get hurt because of something we threw in the water."

Various environmental groups used the occasion to raise awareness about the importance of "honouring our oceans".

Pointing to two photos in a slide show, Jeremy Byatt, the vice president of the environmental consultancy Bee'ah, said: "Here you see a poor little turtle choking on a plastic bag … and here another turtle suffering from the effects of a plastic ring that got stuck around its waist and deformed its internal organs.

"It is not fair to the marine life."

The UN estimates 6.4 million tonnes of waste is thrown into the ocean annually, most of it plastics.

"An apple core takes up to two months to degrade, while plastic bottles take over 450 years," Mr Byatt said.

The Emirates Wildlife Society and WWF Marine Turtle Conservation Project reminded attendees to join the Great Gulf Turtle Race on their website, gulfturtles.com.

Twenty-two tagged hawksbill turtles, each with a name, will be racing for the next five weeks, with the turtle covering the most distance the winner.

rghazal@thenational.ae