It’s not just guests that receive seven-star service at the Burj Al Arab; turtles do too. Little do people know, but this hotel, famous for its ornate interior, fine dining and lavish rooms, is also responsible for preserving marine life native to and often under threat in the region. Behind the doors of this fancy hotel, aquarium operations manager Warren Baverstock and a team of marine biologists, work tirelessly to rescue, rehabilitate and protect green and hawksbill turtles, as well as maintain a fascinating array of colourful fish in the hotel’s giant aquarium.
The Turtle Rehabilitation Project was set up in 2004 by the Dubai Wildlife Protection Office and is now operated in association with the Jumeirah Group’s aquarium team based at Burj Al Arab. The reasons for establishing the turtle project are varied, but the main aim is to nurse back to full health turtles that are found in distress on the shores of the UAE. 7DAYS was invited along to check out the aquarium team’s good work.
Within the quarantine area of the hotel, our first encounter was with two gigantic green turtles, called 106 and 150 – names that actually relate to the number of kilogrammes they each weigh in at. Both turtles were recently found in shallow water – one off the Palm Jumeirah and the other off Palm Jebel Ali. “106 was found hanging around in shallow water for a few hours, so some people that had spotted it became concerned,” says Warren.
“We brought 106 back to the aquarium and found it was suffering from ‘positive buoyancy’, which is where the turtle cannot dive down. It’s not known what causes this condition, but it means a turtle is stuck floating on top of the water, which leaves them exposed to the direct sun and other elements. “The turtles then become weak and come into shallow water. If they are not treated they can suffer from dehydration and die.” These two green turtles, 106 and 150, are now being fondly looked after at the aquarium, where they are being force fed and given antibiotics and supplements to help improve their health.
Once they are fighting fit again, Warren and his team will release them back into the wild, which is a massive achievement in conservation considering that green turtles are presently high up on the world’s endangered species list. In another part of the aquarium we were introduced to almost 80 baby hawksbill turtles, which are also native to this region.
These little turtles all ended up at the aquarium over the last few months, because people found them stranded along the shore. The baby hawksbill turtles were all brought to our rehabilitation facility by people who found them stranded on the beach, and covered in nasty barnacles,” says David Robinson, assistant operations manager at the Burj aquarium. “What happens is the winter temperature of the water in the Gulf is a little too cold for these turtles, so they go into a hibernation state called ‘cold stunning’.
“This is where they stay on the bottom of the ocean – but by doing so, barnacles start to grow on them. When the water warms up and the turtles do start to move again, they are then weighed down by the barnacles – so they tend to wash up exhausted on the shore and close to death. Sometimes the barnacles cover their mouths too, so that they can’t feed,” adds David. When a turtle is found in this state, Warren urges people to immediately alert the aquarium, so that they can collect the animal and give it the proper care it needs.
People have been known to tamper with the turtles or attempt to pull off the barnacles, but this only further distresses the turtle, warns Warren. Such turtles need professional attention, which is offered at the aquarium and also from the Al Wasl Falcon Clinic, which provides the project with all the veterinary support the sick turtles need.
What you should do if you find a turtle washed up on the shore
1. Isolate the animal in a container with a small amount of fresh water, and with a damp cloth covering its back to keep the shell moist.
2. Call the Burj aquarium on 04 301 7198. It will arrange for someone to collect the turtle, or may ask you to drive to Wild Wadi, where it will take animal from you. Your details will be noted down and you will be updated on the turtle’s progress.
3. Do not tamper with animal. DO NOT remove the barnacles. No matter how distressed animal looks, do not touch it.
4. The aquarium puts the turtle in fresh water for a few days. Because the barnacles living on these turtles are marine creatures, they don’t survive in fresh water and are removed safely. If you pull them off, the turtle can bleed to death.
The turtle is a reptile, so it can happily survive in fresh water.
Dubai turtle project makes a difference
- Presently, hawksbill turtles are under serious threat. In the Caribbean they are killed for their shell, which is pretty and decorative. Globally it’s thought that if things continue as they are, hawksbill turtles could be extinct within 20 years.
- This is why the conservation work currently taking place at the aquarium is so inspiring. So far, the team has released about 20 green and hawksbill turtles back into the wild.
- Once all 80 of the hawksbill turtles recovered this year are fit and healthy, the team plans to release them back into the wild too. Considering this animal is so endangered, to get 80 hawksbill turtles back into the sea over the next year or so is a huge deal.
- Very little is known about turtles. Once they hatch from their eggs they go out to sea and are rarely spotted. We do see turtles from a boat or when diving, but unfortunately they are not observed for long enough periods to get as much insight as we’d like.
- Three years ago however, a green turtle was brought to the Burj Al Arab Aquarium with severe damage to its head – something had smashed it or it had collided with a boat. It was rehabilitated by the team and on February 14, 2008, the aquarium released it back into the wild with a satellite tag attached. It swam from the east coast of the UAE all the way to the coast of Thailand – a total of 8,700km.
- If there were funding available to get more tags, it would be easier to achieve a bigger picture of what these animals do when they are released. The Dubai turtle project hopes to set up a donation scheme at the Mina A’Salam, whereby guests and interested parties can donate to this worthy cause to track turtles.
Our Fishy friends
The Burj Al Arab aquarium provides guests with a visually stunning opportunity to learn more about marine wildlife. The hotel is home to three different tanks. Two tanks are in the lobby and one large tank that can be viewed from 360 degrees, is located in the Al Mahara restaurant. Each of the tanks contains about 300,000 litres of salt water. The fish come from many different places. Some are supplied by the Dubai Wildlife Protection Office, while other stock comes from the Red Sea, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. All are taken from sustainable stocks only Fish in the tanks include the parrot fish, the humphead wrasse, blacktip reef sharks, brightly coloured fusiliers, the small Red Sea fairy baslet, batfish and an intriguing leopard shark, among others.
Imagine, the fish at the Burj Al Arab aquarium even have their own dedicated chef. In a special kitchen at the hotel, one of the aquarists (fish experts) spends four hours preparing the food for the day for all the fish. A number of different diets are catered for, ranging from mussels, shrimps, prawns, squid and other fish to specialist dishes for certain breeds of marine life. The aquarium team is currently working on an exhibit of everyone’s favourite orange and white striped friend – the clown fish.