Celebrating 10 Years of turtle rehabilitation and World Sea Turtle Day in one hit!

DTRP 110 Release 001
Today….in celebration of 10 years of sea turtle rehabilitation, my team and I released 110 rehabilitated hawksbill sea turtles back to the wild.  Many of the turtles that we released today were rescued earlier this year by the likes of TDIC and Emirates Marine Environmental Group as well as many of the people of the UAE.

Here’s what Gulf News Said:  More than 100 critically endangered hawksbill turtles found sick and injured on beaches were on Monday released back into the sea after being nurtured back to health in Dubai. The release, cheered on by beach goers and schoolchildren, coincided with World Sea Turtle Day on June 16.

It also marked 10 years of the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP) of the Burj Al Arab hotel, which has rehabilitated and released almost 700 turtles.  The turtles are handed over to DTRP by animal lovers after they are found washed up on the beach, often near death.  They typically wash up after falling ill from eating rubbish mistaken for food or after getting hurt in impacts with sea vessels.  Some are also found cold-stunned or tangled in fish nets.

Slowed down in the water by disease or injury, barnacles start to grow on the turtles, slowing them even more.  The problems mean they cannot swim and feed on their own, washing up on the shore near death, hungry and exposed to the fierce sun.  The fortunate ones are found in time and taken to DTRP. After they are treated and found fit enough, the turtles are released.  Warren Baverstock, who heads the hotel’s aquarium department, said the project is a success as none of the released turtles have returned to DTRP.

The released turtles are tagged and the ID also carries the contact address of Dubai’s Wildlife Protection Office.  “Humans have been a risk to the turtles. I would urge people to be mindful of rubbish. In the water, it looks like food to turtles,” Baverstock said.  Monday’s release of the 110 yearlings was supported by dozens of mostly Emirati kindergarten students from The International School of Choueifat in Dubai, guests of the Jumeirah hospitality group (which owns Burj Al Arab) and the wider community.

“I’ve never seen so many turtles before. I’m happy they are doing good and going home,” said kindergarten pupil Hla Sousa.  Home for the hawksbill sea turtles is generally the Arabian Gulf and tropical reefs of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans.

DTRP 110 Release 002

Another Successful Turtle Release – Gulf News: Children let go of their ‘Crush’


 This release has to be the most rewarding turtle release to date.  75 3 to 4 year olds from Dubai British School managed to raise enough money to buy their own satellite tag.  We gave them their own rehabilitated hawksbill sea turtle which they named CRUSH and along with 20 other small hawksbills, the children, Jumeirah guests and my colleagues watched these turtles make their way down the beach back out into the wild.  My colleague David Robinson was in the water with his camera while I remained on the beach and made sure the turtles all got off safely…such a rewarding morning.  Here is what the local Gulf News newspapers says:

Dubai Three to four year olds from Dubai British School released Crush, their own highly endangered Hawkesbill Turtle, from Burj Al Arab’s private beach on April 8 with a tracker they bought with their money.

The foundation stage students who visited Jumeirah’s Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Centre as part of a ‘Dubai, Sand and Sea’ school project ended up raising funds for the satellite tag to help rehabilitate one the turtle. The Burj Al Arab’s Aquarium team released 20 other rehabilitated hawksbill turtles along with Crush.

DBS’ Head of Foundation said: “The children were touched by the turtle stories of rescue and wanted to donate money. However, the centre does not take donations so they decided to collect Dh1 coins to buy a tracker for the release of a turtle. They chose a turtle and named him Crush. They were so excited to see him swim away.”

Student Liam, 4, said: “The turtles were having a race to the sea – Crush was so speedy, I love the turtles,”

His classmate Zayan, also 4, said: “Crush went fast like a jet,

The children were given a small turtle toy to take home and were provided ice lollies and fruit on the beach. The turtle will be tracked and his journey mapped through the tracker by clicking on the following link: www.seaturtle.org/tracking/index.shtml?tag_id=136835



Novak Djokovic’s turtle, Leonardo and four other hawksbill turtles released back into Dubai waters

Leonardo 001
Leonardo the sea turtle, named by world tennis champ Novak Djokovic, has been released back into Dubai waters after recovering at the luxurious Burj Al Arab hotel.  Leonardo and four other hawksbill sea turtles were released Wednesday morning after recovering under the Burj Al Arab-based Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP).  Cheered on by guests and colleagues of the Jumeirah Group, the turtles slipped into the warm sea after a short waddle on the sun-kissed beach.  Leonardo had been rescued by the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG) and was suffering from severe debilitation, said Warren Baverstock, Aquarium Operations Manager, Burj Al Arab.  “When he arrived (eight months ago) he was 17kg and upon departure this morning his weight was 30kg,” Baverstock said.  “Like many of the sea turtles that are brought to us, Leonardo was suffering from impaction caused from eating some plastic debris which was floating around in the sea. The rehabilitation team worked very hard to keep Leonardo alive by having to regularly force feed him.  “Eventually he started to eat by himself and gradually built his strength back up, which is when Novak met him… We had four other hawksbill sea turtles that had the green light to be released after they were given a clean bill of health.”  Leonardo, thought to be around 20 years old, is a critically endangered sea turtle – only 8,000 nesting females are left in his species.

Sick and injured turtles are handed over to the DTRP, at times by ordinary residents, but mostly rescued by the EMEG.  DTRP has been running in its current form since 2004 and has so far seen the release of over 550 rescued sea turtles back into Dubai waters. It is run in collaboration with Dubai’s Wildlife Protection Office, with essential veterinary support provided by the Dubai Falcon Hospital and the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory.  In 2011 alone over 350 sick or injured sea turtles have been treated by the DTRP after being washed up on the regions beaches. The DTRP is currently the only project of its kind in the Middle East and Red Sea region.

Gulf News

AHLAN Magazine – Warren Baverstock voted as one of United Arab Emirates Top 100

Unsung Heroes – Warren Baverstock…Operations Manager of the Burj Al Arab Aquarium

He heads the team behind the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project that rescued and rehabilitated more than 200 turtles from our shores in the first few months of 2012 alone.

Tell us about the turtle programme.
When injured or sick turtles are discovered on our beaches, they are brought straight to us at the Burj Al Arab Aquarium. After an intensive care period at our quarantine facilities and a period of rehabilitation in the outdoor pens at the Mina A’ Salam, we give them the green light for release. Last year, in addition to 151 critically endangered juvenile hawksbill sea turtles, we had a number of much larger turtles that we were able to set free. In particular, two very rare and large loggerhead turtles and two large green turtles.

How was the public response to the first release programme on the beach?
There was a massive turnout. Around 150 children each released a turtle. The whole crowd cheered.

What is the biggest marine conservation challenge here in the UAE?Humans littering our shores and the attitude of  ‘someone will clean up after me’. Every day people leave rubbish on the beach and a lot gets washed out to sea, contaminating the marine environments and harming sealife.

When you aren’t shaping the UAE landscape, what do you like to do in your downtime?
I’m a very keen underwater photographer with some of my work published in Time magazine and British tabloids. My goal is to be recognised as Wildlife Photographer of the Year – to date I have only reached the finals… There is still time.


Novak Djokovic comes out of his shell

dubai tennis tournament 2013
Novak Djokovic may occasionally get tired and need some R&R after a long match or tournament. But professional tennis’ No 1 joker doesn’t ever let the chance for a laugh slip by.  So Friday morning, which found the current world No 1 at the Burj Al Arab’s sea turtle rehabilitation centre, tasked with naming one of the animals having treatment, provided the perfect opportunity.  “I name him Leonardo,” said the Serbian player, who didn’t immediately explain his choice of name. Is he an art lover? Or is it because he speaks Italian fluently (he spent much of the shoot gabbing in Italian with his agent, an Italian)?  Nope. It’s because he loves the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, of course.

“When I was growing up me and my brothers loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons. The turtles were called Michaelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and Leonardo — Leonardo was my favourite.”
dubai tennis tournament 2013
The 25-year-old — who this week will begin his campaign to take back his title at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, starting today — was exploring a very different side of Dubai’s 7-star hotel, with some of the Burj Al Arab’s more unusual residents. Guided by Warren Baverstock, the aquarium operations manager at the hotel, he ventured to the business side of the fishtanks that are the big draw at the hotel’s renowned Al Mahara restaurant. Followed by a film crew, he enquired about the number of fish species in the aquarium (30, including black tip sharks and the unique zebra shark, which can reproduce without a male of the species) before being invited to help feed them. “Hand or pole?” Baverstock asked, showing Djokovic how a piece of fish is placed on the end of a bamboo pole, before being dangled in the direction of a shark’s mouth. “Definitely with the pole!” yelped the player, as a 12-year-old shark closed her jaws around the pole. “She’s very gentle,” he said after his turn. “We are very friendly, from a distance.”
dubai tennis tournament 2013
Djokovic — who last year recreated the famous tennis match on the hotel’s helipad with this year’s defending champion Roger Federer — then explored the aquarium’s “rehab” centre for sea turtles. One tank held two juvenile hawksbill turtles, some of the injured or sick turtles that are handed into the unique centre by members of the public. Baverstock was keen to stress the centre is intended to help turtles get sea-ready after injuries sustained by coming into contact with boats, debris or falling sick, as well as educating members of the public.  “The turtles are never put on display,” he said. The 10-month-old hawksbills will stay around four-six months, and once feeling better, are moved to an outdoor pool at the Mina A Salam hotel next door, where they have plenty of room to swim and forage, and members of the public can watch and learn about the programme, which has been run in coordination with the Dubai Falcon Hospital and the Wildlife Protection Office since 2004. 30 turtles are currently in rehab, and will be released once sea temperatures are higher, around May.
dubai tennis tournament 2013
Djokovic’s turtle, Leonardo, was making the move from the indoor centre to the public pool that morning, and like the Burj Al Arab’s human residents, got a treat from a cool damp towel as he headed to the beach. Then it was the player’s turn to practise picking him in preparation for the pool drop off. Making it look easy, Baverstock grasped the shell at head and tail and lifted Leonardo gently. Djokovic was in for a surprise on his turn, letting out a howl once he’d put the turtle down. “How much does he weigh?” Turns out 20-year-old Leonardo is a hefty 30kg.  Let no-one say Djokovic isn’t game for anything. Offered the chance to stand at the side of the pool and lower the turtle in, or get in the water and take his new friend to his new home personally, the Serbian held up a bag. “I brought my bathing suit. I’m going in.” The self-confessed animal lover — he had cats and dogs growing up -— hung out in the pool, to the delight of the smaller turtles, who zoomed around him, and the lucky Friday brunchers who spotted the player.
dubai tennis tournament 2013
 Turtles: What you can do? – Critically-endangered hawksbill are among the species swimming in the UAE’s waters, and they sometimes run into trouble with injury or illness. The Burj Al Arab’s turtle rehabilitation programme can help them get better. If you spot a turtle you think is in trouble, give them a call on 04-3017198. “We have a policy that if a turtle can swim away on its own, don’t touch it,” said the hotel’s Warren Baverstock.

Gulf News

Massive Turn Out for the Big Jumeirah Sea Turtle Race

photograph by Nick England

guests and residents watch patiently as the turtles make their way down to the water – photograph by Nick England

Gulf News: Over 1000 supporters watch The Big Jumeirah Sea Turtle Race

Dubai: Over 1000 supporters of the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project attended The Big Jumeirah Sea Turtle Race to watch six satellite tagged sea turtles and 150 Hawksbill turtles released back into the ocean at Madinat Jumeirah. Hundreds cheered as the turtles made their way back into the sea at the event which was designed to raise awareness of the project and its role in rehabilitating sick and injured sea turtles.
Since its inception in 2004, the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project has released over 550 turtles.

photograph by Simone Caprodossi

eagerly entering the water is storm the loggerhead sea turtle – photograph by Simone Caprodossi

For the race itself, six rehabilitated sea turtles (two Green Sea Turtles, two Loggerhead Turtles and two Hawksbill Turtles) were each tagged with a harmless satellite device that monitors their whereabouts in the earth’s oceans. Each is sponsored by a different Jumeirah Property (Jumeirah Beach Hotel; Madinat Jumeirah; Jumeirah Zabeel Saray; Jumeirah Living; Wild Wadi Waterpark; Burj Al Arab) who will go head to head in the competition to see who will be crowned the winner of The Great Jumeirah Turtle Release. The results will be revealed on 31 October 2012 where the turtle who travels the farthest will be announced the winner.Members of the public can follow the turtles’ journey online from a public forum which will be made available following the release at http://www.Facebook.com/turtle.rehabilitation

sponsored by Burj Al Arab

a fond fairwell, warren baverstock films storm setting off on his new journey – sponsored by Burj Al Arab

See Storm and the other turtles journey

Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project & Burj Al Arab Aquarium covered in National Geographic Magazine

click to read article at National Geographic

click to read article at National Geographic

Article by Kennedy Warne

The old fisherman sat on a scrap of carpet in a thatched shelter by the sea.

His face was like a walnut shell, and his eyes squinted with a lifetime of gazing into the white-hot glare of Arabia. The shamal was blowing off the sea in scorching gusts, making even the date palms droop. “It is the western wind,” the man said in a raspy voice. “I feel its warmth.”

Behind him, the village of Film, notched into the mountains of Oman’s Musandam Peninsula, shimmered like a brazier. Goats panted in the shade cast by upturned boats and the walls of a mosque. Just breathing made me feel as if my nostrils might burst into flame. Sami Alhaj, my Yemeni dive partner, said: “Underwater, with the corals, we get a little piece of heaven. Above water, with this wind, we get a little piece of hell.”

We soon fled the inferno and descended into paradise once more. Color marked our passage between worlds as vividly as temperature did. Where the colors of land were those of the spice suq—pepper, cinnamon, mustard, mace—the undersea world was drenched in the sumptuous hues of a sultan’s palace. Long, waving indigo arms of soft corals mingled with pomegranate fronds of feather stars. Speckled-gray moray eels, whose gaping mouths reveal a startling burst of yellow, leered out of crevices, while butterflyfish flitted past in tangerine flashes.

Had the legendary Scheherazade known the richness of these seas, she would have had stories for another thousand and one Arabian nights. She might have piqued the king’s curiosity with the riddle of the reefs of Dhofar, in southern Oman; they flourish as coral gardens in winter and seaweed forests in summer. The trigger for this ecological shift—found nowhere else—is the onset of the khareef, the southwesterly monsoon, which bathes the coast in an upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water. Seaweed, dormant in the warm months, responds to the cooler conditions with a burst of luxuriant growth, carpeting the reefs with green, red, and golden fronds.

Or she might have told the story of the tribe of mudskippers that have their sheikhdom on the shores of Kuwait Bay. Their name in Persian means “lazy ones,” because they appear too lethargic to follow the falling tide. Instead, each goggle-eyed fish builds and patrols its own mud-rimmed swimming pool. Shining in slippery coats of mud, they wriggle through the slurry of their ponds, waddle along the walls on their broad pectoral fins, then fling themselves into the air, exuberant as porpoises.

Might she have mentioned the ghost crabs of Masira Island? They build perfect miniature Mount Fujis of sand every night, only to have them leveled by the winds the next day. Scheherazade would have had no shortage of material.

“I am the sea. In my depths all treasures dwell. Have they asked the divers about my pearls?” the Egyptian poet Muhammad Hafiz Ibrahim wrote a century ago. Few survive today of those champions of the sea, the pearl divers of generations past who sought the greatest treasure of all. Forty, fifty, a hundred times a day they dropped to the seafloor, as deep as 65 feet, without goggles and often wearing only a thin woven garment to protect against jellyfish stings. With other risks, they took their chances. Men died from stingray jabs, from poisonous stonefish spines, from shark bites. Clownfish—cruel joke—attacked their eyes. Their eardrums burst, and some went blind from constant exposure to the salty water.

Pearls were the diamonds of the ancient world. In Hafiz’s time they were the Persian Gulf’s most valuable resource, and 70,000 men were engaged in collecting them. But the divers saw little of the wealth they brought up. The oysters were thrown into a common pile, to be opened the next day, when dead. Even if a diver brought up a pearl of Steinbeckian magnificence, he would never know it. Debt drove them to dive. Debt inherited from their fathers and their father’s fathers.

Yet pearling was equally a matter of deep cultural pride, part of a maritime tradition that is as Arabian as deserts and dates. Through the waters of the Persian Gulf, East met West, the wealth of Africa and India flowing to the empires of Europe. Until the 1930s, great Kuwaiti dhows, or booms, with names like The Triumph of Righteousness and The Light of the Earth and Sea, set their lateen sails to the billowing northeasterly wind that blew them to Zanzibar and Mangalore. Months later the khareef brought them home again. The seasonal fluctuations of the winds were the fuel of Arabian commerce. The winds were Allah’s, and the winds were free.

Then came oil, and a seafaring way of life that had endured for millennia melted away at the breath of a new monetary lord. Oil was the genie that granted the wishes of modernization and affluence. Arabia was transformed—from camels to Cadillacs, mud houses to megamalls—as its citizens rode the magic carpet of petro-wealth.

Today human hands are reaching deep into Arabia’s seas and taking more treasure than the seas can possibly replenish. Overfishing, pollution, seabed dredging, and massive coastal modification are crippling marine ecosystems by degrading water quality and exacerbating toxic algal blooms. In 2010 a group of marine scientists described the region’s most strategic waterway, the Persian Gulf, as “a sea in decline,” bedeviled by a storm of malign influences. “If current trends continue,” they wrote, we will “lose a unique marine environment.”

One of the groups at greatest risk are sharks. Of all the insults to Arabia’s marine life, none is more grotesque than the mountains of shark carcasses that arrive every evening in the Deira Fish Market in Dubai, trucked from landing sites around Oman and the United Arab Emirates, from there to make their way east—a stinking tide of fins and flesh.

Rima Jabado, conspicuous in her yellow rubber boots and pink top, moves through the market counting and measuring hammerheads, threshers, bulls, silkies, and makos: the thoroughbreds of Arabia’s seas, carted here to be hocked like horsemeat. Totemic animals that divers dream of encountering underwater are hauled out of the backs of trucks with meat hooks and lined up on the pavement, grimy and bloodied, row upon row of scowling mouths.

An auctioneer works his way along the line, followed by a retinue of buyers calculating profit margins on their smart phones. In their wake a man expertly severs the fins and lays them out on plastic tarps for separate sale. A pickup truck pulls up, and the driver unloads a dozen sacks of dried fins. He plunges his hands into a sack and lifts out handfuls of small gray triangles, stiff as plywood. There must be several thousand fins in this one shipment.

“When I started working here, I thought, That’s a lot of sharks,” Jabado, a doctoral student at United Arab Emirates University, tells me. “But when you see it every day, you ask, How is this possible? How can this last?”

A muezzin gives the evening call to prayer from a mosque whose minarets make artful silhouettes against a golden sky. Across the parking lot, the fish market is crowded with Emirati housewives gliding down aisles of laden stalls, passing their purchases to Pakistani boys who wheel them in garden barrows to a rank of SUVs.

The old name for this part of Arabia was the Pirate Coast. Trading ships carried companies of archers to repel thieves. But how to solve the plunder of the sea itself? Jabado travels the length of the U.A.E. coast, from Abu Dhabi to Ras al Khaimah, tallying sharks and interviewing fishermen. Everywhere it is the same story: Catches are down, and fishing intensity is up.

One of the questions Jabado asks the fishermen is whether they think sharks should be protected. Some say, No, why should we protect them? Sharks are a gift from God. He will replenish them. Others say that sharks should be protected but that it needs to happen across the region. If we protect them here, do you think the Iranians are going to stop taking them? they tell her. Why should I stop fishing for sharks and miss out on revenue if some other person keeps taking them?

Eight countries border the gulf. “They have the same kind of culture and heritage, mostly speak the same language, face the same problems, and share the same resources,” Jabado says. “Why aren’t they working together?”

Her concerns run deeper than fisheries management. The impact of an environmental disaster in so shallow and enclosed a waterway is appalling to contemplate. There are many hundreds of oil and gas platforms in the gulf, and tens of thousands of tanker movements annually through a narrow stretch of the Strait of Hormuz between the Musandam Peninsula and Iran. “What if there was a Deepwater Horizon event here?” she asks. “The average depth of the gulf is about 30 meters. One big spill could wipe out whole marine ecosystems.”

There are inklings that the unified approach Jabado seeks may be starting to take shape. Several countries are considering following the lead of the United Arab Emirates in giving legal protection to a single species of shark: the whale shark, the biggest fish in the sea. The giant filter feeders have been turning up in unexpected places. In 2009 David Robinson, a Dubai-based whale shark researcher, was startled when a Google image search turned up a photograph of whale sharks swimming among the platforms of Al Shaheen, a major oil and gas field off the coast of Qatar.

“The photograph was on the Facebook page of a worker on a gas rig,” Robinson said. “I sent him a message, he added me as a friend, and now we’re getting a stream of pictures from him and others. In one photograph I counted 150 animals. I’d like to say we discovered the sharks through tirelessly scouring the oceans, but that would be a lie. It was through scouring the oceans of cyberspace! Science by Facebook—a bit embarrassing, really.”

The discovery of whale sharks at Al Shaheen has led to other finds. Seasonal mass spawning of lobsters has been observed, with the lobsters rising to the surface at night and turning the sea into a vast crustacean soup. With fishing banned and boat traffic restricted in many oil and gas fields, these areas likely serve as de facto marine reserves. The platforms certainly act as giant fish-aggregating devices. At Al Shaheen, with a flare stack belching flame overhead, I watched a shoal of jacks circle the legs of the platform and spinner dolphins launch their lissome bodies into the air. A hammerhead cruised at the edge of visibility, finding sanctuary within the ring of fire.

A sense of marine guardianship seems to be growing across the region. In Kuwait hundreds of keen amateur divers have formed the ecological equivalent of SWAT teams, dedicated to repairing the environmental damage of war and waste. They lift sunken vessels from the seabed and remove tons of snared fishing nets from Kuwait’s coral reefs.

Off the island of Qaruh, I helped cut away a net that was twined around the brittle stubs of staghorn coral—a nightmare of knotted nylon mesh that yielded reluctantly to our collection of chef’s knives and garden shears. Our odd assortment of reef repairmen included a computer engineer, a television producer, and a former leader of Kuwait’s Grand Mosque. On the return journey, crossing a smooth, tawny sea with a dust storm billowing on the horizon, two of the team found space among the scuba gear on deck to pray. Oblivious to the symphonic thunder of twin 200-horsepower outboards, they prostrated their bodies and uttered the ancient words of invocation and praise, giving voice to the hope that good might come to the world.

At the other end of the Persian Gulf, in Dubai, public-spirited beachgoers collect stranded turtles and take them to a rehabilitation facility in the luxury Burj al Arab hotel. In 2011, 350 juvenile turtles were brought in, many victims of “cold stunning”—inertia caused by the winter drop in sea temperature. “If they survive the first 24 hours, there’s a 99 percent chance they’ll recover,” Warren Baverstock, the aquarium operations manager, said as we walked along a line of bubbling tanks. He reached in to scratch the backs of splashing turtles, which twisted their necks and flippers in pleasure at the attention. “They always know where the sea is,” he said. “They swim up and down the wall nearest the sea, lifting their heads up, looking for it.”

Mass releases of the rehabilitated turtles are staged at a nearby beach to publicize the work and reinforce the message that Arabia’s marine life is valuable, vulnerable, and in need of protection. Each turtle is implanted with a microchip for identification. In the seven years the project has been operating, no turtle has washed ashore twice.

The hotel’s most famous patient was an adult green turtle called Dibba, which had arrived with a fractured skull. Baverstock and his team needed 18 months to rehabilitate the turtle, but Dibba, released with a satellite transmitter glued to its carapace, repaid its caregivers with a 259-day, 5,000-mile migratory journey, looping down the Arabian Sea, passing the Maldives, skirting Sri Lanka, and reaching as far as the Andaman Islands before the transmitter battery failed.

Dibba traced an ancient route imprinted not just on turtles but also on the cultural memory of Arabia’s peoples. This way came the dhows laden with Basra dates and pearls. This way they returned, carrying camphor, silks, sandalwood, and cloves. Every Arabian family had its sea captains and sailors, its pearl divers and boat carpenters—a saltwater legacy written in its genes.

Modernity has dimmed that memory. “We have lost the thirst for the sea that can only be quenched by going to the sea,” one Omani businessman told me with sadness in his eyes. Yet for others the thirst is returning. Increasing numbers of Arabs are going to the sea not to exploit it but to experience it as it is. They are renewing their bond with ancient shores and rediscovering the poet’s truth: “In my depths all treasures dwell.”

Jumeirah announces the successful reproduction of a shark through parthenogenesis…

Parthenogenic zebra shark pup

Parthenogenic zebra shark pup hatched and reared by the Burj Al Arab Aquarium Team

Zebedee may have never met a male of her species, but that hasn’t stopped the nine-year-old female zebra shark from reproducing on a recurring basis.

In a phenomenon that has defied everything science ever knew about the zebra shark, Zebedee, who lives in an aquarium at the Burj Al Arab Hotel, has been giving birth for the past four years, a first-ever for her species, reveals Warren Baverstock, Aquarium Manager at Burj Al Arab and co-author of an article featured in the Journal of Fish Biology.

Baverstock and co-author, marine biologist and assistant aquarium manager David Robinson explained the reason the news wasn’t brought to public attention was because tests had to be carried out, DNA had to be sampled, research conducted and theories approved, before making a statement that could potentially change the way we view zebra sharks forever.

For the scientifically inclined, the process is called parthenogenesis. To the rest of us, it’s when an egg cell is triggered to develop as an embryo without the addition of any genetic material from a male sperm cell.

Perhaps even more surprising than the fact that Zebedee does not need a male to reproduce, is the possibility of her spawning an entire breed of pups who will grow into full-blown adults capable of parthenogenesis themselves, perhaps eradicating the need for the male altogether.

“It’s not quite that simple,” says Robinson. “All 21 pups are still young, with the eldest being one and a half years old and the youngest just a few months.

“We have approximately six years of waiting before we find out whether Zebedee’s offspring will reproduce exclusively through parthenogenesis, or would mate with a male if the opportunity arose, or would be able to alternate between the two styles of reproduction.”

For now, all these possibilities are just theories.

And as is the case with theories, they come attached with a lot of scepticism, with critics saying that the pups may not be able to display the same ability as the mother, or, since the pups are clones of the mother, sexually, they have no ability of their own.

“Parthenogenes are not clones of their mother,” explains Robinson. “They’re genetically different to each other and to her as well. They are parthenogenes, not clones [who are unable to reproduce on their own]. There is no reason why they can’t be reproductively viable. They have a normal reproductive system that we’ve seen and learnt about through post-mortems of the pups that didn’t survive.”

In layman’s terms, sexual reproduction results in offspring with two versions of every gene (one from each parent) while asexual reproduction leads to offspring with only one version of every gene.

“Sharks continue to inspire and amaze us with their remarkable adaptability,” adds Baverstock. “There is no wonder that sharks have been such an evolutionary success story. A lot of hard work has been put into this project by the Burj Al Arab aquarium team and I am glad to see the effort and research are successful.”

Although “virgin births” are known among invertebrates and some vertebrates such as hammerhead, black tip and bamboo shark, it was unheard of for a zebra shark to display this ability. “At first we had to eradicate all doubt of the possibility of her having had intercourse with a male shark of a different species,” says Robinson. “We tested her, we tested the male hammerhead shark and we tested all her pups to find out if the babies carried any DNA that didn’t match the mother’s. Our result showed no paternal DNA at all.”

Moreover, when examined, Zebedee had none of the bite marks that are usually inflicted on her gender during mating. Nor was it possible for her to store the male sperm in her body for future use (sharks have that ability), since her six years in captivity would have made the sperm redundant.

“Working closely with Dr Khazanehdari of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory, we have confirmed that parthenogenesis took place through the DNA analysis of Zebedee’s offspring. This discovery is extremely exciting for us as researchers and raises further questions about what we thought we knew about shark reproduction.”

click to be directed to press release

VISION Magazine Publication – Small Wonders by Nikki Schreiber

photographs by warren baverstock - article by Nikki Schriber - copyright VISION Managazine

photographs by warren baverstock – article by Nikki Schriber – copyright VISION Managazine

The aquarium at the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai is small; in fact you could be forgiven for not knowing it’s there. The only indication that anything aquatic is going on behind the scenes are the mesmerizing tanks of tropical fi sh that line each side of the escalator from the lobby to the first floor; that and a round tank in the Al Mahara restaurant which contains so many different brightly coloured fish in a reef-like environment, that trying to hold a conversation with anyone in there is like trying to talk to a child playing a computer game. Should you ever find yourself in Al Mahara look carefully into the tank and you’ll see two greyish white sharks covered in black spots with a cylindrical body shape, a broad head at one end and a rudder-like tail fi n at the other. They are zebra sharks (also known as leopard sharks), mother and daughter; the subject of an astonishing discovery by the Burj Al Arab’s team of marine biologists and the focus of their scientific paper on parthenogenesis or asexual reproduction. This may be a small team of marine biologists working in a small aquarium but they are punching above their weight with the discovery that the female zebra shark reproduced without a mate. Parthenogenesis has only been confirmed in a few other species of shark, namely blacktip and bonnethead sharks, which both give birth to live young (livebearing – ie not egg-laying), and the egg-laying bamboo shark.

The phenomenon has never been observed in the egg-laying zebra shark before, making this finding an international fi rst for a genetically confirmed parthenogenic birth for this type of shark and only the fourth time it has been seen in sharks at all. “This is the only aquarium in the world that has managed to [observe and] exhibit a parthenogen pup,” points out Warren Baverstock, the aquarium’s Operations Manager. “Breeding zebra sharks is hard in itself. Even without the parthenogenesis this would be interesting,” adds David Robinson, Assistant Operations Manager and principal author of the scientific paper. Back in 2007 a scientific paper was published in the US confirming that a bonnethead shark which had been kept in isolation from a mate had given birth to a pup. Genetic analysis proved the pup to be a clone of the mother. The zebra shark at the Burj Al Arab had also been kept in isolation from a possible mate and so when she produced eggs in 2006, the marine biologists didn’t think anything of it and discarded them. However, the publication of the paper on the bonnethead shark prompted Baverstock and Robinson to keep the eggs their zebra shark produced in 2007. “It was a bit of a long shot,” says Robinson, “because that was a live-bearing shark, completely evolutionarily distant from our shark which is egg-laying.” But the long shot worked out and the aquarium has been producing live pups since those first eggs were kept in 2007. It has not been easy, though, and the fact that asexual reproduction is an extreme form of inbreeding meant that there were many abnormalities, as Robinson explains: “When a shark releases an egg, it splits into four polar bodies; in parthenogenesis one of the polar bodies fuses back with the mother so that all the offspring are genetically identical to the mother but not to each other. It depends which part of the egg fuses back. If the mother is carrying a bad allele [one of the alternative forms of a gene, found at the same place on a chromasone] and mates sexually it may well be overridden, but if she reproduces asexually it’s amplified.”

Even with the tender care of Abdulkareem Vettan, who is in charge of the husbandry of the pups, there have been problems with nutrition. It’s difficult for the team to know whether these problems are genetic or developmental, and the data collection and research are ongoing. The findings of this research are important for marine biologists all over the world who are interested in understanding shark reproduction and evolution. As Robinson points out: “It shows that evolutionarily speaking, when they move back to a common ancestor, it is probable that all sharks across the whole range of sharks can do this.” Dr Aaron Henderson from the department of Marine Science and Fisheries at Sultan Quaboos University in Oman, says: “It also elicits a number of interesting questions such as, do females only revert to parthenogenesis when there are no males available? What are the implications for genetic diversity and fitness? What are the physiological processes giving rise to parthenogenesis? The questions are endless.” As are the future research possibilities, the next stage of which is discovering whether these parthenogen pups can reproduce. The scientific community is particularly excited by the fact that this shark has produced litters of pups parthenogenetically over successive years, because up until now they didn’t know this was possible. It means that this species can reproduce without the input of a male if it has to and suggests that rather than being a one-off response to isolation when in captivity, sharks could, potentially, be doing this in the wild. Most importantly, it means that this shark is able to keep its genes within the genome in an effort to survive. Jennifer Schmidt, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago points out: “As shark numbers continue to decline there may be more and more populations facing breeding pressures of this type. An increasing rate of parthenogenesis could have both helpful and harmful effects on a dwindling population, maintaining the number of individuals in the short term, while altering sex ratios and reducing genetic diversity in the long run.” With this exciting discovery, the marine biologists at the Burj Al Arab are keen to work with others and share their research. Baverstock and Robinson say they can see a point in the future when they will be twinning with aquariums around the world, sharing knowledge, and continuing to contribute to the global understanding of fish biology.

photographs by warren baverstock - article by Nikki Schriber - copyright VISION Managazine

photographs by warren baverstock – article by Nikki Schriber – copyright VISION Managazine

article by Nikki Schriber - copyright VISION Managazine

article by Nikki Schriber – copyright VISION Magazine


Where is Emerald Now?

Okay so 14 days ago the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project successfully released Emerald (AKA Dredger) after over 3 years of intensive rehabilitation. See the photograph below, before and after and refer to my earlier blog to find out more about the procedure: https://warrenbaverstock.wordpress.com/2008/12/01/repair-of-a-fractured-plastron-in-a-green-turtle-chelonia-mydas/#more-334



The question is…where is Emerald now? – well here is the latest update…she is off the coast of Abu Dhabi and she seems to like it there. If you want to keep track of Emerald, all you simply have to do is save this link http://www.seaturtle.org/tracking/index.shtml?tag_id=112054 in your favourites and click on it from time to time to get the latest satellite feedback.