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

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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.

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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.

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