If you spot a crew of grown men paddling down Dubai Creek this weekend on a raft made from little more than plastic bottles and bags, don’t be alarmed. There’s no need to alert the authorities; no one has escaped from any secure facilities. Chances are you’ll see a lot of these makeshift vessels bobbing along the creek near Festival Marina this Friday, because the Whatever Floats Your Boat recycled boat race is back. Last year, the race raised Dhs100,000 to clean up Dubai Creek. This year that record looks to be smashed, and it’s all in aid of the endangered hawksbill turtles that have been washing up on Dubai’s shores.
For at least two years now, junior hawksbill turtles – which are an endangered species – have been found covered in barnacles and algae on Dubai’s beaches. Often these barnacles are attached to the turtles’ mouths, preventing them from feeding. ‘We’re not sure what exactly is going on,’ says Rima Jabado, marine programme director at Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG). ‘There hasn’t been any proper programme of tagging the turtles as part of a mark/recapture study, so the data’s not available to us to provide exact answers yet.’ For how long has this been happening? ‘I’ve been at EMEG for two years and I’ve seen it happening for those past two years,’ she replies. ‘From different conversations I’ve had with people, it’s something that’s been going on for quite some time.’
The recycled boat race is raising money for genetic research that Jabado hopes will help unravel the mystery. EMEG has so far collected more than 200 DNA samples from dead hawksbills found in Dubai. Analysing these samples is expensive but crucial, because it will provide some important answers. ‘It’ll give us an idea of whether this is a localised population only found in the Arabian Gulf,’ Jabado explains. If this is the case, it means something specific is happening in UAE waters that could potentially wipe out the species. If not, Jabado says EMEG can approach the problem on ‘a regional basis – we can co-operate [with other nations in the region] to put together a plan to protect the species’.
Friday’s race is a three-for-one deal: the funds go to the turtles, the boats’ assembly from waste materials raises awareness (and kick-starts people’s imaginations) about recycling, and the day itself is a community event to which everyone is invited. Head down to Festival Marina and you can cheer on the teams, which comprise competitors from local companies and schools (each competing company has donated Dhs10,000, with every dirham going directly to EMEG).
There are four teams taking part from Deira International School this year. The school entered three teams last year, but enthusiasm from the students – aged between 17 and 19 – has been even fiercer this time around. Allan Hare, who teaches English and is also the boys’ counsellor, is overseeing the boat-building. ‘At the end of graduation [the students] write a reflection on their two years here,’ he explains. ‘[Last year] they all wrote that the recycled boat race was the best activity and the most fun they’d had, and they thought that they’d learned the most [from it].’ So entering again was a no-brainer.
Hare admits he hasn’t seen any of the completed boats yet, explaining that the students have been busy ‘collecting bottles and weaving plastic bags together to make rope’. But he assures us they will be testing the boats in the school’s swimming pool before race day. ‘That’s always a good afternoon. It’s sink or swim!’ he laughs. And there’s no doubt that these students are dedicated. ‘Our design technology crew is right on it this year,’ Hare says. ‘They’ve been studying the boats from last year and they know which ones are the ones to beat. I think they’ve even put a couple of people on diets…’
It’s encouraging to hear how the race is inspiring Dubaians, especially when it’s for such an important cause. The brainchild of InterContinental Hotels, the group says it chose to donate to EMEG because it is ‘one of the very few charity organisations connected with protecting and preserving the marine environment of the UAE’. Jabado agrees. ‘Hopefully it’ll get people involved with projects like this, which [is something] we don’t see very often here,’ she explains. ‘It’s a first step in that direction and that’s very important.’
The Whatever Floats Your Boat recycled boat race is on Friday November 13, from 1pm, free. There will be six heats, followed by a final race. At Festival Marina, Dubai Festival City.