Turtle-racing in Dubai

Flippered participants are limbering up for Great Gulf Turtle Race

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They’ve been immortalised in books, cartoons and even in Hollywood, with cool character Crush capturing hearts in Finding Nemo. But though much is known about the habits of the world’s turtles, there’s a big question mark when it comes to the patterns and population of turtles native to the waters of the Middle East.

It’s this lack of data that inspired the Emirates Wildlife Society and World Wide Fund for Nature (EWS-WWF) to establish the Great Gulf Turtle Race in 2010. Now in its third year, the programme aims to tag 31 hawksbill turtles in countries across the region before the race begins in the first week of June.

‘The idea is to collect data on where the hawksbill turtles go between their nesting sites,’ says EWS-WWF programme director Lisa Shrake Perry. Though it’s known that the region is home to two main species (hawksbills and green turtles), the organisation still has no information on the size of each group, and where their main foraging grounds are. ‘We’re tagging females turtles that have just laid eggs, to be able to identify where important feeding areas are,’ explains Lisa.

Working with partners and governments in a number of countries, the group has so far tagged turtles in the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Iran. Emphasising the project’s importance, Lisa points out that though there are protected nesting sites around the UAE and Oman, it has been impossible to protect vital feeding areas because there is simply no information on where the turtles’ preferred destinations are. All they know is that the turtles need thriving coral reefs, where they eat jellyfish and sea sponges to build their strength. ‘It’s great to have protected nesting beaches,’ she says. ‘But [turtles could be going to] foraging grounds that are not protected, or places that pose a lot of threats such as pollution or accidental capture from fisheries. Just protecting one part of their lives [is not enough].’

During the previous two years’ races, the team have noticed what Lisa describes as an ‘exciting’ pattern, something she claims has not been seen before. ‘In the Gulf, because temperatures get so high, we’ve noticed a small migration by the turtles in July and August, where they all start to swim to deeper waters, kind of northward, and in September they come back.’

There is no official start or finish line – each turtle’s travels will be monitored by a satellite tracking system, and each will have the distance charted on the programme’s website, where their corporate sponsors and fans can cheer them on and keep up to date with their progress. This year’s tracking is expected to last between four and five weeks. During a similar timeframe, last year’s winner, the aptly named Speedy (sponsored and named by Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa) managed to clock up an impressive 670km, against a group average of between 300km and 400km, so this year’s contestants have a tough act to follow. Given the distances these shelled creatures frequently travel, it shouldn’t be too much to ask – providing they don’t get distracted by a lost clown fish trying to find his son.
To find out more about the local Marine Turtle Conservation Project efforts and for updates on the Great Gulf Turtle Race, see www.gulfturtles.com.


Do your bit

Save…
The life of a turtle and other marine animals by taking your rubbish home from the beach. Turtles can mistake plastic bags for food (such as jellyfish) and may try to eat it, possibly choking or getting it stuck in their digestive system.

See…
Turtles feeding around reefs off the coast of Oman. There are many great diving sites, and some places where you can spot turtles just by snorkelling. Scuba Oman has an eco-diving philosophy and runs a number of different excursions.
www.scubaoman.com (+968 99 655 8488).

Sponsor…
A turtle in this year’s Great Gulf Turtle Race, and get your staff and colleagues involved.
Visit the website’s ‘Contact Us’ page to apply. www.gulfturtles.com.

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