By Vesela Todorova
Blind in one eye and with a broken shell, Dredger would not have survived had it not been for Nakheel Property employees who found her floundering helplessly off the coast of Dubai.
Now, the female Hawksbill turtle, named after the machine that almost killed her, has better days ahead. Rather than experiencing a slow and painful death last March, the animal was delivered to a team of Dubai vets who saved her life.
"It looked like she was sucked in a pipe," said Kevin Hyland of the Wildlife Protection Office, describing the injuries that Dredger had suffered on both sides of her shell.
Mr Hyland and his colleagues at the Al Safa Falcon Clinic and the Burj Al Arab aquarium fitted Dredger with a fibreglass patch that held her shell together. Today she happily calls home a swimming pen at the Madinat Jumairah – Mina A’Salam hotel.
She shares the pen with 19 other turtles, all of whom are convalescing at the Madinat Jumeirah Turtle Rehabilitation Unit. Another 13 turtles are recuperating at the centre’s emergency area located off of the hotel’s premises.
The majority of the pen’s occupants have been in captivity since spring this year and could be released as early as this month.
"They are pretty much ready to go," said Mr Hyland.
The centre, which started operation in 1996 at another facility before being transferred to the hotel, receives between 15 and 20 sick turtles every year. About 80 per cent of the animals recover and are eventually released.
The number of turtles brought to the centre is increasing, said Mr Hyland. But he was quick to add that it is not clear whether this increase means there are now more sick turtles, or simply more people who know to call the centre when they encounter an injured animal.
"I do not remember this many turtles being brought in but the population [of Dubai residents] is now much higher," he said.
The majority of turtles brought to the centre are young and many of them are starving.
"It is mostly young ones, arriving emaciated at the end of winter," he said.
Turtles fare well in summer when the Gulf’s waters are warm. In winter, when water temperatures drop to as low as 17° C, turtles reach a state of "near hibernation". By early spring some animals have exhausted all their energy deposits.
"What we are finding is that in March and April we get an influx of turtles that are thin, sick and lethargic. Most of them are juveniles," he said.
There is no clear explanation for this situation, but the logical culprit is the increase in coastal development that has destroyed foraging grounds. Mr Hyland, however, will not make a definitive statement as the centre has not conducted any studies.
Some animals also find themselves in the centre after having been intentionally targeted by people. Such is the case of Jebel, who arrived back in January after being discovered off Palm Jumeirah. Her wounds suggested someone tried to club her to death.
"Certainly the injuries did look intentional," he said, explaining that he suspects fishermen could be behind the act.
This is the second such case that Mr Hyland has dealt with. Another turtle, Dibba, which was released this February, was so debilitated by the injuries that she had to be force-fed for two months.
"She arrived with a massive hole in the head... It looked like a clubbing injury," he said.
Other sources of trauma are plastic bags, which can become wrapped around a turtle’s flipper, resulting in severance of the limb.
Turtles also collide with boats, although those that do rarely make it to the centre, said Mr Hyland, as they are most likely to die from the accident.
Once a turtle arrives at the centre, doctors perform a physical exam. Then they take a blood sample which is sent to the falcon clinic.
"Without their services we would be stuck," said Mr Hyland, explaining that lab technicians obtain vital clues to an animal’s well-being in as little as 20 minutes.
First, vets determine a turtle’s white blood count. If high, this is sign of an infection and treatment with a broad-spectrum antibiotic starts immediately. The blood test also detects low haemoglobin levels. Turtles, like people, suffer from anaemia.
The treatment in both species is similar – iron and Vitamin B injections.
Once an animal is out of immediate danger, it is transferred to a pen at the Mina A’Salam Hotel. The pen, which is about 20 square metres and has a small artificial reef in the middle, is where the animals await their release back into the wild.
One of the pen’s inhabitants is Harold. Named after King Harold, who died in the Norman invasion of England in 1066 after he was shot in the eye with a French arrow, the turtle will not be swimming in the open ocean again.
The centre has been his home for the past ten years and his keeper doubts it would survive in the wild.
"He is blind in one eye and is missing flippers," said Mr Hyland, explaining the decision to give Harold a permanent home.
But turtles who fully recover can return to freedom within a month of recovery. Some of them will leave carrying small devices that will help track their journey across the world.
These are small, battery-operated devices which remain dormant while a turtle is under water. When the turtle swims to the surface to breathe, which occurs once every couple of hours, the device is activated and sends signals to a satellite, which relays information about the animal’s whereabouts back to Dubai.
This data is coveted by the Dubai scientists as well as their counterparts abroad because turtles travel thousands of kilometres in the course of their lives. Their journeys start immediately after they crawl out of their nest. Once they hatch, young turtles head for the ocean, then swim continuously for 24 hours to avoid predators that live close to shore.
Once they reach deep waters, they start drifting with the ocean current and spend the next few years doing so. Eventually, they find their way to a foraging ground, where they feed.
Once a turtle is mature and has enough energy reserves, it swims, often for more than a thousand kilometres, to a mating ground. After about two weeks at the mating ground, the males return to feed and females spend the next month or so laying eggs. Turtles usually return to lay eggs at the same area where they hatched.
The turtle rehabilitation unit has so far tagged the journey of two of its former patients. Maju, a Green turtle, was released in February 2005 following a recovery period of eight months.
In February this year, Dibba, another Green turtle, was released into the wild after a rehabilitation period that lasted a year and a half. Since her release, the 80-kilogram female has travelled more than 6,000 kilometres and was recently spotted east of Sri Lanka.
Mr Hyland said it costs US$2,200 (around Dh8,000) to fit a tracker on a turtle. With satellite time – depending on how often data is to be recorded, the figure can reach US$10,000.
For Mr Hyland, though, the centre’s biggest value is that it is educating people, including about 1,500 school children every year, about endangered sea turtles.
"The strength of our project is not that we are rehabilitating and releasing thousands of turtles. The biggest value of this is education and awareness."