TDIC's Hawksbill Conservation Programme ensures endangered turtles keep nesting on the island
The original guests of Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island, the critically-endangered Hawksbill sea turtles, continue to nest on the destination's sweeping beachfront, with the first of the season's nests spotted in a conservation areas in front of the spectacular five-star The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort and Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas.
The nests remain under the watchful eye of the Tourism Development & Investment Company's (TDIC) environmental affairs team, part of the company's Hawksbill Turtle Conservation Programme - the only one of its kind in the Arabian Gulf.
Each nest, which can contain between 90-100 eggs, have been clearly marked to ensure hotel guests and staff don't disturb them. Hatching is expected within 50-70 days.
"The turtles' annual return is testament to the success of this conservation programme, which was designed to ensure that as hotels became operational on Saadiyat Beach, the turtles would continue to choose the island as their nesting ground," said HE Mubarak Al Muhairi, Director General of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority.
"This conservation programme, which was personally initiated by Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority's Chairman, HH Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, clearly demonstrates that tourism assets can be developed without damaging the environment and conversely, can actually be used to protect a destination's environmental assets."
The nine kilometre Saadiyat Beach plays host to several Hawksbill turtle nests every year. The Hawksbill is listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List, as its population has declined by more than 80 per cent worldwide over the last three generations due to habitat destruction and poaching.
TDIC's Hawksbill turtle conservation programme has seen the company restrict resort development on Saadiyat Beach to at least 60 metres back from the seaward edge of the coastal dunes, creating a buffer zone which serves as a physical barrier between construction and operations and the Saadiyat Dune Protection Zone nesting beach.
Since the monitoring programme began in early 2010, some 650 eggs have hatched successfully on Saadiyat. Turtles continued to nest even during the construction of the now open The St. Regis Saadiyat Island and Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi.
"The international response to Saadiyat has been exceptionally encouraging and owes much, we believe, to the natural surroundings of the island, which is rapidly emerging as a destination in its own right," said Al Muhairi. "Abu Dhabi has a solid commitment to environmental protection and preservation and to enhancing the environmental quality of its assets to enrich the lives of residents and visitors alike."
Operational guidelines further protect the nesting sites by restricting beach access to pedestrians who reach the beach via elevated boardwalks, which prevent people from walking through the delicate dune system and potentially disturbing the nests.
Other TDIC measures for the protection of the Saadiyat coastal dune system cover lighting guidelines and assessments of operational developments, and a dedicated environmental resource that monitors and audits properties operating on Saadiyat. For example, during nesting season, night lighting is reduced to aid the hatchling turtles' orientation towards the sea, nests are logged and avoided by beach maintenance crews, and all beach furniture is moved off the beach at night.
"Our hospitality partners operating on Saadiyat Beach have fully co-operated with the conservation programme with many of their staff - including lifeguards, beach cleaners and beach security patrols being fully trained by our environment team to look for and report turtles and nests and how to manage the beach during the nesting season," explained Denis O'Connor, Executive Director, Operations, TDIC.
"The hotel staff are now enthusiastically involved with the programme and, working together with the TDIC environment team, are spreading the word enthusiastically amongst their guests who have readily respected the beach access restrictions."
Hawksbill turtles nest on a number of islands in the UAE, with Saadiyat's deep sand beaches and natural dune system beyond the high tide line providing them with a good nesting habitat. Just how long turtles have been nesting on Saadiyat is unknown, however after 30 years, breeding Hawksbill females return to their birth place to lay their eggs.
"The female turtles come ashore generally at night," explained Millie Plowman, Environment Manager, TDIC, "and haul themselves with their flippers towards the dune zone. They then choose an appropriate place to dig their nests, just above the high tide. Once they lay their eggs, the turtles return to the sea. When the baby turtles hatch, they break out of their eggs approximately 50 centimetres underground and dig their way up through the neck of the nest to the surface and make their way to the sea.
"Strong lights and noise may distract the baby turtles, causing them to head in the wrong direction and away from the sea. However, even on the darkest beach, approximately 10 turtles from a nest are likely to go in the wrong direction. On Saadiyat, we aim to make sure that all the baby turtles make it to the ocean."
"We are asking residents and guests to give these very special visitors the best opportunity possible to continue their nesting activities, which have been occurring on Saadiyat for millennia," said Plowman.
"This involves them switching off outdoor lights when they are not outside, closing their curtains at night to minimise light spill, refraining from going to the beach after dark and avoiding turtle tracks so that they are not disturbed and can provide data to the monitoring teams."
Interest in the project is taking hold among guests at The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort and Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas.
"Many people are asking about tours to see the exciting nesting events," continued Denis O'Connor. "However, turtle nesting events are not predictable and can happen at any hour of the night, therefore it is very difficult to arrange visits. Turtle hatching, on the other hand, is a little bit easier to predict, and therefore we will keep the guests informed about possible night-time hatching tours.
"We are also now working on plans to sensitively leverage the conservation to build awareness among guests and enhance their Saadiyat visitor experience which is enriched by regular spotting of pods of dolphins off the island's coastline and of female gazelles who are favouring the sand dunes of the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club ocean course as a natural 'creche' for their new born."
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