Most visitors to the United Arab Emirates go to enjoy the glitzy hotels, round-the-year sun and glamorous nightlife.
But only yards away from the holidaymakers, there is a major campaign in progress to try and protect one of the planet’s most endangered marine species.
At the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel, with its iconic sail-shaped silhouette and forecourt full of Rolls-Royce’s, there is a basement that hides a secret. Inside three huge aquariums and a series of tanks and smaller containers are scores of turtles, which are being nursed back to health.
The sis based at the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah. It is run by the Dubai Wildlife Protection Office, Jumeirah Hotels and the Veterinary Research Laboratory
Already, over the past 14 years, 1,657 have been saved. The set up – known locally as the Turtle Hospital – is part of the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP) based at the Burj and the neighbouring Madinat Jumeirah resort.
When MailOnline visited, we saw a female hawksbill turtle, about a foot long and missing part of a front flipper which Aquarium Operations Manager Abdul Kareem Vettan explained had to be amputated to save its life. The year-old turtle was brought in after being discovered on the beach and although one flipper is now a few inches shorter than the other, Abdul Kareem is confident that the turtle will make a good recovery.
He explained: ‘The injury was probably caused by fishing nets, which the turtles often get caught in. It will take six to seven months to completely heal and also for her to learn to swim well after the amputation. Sometimes it can take from one to two years for a turtle’s injuries to completely heal, allowing them to be returned to the wild.’
Seven species of marine turtles exist and all are classed as vulnerable or endangered. Only hawksbill and green turtles nest in the Arabian Gulf and although hawksbills are the species most likely to be found on the beaches of Dubai, globally they are classed as ‘critically endangered’ with only an estimated 8,000 breeding females left in the world today.
The only project of its kind in the Middle East and Red Sea region, the DTRP is a collaboration with the Dubai Wildlife Protection Office, Jumeirah Hotels and the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory and has grown and improved immeasurably since its inception in 2004. Abdul revealed in the early years that 30 to 40 sick turtles were treated annually, now it is around 400 a year.
He added: ‘A lot of that increase is because when people see turtles washed up on the beach they are now so much more aware that they are an endangered species and need specialist care, that they bring them straight here. We have also become much better at treating them – we now manage to save around 99 per cent of turtles brought in to us.’
Seven species of marine turtles exist and all are classed as vulnerable or endangered. Only hawksbill and green turtles nest in the Arabian Gulf and although hawksbills are the species most likely to be found on the beaches of Dubai, globally they are classed as ‘critically endangered’ with only an estimated 8000 breeding females left in the world today. Above, two sick hawksbill sea turtles being cared for by the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project
In the UAE turtles are now protected by law and many of the turtles are satellite tagged before being returned to the ocean so they can be monitored after release.
Once Abdul and his team have the sick turtles on the road to recovery they finish their recuperation in a beautiful purpose-built lagoon at the neighbouring five-star Madinat Jumeirah a few minutes’ walk from the Burj across a pristine private beach. There guests can watch the turtles grow stronger and learn more about how to help them fight the threat of extinction.
The speed and sheer scale of development of Dubai in recent years has been breath-taking and nowhere has that magnitude been more apparent than at the Madinat, which means city in Arabic.
Situated on a two-kilometre strip of pale soft sand, the resort is the largest in Dubai and spreads across 99 acres. The main approach down a tree-lined avenue culminates in a paved area adorned by giant rearing sculptures of golden Arabian horses and gushing fountains. Guests travel around the site either by buggy, or traditional Abra boats, which glide along the waterways linking every area from the three boutique hotels, to the 29 villas, Talise fitness centre and spa, over 50 restaurants and bars and even the resort’s own souk.
The complex is also only a 20-minute taxi ride away from the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building and the Dubai Fountain, the world’s largest choreographed fountain system located on the 30-acre man-made Burj Khalifa Lake. It has daily performances set to music that can be viewed for free from the Dubai Mall or from one of the many lake-side restaurants.
I stayed at the Jumeirah Al Qasr’, which means ‘the palace’. Designed in the style of a Sheikh’s summer residence, the hotel replicates traditional royal architecture and incorporates Middle Eastern art and heritage-inspired touches.
The 294 newly refurbished luxury rooms and suites are lavishly appointed with every mod-con, plus sea-view balconies and large marble bathrooms with fabulous over-sized bath tubs. The food and service reflects the resort’s five-star status and a 20-minute relaxing round trip on an Abra to take in the grandeur of the whole Madinat site is a must.
A short walk along the sands to the inviting Summersalt Beach club, and lunch on the beautiful patio overlooking the azure waters and iconic Burj Al Arab is also to be recommended. The stunning sea view was all the more satisfying knowing that even as Dubai continues to develop and grow its tourism industry, it is also learning to protect the turtles, the ocean-going residents that have a far older claim to its beaches.
Ian stayed at the Jumeirah Al Qasr’, which means ‘the palace’. Designed in the style of a Sheikh’s summer residence, the hotel replicates traditional royal architecture and incorporates Middle Eastern art and heritage inspired touches. Above, a view of one of the Arabian Deluxe rooms
The capital of the United Arab Emirates is Abu Dhabi and my next port of call was the brand new Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island, which is just an hour and twenty minutes away by taxi from Dubai.
Abu Dhabi accounts for over 80 per cent of the land mass of the UAE and with 10 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves is far wealthier than its louder neighbour. It also has over 200 natural islands, one of which is Saadiyat, which translates to Island of happiness or enlightenment.
The designers of the newest luxury hotel in the Jumeirah group, it opened in November 2018, have embraced the need to protect the environment. The futuristic structure, all curved metal and enormous walls of glass, makes the most of the stunning beach side location overlooking 400 metres of protected sand dunes where hawksbill turtles continue to nest, returning year after year to the beaches where they first hatched.
Although Abu Dhabi is quieter in the evenings and the pace seems less frenetic than Dubai, it too is undergoing huge structural change, nowhere more so than Saadiyat. Just ten minutes from the city centre and 20 minutes from Abu Dhabi International Airport the island is experiencing a remarkable transformation into a five-star cultural, residential and tourist destination.
Abu Dhabi is undergoing huge structural change. Ian says the pace here is less frenetic than Dubai’s
It would be easy to imagine that the old ‘guests’ of Saadiyat, the turtles and dolphins spotted regularly from the sweeping 5.5 mile beach, and the new are on an inevitable collision course, but already this latest resort has pushed sustainable tourism and conservation to the top of its agenda.
General Manager Linda Griffin explained: ‘The resort’s design was heavily influenced by the need to minimize impact on the island’s habitats including the Saadiyat Beach dune ecosystem, its native flora and fauna and the nesting of the endangered hawksbill turtles. So it is natural that we also minimise the impact of guests by eliminating single-use plastic bottles and plastic straws.’
At check-in all guests are given a reusable plastic drinking bottle that can be refilled at water stations serving local filtered water, located throughout the hotel. The government owned Tourism Development and Investment Company, which oversees construction on the island also began its Hawksbill Turtle Conservation Programme in early 2010, with the co-operation of contractors and resort operators. Since then 1,100 plus eggs have successfully hatched on Saadiyat with special care taken every year during hatching season (late spring / early summer) to ensure the safety of the turtles,
The hotel has been decorated in shades of white and ocean blues and turquoise to reflect its surroundings and there are uninterrupted views of the stunning beach from the vast lobby. There are 293 rooms with sea-view balconies, eight villas with private pools and 64 suites, six of which have floor-to-ceiling glass walls which can be opened to take advantage of the island breeze. There is also a state-of-the-art spa centred around a grand Moroccan Hamman, a traditional Arabic Rasul, hydrotherapy pools and a VIP couples spa suite.
Ian says that not many things are free in the UAE but entrance to the magnificent Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque is. He adds: ‘This jewel in Abu Dhabi’s cultural crown displays breath-taking opulence on an immense scale occupying more than 30 acres’
Of the three main restaurants, White has all-day dining and does an amazing breakfast buffet with live cooking stations and superfood smoothies; Mare Mare serves an Italian menu specialising in seafood; while Tean offers Levantine inspired cuisine. There are three infinity pools, all with sea views and the central one has a great swim-up bar where enthusiastic young staff enjoyed talking me into trying the cocktail of the day.
The hotel is well placed for the short taxi ride to downtown Abu Dhabi where the highest of high teas can be had at the Observation Deck of the Jumeirah Etihad Towers with a spectacular 360 degree view. Service and food is impeccable and it is worth booking a table to watch the sunset as it can get busy.
For something less calorific take a ten minute drive from the comfort of the Jumeirah Saadiyat to the other end of the island and a taste of culture at Abu Dhabi’s very own Louvre. The museum opened in 2017 and is part of a billion pound deal with the French Government allowing use of the Louvre name and a 30-year agreement to provide expertise and a number of loans. Works by da Vinci, Picasso, Monet and Cezanne are displayed.
Not many things are free in the UAE but entrance to the unmissable, magnificent Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque is. This jewel in Abu Dhabi’s cultural crown displays breath-taking opulence on an immense scale occupying more than 30 acres.
Work on the Mosque began in 1996 and took 12 years to complete at a reported cost of over £427million. It can hold more than 40,000 worshipers, has the largest handwoven carpet, the biggest chandelier, and the largest dome of its kind in the world. The mosque was conceived by and is named after, the UAE’s first president and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who died in 2004 and was buried in the courtyard.
There are big plans for Saadiyat Island, more museums, including the largest Guggenheim in the world, more hotels and more homes, but amongst all the construction and development it is good to know that initiatives like the Turtle Conservation Programme will ensure that perhaps the most important repeat visitors to the Emirates’ beaches will be protected and nurtured for future generations.
Rooms at the Jumeirah Saadiyat Island Resort start from £275 per night for an Ocean Deluxe room. This rate includes breakfast, fees, charges and taxes and is based on double occupancy.
Meanwhile, rates at the Jumeirah Al Qasr start from £250 in low season, based on double occupancy.