When you speak to Emily Armstrong, chief protector of Saadiyat Island’s turtle population, you hear about the best and worst sides to humanity.
But on the other, she’s discovered that plastic is finding its way into the stomachs of our precious turtles and that ‘bags and bags” of trash are being washed up onto the beach every morning.
Saving turtles is a community effort
Since joining the hotel in 2018, the 28-year-old has protected and monitored 12 turtle nests (each holding between 60 to 80 eggs) and helped rehabilitate around 80 rescued turtles every winter. Most of these are found washed up onto the shore after falling sick due to the Gulf’s extreme change in temperature.
It all sounds wonderfully heartwarming, but Emily insists that the real heroes are the volunteers who assist her.
“I don’t want to take too much credit for all the turtles we rescue. It’s the local community who are finding them,” she says.
“Obviously, I know how to care for them, but it’s thanks to those who volunteer with the Turtle Patrol Program that we are able to save so many. They walk the beaches and bring them in. I can’t be everywhere at once and I couldn’t do it without them. The people of Saadiyat and Abu Dhabi are desperate to help in any way they can.”
Despite being a one-person team, she monitors the entire stretch of the island’s coastline. Her phone number has also been passed far and wide, and she’ll often receive calls from all corners of the emirate about turtles in distress.
“All the hotels on the island work together to look after the turtles and I’ve given the lifeguards training on what to do if they find a sick animal,” she explains.
“I work closely with the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency and the National Aquarium at Al Qana is our rehabilitation partner. It’s not open to the public yet, but it has amazing facilities to care for the animals, plus a ‘turtle ambulance’, which allows us to reach them much more quickly than we could before.
“Before it opened, we had to drive them all the way to Dubai to get treatment, which wasn’t ideal. We have a small holding facility on site, but we normally only keep them there for a day or two; the aquarium can keep them until they can be released when the weather gets warmer.
“My job is so rewarding, but it can be very upsetting when we lose one. Sometimes, when a turtle is found somewhere really remote, like a beach out west, then it’s already dead by the time we get to it. It’s very sad because you know it probably could have been saved if we had got there sooner.”
Saadiyat Island’s plastic problem
the other depressing part of her job is litter, although you’d never think it, looking out over the breathtakingly clear, bright blue waters in front of the hotel, where pods of dolphins can be spotted throughout the year.
“It’s strange, the water doesn’t look polluted at all and we never see rubbish floating in it. Visitors are always very respectful and they never leave anything behind. But still, every morning I find bags and bags of trash, things like disposable masks and plastic bottles.
“I think the problem is that not enough people in this region are aware of the damage that single-use plastics can do, or what happens when you throw them in the ocean. A lot of the educational material is only in English and Arabic, and of course a huge section of people living here don’t read these languages very well.”
Along with the plastic bottles and other rubbish, thousands of nurdles (tiny plastic pellets) are somehow making their way on to the beach and into the surrounding waters.
“The clear nurdles look a lot like fish eggs, and so turtles are naturally drawn to them. They’re ingesting them and it’s having a negative impact on the health of even the very young ones.
“Whenever we find a dead turtle on the beach, I’ll do a necropsy to find out how they’ve died and I’ve found clusters of nurdles in their stomachs about this big,” she says, making a circle the size of a fist with her fingers and thumbs.
With one of the biggest nurdle suppliers for the Middle East and Asia shipping out of Mina Port and directly past Saadiyat, it doesn’t seem the issue will be resolved any time soon.
Since the pandemic started, Emily hasn’t been able to host any large-scale litter picks or ‘Nurdle Hunts’ for the general public, but she does still run them for hotel guests and individual groups or societies.
• To find out more about Jumeirah’s on-going sustainability initiatives or to enquire about volunteering, send them an email.
Harriet Shephard is an Abu Dhabi-based copywriter and freelance journalist with a particular focus on fitness, travel and lifestyle, which, along with good food, also happen to be her main passions when she's not typing away at her laptop.