These Luxury Dubai Hotels Double as a Wildlife Sanctuary

Dubai’s sail-shaped Burj Al Arab and its sleek sister property, Jumeirah Al Naseem, are home to the Middle East’s first turtle rehabilitation project.

Distant view of offshore, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab Jumeirah (L); Jumeirah Al Naseem, at right,  on  beach nearby

Burj Al Arab Jumeirah (left) and sister property Jumeirah Al Naseem (right) are home to the Middle East’s first-ever sea turtle rehabilitation center.

On a sunny winter morning at Dubai’s seaside Jumeirah Al Naseem resort, I watch two long-stay guests—called Humpty and Dumpty—swim languidly in a lagoon pool filled with warm water from the Arabian Gulf.

Twelve-year-old Humpty and seven-year-old Dumpty are not your regular visitors, though. They’re endangered hawksbill turtles, 2 of more than 2,000 rescued by the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP) since its founding in 2004. Run by the Jumeirah Hotel Group in partnership with Dubai’s Wildlife Protection Office, the Dubai Falcon Hospital, and the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory, the DTRP rescues and rehabilitates sick and injured sea turtles, releasing them back into the waters around the United Arab Emirates when they can.

 

The five lagoon pools, part of the original masterplan of the hotel, are located at the heart of the resort, surrounded by palm trees and set back slightly from the sea. Guests can stop by to say hello to the turtles on their way to the beach. I’m with Barbara Lang-Lenton, director of the aquarium at Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, Jumeirah Al Naseem’s iconic sister property nearby, and lead of the DTRP, who invited me to see the turtles and the facilities.

This turtle rehabilitation lagoon at Jumeirah Al Naseem in Dubai features two sea turtles.

 

A turtle rehabilitation lagoon with green and loggerhead turtles at Jumeirah Al Naseem in Dubai.

Courtesy of Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts

I’ve been a Dubai resident for close to a decade, and the iconic sail-shaped Burj Al Arab and the beachside Jumeirah Al Naseem are places I find myself going back to again and again, whether it’s for lunch at Rockfish, where all fish on the menu is sustainably sourced, a day at the Summersalt, the most stylish and grown-up beach club in town, or for cocktails accompanied by spectacular sunsets. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I heard about the resorts’ turtle conservation program. As a lifelong wildlife lover, I was surprised to learn that the Middle East’s first turtle rehabilitation project had been at work in my neighborhood. With critical care facilities housed in the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, and rehabilitation pools at Jumeirah Al Naseem, the animals are looked after in exquisite style. Most people who check into the Burj Al Arab don’t realize they’re sleeping above a turtle ICU facility.

 

 

Both Humpty and Dumpty are permanent residents here, likely having been injured by boat strikes that caused severe damage to their carapaces, or shells, limiting their ability to dive, swim, and control their buoyancy. In the wild, this would make finding food and shelter difficult and leave them vulnerable to further boat strikes. “We tried to put them back together again,” says Lang-Lenton, referencing the nursery rhyme that inspired their names, “but we can’t release them.” Instead, they spend their days in the calm, sea-fed pools, feeding on meals of fish, squid, prawns, mussels, and the occasional broccoli floret.

This isn’t my first time visiting the turtles here. I joined the DTRP in November 2023 for a turtle release. I held my breath as we watched 14 turtles make their way over the sand, the small ones speedy, the huge green turtles lumbering their way toward the waterline. But once they reached the clear, warm sea, their strong flippers took over and they were off, charting a smooth, confident course for open water. There wasn’t a dry eye on the beach.

The DTRP fitted this rehabilitated sea turtle with a tracker so the organization can keep track of its whereabouts.

 

A rehabilitated sea turtle with a tracker at Jumeirah Al Naseem in Dubai.

Courtesy of Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts

 

How sea turtles make their way to two of Dubai’s most luxurious hotels

The number of turtles received by the DTRP each year varies. Since 2004, the project has rescued and released 2,108 sea turtles back into the wild. In 2023, 28 hawksbill and 20 green turtles were rescued and released.

“If the winter is long and cold and the weather is rough, we get more turtles,” says Lang-Lenton. “It’s usually between 70 and 100 each year, but in the past we’ve received up to 300 in a single year.” The rescued turtles are from four different species—hawksbill, green, loggerhead, and olive ridley—and all are critically endangered. Some have injuries from boat strikes or from abandoned fishing lines, hooks, and plastic waste; others have oyster and barnacle growths on their shells that affect their ability to swim.

 

“A lot of the animals we receive are little hawksbills in their first winter. They get lethargic from the cold water so don’t feed and are not very active,” says Lang-Lenton. “They recover very quickly and usually stay with us from two to five months before we release them.”

Why community outreach increases the number of turtle rescues

According to Lang-Lenton, the more outreach they have for the project, the more turtles they receive. As part of her outreach efforts, she welcomes more than 1,700 school children to Jumeirah Al Naseem each year, educating them in the threats that turtles face globally, their behavior and migration patterns, the impact of climate change, and what the DTRP does to rescue, rehabilitate, and release them. She explains that kids become advocates for the program by sharing what they’ve learned with their parents. There are also daily sessions at 11 a.m. for hotel guests to come and learn and take part in the feeding.

 

Most of the turtles under the DTRP’s care have come to the facility as a result of Dubai residents finding them on the beach or out on the water. Lang-Lenton says, “Thanks to our outreach and educational programs, people now know how to recognize if a turtle is sick or injured and who to call.”

Between 80 and 90 percent of rescued turtles have come to the DTRP via the 800-TURTLE (800 887853) hotline; a DTRP expert advises the caller on what to do until help arrives. The hotline was launched in October 2021 with the help of the DTRP’s ambassador Sheikh Fahim bin Sultan bin Khalid Al Qasimi, an ocean lover, avid sailor, entrepreneur, and cofounder of Seafood Souq, a company that focuses on digitizing fisheries and improving transparency in seafood supply chains. “We’ve spent the last two years raising awareness for the 800-TURTLE rescue line,” he says. “It has been so effective in bringing the community together and getting sick and injured sea turtles to us quickly.”

 

An encounter with a distressed turtle three years ago in the Arabian Gulf led Sheikh Fahim to his work in conservation. “I was on a distant island when I spotted a drowning turtle wrapped in fishing line,” he says. “It was such an intense experience under such rare circumstances.” The large green turtle, who he later named Farah, meaning “joy” in Arabic, was struggling to reach the surface to breathe. Sheikh Fahim pulled her onto his boat and transported her to the DTRP for help. Eventually, Farah was released in October 2021 on the beach next to the Burj Al Arab, fitted with a satellite tag; it showed that she journeyed to the protected marine areas around Abu Dhabi. “The experience of saving Farah was the moment when I realized I would spend the rest of my life dedicated to saving these turtles.”

Left: A turtle release on June 2023 with Sheikh Fahim bin Sultan bin Khalid Al Qasimi (left), ambassador of the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project; Katerina Giannouka, CEO of Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts (middle), and Barbara Lang-Lengton, head of the DTRP (right). Right: a sea turtle is examined at the DTRP in Dubai.

 

Left: A turtle release on June 2023 with Sheikh Fahim bin Sultan bin Khalid Al Qasimi (left), ambassador of the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project; Katerina Giannouka, CEO of Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts (middle), and Barbara Lang-Lengton, head of the DTRP (right). Right: a sea turtle is examined at the DTRP in Dubai.

Courtesy of Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts

 

How rehabilitated turtles are tracked after their release

Many of the turtles released by the DTRP are fitted with satellite tags to monitor where they go, providing a greater understanding of their behaviors and migration patterns. Some have been tracked navigating the waters around the Gulf, although many choose to stay in seagrass-rich areas around the UAE. “Greeny, a little green turtle released in June, went to Qatar then came back to Abu Dhabi. Ivy went to Iran and then came home again. We can see how they change direction as the water temperatures change, and the places they usually stop for a while tend to be protected marine areas,” says Lang-Lenton, adding that it isn’t unusual for a turtle to travel close to 100 miles in a day. One turtle, called Dibba, traveled more than 5,000 miles from the UAE as far as Thailand in nine months.

Not all rescues have happy endings. Inside the ICU facility, Lang-Lenton shows me specimen jars filled with items found in the stomachs of turtles that didn’t survive. Fishing line, pieces of plastic, and nurdles (those tiny plastic pellets from which most plastic items are made) have all been found in the stomachs of sea turtles, even the smallest ones. “The little hawksbills die from swallowing these pellets,” says Lang-Lenton. But she says this plastic waste is equally as dangerous for larger turtles, and it is a major focus of the DTRP’s education programs. “Some plastics get entangled with seagrass and the turtles eat it, but any plastic will break down into small pieces. Eventually algae will grow on it so it looks and smells like turtle food and gets swallowed.”

 

How this turtle rehabilitation program’s impact extends beyond Dubai

While the DTRP is based in the UAE, its focus on education in local schools and outreach to hotel guests allows it to spread awareness far beyond Dubai. The educational element of the DTRP’s work resonates deeply with Sheikh Fahim.

 

“We live in a part of the world where we have so much sea life, and I think that every person here should have the basic knowledge of what to do when they find critically endangered species, like hawksbills, that need help,” he says. “Because they’re migratory species, every turtle that we save has a global impact.”

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