As the turtle nesting season began each year in Costa Rica, marine biologist Jimena Rodriguez and her team used to camp out on the beaches where  Olive Ridley turtles lay their eggs. One night, Rodriguez watched as a turtle tried and failed to stop her nest from collapsing. Using her flashlight, she discovered that the turtle was missing one of her rear flippers. Despite the disability, she spent hours trying to build her nest and lay her eggs. Rodriguez and her team were there to protect the eggs from poachers, but they sprang into action and helped the mama turtle finish the job.

“That night I went to bed feeling so relieved that I could help a desperate mother lay her eggs,” Rodriguez recalled about that night years ago.

Dr. Jimena Rodriguez fits a satellite transmitter on an adult green turtle in Abu Dhabi to follow her movements across the Arabian Gulf.

Since then, she has shifted her focus to protecting turtles in the Arabian region, which makes up a sizable portion of the green turtle population worldwide.  As the Marine Turtle Conservation Manager for Emirates-Wildlife Society, the leading Arabian-based NGO partnered with the World Wildlife Fund, she oversees the Gulf Green Turtle Conservation project.  Started in 2010, the initiative looks at closing information gaps on the foraging behavior, dispersal patterns and distribution of two common and threatened sea turtles in the Arabian Gulf: the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and the green turtle (Chelonia mydas).

In Oman, over 20,000 green turtles nest year-round at the Ras al Had National Nature Reserve.

Sea turtles are highly migratory, crossing huge tracts of ocean to reach feeding and breeding sites. The first phase of the Gulf Green Turtle Conservation project focused on hawksbill turtles, by tagging and tracking 75 female turtles as they crisscrossed the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Iran. This helped build out crucial information about areas important to turtles.  The second phase, due to wrap up in 2020, focuses on green turtles, common throughout the Arabian Gulf. In Oman, for instance, over 20,000 green turtles nest year-round at the Ras al Had National Nature Reserve.  Other nesting sites are spread across Saudi Arabia, Yemen, with some smaller sites in Iran. Two years in, Rodriguez and the EWS are working with local governments and environmental organizations and tagging adult green turtles at nesting and foraging areas in Oman and the UAE.

A green turtle (Chelonia mydas) carrying a satellite transmitter that sends location information every time she surfaces to breath.

“Preliminary results so far are highlighting the location of critical habitats across the region and the relevance of a large-scale and collaborative conservation approaches to protecting this species and their habitats. Some tagged turtles have migrated to areas as far away as Eritrea and India,” says Rodriguez. “Great achievements have taken place in the last decades,” she adds. “To date, just about every nesting site where green turtles nest is protected or under some form of management in the Gulf region.”

Sea turtles play an important role maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems. They balance food webs and facilitate nutrient cycles in habitats like sandy beaches, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. These habitats are also important to human communities in the United Arab Emirates, sustaining fish stocks and providing healthy oceans for recreation and ecotourism activities.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the hawksbill turtle as critically endangered and the green turtle as endangered. They are under threat from rapid and widespread development that encroaches on coastal and marine habitats. Particularly in the Gulf Region, turtle populations continue to be challenged by habitat degradation, pollution, and incidental capture in fishery nets, known as bycatch. But they’re also up against a lack of knowledge and awareness.

“Scarce data limits our ability to determine the level of impact as well as the turtle’s response to these threats. In addition, limited information on the distribution of turtles at sea, where they spend over 95% of their lives,  makes it difficult to estimate levels of risk and assess population recovery,” Rodriguez says. This threatens sea turtle survival today and compromises the future of the next generation.

Dr. Rodriguez returns a juvenile green sea turtle to the ocean during surveys in Marawah Biosphere Reserve, Abu Dhabi, where turtles find abundant sea grasses to feed on. (Photo Credit: Vibeke Nielsen)

And there’s much more work to be done in raising public awareness. Rodriguez believes that more and more people are becoming aware of their impact on the marine environment. “When it comes to sea turtles, there has been a shift in the last decade. Due to their charismatic nature, they have become icons for conservation and more people are interested in them.”

By 2019, Rodrigues and the EWS-WWF hope to identify critical habitat for green turtles and use this information to guide policy and management decisions that protect populations.  But we can also help turtles through everyday actions like reducing plastic, she points out.

Marine plastic is a big threat to turtles that often mistake it for food. When ingested, plastic blocks the turtle’s digestive tract, ultimately leading to starvation. By reducing or refusing single-use plastic, we can make a big difference in the lives of sea turtles. (Find out more about reducing your plastic use by taking the #BePlasticWise pledge here: https://pledge.ocean.org)

“It is about individual responsibility and new choices that ultimately become habits we carry with us every day of our lives,” says Rodriguez.

Everywhere she goes, Rodriguez carries with her the memory of that Costa Rican beach where she made a difference in the life of one turtle. “The drive to survive, and do what they have done for millions of years, overcomes the dangers these turtles face out there,” she says. “[Their story] is one that shows resilience, and the opportunity we have to make things better for ourselves and our planet”.

Aya Nader is an Egyptian independent journalist studying at Simon Fraser University’s Global Communications program. 

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