UAE: Injured turtles, abandoned dugongs being rescued in Abu Dhabi; here's how

The 8,600sqm centre is the largest dedicated marine research, rescue, rehabilitation, and return facility in the region


Ashwani Kumar

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Published: Tue 9 Jul 2024, 5:01 PM

Last updated: Tue 9 Jul 2024, 9:48 PM

Hundreds of sick or injured marine animals were being rescued and treated at the Yas SeaWorld Research and Rescue Centre in Abu Dhabi alongside turtles that were released into their natural habitat.

The 8,600sqm centre, which went operational in the first quarter of last year, is the largest dedicated marine research, rescue, rehabilitation, and return facility in the region.

Since its establishment, the centre has been providing critical care to a wide range of species from sea turtles to dolphins and endangered ones. It boasts the region’s first marine wildlife rescue ambulances with specialised equipment and a cutting-edge fleet of rescue boats.

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Subject-matter experts from the centre showed Khaleej Times the work behind-the-scenes as they respond to marine emergencies starting from receiving a call on 0565030060 – the shared hotline with Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD).

“If you spot an animal in distress alert us through the Abu Dhabi Government call centre at 800-555 or directly reach us on 0565030060. We’re ready to help any marine animal that’s sick or injured," said Jonathan Diaz, zoological manager.

Supplied photo
Supplied photo

When contacted for assistance, the team of marine wildlife rescue experts from both EAD and the centre typically assess the situation. They then come up with a rescue plan tailored for the type of animal in distress.

“Once the plan is communicated, the marine wildlife ambulance is equipped and dispatched immediately to the rescue location to further assess the animal’s condition, so we know the initial steps of care. Once the course of care is determined, the experts will ascertain if the animal needs immediate attention or transportation to the centre,” Diaz said.

The centre’s marine wildlife rescue ambulances have a capacity of up to 6,000kgs, and each rescue is different based on the animal in distress.

Supplied photo
Supplied photo

“If it’s a dugong, a rescue boat is used to transfer it to shore followed by a rescue van to make their way to the centre, where it is cared for using the latest technological equipment in addition to a highly specialised zoological team that monitors the marine animal’s status constantly,” Diaz said and noted that the team includes experienced veterinarians, animal care specialists, rescue operations team, nutritionists, behaviourists and more.

Supplied photo
Supplied photo

Specially designed ambulances

The rescue ambulances have been specifically designed to ensure maximum interior space without excessive built-in equipment, which enables the rescue of various animal species without size constraints.

“Large animals like dolphins and dugongs can be safely accommodated as they may move around during transport, minimising the risk of injury,” Diaz noted.

The bottom of the ambulance is lined with a mattress-like sponge material so that the animals are comfortable. “Some animals, who are used to living in water, have skin that is not accustomed to hard surfaces, so they need extra care. To enhance adaptability further, the vehicles carry specialised animal-specific equipment that is tailored to the needs of each rescue mission. This includes dolphin and dugong stretchers, water sprayers, pre-filled ‘go bags’ containing essential items like towels, tubes, funnels, hydration equipment, gloves, and emergency response kits equipped with stabilising equipment,” Diaz underlined.

Operations on boats

The centre recently added two new boats to its rescue fleet, a large boat measuring 8.2m in length and equipped with two separate nets: one stretching 90m and the other a massive 365m.

“It can accommodate a vast range of marine animals, ranging from small turtles and sea snakes to adult dugongs, some weighing more than 500kgs,” Diaz said.

The smaller seven-metre-long marine wildlife rescue boat plays a crucial role as a support vessel, with the capacity to carry up to seven people for more than 500kms.

“It is specifically designed for smaller marine wildlife rescue operations, such as rescuing sea turtles, sea snakes, and dugong calves. It can seamlessly transition into a research vessel, making it versatile for various marine conservation tasks,” Diaz noted.

What happens at the centre

When the animal arrives at the centre, the team of experts assesses the situation for physical injuries and mental status using several diagnostic equipment at the lab.

“If the animal is highly stressed, the most important thing is to anaesthetise the animal with the anaesthesia machines, while monitoring the heart rate, the internal CO2, and the amount of oxygen within the blood. The centre has ultrasound machines used for body checkups to see if there’s anything amiss, like free-flowing fluid or blood or lacerations,” Dr Tres Clarke, animal health and welfare director, said.

Supplied photo
Supplied photo

For large animals, the centre is equipped with a large animal anaesthesia unit that can handle the likes of large cetaceans or dolphins. The centre has an endoscopy machine equipped with a camera on the tip. Where it’s used to peek inside the animal through its mouth and check if it has swallowed trash or anything that needs to be removed.

Dealing with stressed animals

The centre can accommodate any species that come through its doors, Dr Clarke underlined.

“For birds, there are special built-in rooms that are air and temperature-controlled with nesting posts, and even hiding spots. A prime example was the spotted crake that had a broken wing which disabled it from flying, the centre’s team brought in big tubs of grass and little huts for it to hide in, and feel safe and secure, in addition to a kiddie pool for it to be kept in. For the sea turtle, the centre has large pools that can accommodate those animals with floors that lift and can bring the animal to the surface of the water so that the team can do their checkups,” Dr Clarke.

Dr Tres Clarke
Dr Tres Clarke

Release to natural habitat

After ensuring that the injured animal is back to its full health, the rescue team at the centre prepares to transfer the animal back into its natural habitat using the same rescue vehicles used to bring them into the centre.

“Before returning the rescued animal to its natural habitat, we seek the expertise of our partner the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi as well as other UAE environmental authorities, to ensure its safety and ability to survive on its own. In rare instances where they advise against the release of the animal, we commit to offering long-term, compassionate care within our state-of-the-art facilities while actively supporting ongoing research and educational endeavours,” Dr Clarke underlined.

Recently, the centre rehabilitated and released a group of 14 hawksbill turtles.


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