Turtle Power

Baby hawksbill turtles make their way to the sea on Saadiyat Beach, Abu Dhabi. Courtesy of Arabella Willing

Community unites to help the critically endangered hawksbill turtle — the only species in the Gulf that nests in Abu Dhabi

The sun has barely peeked over the horizon, and the sky is still dusky. Volunteers gather along Saadiyat Beach to begin their morning lookout for possible turtle nesting tracks that may have happened in the cover of darkness just hours before.

Some volunteers walk the stretch of beach, while others choose to pack in a morning workout with a run.

Mature female hawksbill turtles return to the soft white sand of Saadiyat Beach in Abu Dhabi to lay their eggs between March and June.

NYU Abu Dhabi students patrol Saadiyat Beach.

Nesting Only in Abu Dhabi

Although both the green turtles and the hawksbill turtles are commonly found in the Arabian Gulf, only the hawksbill turtles nest in Abu Dhabi. Saadiyat Beach, which is only a few kilometers from the NYU Abu Dhabi campus, is one of 17 nesting sites in the Emirate.

Saadiyat Public Beach is part of the long stretch of nesting ground for hawksbill turtles. NYU Abu Dhabi is not far from it.

Efforts to Protect Hawksbill Turtles

Listed as critically endangered by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), even more attention has been given the past few years to ensure mother turtles not only make it to shore to lay their eggs, but their hatchlings are protected until they are ready to head back to sea again.

Arabella Willing is a marine biologist who works as the head of conservation and community engagement with Park Hyatt Hotel on Saadiyat Beach. Willing used to do turtle patrolling on her own, but with a new section of the beach opened up for monitoring this year, she is partnering with volunteers from NYUAD Community Outreach office to join forces.

The beach patrol now stretches out to seven and a half kilometers one way, making it approximately 15 kilometers on return. “It’s quite a long way for one volunteer to be monitoring,” Willing chuckled. With the help of volunteers, the patrol is divided into three shorter sections, each between three to six kilometers.

Besides the patrol, beachside hotel properties on Saadiyat Island also have a few added measures for a more productive environment for the turtles. Lights near the beach are dimmed, noise pollutions are reduced, and sunbeds are not too close to the sea as they may hinder a turtle coming to shore.

Turtle Patrol Volunteer

NYUAD student Killian Dumont is one of the volunteers who signed up for turtle patrol. She learned about the initiative through her Global Climate Change class by Professor David Holland. Willing was a guest speaker during one of the classes, and had given a presentation about turtle conservation work in Abu Dhabi.

Dumont, a Colorado native, jumped at the opportunity saying, “After high school, I volunteered at my local zoo (Denver Zoo)... I’m really interested in wildlife conservation and environmental science work.”

While waking up at 5:45 in the morning isn’t the easiest thing to do for most college students, Dumont enjoys her patrol.

There are of course, the occasional fringe benefits — sightings of dolphins jumping out of the water, and encounters with starfishes and sea snakes that didn’t quite make it out when the high tide retreated.


It’s such a stress reliever. You don’t have to worry about your work yet. You get to hang out with your friends and talk.

Killian Dumont, Class of 2021

Hawksbill Turtles Important for the Arabian Gulf

NYUAD Associate Professor of Biology, John Burt has been using the Arabian Gulf to study coral reef ecology in extreme environments. Hawksbill turtles in these waters, he said, are a critical part of the ecosystem.

“While hawksbill turtles are best known for their role in consuming sponges that compete with corals on reefs, populations in (this region) have a more varied diet and can also consume large volumes of algae — a much faster growing and more common competitor to corals on reefs in the Emirates,” Burt said.

A reduction in hawksbill turtles tips the balance of the ecosystem as sponges and algae overgrow and essentially smother the corals. What’s more, algae in large numbers known as algae bloom, is potentially harmful to humans.

Globally, hawksbill turtles are experiencing an estimated 80% decline in the past three generations, Burt added.

Where Art Thou Turtles?

April and May are the peak months for nesting. As the beach patrol moves into June, there’s no sign yet of turtle tracks nor their precious eggs that look a bit like ping-pong balls.

Female turtle tracks on sand in Saadiyat Beach in 2017. Courtesy of Arabella Willing
An inventory of hatched turtle eggs Saadiyat Beach in 2017. Courtesy of Arabella Willing

While mother turtles don’t come up every year to nest, the modified natural coastal environment around Saadiyat Beach may also be a reason for the no-show so far.

“Coastal modification through the addition of seawalls, breakwaters, ports, and related structures has removed much of the beach nesting habitat for green and hawksbill turtles in many parts of the Gulf,” Burt commented.

NYU Abu Dhabi students patrol Saadiyat Beach.

How You Can Help

  • Join us in the turtle patrol
    Members of the public, or members of the NYUAD community can email nyuad.community.outreach@nyu.edu to join the turtle patrol. Patrolling will finish at the end of June.

  • Look out for turtles
    Keep an eye out for turtles’ nests the next time you visit a beach in Abu Dhabi. If you spot a stranded turtle, or see a nest, call Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) at 800-8342 for support.

  • Pick up trash
    Picking up trash along the beach ensures that plastic does not end up in the sea and get mistaken as food. Turtles often mistake plastic bags as jellyfish (a food source) and it becomes a choking hazard for them.

  • Remove nurdles
    Nurdles are small pallets made out of plastic, and are raw materials used in manufacturing plastic products. Sea creatures often mistake them as food and once ingested, these toxic pallets get lodged into their body tissue. It becomes a vicious cycle that can impact human lives because we consume them as seafood.
Nurdles collected from Saadiyat Beach.
Killian Dumont (Class of 2021) picks up nurdles during one of our community outreach environmental conservation initiatives.

Some Environment-Related Courses at NYUAD

The Environment Minor
Keen on environmental sustainability? Learn about the minor and available courses. 

Global Climate Change Course
Professor David Holland teaches the course, and has research interests in climate science and sea level changes.

Coastal Urbanization and Environmental Change Course
Associate Professor John Burt teaches the course, and has interests in marine biology studies.