Thriving At Home

From saving coral reefs to rescuing Hawksbill turtle for Scottish Arabella Willing at Saadiyat island.

By Sujata Devadas, November 27, 2016 

In 2009, Park Hyatt hired Arabella Willing as the first marine biologist and  conservationist to protect coral reefs that surrounded their hotel in the Maldives.

Alongside her initial focus on coral reef ecology, Arabella, a marine biology graduate from the University of St Andrews (north of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh) worked with EarthCheck, to get the hotel certified in following the best practice for sustainable tourism and travel. Arabella succeeded in getting this certification for the Park Hyatt Maldives hotel.

 Three years ago, Arabella arrived at Park Hyatt, Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. This time, her concern was quite different.

The Hawksbill turtle - nowhere to turn

 Within a month of arrival, Arabella teamed up with TDIC and the Environmental Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD). She began collecting data on turtles along Saadiyat beach, on which the Park Hyatt is located, as well as about dolphins in the Arabian Gulf. Data on turtle population measuring their tracks, the depth of their nests, hatching success and clutch size, was collected and handed over to EAD for analysis.

Arabella’s heart sank when she found that only 50 to 200 female Hawksbill turtles now making their nests in the gulf.  Staring her in the face was further  corroborative evidence that the turtle population had declined 85 per cent, the world over. On the ‘critically endangered’ International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list, they are a step away from extinction.

Turtle eggs hatched on Saadiyat beach

Arabella measures turtle tracks

“Turtles are easily disturbed,” Arabella explains. “They consider the UAE coastline their ‘home’ beach, a safe place to nest. If it is dotted with beach furniture, loud and bright lights, they struggle to find an alternative.”

With immediate effect, Arabella addressed all obstructions that inhibit female turtles from nesting on the beaches she surveyed.

The colour of the lights was changed. “The glare of white lights bothered the turtles.” she says. 

“Our beach restaurants therefore replaced them with orange and red lights, which impactedthe turtles to a lesser degree. Sound levels have been reduced. Turtles crawl ashore for nesting from April to June, with hatching from June to August. At that time, the beach is off limits at night time. Beach furniture — sunbeds, tables, umbrellas etc. — are pulled closer to the buildings so that a larger area is left clear for the turtles to nest.”

Seeking help

Here too, at Park Hyatt, Saadiyat Island, Arabella is seeking to implement EarthCheck standards and obtain certification in sustainable tourism, then maintain it.

She joined as resident marine biologist. Now she is head of conservation, community engagement and activities. “My passion and drive is to conserve wild life, whichever form it takes,” Arabella says. “The animals that I monitor here — dolphins and turtles — are part of a much wider ecosystem.

“Both dolphins and turtles are quite charismatic. People feel an instinct to protect them. If I get someone to care about a turtle, they are friendlier towards the entire environment. So turtles and dolphins awaken a need in us to care for the planet itself and treat it well.

“If a fish swallows a plastic bag and dies, it might seem trivial to many of us, but if you love turtles and understand they are on the verge of extinction with plastic bags adding to this critical danger, it makes enough difference to stop chucking trash into the ocean and further, help in rescuing them."

Keep them alive

In years gone by, many turtles were killed to use their shell as jewellery and decoration. Published by the University news hub DukeToday in 2004, a quarter of a million turtles are caught in fishing nets as a by-catch, across the world.

Turtles feed along the coral reefs. John Weier’s article in NASA’s Earth Observatory publication shows ample evidence that coral reefs are shrinking (, diminishing and destroying turtles’ food supply.

Added to this, Hawksbill turtles frequently eat plastic because they mistake it for their favourite food, jellyfish.

As beaches develop into tourism destinations across the planet, a vast number of coastal regions frequented by turtles for nesting are no longer accessible to them. Acutely aware of all this, Arabella put a “green” team together by training hotel staff. 

“Lifeguards, event organisers, hospitality managers, personnel in charge of the kids club and cleaners are trained to recognise turtle activities and protect them. They help take my mission further. I need cooperation from everyone to be effective,” says Arabella.

 “When guests take eco-tours through the mangroves, I join them to explain how crucial they are, the many services they provide to mankind and to ecology. I tell them about bird life and dolphins, if we see them on our rides, as well as about other marine flora and fauna, spotted on these tours.”

The Arabian Gulf

Arabella explains that turtles are in different places at different stages of their lives. When they are hatched the turtle babies are so tiny, they fit inside your palm. When they crawl out of the beach into the ocean, they are not strong enough to battle ocean currents. They have no choice but to just flow with it.

Once they grow bigger and sturdier, they become more selective, staying close to coral reefs for foraging and feeding. When they are ready to reproduce, they swim back to their home beach or mating area.

Turtle rescue

 “From the end of November to February or March, the winter months, it is not nesting season for Hawksbill turtles,” says Arabella. “They need to be rescued.”

Rescuing turtles, another part of conservation-oriented Arabella’s work in UAE is because “the Arabian Gulf is shallow with  an average depth of 30 metres. The ideal temperature for hawksbill sea turtles is 25 to 30 degrees Celsius. In winter, the water temperature may go down to 20 degrees Celsius. Reptilian turtles cannot always adjust to this temperature variance.

Their metabolism sinks low. They eat very little and they sit at the bottom. Parasites such as barnacles grow on them. Their immune system becomes so vulnerable, they become prone to infections and illness. More so, for younger turtles.”

Arabella accompanies Jane Goodall at Park Hyatt in January 2016

Baby turtles with barnacles rescued from Saadiyat beach

“A lot of them wash up on the beach. Last winter, 98 such turtles were rescued from Saadiyat. The Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) manages Saadiyat beach. We join them in rescuing turtles, sending them subsequently to the EAD rehabilitation facility or to the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre in Dubai, based near the Burj Al Arab Aquarium, Jumeirah,” says Arabella.

After rehabilitation, they are released back into the ocean once the weather is warmer.

The Turtle Survival Challenge

It all comes down to making better choices. Arabella accompanies students on school trips to help build awareness and sensitise students. She has so far been with Al Raha International, the British School of Al Khubeirat, the British International School Abu Dhabi, Al Yasmina, Al Muna Primary School, Pearl Primary School, GEMS American Academy, the American Community School, the American International School, The German International School, The French International School and several ADEC schools.

Schools with anthropologist Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots Club engage children in environmental and conservation activities.

Last January, Jane Goodall graced Park Hyatt’s End-Of-Year (is it the title of the awards, if not end of year can be lower case) awards ceremony. Arabella gave a presentation.

A few student representatives from these schools attended, and played the Turtle Survival Challenge — a fun obstacle course simulating the dangers faced by turtles.

Arabella describes the game: “The kids have to crawl under fishing nets, learn about sustainable fishing, make their way through plastic, go through a maze of sun beds and umbrellas before they can reach the nesting habitat. A lot of turtle eggs get poached. Only one in a 1,000 eggs laid will become an adult turtle. So, the final obstacle is about poaching. The players have to find an egg of a certain colour that I make and put in a fake nest.”

 “Never keep a sea turtle as a pet,” she cautions. “Turtles are very slow to mature. A loggerhead turtle takes about 45 years to become an adult. The Hawksbill turtle can take 30 years to become an adult. It could be 15 years, depending on how much they eat. This affects when they reproduce.”

During the turtle-nesting season, she welcomes anybody to join her on her beach patrol. “Send me an email or contact Park Hyatt. It begins at 5:00 am. It lasts throughout the summer — from April to August.”


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