Talking Turtles and Conservation with Arabella Willing | Abu Dhabi

I think it’s important to find alternatives that are glamorous. I disagree that sustainable clashes with luxury.Arabella Willing

Sunday’s lunch date was back at the Beach House with the fabulous and incredibly knowledgeable Arabella Willing, resident marine biologist at the Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas at Saadiyat Island. So why you may ask does a glamorous five-star resort have its own marine biologist? The answer is simple, the Park Hyatt hotel group has a proactive Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy that means as well as building environmentally friendly hotels they also want to educate the local community and hotel guests on how to preserve, protect and conserve the environment.


The Park Hyatt is located on the beautiful Saadiyat Beach that comes with the added responsibility of protecting the plight of the critically endangered hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) who are native to the Middle East who choose this pristine nine kilometre-long stretch of sand as a nesting site. Amazingly the female turtle, no matter how much of the world’s oceans she has traversed, will always return to her birth beach by instinct to lay her eggs and Saadiyat is one of those spots.

Arabella is currently rising at the crack of dawn every morning to patrol the beach and monitor the Hawksbill turtle nests, relocating some of them to higher ground so the incubation period of the eggs (approx 55 – 60 days) is not effected by the tides. Her early wake-up calls are worth every minute of sleep deprivation as she gets to witness the newly hatched baby reptiles make their way safely to the ocean for their first swim and get to deeper water to escape predators, she really has the most awesome and rewarding job!


The dwindling hawksbill turtle population here in the Middle East feeds off the coral reef located just a kilometre off Saadiyat as well as other reefs around the Gulf. The hawksbill turtle has a narrow head and a beak shaped jaw (hence the name hawksbill) which is perfect for getting in the crevices of the reef to feed. The female turtle chooses the more secluded and steeper part of the beach to lay her eggs to protect them from high tides but in all probability only half of them will hatch successfully and make it to the ocean alive. The female will return to the beach at least two or three times a season to lay her eggs and then have a couple of years off before the process starts again.


After lunch I joined Arabella on a very sweaty afternoon stroll along the beach to see some of the nesting sites and saw some of the tiny turtle prints in the sand of the babies who had left the nest and made their way to the ocean, so awesome! With a vast amount of construction going on just behind the nesting sites the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) have implemented strict environmental guidelines.

These regulations protect the dune system and the turtles nesting habitat enabling the development and conservation to continue hand-in-hand. The critically endangered hawksbill turtle is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List along with pandas and white rhinos among many others in the highest risk category for wild species, all worryingly facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the immediate future.

unnamed-58Prior to the ban on the tortoiseshell trade, 85% of the hawksbill turtle population was lost mainly due to the harvesting of their beautiful and colourful shells (carapace) which were then polished and made into tortoiseshell hair slides, jewellery and used as decorative inlays in furniture. Despite the fact that the trading of tortoiseshell is now prohibited internationally there is still a flourishing black market. Add to that the fact that the female turtle does not reproduce until the age of thirty and there are only an estimated 8,000 nesting females left in the world, the situation is dire.

In poorer countries the eggs are also eaten by humans and the ingestion of plastic waste in the ocean worldwide is a serious threat. Other threats from man include the destruction of nesting and feeding habitat, pollution, boat collisions, coastal development, entanglement in fishing nets and the illegal destructive dynamite fishing that use explosives to stun or kill fish that also damages the reefs where the turtles and other species feed.

img_6781.jpgAlongside her work protecting the hawksbill turtle, Arabella spreads awareness about conservation, coastal habitats and the Emirates marine ecosystems in locals schools. She also runs eco-trips in the mangroves with local boat company Captain Tony’s, organises beach clean ups and leads the Hyatt Thrive project in the capital (more about that later). Through Arabella’s programmes the hotel offers local school children the opportunity to engage with nature and learn about respecting the environment.

She also offers schools and local companies the chance to participate in environmental and conservation projects as well as team building exercises such as her ‘Turtle Survivor Challenge’ with any proceeds raised from these corporate events shared with local conservation projects such as those run by Emirates Wildlife Society (EWS-WWF). Saadiyat is not only home to the hawksbill turtle but an abundance of wildlife including bottlenose dolphins and Arabella can enlighten you about them all from their daily habits to their mating rituals, she really knows it all!


Educated at boarding schools in England, British Army General’s daughter Arabella has lived all over the world but it was her father’s posting in Oman that shaped her desire to venture into marine biology. Spending all her school holidays outdoors exploring and meeting marine biologists during her time in Muscat prompted her decision to study Marine Biology for her degree at St. Andrews University in Scotland, a leading university for marine research.

Before taking on the newly created role in Abu Dhabi in 2013, Arabella spent over three years living in Maldives where she worked first as a teacher in a local school on a small remote island and then took over the resident marine biologist position at the Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa resort. As well as running the onsite five-star PADI dive centre she also ran workshops and courses to measure coral, identify marine life and estimate fish stock to educate guests, staff and locals on sustainability, conservation and the effects of coral bleaching.

In layman terms coral bleaching occurs when warmer water temperature causes the coral to expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues causing it to turn completely white. With the coral reefs providing shelter and protection from predators, the vanishing reefs will eventually impact humans that depend on fish for food and livelihoods. Up to 90% of coral cover has already been lost in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Tanzania and in the Seychelles.

So what is Hyatt Thrive? Hyatt Thrive is the corporate responsibility platform that follows the belief that for business to thrive, people, communities and the planet must also thrive. This shared vision is implemented across all the Park Hyatt hotels around the globe with the projects varying from place to place depending on the needs of the local community. The four factors of Hyatt Thrive are Environmental Sustainability, Education and Career Readiness, Economic  Development and Investment and Health and Wellness.

Here in Abu Dhabi the hotel was built using the silver standard from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a ratings system developed by the US. Green Building Council that governs sustainable building practices and  helps building owners and operators be environmentally responsible and use resources efficiently. The Park Hyatt programme gives the Saadiyat sea turtles a safe place to nest, feed and migrate freely by restricting beach access at night, moving the sun-beds back from the beach, having a raised boardwalk to save the beach from extra trampling and changing the light bulbs to red during nesting season so the turtles don’t get confused by the white light (as their instincts tell them to follow the white moonlight reflecting on the ocean).


Arabella may have blinded me with science but I enjoyed every minute, I could literally listen to her for hours and write the longest blog post ever (yes, even longer than this one)! Did you know that all species of turtle are endangered? Did you know there are 5.3 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean? Did you know that the cold-blooded baby turtles are vulnerable to the change in water temperature? Did you know that as well as being illegal to trade sea turtle products it’s also illegal to purchase or own them? Nope, me either!

So today on World Environment Day take some of Arabella’s advice and think about your eco-footprint, play your part and respect the environment, buy organic and biodegradable products whenever you can and help spread awareness to help protect and save the hawksbill turtle.

Under UAE law it is prohibited to capture sea turtles of all species or to collect their eggs, the penalty for doing so includes imprisonment and/or a heavy fine.


Telephone: 02 407 1234


Find out about the hotels eco-tours and Arabella’s programmes here

Read more about how you can help Abu Dhabi’s hawksbill turtle population here


Here’s some more interesting hawksbill turtle facts

– There are two types of turtle commonly found in the Arabian Gulf, the Hawksbill and Green

– Hawksbill turtles nest alone.

– On average they can nest up to four times each season with two-week intervals. Each female can lay around 140 eggs per nest but some may lay over 200 eggs. The average for Abu Dhabi is a bit lower than this, only 57 with a range of 32 to 119.

– Researchers believe the Eastern Pacific hawksbill is likely the most endangered sea turtle population worldwide.

– Hawksbill turtle flesh is harmful to humans causing serious illness (even death in extreme cases) because of their sponge diet that contains toxic chemical compounds which accumulate in the animal’s tissues.

– Hawksbills are important inhabitants of coral reefs due to their consumption of sponges which stops it over growing and suffocating the reef. It’s estimated that one turtle can consume over 1,000 pounds of sponges per year.

– Nobody is quite sure how long turtles live for but it is estimated that they can live in excess of 150 years.

If you find a sick turtle washed up on the beach with its shell covered in barnacles take it to Arabella who will send it to The Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP). The project is based at Burj Al Arab and Madinat Jumeirah run by Jumeriah Group in collaboration with Dubai’s Wildlife Protection Office, with essential veterinary support provided by the Dubai Falcon Clinic and the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory. The project aims to rescue, rehabilitate and release back into the wild any sea turtles that are found sick or injured throughout the region. Read more here

If you spot any Dolphins in the UAE please contact The UAE Dolphin Project. This non-profit initiative is dedicated to monitoring the dolphin population along the UAE coastline, collect  and provide scientific information and to support marine conservation. You can report a sighting by sending a text message to +971 566717164, e-mail or filling in the form on the website here. This is something I really wish I known earlier as we have seen dolphins many times on the boat.


Unless otherwise stated, all photos on this page © Jo Brett 2015. All rights reserved. Photos 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 provided by Arabella Willing. Photo 3 used courtesy of Abu Dhabi Week. Additional information sourced from and

Read more about the Park Hyatt in my previous post Park Hyatt Pampering

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