Meet the “Turtle Sheikh” Who Created Dubai’s 800-TURTLE Helpline

Did you know a turtle can swim from Dubai to Thailand in nine months? The Turtle Sheikh does, because he rescued one and released it with a tracker for research and conservation purposes. And he’s got about 1,999 other swimmingly successful stories like it.

Turtle Sheikh

By Nicola Chilton
Photographs by Christophe Chellapermal

Jul 4, 2022

LAST OCTOBER, on a beach next to Dubai’s iconic Burj Al Arab hotel, Sheikh Fahim bin Sultan bin Khalid Al Qasimi bid an emotional farewell to Farah, a large green sea turtle that he had rescued on a free-diving trip a few months earlier. He’d found her tangled in fishing line, unable to reach the surface to get air. “Farah was drowning,” Sheikh Fahim told me when we met at Dubai’s Surf House, a beachside surfing hangout and café that he co-owns. “She couldn’t come up for air, and that meant she probably had six hours left.”

The release was part of a larger event involving the return to the sea of 14 rehabilitated green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles by the Jumeirah hotel group’s Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP), marking their 2,000th release since the program’s inception in 2004. 

Upon release, Farah, named after the Arabic word for “joy,” and two of her companions – a 50-year-old green turtle and a loggerhead – were fitted with trackers. “Tracking and research are fascinating to me,” says Sheikh Fahim. “It helps us understand their movements more, and lets people know where turtles go,” all of which can impact global conservation efforts. 

Barbara Lang-Lenton, director of the Burj Al Arab Aquarium and DTRP agrees. “This detailed collected data helps measure the success of rehabilitation protocols and the integration of the animals back into the wild, as well as allowing the team to compare habitat, temperature choice and migration patterns for each species,” she says.

Thanks to the DTRP’s tagging initiative, the project has seen turtles embark on incredibly long journeys. One of the rescued turtles, Dibba, traveled 8,600 kilometers to reach Thailand in nine months, the first example recorded of a marine turtle migrating from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. “Because they’re migratory species, every turtle you save has global impact,” Sheikh Fahim says. 

Courtesy of Jumeirah Group DTRP (2)

Rescuing turtles is not the only thing that Sheikh Fahim does. He is also executive chairman of the emirate of Sharjah’s Department of Government Relations, a business owner, father of four-year-old twin boys, surfer, free-diver, and sailor. But it’s his work with turtles that earned him the nickname “The Turtle Sheikh” and spurred him to launch the 800-TURTLE helpline, so that anyone, anywhere in the United Arab Emirates who finds an injured turtle can immediately and easily connect to the DTRP.

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“I kept getting calls from people saying ‘what do we do when we find a turtle?’ so we needed a process. I called the local phone company, asked for 800-TURTLE, called Jumeirah, and we connected it to their number,” he explains as if it was nothing. Since January, calls to the line have helped save the lives of 16 turtles.

The DTRP’s critical care facilities are located at the Burj Al Arab hotel, with large rehabilitation facilities and a turtle lagoon at the neighboring Jumeirah Al Naseem hotel. And unlike many facilities that are limited in space and resources, a touch of the luxury that the hotels’ human guests experience can be seen in the turtles’ facilities. “The water is brought in from the sea and recycled every day. There’s biodiversity that prepares them for life at sea much better than a big blue bucket. The Jumeirah Al Naseem pools are very pretty, but from a scientific perspective they’re amazing,” says Sheikh Fahim.

Turtle Sheikh

The DTRP rescues an average of more than 100 turtles each year. Currently, more than 50 turtles are being treated across the facility. By the end of June, they aim to release another 50. 

“Some of the injuries we tend to are manmade, such as entanglement or ingestion of plastic waste, and some are sick rather than injured, normally showing heavy barnacle growth on their shell,” says Lang-Lenton. Young turtles in the region can also suffer from cold-stunning, a life-threatening reaction from exposure to cold water for prolonged periods. 

“There’s a lot of ways to help,” Sheikh Fahim says. “I try to do a turtle watch on days when there are big waves.” He posts when people should head out to look for turtles in need of rescue on his own Instagram feed, usually after a drop in temperature and a rise in swell. And he wants the local community and visitors to get involved, too. “Just spend an hour of your day going to your local beach, look out for turtles, and ask the lifeguard if they found any.” 

Turtle Sheikh

If the answer is yes, calling 800-TURTLE can minimize the amount of time between finding a turtle and getting it to DTRP’s rescue facilities. But according to Sheikh Fahim, you don’t always want to find a turtle.

“It’s a great day when you don’t find a turtle because it means they’re alright.” 

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