“No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”
We welcome guest writer Shea Wittig, a sustainable professional, eco-writer and global citizen with a relentless wanderlust spirit. She has lived in Australia, England and the Middle East and her love for travelling to new and exotic locations has fueled her dedication to share ways to live and travel more sustainably.
She is most happy when exploring the wonders of the world with her young family, supporting businesses with an ethical ethos and eating chocolate (Fair Trade, of course!). You can connect with Shea at her personal blog Conversations with My Sister and on Instagram.
Ecotourism, biodiversity and nature conservation might not be your immediate thought when exploring the United Arab Emirates (UAE), due to the glitz and glamour of the cosmopolitan cities portrayed on the covers of glossy campaigns.
However, with the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) launching The UAE National Ecotourism Project, across all seven Emirates, this is all about to change.
The desert is unmistakably an extreme environment yet, is still home to a diverse range of flora and fauna stretching across land, air and underwater. There are 43 protected areas in the UAE spanning 14% of the country and a selection of these are open to the public. Many are free to visit and all of them provide visitors with unique experiences and, perhaps more importantly, the opportunity to surround yourself with elements of the natural world.
So, what can you expect to find when you dig a bit deeper into the spirit of the UAE?
People of all ages are invited to participate in the releasing of endangered Hawksbill turtles, wander around the prime habitat of the flamingos, kayak or ride in an eco-donut around the wetlands, snorkel in the ocean, explore a UNESCO oasis and head out to the sand dunes. These are all outdoor activities which are ideal to organise during the cooler months.
Heading indoors and visiting The Falcon Hospital, The Green Planet and Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo are best saved for the summer months when high temperatures make it uncomfortable to be outside.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
Outdoor experiences to enjoy in the cooler months
RELEASING HAWKSBILL TURTLES
Abu Dhabi & Dubai
The UAE is home to the Hawksbill Turtle, a marine animal which is listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Special attention is focused on areas where turtles are known to return with extra precautions, awareness and education a high priority to ensure the best possible safety during nesting season.
One such protected area, which is open to the public, is the Jebel Ali Marine Sanctuary, a 2,002h area listed as a RAMSAR Wetlands of International Importance. Included within the area is the Ghantoot Marine Reserve. Major Ali Saqr Sultan Al Suwaidi, President of the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG) and his team monitor and protect nesting turtles and their incubating eggs, while providing the opportunity for the people of all ages to interact free of charge and have hands-on experience releasing the turtle hatchlings.
The passion Major Ali Saqr Sultan Al Suwaidi has for preserving the natural environment and educating youth of its value and importance is evident through the short presentation he gives on arrival to the sanctuary. Visitors are then invited to assist with weighing, measuring and recording the vitals of the hatchlings before being escorted to the beach, just on sunset, to assist in their safe release at the water’s edge.
Turtle season in the UAE is expected between the months of May to September and detailed information on successful turtle nesting and the opportunity to participate with the hatchling release can be found on the EMEG social media pages on Facebook and Instagram. Contacting by private message on these platforms is most reliable.
The Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project provides another opportunity to see marine turtles up close with a viewing area of the rehabilitated turtles located within Madinat Jumeirah. The group have successfully released 1300 turtles which have been in their care, as of May 2017. You can learn more at their Facebook page and read our review of what to expect at Madinat Jumeirah.
Al Wathba Wetland Reserve is a perfect example of the Environmental Agency Abu Dhabi’s (EAD) commitment to provide assessable access to conservation areas so as many people as possible are able to enjoy the natural wonders.
The Al Wathba Wetland Reserve is another RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance. It is home to more than 250 species of birds, insects and small reptiles, although perhaps the biggest drawcard is the 4,000 migratory flamingos which gather annually in the shallow waters.
The largest numbers flock to the wetland from the Autumn to the Spring and a viewing area has been constructed on the fringe of the waterway providing the perfect shelter to sit, with a picnic and set of binoculars, to watch the graceful birds in their natural habitat.
Visits to the five square kilometre area, which is Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, begins with a short and informative presentation which provides the opportunity to learn a little bit more about the abundant wetland ecosystem.
After participating in the information session guests are left to meander along either the 1.5km or 3km circuit at their own pace, with a reserve field guide to use along the way. Small buggies are available on site which is ideal for those who struggle to walk for long stretches of time, however, the designated paths around the area allow easy access.
Visiting hours are limited to Thursdays and Saturdays from 8am to 4pm with 2pm being the last entry time. Visiting the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve is free of charge and the restricted times are due to the ongoing balance of protecting the natural ecosystem and providing the opportunity for visitors to benefit from the tranquil atmosphere the wetlands create.
You might be surprised to learn just how much time people spend on the water considering the UAE is initially recognised as a nation surrounded by endless deserts and towering sand dunes.
Seasoned travellers understand the best way to experience a country is to behave like locals and, let me assure you, in a country blanketed by powerful heat during the summer, the locals gather around the water at every opportunity. Water sports are a favourite pastime and for those who enjoy combining recreation activities with nature experiences, a visit to the Eastern Mangroves wetland reserve is a definite must.
There are organised tours you can join where experienced guides will educate and answer questions along the way – the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency has provided a list of respected and well-established operators here. Kayaking is another popular mode of transport however, if you are looking for something a little bit a different, hiring your own Eco Donut to explore the Eastern Mangrove Nature Park, is a fun option.
The Eco Donuts are operated 100% off-grid, powered by the solar panels positioned on the roof and are easily manoeuvred by the most novice of seamen – including children! They are available for hire in an area where motorised boats aren’t permitted, making the adventure incredibly safe for all ages. Onboard you will find designated space to store snacks and beverages for an onboard picnic or, you can park at one of the jetties along the way where you can sit, or explore, a little more on foot.
The Eco Donuts comfortably seat 6 people and are available for hire for 30 minutes to 2 hours. More information can be found on their website. (Also keep your eye out for online specials and vouchers which make the adventure even more affordable.)
Related Reading: Check out our complete guide to outdoor ideas in the UAE
Indoor experiences to enjoy in the warmer months
THE FALCON HOSPITAL
Tourism isn’t the driving force behind the Falcon Hospital as their primary focus is diagnosing and treating injured falcons within their state-of-the-art intensive care clinical examination rooms and operating units.
The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (ADFH) has enjoyed many awards since its establishment in 2007 including, most recently, the 2018 Middle East Responsible Tourism Award and the 2017 World’s Responsible Tourism Award for the second consecutive year – and it is easy to see why.
The hospital is opened for organised tours which begins with a visit back through history focusing on the important role and heritage of Falconry in the Middle East. The local guide, in our case, had a friendly and interactive approach and seemed happy to share his vast knowledge as led by questions from the intimate sized crowd.
The 2-hour tour begins in the more formal rooms and moves directly into the main examination room where you are invited to watch a simple procedure of a ‘pedicure’ or ‘feather repair’ on one of the admitted falcons. Photos are encouraged and there is even an opportunity for an obligatory hold of one of the majestic animals. The tour includes both indoor and outdoor holding areas as well as the secluded moulting rooms. At the time of our visit, there were 200 falcons hospitalised on the grounds with 1800 recorded releases to date.
Due to the success of the Falcon Hospital, the facilities have also been extended to treat critically injured cats and dogs and also provide accommodation for them in a five-star pet hotel. There are also adoption and foster care options available on site.
The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is open to the public from Sunday to Thursday with a 10:00am or 2:00pm tour start time and bookings need to be made in advance. The Saturday tour is only available at 10:00am from October 1st to May 31st. More information can be found on the website.
THE GREEN PLANET
The Green Planet provides the opportunity to connect with elements of nature, including animal encounters, within a tropical rainforest setting. The facility is built around a magnificent tree, which is the largest indoor, man-made and life-sustaining tree in the world and houses over 3,000 plants and animals.
There are three distinct sections which begin the story starting with the forest floor, where you are met by animals such as the Archer Fish. Move on up into the mid-story layer where you might be lucky enough to hold a Python, then continue to spiral up to the top of the canopy which is directly below the spectacular bio-dome.
Along the way you might see the iconic Sloth just ‘hanging around’ and there are plenty of parrots and other fascinating birds, including my personal favourite the Toucan, to entertain and delight visitors of all ages.
Keep your eye out for organised educational talks through-out your visit, allow plenty of time to wander around all the display cabinets and get involved with the interactive educational equipment which all provide insight into the daily activities one could expect to find in a rainforest.
The care and knowledge shared by the award-winning and highly educated staff is second to none and it is hard to imagine any of the animals within the new-age zoo-like enclosure to be anything other than happy and content with their surrounds.
The building itself holds a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certificate due to its energy-conserving results and the consistent temperature range of 24-27 degrees Celsius, makes it a perfectly comfortable haven for visitors. Even the waterfall uses recycled water and the sound of running water adds to the effectiveness created by this ecosystem immersion.
The Green Planet is open from Sunday to Wednesday from 10:00am to 7:00pm and Thursday to Saturday from 10:00am-8:00pm. Tickets are sold up to one hour before closing however, I would recommend you allow a couple of hours to really enjoy all the available experiences. More information can be found on their website.
DUBAI AQUARIUM & UNDERWATER ZOO
In continuing with the thoughts of David Attenborough where he insists “no one will protect what they don’t care about” suggests the idea that aquariums provide an opportunity for the general public to experience, connect and better understand, the importance of our oceans.
You can’t help but be impressed the instant you walk through the 48 metre long Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo tunnel on the ground floor of the Dubai Mall. No matter how often you see it, be enthralled by the spectacular 10-million litre aquarium tank which, in true UAE style, is one of the largest suspended aquariums in the world.
This truly spectacular setting proudly accommodates around 140 diverse species of aquatic animals, is home to the largest collection of Sand Tiger Sharks in the world, as well as many other species of sharks and rays.
Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo take the initiative to introduce educational presentations throughout the centre with the intention to provide insight into the habits and behaviours of all the marine animals who call the ocean home. The aquarium offers visitors plenty of opportunities for interaction including the cage snorkelling experience or a shark dive.
For the slightly less brave of visitors, a ride in the glass-bottom boat, where you can assist in feeding the giant trevally, is something our family highly recommends.
Keep an eye on notices and announcements throughout your visit as there are many other presentations and feeding opportunities during the day which are suitable for a full range of age groups.
The Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo is open from 10:00am till 12:00pm Midnight with the last admission at 11.30pm – but please, do yourself a favour and allow longer than 30 minutes for your visit.
There is no denying that virtual reality (VR) technology can take us on multiple journeys without even leaving the comfort of our home although, those seeking out adventure understand it’s the submersion which makes you feel alive. Spending time in the outdoors can provide the necessary elements needed to relax and rejuvenate your soul and connect with the living planet stirs feelings of empathy and compassion. These feelings are crucial for humanity during a time when global warming is at the top of the agenda and the list of endangered and vulnerable animals is ever growing.
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