To see all that’s hopeful and appalling about the way we treat sea turtles, there’s no better place to start than the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel. This shimmering tower of blue and white glass is shaped like the jib of a sailboat bound for shore. It rose two decades ago on an artificial island amid the steel forest of construction cranes that is Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates. A royal suite, at 8,396 square feet, comes with a private cinema and 17 pillow options. A weekend stay can top $50,000. I have come here, though, to see its nonpaying guests.
Passing a fleet of white Rolls-Royces, I meet British expat marine biologist David Robinson. We take an elevator down to a parking garage and walk by Lamborghinis to our destination: a labyrinth of pipes and plastic pools, the intensive care unit of an elaborate marine turtle hospital. In one tub a green sea turtle struggles with internal organ damage. One floor up, sick, critically endangered hawksbills fill aquariums.
The hotel housing this rehab center is owned by a holding group whose driving force is Dubai’s emir. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the architect of the region’s lightning growth, wants his city to become a model of environmental stewardship. But the reptilian miseries unspooling in this epicenter of consumption reveal much about the ills we humans heap on these creatures. Workers here have seen turtles with balloons lodged in their intestines, turtles with flippers broken after getting caught in fishing nets, a turtle bashed in the head and tossed off a boat. One female green turtle was struck by a ship just down the road, near the world’s ninth busiest seaport. The impact crushed her shell, carving out a jagged three-pound wedge as big as an iron.