Back in 2010, little was known about the behaviour of critically endangered hawksbill turtles in the Arabian Gulf. Scientists knew where they nested, but not much about their life at sea. Certainly not enough to design effective ways to conserve the region’s dwindling hawksbill population.

But many of the gaps have now been filled thanks to the Marine Turtle Conservation Project – the largest hawksbill-tracking project in the region, which has shed some much-needed light on the post-nesting behaviour and migration patterns of the elusive turtles. Run by the Emirates Wildlife Society in association with WWF (EWS-WWF) and in partnership with the Marine Research Foundation, the project uncovered key foraging sites throughout the Gulf as well as a migratory bottleneck and two critical feeding grounds in the waters off Oman.

For three consecutive years, the project team headed for beaches in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran, Qatar and Oman and stuck satellite transmitters to the shells of 75 post-nesting hawksbills. And then tracked their movements after they slipped back into the water, building up a wealth of data on previously unknown foraging grounds and migration routes within the region.

The project recommended that governments recognise the feeding grounds throughout the Gulf as Important Turtle Areas (ITAs), as well as take further action to regulate development to minimise potential threats to these critical foraging areas. The project did not call for outright protection of all these sites, but it did urge governments to acknowledge their importance for the survival of hawksbill turtle populations within the region and implement suitable conservation measures for each site.

The project also identified three ITAs in the sea off Oman outside the Gulf itself. Most of the turtles tagged in Oman passed through these locations, which clearly need to be the focus of future conservation plans.

Watch a tagged hawksbill get back into the sea.