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Bu Tinah, Abu Dhabi's secret nature reserve

By Sara Sidner, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bu Tinah Island is prime real estate for some of the earth's most amazing creatures
  • The island is in the running to become one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature
  • The nature reserve is closed to tourists and fishermen
  • It is home to threatened species, the dugong, and a nesting ground for Hawksbill turtles

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (CNN) -- Not far from Abu Dhabi's man-made concrete, glass and steel architectural marvels sits a completely natural treasure -- Bu Tinah Island -- a place so precious only a few select people are even allowed access to it.

The island is located in the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve, the region's largest and first UNESCO-designated marine biosphere reserve. The area is prime real estate for some of the earth's most amazing creatures.

"Bu Tinah as an island is one of the less-recognized wonders of the world -- and part of the reason is because it is protected," said Al Harthi.

Suaad Saleh Al Harthi, a scientist with Abu Dhabi's Environment Agency, is one of the lucky few allowed to dive and explore all the biodiversity that the Island and its surrounding waters have to offer.

On the way to the tiny island, just two square kilometers, it is not unusual for curious dolphins to suddenly appear. The closer you get, the more nature reveals its treasures.

Flying fish resembling long green sticks skip across the ocean's surface, Osprey nest on the island, feeding off the sea and pink flamingo group together during their long winter rest. Even creatures on the ocean floor are visible because the sea is so clear and shallow.

UAE island could be 7th wonder of world
The thing that makes it special is the diversity of the wildlife that exists on this island
--Suaad Saleh Al Harthi, scientist
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"The thing that makes it special is (the) diversity of the wildlife that exists on this island and the ability of these different organisms to survive under extreme temperature and salinity, which they wouldn't be expected to survive," Al Harthi said.

That is among the reasons Bu Tinah Island is in the running to become one of the world's New Seven Wonders of Nature. Scientists say its coral reefs survive in temperatures ranging from 15 C to 37 C, extremes that would normally destroy them.

The entire area is also a natural laboratory for the scientists to study climate change. It is host to one of the world's endangered species -- the Hawksbill turtle, which comes to nest on the island.

A threatened species, the dugong, a large marine mammal similar to a manatee, can also be seen patrolling the shallow waters for its sea grass food.

Despite all the creatures in the mangrove, the beautiful beaches and wildlife-filled sea, most people in the world will never step foot on the island -- something the caretaker says is a good thing.

Mohammed Al Shehhi patrols the island several times a day keeping humans at bay and looking for plastic and other hazards to wildlife.

Al Shehhi lives on the island for weekly shifts he shares with several other rangers. He knows the secrets of the sea because he comes from a family of fishermen.

"We are from the sea and we love the sea and this is our job. We have to stay here. We take care of this the site," he said.

Despite being surrounded by a fisherman's paradise that can never be fished, he recoils at the thought of other fisherman -- and tourists -- and being allowed too close.

He says the island would be "spoiled" if fishermen were allowed to fish the waters off the island. If they were, he predicted, "You're not going to see fish, birds, nothing (like this)."

Al Shehhi is among the most adamant that the island and its waters must be protected and honored as one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

The island is one of only three wonders in the Middle East to make a short list of 28. It faces some stiff competition from around the world including the Grand Canyon in the United States and the The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.

Local scientists say as long as this place continues to be protected and the wild residents here allowed to live in peace, Bu Tinah is already a winner.

"The main thing is being able to conserve the different wildlife for future generations to come," said Al Harthi. "It's part of our education, it's important for us to know about the different organisms the different habitats because actually we are living in an ecosystem and we are interdependent."