Where and How to Help Marine Turtles in the Mediterranean Region

  • Samantha Libby
  • 10 October 2011

When it’s summer, the tourist migration to the Mediterranean’s famed beaches is at its height. However, there’s an older guest who has lived here for the past 95 million years and needs our help: the marine turtle.

Green turtle in the Seychelles

Turtles are curious creatures that have walked (and swum) this earth since the time of the dinosaurs. Little is known about this migratory animal that often will swim thousands of miles across oceans to return to the very beaches where they were born to lay their eggs. This green turtle was photographed in Seychelles, an image courtesy of Flickr/whl.travel

Saving the marine turtle just may be one of the few things the international community can agree on these days. This seafaring migratory creature doesn’t know anything of borders, fishing routes or beach resorts properties. Unfortunately, though, these are the very factors threatening the sea turtle with extinction; finding ways to help them hasn’t been easy.

Despite being the subject of much inquiry, marine turtles have proven to be elusive subjects, creatures that date back to the age of dinosaurs, spend most of their time at sea and swim thousands of miles each year. In fact, female turtles only come to shore in the summer months to lay two to four batches of eggs. Each one digs a nest about 40-centimetres deep and lays 80-100 soft-shelled eggs. The mother turtle then leaves the nest and, after two months of incubation, the hatchlings emerge and make their way by the light of the moon to the sea. A lot can go wrong in this delicate process, which explains why, on average, 1 in 1,000 hatchlings survives.

Threats to Turtle Survival

There are seven species of sea turtles, only two of which are prominent in the Mediterranean – loggerhead and green turtles, although there have been occasional leatherback sightings as well. No one knows for sure how large the turtle populations once were in the Mediterranean, but in the 1950s and 1960s, turtle soup was considered a delicacy and the green turtle female population was notably weakened to fewer than 500 individuals. In the last 100 years, human factors in the region have continued to threaten these species to the point of endangerment.

Most turtles are caught as they push up the beach to lay their eggs. Many are killed and large numbers of their eggs harvested for food. Laws now outlaw such practices, but turtle populations have yet really to reinforce their numbers. Part of the reason for this is turtles are just as vulnerable at sea as they have been on land, as many sea turtles are routinely caught in long fishing nets and lines and are either drowned or, when released, prone to die of the injuries sustained in the nets.

Perhaps most devastating of all is the boom in beach developments along the Mediterranean coast and islands. Each turtle will only lay her eggs on the same beach where she was born. This means that if a beach is lost to a resort or seaside restaurant, an entire colony of turtles can be wiped out.

Green turtle on the beach in Sandakan, Malaysia

Turtles are at their most vulnerable when laying their eggs. The number of human-caused obstacles that occur at this delicate time are innumerable, from bright hotel lights and over-trodden beaches to trash, large fishing nets and beach development. This green turtle was seen in Sandakan, Malaysia, photo courtesy of Flickr/whl.travel

The Benefits of Turtle Tourism

In the face of all these challenges, marine turtles persevere. The most populous loggerhead and green nesting grounds in the region are in Kefalonia, Greece, with other prominent sites in North Cyprus and Dalyan, Turkey. On the nearby Arabian Peninsula, one beach in Oman hosts 15,000 green turtle nests each year, the largest nesting site in the region.

Thankfully, in recent years, several of these key nesting sites have taken a different approach to tourism. Local tourism providers have realised – some faster than others – that keeping turtles around isn’t just good for the environment, it’s good for business too. By offering turtle-safe viewing areas and organised volunteer activities, such as beach cleanups – or ‘turtle rescues’ from traditional shallow nets – animal-curious tourists learn about local turtles and how to protect them. It’s a self-fulfilling circle that provides education for tourists and locals alike while giving the turtles what they need to survive.

Turtle Security in Action

When in the Mediterranean, if you want to see turtles or volunteer for a local organisation, there are several places from which to choose. In the Middle East, the most prominent one is Ras Al Jinz in Oman, home to 15,000 green turtle nests, the largest concentration In the region.The community of Ras Al Jinz has embraced the turtle phenomenon and, thanks to the centrally located Scientific Research Center and the cooperation of many hotels in Ras Al Jinz, the beach as maintained as a nesting site and the turtles are well cared for.

For example, the Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve hotel has minimal lighting in order to not disturb the nesting turtles at night. The nearby Turtle Beach Resort is great base from which to explore the surrounding wildlife; it offers turtle, bird and dolphin watching, along with snorkelling and diving trips. You can even stay adjacent to the Ras Al Jinz Scientific Research Center at the Carapace Lodge, which is ideally situated for early-morning and late-night turtle sightings far from the other accommodation. There are also many tours in Oman that combines visits to the Wahiba sands with experiences at the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve.

Right in the Mediterranean basin, the three main loggerhead- and green-turtle viewing sites are in Kefalonia, Greece; North Cyprus; and Dalyan, Turkey. On the island of Kefalonia, Mounda Beach is the most famous nesting site for loggerhead turtles. Fears of overdevelopment and burgeoning tourism have seen the establishment of associations like the Katelios Group, an assembly of locals who began working together in 1994 to help conserve the turtle population and natural wildlife.

Loggerhead turtle near Kas, Turkey

Turtles are natural seafaring creatures that can measure up to 51 inches (130 centimetres) in length and weigh 660 pounds (300 kilograms). They are the earth's oldest living reptiles. Known for their shy defensive mechanisms, turtles actually have some of the best night vision in the animal kingdom. This loggerhead turtle was is off the coast of Turkey near Kas. Photo courtesy of Flickr/whltravel

In North Cyprus, tour operator Kaleidoskop Turizm often sends turtle-seeking guests to the Marine Turtle Conservation Project, which cooperates with post-graduate students to research the effect of fisheries on turtle populations. Turtle watching in North Cyprus can be arranged through a variety of tours, though viewing through a conservation project is usually most beneficial to the turtles as they have closely monitored nesting times, migration patterns and feeding habits.

Dalyan, Turkey, is one of the most famous examples of successful turtle conservation in the Mediterranean. In 1986, Izutuzu Beach (now known as ‘Turtle Beach’) was slated for a large luxury-hotel development. However, because the beach is one of the key nesting grounds of the loggerhead turtle, international condemnation, helmed by David Bellamy himself, successfully reversed the decision and now the beach is a protected site. Wooden stakes mark nesting sites and visitors are encouraged to be careful where they walk, as the sand could get packed down and make digging a nest more difficult. Izutuzu Beach was named the world’s best beach in 1995 and is regarded as a hallmark of successful conservation. Many beach hotels in Dalyan are located near the site, but the part of the beach housing nests is closed during incubation and hatching periods.

Beach Rules to Follow

Many beaches are still unprotected in the Mediterranean and Middle East, where turtles are facing an uphill battle. But all is not lost. For tourists, following a few simple guidelines is essential and could mean the difference between extinction and survival.

So the next time you’re on a turtle’s beach, be sure to:

  1. Pick up your trash. Like sea birds, turtles can become strangled in plastic rings and bags.
  2. Only place umbrellas or other fixtures in wet sand. Turtles nest in dry sand and driving stakes into it could damage the nests.
  3. Not walk on the beach at night. Hatchlings use the light from the stars and moon to guide their path to the sea. Loud noises or lights will frighten nesting turtles and confuse hatchlings.
  4. Not touch or move turtle hatchlings going toward the ocean. This imprints on the turtle during a key period in the first few hours of their life. Also, they develop and use key muscle groups in their walk to the ocean. If you want to help, stay out of the way and clear any obstructions, like sandcastles or trash.
  5. Not camp or drive on the beach. This packs down the sand and makes digging a nest difficult.
  6. Make sure your hotel has a ‘low light’ policy as bright lights from large developments or beach-front hostels are one of the primary deterrents for nesting turtles.

You can learn more about turtle conservation in Europe and other parts of the world through the Sea Turtle Conservancy.

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Samantha Libby

Samantha Libby is a freelance journalist based in Hanoi, Vietnam, where she works for a contemporary art gallery. She is also an artist and the author of numerous short stories, plays and, most recently, a novel. She loves the crazy, the random and the weird, as well as places and people that some would deem 'uncivilized'. She received her BFA in Dramatic Writing from the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, in New York City. She likes cake, too.
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animal conservation, Asia, beaches, ecotours, Europe, Greece, how to, islands, marine conservation, Oman, Southern Europe, Turkey, Western Asia, whl.travel,

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