10 – Marine Turtles

Marine Turtles

August 25th 2004

In order to celebrate my last pay packet we decided to visit the Marine Turtle Conservation Project based at Alagadi. The two were not related, they just occurred on the same day. Although I was originally trained as a Biology teacher, my biological knowledge is very limited. Teaching degrees in the 70�s tended to be light on subject content compared to specialist degrees. My interest in biology was mainly in the area of the environment, possibly because of that decade�s fashion for such matters, but I still now find nature fascinating. I�ve had very little time to develop this interest and was happy to visit the project�s headquarters along with a hundred others on that day.

A short introductory video told the story of the two marine turtle species that visit the North Cyprus coast; the green and the loggerhead turtles. Apparently there were only 300 green turtles left in the Mediterranean and half of these returned to breed along the North Cyprus coastline, the majority at Alagadi. Turtles return to their birthplace to lay up to 100 eggs at a time. They do not become fertile until they are 30 years old and live until they are about 80. Unfortunately only about 1 in 1000 of those survives for this return journey to lay their eggs. Hazards include predators and human intervention in the environment. A major example of this being the island�s economic need to expand, in order to cope with the influx of tourists and people like us who have homes here. A huge road building programme during 2003-4 has resulted in a great deal of damage to beaches which are the breeding grounds of the turtles. The turtles are programmed to return to these grounds and are unable to find alternatives if this environment has been made unfavourable for breeding.

We decided to sponsor a green turtle named Celia who regularly travels back and forth between Alagadi beach and Tripoli. We are able to track Celia�s journey from day-to-day by the use of the internet and a satellite tracking device attached to her. Doing this has made the marine turtle issue more real, as we check each day to see if Celia is still around and has not become prey to natural predators or human pollution. I dread the day when we receive a message that the satellite signal is no longer available.

At the project headquarters, a small hut in reality, we were shown buckets of turtles which had been excavated from nests the previous night. They were desperate to get going, there little legs thrashing in the air as a volunteer showed a loggerhead turtle to us. They seemed too small and vulnerable to embark on the 6000 km journey that Celia regularly took on her round trip between Tripoli and Alagadi beach.

Buckets of turtles were given to the younger members of the group to carry and I could see from their eyes that given a chance they would like to take one home and keep it in the batch. They proudly carried their turtles for half an hour to where they were to be released. At the release sight we were shown one of the project activities; excavating a nest from which turtles had earlier emerged and made there way down the beach into the rough waves. Volunteers dug away sand counting eggs which had previously held turtles and those which were infertile. The nest contained 32 eggs which had carried live turtles and 34 infertile ones and a live turtle! It was surprising to suddenly be presented with a wriggling turtle which had been previously covered with � meter of sand and to think that even before embarking on their incredible journey it would have to burrow its way through all that sand.

We were told that the proportion of male to female turtles in a nest depends on the temperature; the hotter it is the more female produced. With Cyprus� 30-40oC temperatures this meant there were a lot more females on the beach. The males stay out at sea, never to return to land again.

The sole occupant of the nest we saw evacuated was added to one of the buckets as we joined the rest to view the release of the turtles. The sun was beginning to sink below the horizon and the beach began to be covered with wriggling turtles desperate to begin their journey. The success rate would be much higher with us spectators around as we would frighten of land and air based predators. There was nothing we could do about those waiting in for the turtles. It was remarkable the speed with which the turtles were off down the beach, these were no tortoises.

One of the dangers which turtles face are made-made tracks which they fail to climb out of. We watched as some turtles had problems even surmounting the holes made by our footsteps; climbing at nearly 90o in some cases. As they touched the sea, massive waves grabbed them and swallowed them up. We looked on in despair wondering why we were watching this cruel spectacle, only to see the turtles bobbing to the surface a few meters away, paddling at unbelievable speeds out into the Mediterranean. Within a few second they were out of view. A few turtles lay motionless on the beach as if they were dead but when a volunteer picked them up to return them to their buckets they immediately started whirling their legs. Apparently these turtles would be released when the sun had set as they preferred to leave under the cover of darkness.

As we made our way back to the car we both said how glad we were that we had made the effort to see the turtle release. There is always a danger in retirement to feel that with so much time to do things that nothing gets done. We are always meaning to see the sites of this new country but have probably fallen into a pattern of feeling we are on holiday and that we should �enjoy� ourselves by sitting around the pool reading books. I am used to conserving my energy for my return to work, forgetting that I�m never returning to work unless I positively want to. Now is the time for me!