A major tourist attraction throughout the Mediterranean is the annual appearance of turtles that come to breed on the sandy beaches of the almost completely land-locked sea.
Turtles are one of nature’s greatest migratory species, travelling thousands of miles each year between the feeding grounds of the Caribbean and the breeding grounds of the Mediterranean. Of the world’s turtle species, the majority of those revisiting the Med, year after year, are Green Turtles or Loggerhead Turtles. Occasionally, you may find the giant Leatherback Turtles but these are very rare.
Most people assume that there are lots of turtles that make the journey to and from beaches that include Zakynthos, Cyprus and Turkey but scientific studies reveal that less than a thousand turtles in total return each year. So why, when so many eggs are laid in the sand of these holiday islands, do so few return?
The turtles face threats on every front, from tourists who disturb their breeding beaches to fishermen who illegally trap them to sell as a delicacy or who snare them accidentally in their nets. That’s in addition to the natural threats the young face from fish, adult turtles, seabirds and crabs.
The main threat to the turtles is their saleability as a tourist attraction. In Turkey, the beaches which would already attract tourists with clean golden sands and clean blue seas are drawing more who come to see the turtles arrive on the beaches in the dead of night to lay their eggs, little realising that their torches, car headlights, noise and footsteps disorientate the turtles, often causing them to abandon a half completed nest to the gulls and other seabirds keen for a feast. The ignorant continue to use the beaches during the day, unaware of the damage that beach umbrellas, sunbeds and beach games do to the nests.
Conservationists try their best, often against apathy from authorities, but even they can’t patrol the beaches day and night and none have any authority to keep the beaches free from danger to the turtles.
Lara Beach in Cyprus is one of the few success stories where a local group, supported by the government’s fisheries department, organise night time patrols of the beaches, collecting any uncovered eggs for placing in a hatchery, removing rubbish that may endanger the turtles on sea and land and marking the nests so that people can avoid disturbing them.
For those that want to see the turtles at night, the volunteer groups have decided it’s better to organise turtle watching trips where they can maintain control, rather than try to prevent the tourists accessing the beaches.
The battle is not being won yet with decreasing numbers seen in many countries such as Greece, Italy, Malta and Israel still overtaking the successes seen in Albania and Cyprus.
If you intend to go to one of the turtle regions this summer, please consider the plight of these magnificent creatures or you’ll contribute to the careless attitude that is slowly strangling one of nature’s greatest feats of endurance.