Life’s a Beach So Save the Sea Turtles
When I was a child I was obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While other girls put on pretty dresses and practiced singing into their hairbrush I wore my favourite TMNT t-shirt and practiced wielding nunchucks in front of the mirror. I had a huge crush on Raphael (the red one) because, let’s face it, who didn’t? Who knew that my love of a ripped cartoon turtle would transport me to the beaches of Greece and lead to falling in love with real, live Loggerhead sea turtles. I recently reached yet another crossroads in my life – my London job was coming to a staggering halt and I was faced with the prospect of rejoining the conveyer belt of modern day job hunters or going back home to Australia. I could hear the voice of reason, a heavily Russian accented woman wearing an apron and waving a wooden spoon, telling me to get over my post-modern crisis and get a job. Then there was the voice of my housemate Paul wistfully recalling the time he volunteered for Archelon – The Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece. Sorry mum, I’m going to take a break from “sorting my life out” and no I won’t “settle down”. I’m going to save turtles in Greece instead. I boxed up my stuff, moved out of my London share house and flew to Zakynthos Island where I pitched a tent, took a freezing cold shower and tried to sleep through the incessant sounds of cicadas, barking dogs and crowing roosters.
My first night survey triggered a domino effect of many firsts in my life. There were just the three of us underneath a blanket of stars and galaxies. Every shooting star was like a firework, lighting up the night sky and our giddy faces. My first turtle was a big lady with a carapace 77 centimetres long and 59 centimetres wide. She was covered in a few barnacles and had some scarring on her front right flipper. She had a giant, lolling head, which grants the Loggerhead her name and she was absolutely beautiful. Concentrating on digging her nest with her hind flippers she didn’t notice us creeping up behind her. The way she dug her egg chamber reminded me of the way I scoop ice cream out of a tub of Ben and Jerry’s. With careful, calculated precision. As we remained quietly crouched behind her, the world continued around us as normal. The sea was banking up in a rolling wall behind us, thick with anticipation to reach the shore. The lights of Laganas twinkled on the horizon, the hum of civilisation carrying on in the background. All the while a 70kg turtle was laying 80 or so eggs in front of my eyes and remained so still I could almost forget she was there save for her heavy, Darth Vader-like breathing. David Attenborough eat your heart out. While she camouflaged her nest by violently flinging dry sand behind her and inevitably straight into our open mouths, we measured her, felt her flippers for tags and scars and said goodbye. Her exit was slow and cumbersome, much like a 90 year old grandmother with her walking frame, a lifetime going by between each heavy step. And all I kept thinking was this is so fucking cool. Gone were my worries about the future or the real world – I was on a deserted island hanging out with a beautiful wild reptile doing exactly what nature intended.
In the morning after gathering data on four nesting turtles and delirious from lack of sleep, the survey only got better. The sun was just coming up over the horizon and as I sat down on the sand to record sea level measurements I was suddenly distracted by the appearance of baby turtle heads on the sand’s surface. Trying to contain my excitement was like trying to stifle a raging forest fire with a bucket of toothpaste. Terrified they would disappear if they saw me I sat completely still and tried to shout whisper to the others. Hatchlings(!) Thinking I’d had a stroke they came to see what the muted commotion was. I’d momentarily forgotten how to use full sentences. Baby turtles. In the sand. Amazing. The babies had obviously just woken up and were lethargically spreading their flippers out of the sand. They blinked a few times and even tried to wipe the sand out of their dopey eyes until they were finally on top of the sand and wiggling their way towards the sea. Taking some time out of our morning survey, we just watched as the sea swallowed them up like tiny cupcakes and they swam away ferociously, guided by the current.
Once the baby hatchlings reach the sea they have a myriad of obstacles to overcome- seagulls, fish, plastic bags, boats and fishing nets. Ultimately, only one in a thousand will reach adulthood. A female turtle is genetically predisposed to lay her eggs where she was born. But even if she makes it back, travelling from places as far as Tunisia, she might find that there is no beach left to nest on. Nesting beaches in Zakynthos are dramatically shrinking due to touristic development. Hundreds of sun beds are often left on the beaches overnight, which blocks a turtle’s access to the beach. Illegal construction and vehicles on the beach compress the sand making it impossible for a turtle to dig a nest in these areas. If a female turtle fails to find a suitable place to nest on the beach she will abort all of her eggs into the sea. All of these unnatural threats have taken a toll on the Loggerhead sea turtle populations, which is currently considered an endangered species. This makes the fieldwork and protection provided by volunteers all the more important. We monitor the population growth, protect the nests, work with the National Marine Park to enforce beach and boating rules and most importantly, inform tourists and local communities about the endangered Loggerhead species and how important it is to protect the wildlife that we are lucky enough to enjoy.
I don’t know how many turtles I actually saved and I’ll never know. But for a few months of my life I donned the cape, picked up the nunchucks and lived the life of a real superhero. Sometimes, when you’re lost in the rat race, beating the pavement of that concrete jungle, it’s easy to lose sight of your significance. Whether it’s saving turtles or saving ourselves from a life of mediocrity and boredom, given the chance we can all be superheroes. To my friends we may seem like a bunch of tree hugging vigilantes running away from the real world. Maybe we are. But we do it on a beautiful island in Greece where we can get out of our heads and for a few months disappear into another world. One that isn’t ruled by deadlines or spreadsheets or Monday morning meetings. A world where you want to get out of bed (or your tent) and be the difference between life and death for a fledgling sea turtle. And for my childhood self, keep alive the dream of some day meeting a real life Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
For more information about volunteering for Archelon, click here!
To see more amazing sea turtle photography, click here!