This is the rallying call for a turtle sighting in Turkey. You may be on a boat, beach or on a rickety old wooden pontoon, but within seconds everyone will be gathering round pointing at the water and trying to get a glimpse. They’re magnificent creatures and each one has battled significant odds to make it. Even in favourable conditions there’s just a 1 in thousand chance that a hatchling will emerge the egg and make it to a fully grown adult. We’ve been watching these magnificent creatures of the sea for several weeks and have seen multiple sightings… we don’t get tired of it. The Turkish coast is a rich source of interest for visitors; the Turtles are the jewel in the crown.
I’m sitting on the boat in a beautiful bay in Göcek writing this piece. The boat is gently swaying side to side and we’re both on a bit of a high. We’ve been very privileged over the last couple of days to be parked up next to a big old turt, we’ve called him Albert the turtle, which then got shortened to Alberturtle. He looks pretty old. He’s also quite tame. Most of the time we see Caretta Caretta, they swim away as fast as possible. Not Albert. We’ve just swum up to him and he doesn’t seem to mind. Amazing!
The first time I got a sighting of Albert I thought he was dead. I passed over the top of a shell that was almost completely buried in sand. I could see a fin but there was no movement at all. No sign of a head. I’ve seen dead turtles before and it’s always sad, but this puzzled me, the turtle was still underwater. Usually the dead ones are floating or washed up on the shore. My attention was quickly captivated by another Caretta about ten feet away. To my surprise this one doubled back and took a real interest in, what I thought, was the dead turtle. It then bit the motionless fin! What erupted was a clash of the shelled warriors, the likes of which I’d never seen. I’d always thought turtles were such placid creatures, but it was kicking off here. I motioned over to Bern, who was on the paddle board and handed her my mask. so she could watch the show.
The fight lasted a while. I managed to swim to the boat and get the underwater camera then swim back and capture the tail end of the battle on video (see later). To be honest I don’t really know who won. Maybe it was Alberturtle. He seemed to be quite happy just to hang around in this part of the bay after the fight, but the other turtle scuttled off.
A closer inspection of Alberturtle reveals a block on his back. This is a satellite tracker that is fitted to turtles that exit the ‘Sea Turtle Rescue Research and Rehabilitation Centre’ in Dalyan.
We paid the place a visit. It’s located on Iztuzu Beach, a hugely important nesting site for turtles. The significance of nesting sites like this can not be overstated. It’s an amazing fact that a turtle born here will venture many thousands of miles in it’s early life. If the hatchling makes it and survives to sexual maturity- sometime between the ages of 25 and 30, it will find it’s way back to the beach where it was born. There are only a handful of nesting sites globally for Caretta Caretta.
At the tail end of the 1980s the Iztuzu Beach was a battleground between conservationists and developers, who wanted to construct a massive tourist resort on the site. The resort would have likely destroyed the beach as a nesting area. There were many organisations and people involved in the struggle to save the habitat, our own David Bellamy and Prince Philip were among the influencers. However, there is one lesser known figure who spearheaded a campaign to save the beach and has left a lasting legacy in terms of Turtle Conservation. She goes by the name of ‘Kaptan June’.
June Haimoff first visited Turkey in the in the 1970s on a boat she purchased in Greece called Bouboulina. It’s worth noting that, at that time, Turkey was most certainly off the beaten track, making this quite an adventure. Her voyage took her to, what was then, the small fishing village of Dalyan. Coming to Dalyan was ‘love at first sight’ for June and she started to live in a simple hut on the south side of Iztuzu beach. She became well known by the locals who christened her ‘Kaptan June’. Being that it’s hard to spot a female Turkish boat captain in 21st Century Turkey, one can only imagine how much of a novelty she was for rural folk of Dalyan back then.
Kaptan June first got wind of the plan to develop the beach when an order came through for locals to dismantle their beach huts and move out of Iztuzu. June led the resistance. To cut a long story short, this was a rare win for conservationists and the beach is now an officially protected area. Obviously, there will be some who view Kaptan June as a figure who stood in the way of the economic development of Dalyan, but many people, both locally and globally, are grateful for her efforts. Today, Dalyan does thrive as a tourist resort, but the tourism is sympathetic to conservation. It could also be argued that the presence of the turtles has actually helped attract more visitors. People come on day trips specifically to see ‘Turtle Beach’ and to get a glimpse of Caretta Caretta.
To this day Kaptan June’s work continues. The ‘Sea Turtle Research Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre’ she founded still continues the conservation effort. This establishment is part turtle hospital, part research centre and part guardian of the Iztuzu breeding ground. The centre’s volunteer staff and students patrol the beach throughout the summer, all night long, ensuring nests are not disturbed and making sure there are no impediments for new hatchlings to return to the sea.
Visiting the centre is free of charge, but it’s good to make a donation before you leave. You can see the patients in various states of rehabilitation. Warning. If you do visit be prepared for some uncomfortable truths about humanity. One of the turtles we saw there had a head injury which the staff believe was deliberate. This isn’t the first one. Who knows what could possibly make a person injure one of these peaceful creatures, but there are a few wrong-uns out there. Thankfully they are the minority and it’s fortunate that there are volunteers like the staff of this centre to counter the impact.
As well as fixing turtles and patrolling the beach the staff are on hand for visitors to answer any questions you have. They talked through the process to us. The aim is to get these animals healed and back into the wild which can take many months for the worst injuries. The turtles start off in shallow tanks so it’s not much effort for them to come to the surface to get air. Later, when the prognosis looks good, turtles will be moved to deeper tanks to ensure they can cope with diving to a greater depth.
If everything goes well the turtles can be released back into the wild. Out of the 188 turtles that have been taken in: 9 are in rehabilitation, 84 have been released and 64 didn’t make it. With these efforts and the ongoing stewardship the centre provides for the nesting sites the Caretta Caretta have the best chance of thriving in this area alongside Homo Sapiens.
After visiting the Turtle Rescue Centre I looked at some of the info and found a contact. I mailed a picture of Alberturtle to ask if he was one of theirs. I got a nice mail back to tell me the turtles name was Mirayka and that he didn’t stray far from the Dalyan / Göcek area. I also received a map showing the track points over the last two weeks and Mirayka had visited quite a few of the places we stopped at, maybe he was following us!
Conservation isn’t something we have to leave to the enthusiasts, you can help too. I’ve put some simple things that you can do if you visit areas where turtles live (foot of page). The main rule, which shouldn’t need to be said, is take you’re rubbish with you. You could go one extra step and,if you see other peoples discarded plastic bags floating in the water, take them home with you. Turtles can’t distinguish these (particularly the translucent ones) from jellyfish which are a source of food.
We’ve started removing items of rubbish from bays we visit, try it, it feels good. If everyone who cared just took one item of rubbish home with them for every day they visited the sea, just think what a difference we could all make, for very little effort.
Save the world one piece of crap at a time. Long live the turtles!
Finally, I’ve made a bit of video with a few shots of Caretta Caretta in the wild and at the rescue centre.
The Turtle Rescue Centre is located on Iztuzu Beach, Dalyan. Their web page is dekamer.ord.tr
What can you do to help conserve the turtles when you’re on a boat or on foot:
- Motor carefully: When you enter into bays in Turkey, be vigilant and keep an eye out not just for the swimmers, but for turtles too. Avoid them and if you think you are going to collide with one then stop the prop (if it’s safe to do so).
- Don’t Feed Them: Many of the injuries sustained are believed to have happened because the turtles associate people and boats with food. This unhealthy interest leads to propeller injuries. You may want to get a close glimpse of the turtles, but don’t tempt them with treats.
- Be Clean: No one should have to say this, but each time we pull up in beautiful places on the coast, there’s always rubbish around. It doesn’t take much effort to be clean. Occasionally, it’s unavoidable when you’re on passage, that something ends up getting blown off the boat. In these circumstances take our teacher Sticky Stapleton’s advice: go back and try to get it. It’s not only environmentally friendly, but it will sharpen your skills to retrieve people out of the water if they fall overboard. It might actually save you some cash too. Do this in all types of wind conditions and seas and you have essential practice for man overboard. We’ve done this on several occasions for a variety of items that have knowingly gone overboard and there’s only one Musto hat that we couldn’t save – RIP my favourite hat. We’ve also acquired some items too!
- Pick up other peoples rubbish if you can: I’ve only just started doing this and we make a particular point of retrieving plastic bags out of the water if we see them. To a turtle, the bags look no different from a tasty jellyfish, but they play havoc with their digestion. I’ve got a pledge to myself now that for every day I visit a beautiful bay, I’ll remove at least one piece of rubbish. Imagine if all the nature lovers of the world did this. We’d clean up our favourite places with minimal effort and counteract the small percentage of messy morons out there.
- Follow beach regulations: If you visit any beach that has turtle nests familiarise yourself with the regulations. They usually define a zone in which you cannot lay down your towel or insert parasols into the sand. You can walk over these zones but don’t leave holes that could impede a hatchling getting to sea.
- Help for Injured Turtles: In Turkey you can call in to get assistance for an injured turtle if you spot one. The centre’s number is 0090 252 0077. Alternatively, the centre advises calling the Coast Guard (158) or Police (156).