Volunteers Race to Save Rare Turtles in Greece

November 2, 2019

Far from the tourists, the packed beaches, and popular spots that makes Greece a continuing lure with its allure, volunteers are monitoring the beaches of Kyparissia Bay on the western Peloponnese, working to save the loggerhead turtle, known scientifically as Caretta caretta.

The bay is the Mediterranean’s largest nesting ground for the turtle, a population identified by the International Union for Conservation of nature as a vulnerable creature, now under threat from a number of detriments, including sun loungers on the beach who snag them.

In a feature, Agence France-Presse reported on the work to make sure the turtles survive, with hatchlings on the beach and bay struggling to get to the sea, a small journey so perilous to them that only one in 1,000 will make it.

Kira Schirrmacher, 22, donning black gloves to gently ease the newborn loggerhead turtle on its way, grins at suggestions that she’s a kind of ‘midwife’, the German social sciences student telling AFP that “Yes, I do that all day,” as part of her effort.

Their overall numbers are unknown but some Pacific and Indian Ocean populations are critically low, while conservation measures have bolstered their presence in the Mediterranean, environmental groups say.

With around 44 kilometers (27 miles) of coastline, Kyparissia, had over 3,700 nests this year, up from 3,500 in 2018, said the Athens-based Archelon turtle protection organization, according to the report.

“It seems (more of) our female turtles survive and come back to nest,” oceanographer Dimitris Fytilis, head of the organization’s rescue center for injured turtles in the coastal Athens suburb, Glyfada added.

Each nest contains up to 120 eggs but up to a fifth may fail to hatch at all. Loggerheads can live to 80 years of age, grow to more than half a meter (20 inches) and weigh up to 80 kilos (175 pounds) but face mortal danger from birth.

Their predators include dogs, jackals, foxes, seagulls, and people, and that’s just to make it to the sea where it’s another struggle to live as once there, the five-centimeter (2-inch) turtle will swim non-stop for at least 24 hours to work its lungs and find food but many are devoured by crabs, fish, and even adult turtles.

More than 600 turtles turn up dead in Greece every year, mostly on beaches but also in the water, trapped in nets or sick, said officials of the rescue center, which has treated more than 1,100 injured turtles since it began in 1994 and receives some 70 new cases every year.

The turtles ingest fishhooks and plastic debris but more than half of their injuries are caused by humans, usually by blows to the head with oars and axes and fishermen are often blamed as repairing fishing nets damaged by turtles can be costly.

Climate change has also created the potential to shift the turtle gender balance, as males cannot incubate at a nest temperature above 29.3 degrees C (84.7 F.) with Greece frequently having temperatures above that benchmark.

“There is already an effect in some countries…in Australia for example, more females are born now because of global warming,” Fytilis said.

Another key nesting ground at Laganas Bay, in Zakynthos on the Ionian island of Zante, attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists annually, many of them drunken hooligans who have given it a reputation for trouble and even violence.

As in other popular tourist destinations, environmental groups have for decades tussled with hotels and restaurants that chafe against protection efforts, the center said, with the volunteers pitching it to help. “we don’t really get support from the locals,” said Schirrmacher, in Kyparissia.

But one hotelier in the resort suggests the area should develop its turtle tourism. “There should be a glass-bottomed boat for turtle watching, but the authorities here can’t even build a proper road to the beach,” he said, without being identified.

WWF and Greenpeace last month warned that a planned lease of 50,000-square kilometer (20,000 square miles) of sea for oil exploration would endanger “emblematic tourism destinations…that contribute billions of euros and hundreds of thousands of jobs to the national economy.”

Archelon said that the turtles’ presence is a key indicator of sea water quality. “We are fortunate to have these habitats. This is a natural treasure. It needs to be protected, not exploited,” also warned Fytilis.


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