Tiny turtles: Vanessa Dixon’s sustainability story

One of the most fulfilling, moving, and emotional experiences of my life was when I volunteered for Archelon in Greece, helping with the conservation of the Loggerhead Sea Turtles.

I had been travelling with my twin sister around Greece and Croatia for 2 months prior to volunteering, and we had just spent a long day travelling from Athens to the small town of Rethymno in Crete. When we arrived at the campsite, Camp Elizabeth, we were welcomed by the other volunteers. There were around 30 of us all up and my sister and I were the only Aussies. Our Camp leader introduced us to our fellow campers, and we were taken on a tour of the campgrounds, which happened to be right next to the beach! We couldn’t wait to jump straight into the refreshing sea, as we were soaked to the skin in sweat from our long day’s travel, but before we could, we had to set up our tent.

This proved incredibly challenging as my sister and I had never set up a tent on our own before and couldn’t work out which piece of equipment went where let alone how to get it to stay standing up… suffice to say we were not experienced campers. Thankfully, one of the other volunteers saw our struggles and took pity of us, so came to help. With her extra pair of hands, we managed to get our tent up and running. As soon as we were done, we sprinted straight to the sea and dived head first into the water, relief spreading over our faces as we floated there, enjoying the cool water washing over us.

As the sun began to set, we decided to make our way back up the beach to our camp grounds. When we arrived at the campsite, we were greeted with a scene I will never forget. I knew something was wrong as soon as I saw everyone huddled in a small circle, staring at something in the centre. As we neared, it became clear what had happened. In the middle of the circle, lying motionless, was a mother sea turtle who had a huge gash running the length of her shell. The cut was so deep that some of her insides were showing. As I looked around, there were tear-stained faces everywhere looking at the scene in front of them, unable to speak. We all stood there for what seemed like an eternity, frozen to our spot in shock and disbelief at what were seeing. Our camp leader explained to us what had happened. They were called to the beach by a tourist who had come across the body of the turtle lying on the edge of the water. Our camp leader and one of the other volunteer’s had taken the turtle back to our camp to see if we could do anything for her, but she had long since passed. Apparently, she had come to the surface of the water to wait until nightfall, when she was to make her way onto the beach to find a place to nest. However, during the day she had been hit by what we believed to be a jet ski (we determined this from the marks on her shell) which had left her severely injured. With all the energy and strength she had left, she tried to make it to the beach to nest before she passed, but sadly couldn’t reach it in time, so dumped her eggs in the water as she died.

As I listened to the story of what happened, my eyes filled with tears, and my heart ached. I imagined the struggle she went through, possibly for hours, trying to save her babies, the pain she went through, and how her efforts ended in vain.

This experience ignited a spark in us, and as a group, we agreed to share her story with locals and tourists on the island to help bring awareness to the issue of water sports on nesting beaches and the impact it can have on nesting turtles in the area. The experience really moved me and spurred me to take as much action as I could to help prevent this from happening again.

Over the next 4 weeks I, along with the other volunteers, helped conduct morning surveys, which involved walking the length of the beach looking for mother turtle tracks indicating that she might have nested during the night. If we came across one, we would write it down in our log books (for data collection) and determine if it was a safe distance away from the water, and wouldn’t be in danger of flooding. Other tasks we were given involved raising public awareness about the endangered Loggerhead Sea Turtles, and how tourism was having a massive impact on their dwindling population due to disruption of nesting and interference with hatchlings. Rethymno is one of three main nesting beaches on the island, which is sadly being overrun by hotels and water sports companies, which are thriving in the tourism industry. To raise awareness, we would educate the public at our kiosk in town, and visit hotels to share information on tourism and sea turtles with the travellers there.

We also conducted night surveys, which were incredible! We would walk up and down the beach with red light torches, searching for any mother turtles that came to nest on the sand. I was so blessed to see one, late one evening. We were on our last run of the beach when my team leader hushed us, and we all dropped to the ground (with quite a bit of force mind you: I was a little winded). Just two metres up from where we lay was a mother turtle, she thankfully hadn’t noticed us. She was digging up a nest to lay her eggs in. We waited until she was in her egg-laying trance, then approached her and began to collect information. We measured her, looked for any signs of injury, etc. I even got to touch her flipper! It was an extraordinary moment.

I was very lucky to have volunteered over nesting and hatchling season. This meant I had the opportunity to see little baby turtles emerge from the sand and make their way to the sea too! It was a sight I will never forget. Due to light pollution from hotels built right on the beach, the baby turtles often become disorientated and walk onto the street rather than to the ocean when they follow the lights from buildings rather than the moonlight. This meant we were often called out to help guide them to sea using trenches we made in the sand, which assisted them in finding their way to the sea on their own. It was important that we didn’t simply pick them up and take them to the water’s edge as they needed to walk there themselves in order to strengthen their flippers in preparation for the long swim ahead. If we picked them up and put them in the sea, they would likely drown. It was one of the most moving moments of my life helping so many baby turtles, that would otherwise have wandered up the beach and become lost, make their way to the sea, hopefully returning again in another 25 years to nest there themselves.

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