The resort town of Belek in southern Antalya is not merely a vacation spot but also Turkey's largest breeding ground for loggerhead sea turtles. One group of student volunteers devote much of their time to caring for the baby sea turtles, whose population reaches nearly 10,000 annually. One of these volunteers, Fatih Polat, is a master's student who is known as the most passionate volunteer and his friends affectionately call him "Kaplumbağa Terbiyecisi" (The Tortoise Trainer).
The 25-year-old student has been volunteering in Belek for the past five years. In addition to studying for his master's degree, Polat has been working day and night to increase the population of loggerhead sea turtles, which are in danger of going extinct.
Polat, a member of a team that camps in the area as part of the Sea Turtle Protection and Conservation Project, commenced under the presidency of Ali Fuat Canbolat, the chairman of the Ecologic Research Association (EKAD), where he begins working at 4 a.m. in the morning.
Starting from May 15 and working until the beginning of October, Polat, along with other university student volunteers, determines the nesting areas of mature turtles during the months of May, June and July. Then, each nest is marked through GPRS and by placing a stick as a marker at the nests. Polat later enters the information they have gathered from the field into the database located inside the camp.
In order to protect the nests from foxes and dogs, Polat surrounds the nests with cages and monitors the nests during the hatching period to make sure the hatchlings reach the sea, checking for any that might have gotten stuck in their nests.
Polat counts the eggs in the nest and keeps statistics of the hatchlings; sometimes moving the hatchlings to more secure shorelines where predators such as seagulls and crabs are not as much of a threat. Polat and other volunteers make sure around 10,000 hatchlings reach the seas in one year.
In an interview with Anadolu Agency (AA), Polat said that he gained knowledge about the carettas through the support of EKAD Chairman Ali Fuat Canbolat and his consultants.
He added that while his peers were out traveling and having fun, he has continued to work with other volunteers around the clock for the safety of the sea turtles. "I have been working here for the past five years and loving it. We, human beings, enter nature and destroy animals' living quarters. I was first shocked to see such tiny hatchlings reach lengths of nearly 1 meter and then come back and lay their eggs here as well," he says, adding that he devoted himself to these animals whose habitats are being destroyed by humans.
Also known as the "midwife of loggerhead sea turtles" by local visitors, Polat said that he is not bothered by being called such names and adds that he vehemently believes the turtles must be protected.
He said that foxes, dogs and seagulls are a threat to hatchlings and that volunteers track the animals that threaten these nests by monitoring their footsteps and how they destroy the nests. "We place nests at the highest risk into cages but we do not put all of the nests into cages as we believe other animals need to eat as well. The most dangerous thing for these animals is humans. For example, people who enter the beaches with tractors to extract sand destroy the nests. Some people put umbrellas into the nests and some try to dig out the nests," says Polat. They have informed the people around through presentations at various villages.
Polat said that he tries to protect not only carettas with his work but also other people. "Carettas are special animals. We are striving to increase the population of these animals which face extinction," says Polat. He also states that it is such a good feeling to make sure an animal facing extinction is saved with the help of his teachers and other volunteers. Currently, he says his target for the future is to become a good academician and a professor to continue his works in these conservation areas through marine biology.
As the most common turtle in the Mediterranean, nesting on beaches from Greece and Turkey to Israel and Libya, loggerhead sea turtles' nesting beaches are under threat from tourism development, according to the World Wildlife Fund. A recent estimate of the numbers of nesting female loggerheads is more than 60,000. In Turkey, the İztuzu Beach in the Ortaca district of the southwestern province of Muğla is the main breeding ground of endangered loggerhead sea turtles and the area is under protection. More than 20,000 baby loggerhead sea turtles were released at sea last year from the coast on İztuzu Beach.