The coasts of Adana, Mersin and Hatay, three provinces on Turkey’s Eastern Mediterranean coast, host their reptile visitors along with tourists nowadays. Green sea turtles and loggerhead sea turtles better, known as Caretta caretta, call the coasts home in the summer, a time for incubation.
Their primary destination is Akyatan, a wildlife preservation zone and the biggest lagoon of fertile wetlands in Çukurova. The lagoon, an ecosystem sprawling across nearly 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres), is among the largest rookeries for green turtles in the region.
As the temperatures rise, turtles emerge at night on the beach stretching for about 22 kilometers (13 miles). Digging their nests, they lay their eggs before heading back to sea. All of their movements are tracked by the staff of the local branch of the Wildlife Protection and National Parks Directorate and volunteers from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which has helped more than 220,000 baby turtles reach the sea after their birth in about two decades. They carefully approach every turtle emerging from their nests, making the maximum effort not to disturb them as they measure their length and check their wellbeing. During the day, wildlife preservation personnel tag every nest dug in the sand and surround them with barriers against other wild animals which may destroy the nests or eggs.
Turgut Çangır, head of the local wildlife preservation authority, told Anadolu Agency (AA) on Monday that the turtles' nesting grounds cover a large area from Hatay to the Anamur district of Mersin. He said they cooperated with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as well as expert biologists from universities to ensure the welfare of the turtles and to study them for future preservation efforts.
“We had 434 nests here on Akyatan beach last year and about 10,500 turtles emerged from eggs in those nests and reached the sea. The number was also high in 2020. But this year, the number will be lower and this is quite usual. It is like a resting period repeating every two years,” he says. Still, the number of nests has already exceeded 200, he added. The turtles' nesting work usually continues late into July. “But we expect them to be lower anyway,” Çangır underlined.
Mehmet Tural, a biologist working in the area since 2006, says they work between June and July every year, usually in the early hours of the day. “We basically follow their footsteps and check whether they build new nests. Geolocation work is carried out for nests and we calculate each nest’s distance to the sea,” he tells AA in an interview. Tural also highlights the presence of predators including jackals and boars in the area, explaining that this requires them to “cage” every nest. “Predators are part of a natural cycle but we have to protect the turtles regardless. We need to stop any sudden decline in the population of turtles,” he says. At night, Tural and others “tag” each female turtle in an effort to create a database on turtles in Turkey.
In Mersin, sea turtles proliferate in Kazanlı, Davultepe, Alata, Göksu and Anamur beaches. Mahmut Ergene, an academic from Mersin University’s research center for sea turtles, says turtles were “10 days late” this year for nesting. “They usually build nests mid-May but this time, they started late May,” he said. Ergene and others now wait for the baby turtles to take their first stride to the sea. “We counted 72 nests in Davultepe and hope there will be more. Eventually, thousands of baby turtles will reach the sea,” he said.
Hatay now houses 700 nests, Mişel Atik, head of an environmental NGO observing the turtles says. The province's Samandağ coast has been historically home to Caretta carettas and green sea turtles. This year, 95% of the nests belong to green turtles while the rest are inhabited by Caretta carettas. “We had about 1,500 nests last year and I hope we break a record this year,” Atik says.
There are seven known sea turtle species in the world and Turkey is home to Caretta carettas, or loggerhead sea turtles, and green turtles who choose the country’s Mediterranean beaches for nesting. Their habitats stretch from the southwestern tip of the Mediterranean coast in Iztuzu in Muğla to Samandağı further east in the province of Hatay.
The government and animal protection groups work to protect the turtles, which remain under the constant watch of volunteers. In the past two years, 231 dead turtles washed ashore across Turkish coasts, according to data from volunteers. Autopsies of 87 turtles in Turkey last year found that 20% of them suffered from problems that stemmed from the consumption of plastic materials. In 2020, 32 turtles were found dead on different dates after consuming plastics.