Sun, Sand and Sea Turtles

Photos by Dionysis Arvanitakis

By Melissa Foley

Many people have dreamed of visiting the Greek Islands with iconic blue roofs and crystal-clear waters, yet most are unaware that tourists are not the only ones who flock to these beautiful Mediterranean waters.

Every European summer, loggerhead sea turtles join together after traveling thousands of miles for a brief mating season followed by a six- to eight-week nesting season. Females emerge at night and awkwardly drag their massive bodies on land multiple times to make an average of two to four nests per season, arriving every two to four years.

In total, there are seven species of sea turtles around the world, most of which are critically endangered. Tourism, pollution, poaching and meat for a food source in poverty-stricken areas are their biggest threats. Fully grown sea turtles have no natural predators other than humans. It’s a sad reality considering this is one of the only species that has survived since the time of the dinosaurs.

Plastic bags are easily mistaken as jellyfish, one of the sea turtles’ most common and favorite foods, and indigestion results in a very slow and painful death. In Central and South America, eggs are hunted and traded illegally to satisfy a demanding Asian black market. Deadly human-wildlife conflict is typical everywhere as frustrated and angry fishermen endure costly fishing net repairs when sea turtles are inadvertently caught chasing their natural food source.

The most concentrated and main nesting beaches of the Mediterranean are in Greece. For more than 35 years, a Greek NGO called ARCHELON — the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece, has tirelessly monitored turtle nesting behavior, advocating collaboration with hotels, local municipalities, authorities and the business community.

With few resources and little funding, ARCHELON’s success is dependent on their voluntourism project, which includes hundreds of rotating volunteers every summer. The conservation work is based on monitoring and recording turtle activity, protection of beaches and nests, and creating public awareness with tourists and the community.

From May through July, volunteers take sunrise walks on the beach looking for evidence of the females’ tracks and nests. Surface digging will confirm eggs are present, and GPS and physical markings will indicate the spot where each nest is located. Recorded nests vary from season to season with an average of 2,700 collectively throughout various monitored regions.

Mid-July through October, volunteers search for the hatchling tracks which have made their way to the sea. Over a period of several days, the turtles emerge at night when the sand is cooler, beginning with the strongest hatchlings. This initial journey to the sea strengthens their flippers and is nature’s way of “imprinting.” This is how, in nature’s incredible wonder, the females will find their way back to the same spot to nest 20 to 25 years later. With an average of 120 eggs per nest, about 75 percent hatch successfully. However, it is estimated that only 1 out of the 1,000 hatchlings that make it to the sea will survive to be a reproductive adult.

Due to pollution and boat, fisherman, and hook injuries, ARCHELON also operates a year-round rescue center in Athens. With an extensive network of resources, the well-known name is who locals and officials contact when an injured sea turtle is spotted. It can then be transferred for rehabilitation and hopefully eventual release, which can often take years.

HOW HOTELS CAN HELP ENSURE THE SURVIVAL OF LOGGERHEADS:

• To allow the females to nest on beaches, hotels must temporarily remove lounge chairs for the evening.

• Hotels must require guests to stay off the beach at night to not disturb nesting females or hatchlings. Hotels should also educate guests never to touch or interfere with the animals or disturb marked nests.

• Minimize artificial lighting that frightens adult females or disorients hatchlings, who naturally look for the reflection of the moon on the sea.

HOW YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE:

Use the power of your wallet only to support businesses and brands that collaborate with the necessary practices to protect local wildlife. Look for globally recognized third-party certifications, such as Blue Flag or Travelife, based on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which ensure businesses operate with the highest of socially and environmentally responsible practices.

ARCHELON is a fantastic organization and very affordable volunteer abroad experience for students, adults and families looking to donate one month or more of their time to enjoy incredible Greek culture and make a difference for local wildlife. For more information about ARCHELON, the volunteer programs, the rescue center or how you can help, please visit ARCHELON.gr.

To be sure you spend your holiday with responsible and sustainable operators and accommodations, visit travelife.org and blueflag.org.


Dedicated to our recently deceased dear friend Pav, who devoted more than a decade to ensuring proper rehabilitation and advocacy of these incredible creatures.

Melissa Foley has lived abroad for several years consulting for various NGO’s in Greece, India, Cambodia, Thailand and Tanzania. Primarily focused on women’s health, education, advocacy and wildlife conservation she has developed and implemented sustainable outreach programs integrating responsible tourism and voluntourism with local community development.

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