Humble, kind and ponderous in her movements – like the gentle elderly lady in the neighborhood who waves you good morning – is the marine turtle.
Elusive for many years in the open ocean, she eventually returns to lay her eggs at her natal beach after traveling thousands of miles over more than a dozen years.
With at least mutual fascination for this intriguing being, it was she who brought students of several courses of study together in a project aiming for her well-being and protection. Because we all love our adopted granny.
For many of us Austrian students, seeing these beings may have remained a matter of luck during a holiday trip. Thanks to the work of many engaged people for two decades, however, we were granted the opportunity to gain a glimpse into the real world of active, hands-on and in-the-field management and conservation of an endangered species.
The joint Sea Turtle Project of the University of Vienna and the Turkish Pamukkale University of Denizli brought two groups of Austrian and Turkish students to the small camp behind the promenade of Fethiye’s Çaliş Beach. The small eucalyptus forest there would become our home for the next five weeks and adventure sure to ensue!
Now of course, we were not going to arrive without proper ztaining and instruction, which the seminar in Vienna made sure to deliver with a pinch of excitement!
Back at the seminar, we were a small group of students, slowly befriending the thought of becoming teammates and looking forward to an adventure we approached with excitement as well as respect for the hard work yet to come.
What experiences will we make? Will our humble expectations be met? Will we live up to our own expectations and exceed them as we grow as persons?
On 2 July our time has finally come. With a slight, yet pleasant detour over the Greek island of Kos, a ride with the ferry to Turkey and four-hour car ride to Fethiye, we finally arrived at our camp to claim our little territories within the forest to erect our tents, span our hammocks and further spend the evening getting to know our Turkish colleagues. A fun bunch who introduced us to the çay way of life!
Our first day would introduce us all to the Çaliş morning shift to get to know the beach and the already laid nests. Thus, it soon became clear to us that the idyllic walk on the beach would be a straining and demanding run against time: the major tourism we had been told about became clear as day during the first evening when the lights of the promenade restaurants and hotels illuminated the nesting beach and the bass of music drowned our words. Just a taste of what may come.
However, with the energy we brought along from home, we were first going to learn of the work we will be doing. Nestled in, there was much to learn and, of course, our first adult turtles to encounter!
Second day around noon, we get a call: a Chelonia mydas was beached at Çaliş and brought to our camp. A large male, unfortunately dead... His carapace was overgrown with algae and his skin covered in barnacles, stiffening his joints. He had not been moving much for a very long period of time. Whether it was due to old age, as his body did not indicate any external wounds, or due to internal issues leading to starvation remains unclear. As he was brought to the The Sea Turtle Rescue Center (DEKAMER) for necropsy, our first rare turtle would be a harsh reminder of the condition of these endangered animals.
Now our real work would begin. Learning to triangulate nests, walking the beaches and getting to know the hotels and nests, becoming familiar with the data
sheets and becoming used to walking through the sand, cobble stone beaches in the dark of the night, and train our eyes to distinguish trash and wood from an actual turtle.
Yes, we have more than once stopped in our tracks to observe a car tire in the dark, waiting for it to move. So, for as long as we didn’t see the-real-thing, each well-placed footprint and human buttocks print on the sand became turtle tracks in our eyes. Much to the amusement of our experienced colleagues!
Not much later though, on the more nature-touched beach of Yaniklar, the first team became lucky to encounter their first adult Caretta caretta! Seeing these big creatures make their way on land, so graspable, was a lasting impression. Thrown right into the action, they measured their first turtle and observed her being tagged, while for others, including myself, the waiting game began. Each shift would remain a simple walk with no adult, but tracks to record. Though even with no adult to observe, the tracks ever so often told their own stories. Tracks running into sunbeds and parasols, meandering back and forth between trash and car tracks. Stories of unsuccessful emergences onto the shore due to either unfavorable beach conditions or human interference.
Outside of our shifts we came together to eat breakfast and dinner as a group and the first humbly anticipated meals turned out to be a king’s feast! Each team
brought their own cooking skills into the kitchen, serving the group delicious meals! We jokingly decided to open up a restaurant after our five weeks with all the new recipes we picked up. In
between the meals, we took our hours of wake time and took the Dolmuş to the city center of Fethiye for the bazar and market.
Bargaining and delicious foods, cay, cheese, olives and lokum! This is what we decided to live off for the next few weeks! Many locals here know resident members of the Sea Turtle Project Team and welcomed us newbies warmly with drinks and sweets!
And speaking of locals, the number of kind people offering us their assistance is astounding. From the kind owners of Keyif Café between the promenade and our camp offering us electricity and internet, to the hotel receptionists printing our data papers on request despite struggling with their own business. We have surely received more invitations to çay than names we can remember! Even outside of our shifts as we walk the promenade, people greet us and thank us for our effort. Their interest in the number of nests and experiences they share with us feel like gentle encouragement to our work when the stress and lack of sleep gnaw on our nerves.
The time we spend outside of the camp proved to be a welcome distraction from the working-sleeping routine we started to develop. Our nights grew shorter to non-existent when late-night shifts merged with the morning shifts, our words became jumbled and hammocks our best friends during the day. But “fear not!” we were told, soon we would accommodate to the rhythm and schedules and ease into the work flow. Though for right now…that seemed far away.
Lastly, by the end of the week, when the last three of us had begun drawing lucky turtles on our hands, wishing to finally encounter our own first turtle…the
time had come. Right before we were to turn the corner into our camp, a dog loudly drew our attention to the beach and there she was!
A large female, slowly digging through the sand.
“Camp, we have a female in front of Keyif Café, wake those who haven’t seen one!” my message rang through the walkie-talkie when I could catch the breath I was holding at the sight of her.
With the project T-shirts hastily thrown over our nightgowns, more of the team rushed to the beach section right in front of our camp so the few last of us could – for the first time – witness a sea turtle lay her eggs and thoroughly cover her little treasure in the sand. Watching this spectacle for the first time is one of those unforgettable moments in life. I’m sure I will remember her tag and nest number for a very long time and I cannot help but smile every time I pass the protective cage we placed over her nest.
None of us could grasp what our lives would look like today, one week after our arrival. Though now I can say that as sleep became a scarce requisite, the team
spirit grew and welded us closer together.
A boat trip with friends sealed our week with celebration! Diving into the azure blue Mediterranean and dancing on the deck of the boat, indulging in traditional Turkish food. This was a moment to be lived again! Next stop: Hatchling Season and Butterfly Valley!