Crete is at loggerheads with tourism. Literally. With some of the Mediterranean’s most famed beaches in terms of beauty, it is not only tourists who return year after year to savour these sands. Because many are also home to loggerhead turtles which, famously, return to the same beach where they first emerged from their eggs, to spawn their own young.
Hotels hurt hatchlings
The growth of beach resorts on this, the largest of Greece’s gobsmackingly gorgeous islands has meant that turtle habitats have been destroyed over the years. A sea turtle always returns to the beach where it was born, sometimes waiting decades, in order to lay here eggs in the same place. And if they return simply to find a concrete hotel booming music out night and day, hundreds of beach chairs filling up the beach and a coastline polluted with everything from cigarette butts to microbeads from sun creams, it’s not a great invitation to ‘mother nature’ to, well, mother. In fact, they will simply return to the ocean and ‘lay’ their eggs there, and thus lose them.
The hatching process – a Greek tragedy?
If the beach feels the same, and indeed safe, to the mother, she will lay here eggs and then return to the sea never to see her babies, and the hatchlings emerge from the warm sand about 55 days later. They then, in theory, follow their mother’s tracks back down to the ocean (although only one in every thousand will make it to adulthood) and will one day return to the same beach to lay their own eggs.
Or not. Because beach erosion caused by overdevelopment and pollution as well as sea turtles being killed by fishermen and caught in nets, has led to dwindling numbers of sea turtle nests on Crete. For those that do still make it onto their beaches, if anything is left on it at night (beach furniture, pedalos, umbrellas, etc.) may obstruct them or trap a hatchling on its way to the sea. Lights not only distract mothers but also disorientate hatchlings making that all important journey back to the sea. Because hatchlings are drawn towards the brightest light, which used to be the moon and stars reflecting in the sea but is now more likely to be hotels and roads. Without intervention, these hatchlings will never find their way to the water and will die of dehydration and exhaustion when the sun comes up in the morning.
Turtle conservation efforts in Crete
Even though Crete’s turtle nesting beaches are part of the protected Natura 2000
network, and the recommended distance for constructing buildings on the beach is 50m from the vegetation line, this has been overlooked and left unpoliced in many cases. There is, however, a strong movement of conservationists in Crete, to protect the loggerhead sea turtles, which visit between June to September to lay their eggs. The Greek turtle conservation organisation Archelon
has been operating since 1983, repeatedly pleading with local government to act and for developers to adhere to the recommended guidelines for construction.
Archelon not only joins the lobby to have illegally constructed hotels on nesting beaches demolished, but also ensures that habitat protection is enforced by tourism businesses on the beaches. As already mentioned, by keeping the beach clear at night, and lights switched off. And ensuring that any turtle watching excursions in Crete are handled responsibly. However, many hotels or operators only really take action when they know that their customers understand the serious implications of habitat destruction. So, ask your operator or hotel what they are doing to minimise the impact on turtles and the environment and If they can't demonstrate this, they're probably not taking it very seriously so consider booking with a turtle friendly alternative.
And while you enjoy the gorgeous beaches on Crete, you can also do your bit to protect these ancient creatures that have survived on this planet since dinosaurs roamed. Here are just a few reminders of what to do:
- Do not go on the beach at night - you may disturb a turtle trying to nest or step on a hatchling.
- Do not use torches on the beach at night - it can distract hatchlings on their way to the sea.
- If you are staying near the beach, ensure your lights are turned off after dusk, or ask your hotel to.
- Do not buy any products made of turtleshell.
- Clear your sunbed and umbrella off the beach at night and don't leave any litter. It can obstruct the mother or trap the hatchlings, and plastic bags can in the sea be mistaken by turtles for jellyfish and ingested.
- Consider volunteering on a sea turtle conservation vacation.