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A Turtle Watcher's Diary

2008 Season

5th July 2008

THE 16th year of the Marine Turtle Conservation Project is now well underway, with 61 nests on the Alagadi beaches, and a spectacular 163 more on the north, east and west coasts of the island.

The project began 16 years ago when Brendan Godley and Annette Broderick put together a research expedition, the purpose of which was to determine the numbers of marine turtles nesting on the beaches of Northern Cyprus. It also aimed to study the threats to the breeding population of Green and Loggerhead turtles that visit the island each year to mate and lay.

This was a response to a request for help from Spot (Society for the Protection Of Turtles), a local group concerned with marine turtle conservation. Since then, students from universities all over the UK and elsewhere have given up their summers to volunteer on the project and carry out much-needed research and conservation work. Over the years many scientific journals have been published as a result of the research efforts of the project, concerning many diverse topics from satellite tracking of marine turtles to the effects of sand temperature on the sex of hatchlings.

The MTCP was also instrumental in proclaiming the beaches of Alagadi the fifth most important nesting beaches for Green turtles in the Mediterranean. Even more importantly it helped to gain Alagadi status as a Specially Protected Area (SPA) in 1997, the first of its kind in Northern Cyprus.

There are two species of marine turtle that nest in the Mediterranean; the Loggerhead turtle, Caretta caretta, and the Green turtle, Chelonia mydas, both of which nest in Northern Cyprus. These turtles nest on many beaches around the island, returning approximately every two weeks during the nesting season (from May to late August) to lay a clutch of eggs in the sand.

Loggerhead turtles lay about 40 to 80 eggs in any one clutch, which take 40 to 60 days to hatch. Green turtles lay around 80 to 110 eggs in each nest, which take longer to hatch, with each nest incubating in the heat of the sand for roughly 50 to 70 days. Our first nest on Alagadi, that of a Loggerhead will reach the 50 day incubation mark on July 16, so we should soon hear the pitter patter of tiny flippers on our shores!

This year has been a bumper year for Green turtles following a relatively quiet year in 2007. So far we have 34 Green nests and 27 Loggerhead nests on Alagadi. Although the nest numbers are pretty even we have seen far more Greens on our beaches.

Their indecisiveness over where to nest means they are frequent U-turners and often traverse the beach without nesting. They come ashore for a wander and dig about only to head back out to sea and reappear on a different part of the beach, regularly on the same night.

We have been known to scramble over rocks and roads following a roaming Green that just cannot decide where to nest!

The lulls seen in Green turtle numbers in some years, and surges in others is due to their inter- migratory period. Green turtles only come ashore to nest every three to four years. In between these years they undergo a massive migration to foraging grounds of sea grass beds, their favourite snack, to stock up on reserves needed for the next migration.

Loggerheads spend their time between breeding seasons feeding on jellyfish and crustaceans and exploring the ocean. Over the past several years MTCP has attached satellite transmitters to a number of turtles. This year we are awaiting two suitable Loggerheads, small in size but returnees to Alagadi to which satellite transmitters may be attached.

The information gained will hopefully give us an insight into their behaviour between migrations and so enable us to work more efficiently towards their conservation Whilst our conservation work on the nesting beaches is important to ensure the survival of the eggs to the hatchling stage and so increase the number of hatchlings released each year, it is also vital to protect the other life stages of marine turtles. It takes 25 to 30 years for a turtle to make it from hatching to sexual maturity, and only one in every thousand hatchlings is thought to be fortunate enough to make it this far. Hopefully our research will highlight key migration routes and foraging grounds for the turtles nesting here, so we can try to get protective legislation in place to prevent further losses of these beautiful creatures.

During the season we patrol the Alagadi beaches from 8.30pm until 5am every night to monitor the nesting females as they come ashore. We walk the entire beach every 10 minutes in pairs, ever hoping to see the tell-tale signs of the turtles; either a moving rock or the distinguishable tracks.

When we find a turtle we follow it on hands and knees studying its every move. When a female starts to lay nature takes over and they enter a trance-like state. At this point we are able to bring guests over to the female to witness the awe-inspiring spectacle of these ancient creatures laying their eggs and then carefully hiding their nests in the sand.

Each night we are fortunate enough to be able to bring 10 guests down to the beach with us. Nesting females are alert to potential predators whilst climbing the beach and digging their nests, so we ask the guests to wait on the mid-point of the beach until a turtle begins to lay. To be able to witness this amazing experience pre-booking is essential, so please drop by the Goatshed in Alagadi.

Visitors are always welcomed at the Goatshed; after l0am is best, and remember we don't finish work until 5am. We have a short video you can watch all about the turtles and we love to answer your questions. You can also make bookings, buy some turtle souvenirs, sponsor a turtle or just have a chat with some of the volunteers.

To find us take the east road from Girne and take the turning left for Esentepe. Head into Alagadi village, go past St Kathleen's restaurant and follow the road around. When you hit the dirt look to your right for the white house with the green turtle painted on the side.

If you don't have chance to visit you can always visit our website www.seaturtle.org/mtrg where you will find more information on the project and where the turtles have nested in previous years. There are also links to see where our satellite turtles have ventured.

12th July 2008

MERHABA! Well, what a week! This week we have sadly had to say goodbye to four of our fantastic volunteers. It was really sad to have our first big departures, but we didn't have time to dwell on it for long - with so many leaving it made a massive dent in volunteer numbers, leaving us with only 10.

There has been no room for slackers this weekend! As usual the Karpaz and the west coast still needed to be monitored, so two volunteers were sent to each. This left us with six at our main base until we welcome two new arrivals at the beginning of the week.

Volunteers on our project come from a variety of different backgrounds, but are mostly university students from the UK who study a biological or conservation subject. Each not only gives up their summer holidays from university to work on the project, but also pays 750 for the privilege. In return they gain valuable experience of fieldwork and data collection techniques, as well as taking part in a well-known conservation project and getting to work closely with marine turtles. Volunteers spend anything from one to three months here. For further details on volunteering for future seasons have a look at our website, www.seaturtle.org/mtrg, which is full of information.

Volunteers spend their time with the project rotating between our different bases. Our main base is in Alagadi, the "Goatshed". From here we survey the two Alagadi beaches, the fifth most important nesting beach for green turtles in the Mediterranean, every night. The Alagadi base also houses our day workers for the north coast. From here they drive every day (starting at 5am) to survey the beaches for turtle activity the previous night. Our western base is situated in the town of Guzelyurt, in a house kindly lent to us by Aktan Imamzade. This house has been home to our west base for three years now, and has massively improved the lifestyle of the project workers there. Volunteers get the luxury of an indoor shower and beds, so thank you very much Aktan!

This year we are also monitoring the Karpaz peninsula. The Karpaz is home to many busy nesting beaches, including Ronas Bay, the third most important nesting beach for green turtles in the Mediterranean. The Karpaz is hard work and the volunteers based there spend long days walking the beaches in the heat. They are based at Yesilkoy, where they are able to stay at the fire station with the on-duty firemen.

Over the past week night work has become incredibly busy. On Saturday night, with only six volunteers patrolling the two Alagadi beaches, we had six nests, two of which were loggerheads. All the volunteers were so pleased to see them, as we have had relatively few loggerheads nesting here this year. As well as the nests we had a total of 23 activities! It made for a hard night's work for everyone but was especially rewarding as we coped so well with such limited resources. Only two volunteers, the usual number, were based on Alaghadi 2,  where there are usually fewer activities than the main Alagadi beach. They had the shock of their lives when on only the second walk they came across three turtles already on the beach. This was to set the tone for the night; from 10pm until dawn there was not a moment without a turtle! The volunteers had their work cut out for them, dashing around finding more turtles and tracks on almost every walk, as well as trying to record the activities of the turtles already traversing and body pitting.

Amazingly the main Alagadi beach was just as busy, and we were beginning to wonder where all the turtles had come from! It was especially hard work for the volunteers on this beach as one person was stuck with a very curious green turtle who decided not only to walk around in circles but also to take a trip to the beach bar car park along the boardwalk! She spent a hefty seven hours on the beach, digging a whopping 11 body pits. Towards the end of her foray she was beginning to get very tired and appeared to be stuck in the car park unable to find her way out around the wall. However, with a little assistance from a volunteer she was soon back on her way. Fortunately our adventurer returned on Sunday night, when after a little jolly up a sand dune she fell into a body pit on her way back to the water. She dearly felt this was too good an opportunity to be missed and decided to use the half made nest herself. She laid after having been on the beach for a mere hour - although she very nearly dug up a neighbouring nest in the process! It is a relief to know that even after a hard night the previous night she was still able to return to lay.

At present we are being inundated with visitors and locals alike coming to see the turtles nesting. It is an amazing experience and well worth taking a night out of your schedule for. The guests visiting the beach on Saturday night were more than sufficiently rewarded for their patience when they not only got to see two green turtles nesting but also a loggerhead. They were fantastically enthusiastic and stayed with the volunteers until dawn.

As I mentioned, there were two loggerhead nests on Saturday night. When the volunteers finally thought their night was over and were checking the beach for one final time they came across the eager loggerhead making use of the last few minutes before sunrise to cover her eggs. The second loggerhead nest was much earlier in the night, and was laid on the main Alagadi beach in an area we call Bay One. This is the first bay from our base, or the furthest on your left when looking out to sea from the beach bar. Unfortunately the bay here isn't very wide and the loggerhead had laid too close to the water. This meant that with high tides the nest would get washed over. If a nest gets washed over just a couple of times the eggs are hardy enough to withstand it. However, if a nest gets washed over continuously the oxygen is removed and the eggs will not survive. We were concerned that this would be the case with the position of the nest so we took the decision to transplant it further up the beach away from the high tide. To transplant the nest successfully we needed to measure the depth of the egg chamber to recreate the same environment, and dug the new egg chamber to the same depth. We also moved a little of the sand surrounding the eggs to keep the nest as natural as possible. When the eggs were removed there were only 58, a surprisingly small amount even for a loggerhead. Loggerheads lay fewer eggs than Greens with an average of 60-80, compared to 80-100 for greens.

19th July 2008

We have had some fantastic news from the Karpaz peninsula this week: they have just caged their 150th nest! This is great, as it shows the Karpaz is still as popular as ever with the turtles. Here on Alagadi we have also now reached an incredible 87 nests and counting!

This week I have been carrying out the day work on the north coast, so each morning I and another volunteer leave the project's Goatshed headquarters and survey Esentepe, Tatlisu, Kantara and Kaphca beaches. We also keep a watchful eye over the stretch of coastline leading up to Esentepe. Unfortunately this stretch of beach was affected quite badly when the new road was built, as pieces of the old road ended up on the shore.

Unbelievably, even though the beach is mostly covered in rubble, one strong-willed loggerhead has still managed to nest there. We are waiting to see whether she will return to the same beach to lay her next clutch or whether she will venture further up or down the coastline. Previous research has shown that loggerheads are less specific about where they lay, venturing further afield to other beaches on the same coastline and not just returning to the specific beach where they hatched. Green turtles are believed to be much more particular about where they lay, predominantly returning to their natal beach.

We have also been keenly awaiting the arrival of our first hatchlings, due during the last few days. We have been busy bees preparing for them, and fortunately we have been helped massively by the arrival of four new members of the team this week - four students, two from Germany and two from England - giving the volunteers a much needed boost in numbers. Four more volunteers are expected to arrive in the next week as well.

Preparing for hatchlings is no mean feat. Not only have we had to prepare all the equipment required for weighing and measuring every hatchling, but we are also beginning to ring cage all the nests on Alagadi at 40 days post-lay. This is the minimum number of days at which a nest can hatch, although the first nests rarely hatch this quickly, as the weather is not as hot as it will be at the peak of summer. Ring caging the nests means that we can collect every individual from a nest, weigh and measure them and count how many hatchlings actually emerge from the nest.

Hatchlings usually leave the nest at night when the sand is at its coolest and they are not going to overheat from too much exposure to the sun. Also predation is at its lowest as they are harder to see. However, as with everything, not all hatchlings conform to the norm and some will emerge during the day. Unfortunately for them this makes their journey to the sea almost impossible, as the heat of the midday sun can kill them. The tiny hatchlings, measuring only an inch long, can lose up to 20 per cent of their body mass due to water loss just during the climb out of their nest.

It is for this reason that the ring cages are opened during the day, giving any rogue hatchlings a chance to run the gauntlet to the sea during the midday heat instead of trapping them within the cage. At the moment with only a few nests ring caged the job is relatively easy, but during the peak hatching period this vital job will consume the time of many volunteers who will open the cages every morning and close them every night without fail.

During nights throughout the hatching period there will be a special team of hatchling volunteers who will patrol the nests looking for signs of activity. When a nest is ready to hatch you can tell by eye, as the top of the nests will drop an inch or two where the hatchlings are moving underneath. After the hatchlings have emerged and they have been weighed and measured they are then released, usually on the same night, much closer to the sea. By doing this we can be sure to prevent predation by the hungry ghost crabs, and certain that every hatchling we see on Alagadi beach will make it safely into the ocean.

The hatchling frenzy during which they reach the surface can take between 24 and 48 hours, and stragglers can remain in the nest for a couple of days. This is why we wait 48 hours after the last hatchling has emerged to excavate the nest. We do this to see what remains in the nest, for example how many of the eggs were unfertilised or how many of the  embryos did not make it to full term. It is usual to still find some stragglers in the nests that may not have made it out without our help, and which are given a second chance to reach the sea.

We frequently hold public excavations that certainly draw the crowds - there is nothing more refreshing than to watch these tiny hatchlings taking their first crawl across the sand. These are only held on weeknights and are advertised at the Alagadi beach bar and at the local Lemar supermarkets. Alternatively you are always welcome to pop into the Goatshed and ask when one is going to take place. We only advertise the excavations on the day that they are happening, as it is impossible for us to know in advance. As with the night walks, watching the excavations is a free event, but donations are received with thanks - they are the only way the project is able to continue.

At present we are still seeing the adult female turtles come ashore to lay and expect to until roughly the middle of August. The night watches are still running and open for guests. They are as busy as ever and remember booking is essential, at present it is usual to need to book about four days in advance.

The night watch volunteers are still being entertained by the exploits and unusual behaviours of the green turtles. One of the most notable incidents from the past week was when two volunteers got a little confused by some tracks. They thought they were old and after measuring them up began to cross them out only to find a turtle at the top. After observing the turtle for some time, she began to make her descent toward the water. Unbeknown to her there was another turtle she was about to cross paths with. A second volunteer was much further down the beach observing a turtle that was body pitting with the usual calm demeanour. Just minutes later this was all to change when the descending turtle, unable to see much in the dark, fell into the body pit on top of the other. The volunteers couldn't believe what had happened and for a short time were unable to tell the turtles apart in the darkness! After a large amount of kerfuffle the turtles managed to untangle themselves and continued on their way, both body pitting further down the beach and seeming unfazed by the whole debacle.

26th July 2008

The  fantastic news just keeps coming; this week we have had our 100th nest at Alagadi, which is considerably more than last year.

We also had our second loggerhead nest on the north coast, near Esentepe, in among the rubble. It is most likely to be the loggerhead from the previous week returning to lay her second clutch. Her hatchlings certainly have a challenge ahead of them making their way to the water.

We have also seen the comings and goings of yet more volunteers. As always it was sad to say goodbye but as exciting as ever to welcome the new arrivals, who seem to be arriving in droves at present.

All the extra bodies mean that finally we have been able to have some time off. Most of the volunteers were fortunate enough to spend Sunday afternoon at a barbecue hosted for us by the Collyers in a gorgeous villa at Karaman. Spending some time lounging by a pool and enjoying the novelty of such tasty food as well as having a great view for the air show was much appreciated-by all who attended! We would like to thank the Collyers very much for such a great afternoon.

The hatchling period is now beginning to really take hold and we hosted our first public nest excavation on Friday. It was a great success. All the volunteers took to the beach to help and watch the hatchlings enter the water, as well as many members of the public, locals and holidaymakers alike.

The guests that came down to the beach with us on Thursday night were extremely fortunate as they not only got to see a green turtle laying but also got to see the first hatchlings from the loggerhead nest nearby. It was this loggerhead nest that was excavated and it was quite successful for such an early nest, with a high proportion of hatchlings to unfertilised eggs. Unfortunately it is quite normal that not all the eggs reach full term, or are not fertilised at all. Some may also become infested by flies in the warm sand. Unless the nest has been frequently washed over and has therefore lost its oxygen, it is unusual to not have any successful eggs.

This week I am based at Guzelyurt, the base from which we patrol the beaches on the west coast. We are only at the very beginning of hatchings here and have so far only seen one nest hatch. Unfortunately the nest was predated by a dog which had managed to dig underneath the wire caging used to prevent such occurrences. Predation used to be a far bigger problem before the caging was used, and the western beaches still suffer quite a lot. It is much less of a problem at Alagadi. This may be due to the fact that the nests are never unattended as they are patrolled all through the night, so deterring feral dogs. The. beaches here on the west coast are far more remote and surrounded by farmland, so are more likely to provide a welcome home and food source to feral dogs and foxes.

Besides the cages, we also excavate the nests at the first signs of hatching to protect the hatchlings from predators. The same process is used here as at Alagadi. The hatchlings are individually weighed and measured and the success rate of the nest is studied. The hatchlings are then released next to the water to help protect them from the roaming ghost crabs.

Unfortunately we have not been having the best of luck out here with transport. Our loyal Rav seems to have decided it has off-roaded enough, and after a few blown tyres and a broken radiator, not to mention the loss of the exhaust pipe, decided just to cut out. This left three volunteers huddled at the side of the road in the dark waiting for help. This came very fortunately in the form of Tony Hutchinson who abandoned his dinner to retrieve us. Thank you very much, Tony; if it weren't for you we'd probably still be there! We are ever-hopeful that the Rav will recover and won't spend long at the garage, leaving the hatchlings unprotected and in the hands of fate.  

2nd August 2008

Well, fortunately after last week's car troubles we soon had the Rav sorted and back on the road again. The nesting on the beaches out west has begun to drop off noticeably now, with far fewer every day and occasional days with no new nests at all. This is a certain sign that the nesting season is beginning to come to an end.

This is good news for one beach in particular on the west coast, known amongst ourselves as "Lost" - if you were trying to find it you would see why! Lost is only a small beach and is partially rocky. This means that the turtles only come up on a small part of it. This season the beach has been very popular with green sea turtles, notorious for traversing the beach for what seems to be miles and digging numerous body pits before actually laying. Even at the beginning of the season we had problems untangling tracks and working out which body pits went with which tracks, but now we are having far worse problems. With so many nests in such a small area, the greens still coming ashore are beginning to dig up older nests when digging their own body pits. This can clearly have a detrimental effect on the older nests, as the eggs should not be moved or touched after the first 48 hours after laying. It seems that on this beach at least, the green sea turtles are their own worst enemy.

This week at Alagadi the team were sent out for an unusual turtle rescue! A juvenile green turtle was found trapped in a rock pool. It was quite a young turtle with a carapace measuring only 33cm in length. Once rescued by some of the volunteers it was brought back to the project's "Goatshed" headquarters where it was measured and PIT tagged. PIT tags are microchips, the same as you those would use with any dog or cat or other animal to enable you to distinguish them from others. We insert the PIT tags into the turtle's shoulder muscle, and they are always inserted in the same place so we know where to look for them. They are then found with a PIT tag scanner, which you run over the area, and if it finds a microchip it relays a number. It's the most reliable way of identifying a turtle. In mature turtles we also put flipper tags into the flippers, a bit like earrings or the agricultural tags used in the ears of farm animals. However these can get pulled out or migrate out of the skin. Although PIT tags can migrate out of the muscle they are placed into this can take years and as we place one on each side of the shoulder, they usually migrate at different rates so one at least should always stay in.

By PIT tagging the juvenile we will be able to see whether it returns to Alagadi to lay, as the number is now in our database. If it is a female it isn't certain that she will lay here at Alagadi, as she could have hatched from any of the beaches on Cyprus or even in the Mediterranean. But if she lays on any of the beaches throughout the Mediterranean that are patrolled at night someone will find the PIT tag and be able to trace it back to us. Then again, if it is a male, the likelihood is that the tag will never be seen again as he will never come ashore for the duration of his life. it is very hard to track and study juveniles and in the Mediterranean it is mostly unknown where they spend the time between when they leave their nests and when, if they survive, they reappear on the shore to lay eggs themselves. It is believed that they spend most of their years travelling between feeding grounds, but that Mediterranean sea turtles remain in the Mediterranean throughout their lives.

We were unable to determine the sex of the juvenile that was rescued. As adults, males are distinguishable by their tails, which are much longer than those of the female; they also have claws on their front flippers, which are used to hold on to the females during mating. But this juvenile was not old enough to have developed either of these characteristics. The only way to establish sex at this age is to test hormone levels. Testing the blood or genetic samples is not sufficient, as the sex of a turtle is not genetically determined, it is determined by the temperature of the nest during the development of the embryo. If the temperature in the nest ranges between 28 and 31degrees C young turtles of both sexes will develop. Once the temperature stays below 28, only males will form, and at over 31, only females will develop. Northern Cyprus, due to its high temperatures, is notorious for producing female hatchlings.

After our young turtle was rescued, tagged and measured it was once again released on Alagadi beach back into the sea in front of a huge crowd of onlookers. We hope this time it'll manage to stay out of trouble.

Here on Alagadi we have now had four loggerhead nests hatch and two greens. It is unusual to have green hatchlings so early in the season, as they lay later than the loggerheads.

With the nesting season beginning to come to a close and far fewer turtles coming up to lay on all of the beaches, we have now closed night watches to the public as we cannot be sure that visitors will see anything at all.

9th August 2008

Well as  always it has been another busy week here at the turtle project. We have now had 14 nests hatching on Alagadi alone, with more on the north and east coasts and on the Karpaz peninsula.

When looking for signs of hatchlings on beaches other than Alagadi we are predominantly looking for tracks. Unlike on Alagadi we do not ring cage the nests on the other coasts.

Data from the hatchlings is less important; as we don't know who the mother is, we have no need to collect all the individuals. Also, although we visit and walk the beaches early in the mornings if the hatchlings were held within cages it would get too hot for them very quickly.

The tracks we look for are identical to the mothers; the green hatchlings walk with their front flippers then their back flippers. The loggerheads, however, walk with alternate left and right flippers, so making different patterns in their tracks. As the hatchlings are only a mere inch long their tracks are tiny, just a couple of inches wide. It is therefore very helpful that the hatchlings emerge almost all together over a period of two to three nights. Looking for hatchling tracks in the day is no mean feat - although generally there will be a bundle all together it is not unusual to have only a handful after the first night. Unhelpfully, other beach dwellers such as lizards and ghost crabs leave tracks on the beach, which when near a nest can lead to confusion. Nonetheless, some volunteers really have an eye for spotting these tiny tracks!

As soon as we spot them leading from a nest we are able to dig up the nest. Alagadi is the only beach on which we do this publicly, but on the north coast especially there are often some beach-gusts who come to take a peek at what we are up to.

Occasionally, and twice on Kaplica already this week, when walking the beach, volunteers spot the tiny tracks coming from what seems to be nowhere. This is known as an unfound nest, and it is common to get quite a few of these in a season. When the day walkers patrol the beaches during the nesting season they look for all the different activities; the "FCU"(a false crawl U-turn), an "FCA" (a false crawl attempt) and a nest.

Occasionally what the day workers believe to be an FCA can actually be a nest. Although they may have poked it to try to find an egg chamber, sometimes one is not found. Or they may not have poked the body pit believing that it didn't look like a nest cover-up.

It may also have been the case if the nest was close to the high tide mark that the tracks had been washed away and the sand partially flattened, so giving the walkers no idea that there was even a nest thereto start with. As an FCA can, from time to time, turn out to be a nest this is why we measure them up to determine their exact location when we find them. We always measure the location of the final body pit in relation to the posts that we place at the back of the beach, the distance from the vegetation and the distance from the high water mark.

If we come across an unfound nest the procedure is exactly the same as if we had known it was there. As soon as we find tracks we dig to find the egg chamber, which is far more challenging and time consuming when we are unsure exactly where it is.

This highlights the importance of finding the nest in the beginning and placing a centre stick directly over the egg chamber. In unfound nests we can only estimate the whereabouts of the egg chamber using the spot from where all the hatchling tracks seem to emerge.

When found we do the same as always, recording the depth of the egg chamber and making a note of its contents. We then measure the exact location of the egg chamber. These measurements can then be compared with measurements from FCAs on the same beach, if there is any match we can know when the nest was laid and be certain by what species.

When we dig up the nests there are often hatchlings remaining in the bottom. As well as full-term hatchlings we also come across what we call pips - hatchlings that are not quite ready to leave their shells and are found half in and half out of them. They have their egg sacs still attached and need more incubation before they can be released. When we find them in the mornings on day walks we place them in a bucket with damp sand and do not weigh or measure them until they come out of their shells fully.

This generally only takes a few hours and they are ready for release on the next night. More rarely we come across eggs that haven't yet hatched but that we believe will, with further incubation. You can tell if this is the case by gently squeezing the eggs - the embryo inside can be felt wriggling around. In this situation we rebury the eggs in a bucket of sand from the egg chamber and bring them back to the turtle project's "Goatshed" headquarters where we can wait for them to hatch.

As always news of upcoming excavations can be found at the Goatshed, Alagadi beach bar, the local Lemar supermarkets, at the paragliding centre in Girne yacht harbour and online at www.whatson-northcyprus.com, which is updated daily.

We do love to see visitors at the Goatshed, but remember after 10am is best, when there are always volunteers on hand to give you more information on the project and just to have a chat. You'll also get the opportunity to watch a short video on the turtles, or purchase some turtle souvenirs - and why not sponsor a turtle?

Once again don't forget the Turtle Fun Extravaganza, from August 20th to 22nd, to be hosted by Tricia at the Riverside Holiday Village in Alsancak. It promises to be a fun-filled few days, full of games and competitions and culminating in a barbecue on the Friday night Tickets and more information are now available for the individual days or for all three, from Riverside or Tricia herself and the Lambousa and Carpenters markets' turtle stalls. All proceeds will go to Spot, the Northern Cyprus Society for the Protection of Turtles.

16th August 2008

This week I have had the absolute pleasure of spending the week up at the base on the Karpaz peninsula;  it is such a beautiful place and it has been thoroughly enjoyable.

At present with the nesting season coming to a close the Karpaz has more than 250 nests, and this is only on the beaches that we patrol. There is potential for many more on the others. Ronnas Bay is the third most important nesting beach for turtles in the Mediterranean and this is clear from the moment you step on to it. Every inch seems to be covered with nests and there are many little hatchling tracks leading from unfound nests, which can take forever to trace. On one of the longer beaches we followed one little hatchling's perilous trail halfway across the beach through a series of loop the loops and various detours before it finally turned in the right direction and headed down to the water. Golden Beach is a spectacular sight; endless golden sands often mostly devoid of people early in the mornings and with a walk over the sand dunes you reach Golden Beach Two, a haven for green turtles practically deserted by beach users.

At the Karpaz the day work is the same as on the other beaches across North Cyprus. Each morning we patrol the beaches and check for new nests, which are now few and far between. Now we are focusing far more on the hatchlings, checking each nest to see if it is dipping in the centre - a sure sign that it is beginning to hatch - or for the hatchling tracks themselves. Once we have seen hatchling tracks we mark the nest as hatching and record the date. The nest is then checked every day and roughly three to five days after hatching has begun the nest will be excavated.

Unfortunately predation levels seem to be at their highest when the nest has begun to hatch. A hatching nest emits an odour that humans can smell if they are close enough and that dogs and foxes can smell from much further away. It is thought that it is the release of this smell that encourages predation and allows the dogs to locate the nests. Sadly, predation is the fate of more than 30 per cent of the nests in North Cyprus. It is always heartbreaking to find a hatching nest that has been predated, but we can only hope that at least some of the hatchlings have made it to the water.

Despite all the things that can go wrong there have been some definite success stories from the Karpaz this week. One of the nests that was excavated was incredibly successful. In a successful nest between 80 and 85 per cent of the eggs hatch, but in this nest of 106 eggs 103 egg fragments were found, meaning that potentially 103 hatchlings reached the sea - brilliant news. On Golden Beach Two we also found a new nest belonging to a green turtle; unfortunately she had laid far too close to the shore, so the nest had to be relocated further up the beach out of danger from the tide. When the eggs were removed we counted an astounding 174 eggs, almost double the norm! With any luck it will be a successful nest.

Karpaz nest excavations are carried out just the same as they are at the turtle project's Alagadi base, though they are far more low-key. Nonetheless we do love to show people what we do, so it is possible to watch an excavation in the Karpaz. At present they are carried out most days either at dawn or dusk when it is coolest for the hatchlings. To find out more information about excavations in the Karpaz pop into Dek's Restaurant on the road between Yeni Erenkoy and Dipkarpaz, where Denise, the lovely owner, will be able to let you know what's going on.

The project at the Karpaz is only able to run so effectively thanks to the help of a great many people: the firemen at Yesilkoy, our base for the area, Denise at Dek's (fantastic food and well worth a stop), and the people at the Oasis whose breakfasts are by far the best! Thank you to all these people for allowing us to make the satellite base so productive.

Last Friday some of the volunteers had the pleasure and privilege of visiting Erenkoy for the Erenkoy Resistance and Martyrs' Day remembrance. Kutlay Keco who is the chairman of the Erenkoy Fighters' Association, is also the president of Spot, the North Cyprus Society for the Protection of Turtles. He enlisted some willing volunteers from the project to help with catering at the event - so they are now fully qualified kebab makers - and were rewarded with a lovely dinner on the journey home.

On Sunday, here at Alagadi we also completed our last session of night work observing the laying turtles. This occurs at a different date each year and is determined by the level of activity on the beach. When we have had 10 consecutive nights of no activity by laying turtles this is known as the official end of night work - a very noteworthy date in our diaries. it means that instead of walking the beach every 10 minutes we are now walking the beach only a few times a night on hatchling patrols. However, if a laying turtle is seen on one of these walks it will be observed in the same way as before. It is still possible for a few stragglers to come on to the beach to lay.

In the past couple of weeks the volunteers have been spoiled with amazing hospitality from locals and tourists alike. We would like to thank Penny once again for her sensational barbecue, and Karen and Rogan Twort, the parents of one of our volunteers, who also hosted us at a fantastic barbecue on Sunday. Both of these events I am certain kept us fed and watered for most of the week!

This week has been so fantastic that it makes me even more sad that it is my last full week on the turtle project and I am due to return to England in the middle of next week. When! fly home I will have spent roughly two-and-a-half months here in North Cyprus and I've loved every second of it. The beginning of the project with so few volunteers and everyone working tirelessly to get things done seems a world away from the great team of incredible volunteers we have now developed and grown into. I have enjoyed working on the project so much I have high hopes of returning next summer to do it once again.

Fortunately, as well as spending the vast majority of my time here working on the project, I did get the chance to take a few days off recently and, together with another volunteer, managed to complete the Path Open Water Diver award in a very hectic few days. I'd really like to thank Turtle Bay Dive Centre at Lapta and our fantastic instructor (you know who you are!) for pushing us so hard and getting us through it - we were very fortunate to have such an enthusiastic instructor. Also, many thanks to John Plant for putting me up for a few nights, it was greatly appreciated.

A lot of the volunteers that have been here since the early days back in May and June are now beginning to leave and head back to reality, either back to employment or to university. It is always a sad day to say goodbye to these volunteers who have worked so hard during their time here and who will all be greatly missed.

23rd August 2008

Our often hazy, 5.30am start means that we arrive at the beaches before they reach flip-flop melting temperatures, allowing us to excavate nests with signs of hatchling activity. In such situations, many of the babies we dig up would either fail to make it to the surface (let alone down to the water's edge) or die from desiccation and exhaustion in the sweltering Cyprus heat.

In between turtle crusading, a few of us took the opportunity to go tandem paragliding, which I can say was pretty amazing. The view from atop the mountains was spectacular and the journey down surprisingly gentle (sort of like sitting in a big floating armchair). Thanks go to Angela at Highline Tandem paragliding in Girne Harbour.

To effectively conserve turtle - populations, it is important to gain in-depth knowledge of their behaviour in terms of resource utilisation and migratory patterns. It is also just as important to look at a population in terms of its potential genetic fitness. As well as tracking females using satellite transmitters, we are also looking at patterns of hatchling emergence and their paternity.

While volunteering at the Alagadi base camp, I have also been involved in the data collection currently being undertaken here. Due to high incubation temperatures during embryo development, it is thought that many more females than males are produced in this area of northern Cyprus.

urtle hatchlings being released at Alagadi beach
Turtle Hatchlings being Released

Possible consequences of a highly skewed sex-ratio could lead to inbreeding depression in local turtle populations, decreasing genetic diversity and increasing the chances of harmful mutations. As adult male turtles will very rarely venture ashore and on to the beaches here, a good way for us to learn about them is through their offspring. Green turtle hatchlings from tagged females are weighed, measured and sampled for DNA before being carefully released into the sea.

Research such as this will not only help to broaden the depth of understanding with regards to mating systems and the gene pools of northern Cyprus turtles, but will ultimately contribute to the conservation of this beautiful and endangered species.

Turtle warriors out at our Karpaz base this week were delighted to announce the successful rescue of a stranded juvenile Green turtle.

The poor youngster had been caught in a local fishing net, and was discovered washed up on Ronnas beach, with several cuts to its front and back flippers from where it had being trying to free itself. Fortunately, these injuries were not too severe and the patient was carefully cut loose and returned to the sea. Not all individuals are as lucky, however, many may be caught for so long that they drown or starve.

30th August 2008

THERE have been a few recent requests for more detail about what it's actually like to volunteer for the Marine Turtle Conservation Project and what the average day generally entails.

I and three other volunteers are currently out at our west coast base in Guzelyurt, staying in a townhouse kindly lent to the project for our use throughout the turtle season. Our responsibility is to patrol all of the west coast beaches with a history of laying and nesting activity, a total of five at present.

Daily schedule
Our morning start is around 5am, and the next half an hour involves around three to four volunteers groggily waking, breakfasting, and stumbling into the car before taking the mostly off-road and bumpy 40-minute drive to our first port of call ; "The Monster".

Aptly named, the Monster is a thin strip of beach stretching about five kilometres, sandwiched between choppy seas and rocky desert-like ground sprinkled with wild thyme. Volunteers will walk the length of this beach looking for fresh signs of any turtle-esque activities. Earlier in the season such patrols involved the identifying of Green and Loggerhead adult female tracks in order to locate newly laid clutches, and protect them from predators.

Measurements of all adult tracks are recorded to gauge their size and any other distinguishing features (such as "Stumpy" the female Green-whose track was unmistakeable due to a back flipper disfigurement potentially caused by a previous run-in with a boat propeller).

Upon finding a new nest, its position is carefully measured relative to the high water mark, nearest vegetation, and right and left post markings. The nest is given a name (this is generally done by the first to find it and names range from the humorous to the downright bizarre), and a wire meshing is then placed over the top to protect it against predation by wild dogs, foxes and hedgehogs (unfortunately there is not much which can be done about those pesky ghost crabs).

Now well into the peak of the hatching period, patrols concentrate on signs of hatching emergence from the marked nests. If substantial amounts of baby tracks are found we will begin the tiring process of excavation, to help free any babies trapped under the surface, record the fate of the whole nest clutch (i.e. how many eggs were fertilised, how many egg fragments we find, and how many live and dead babies are left in the nest), and finally releasing the babies into the sea.

The next beach in our daily turtle patrol is West One and Two;  again this beach stretches for around five kilometres but is divided into two parts due to a large rocky outcrop and headland.

Despite copious amounts of rubbish being dumped and washed ashore here, this area has seen some of the highest levels of nesting activity this season, most of which being from Loggerheads. The same routine of nest-checking ensues before we move on to the fourth of our beaches, known to us as "Lost" (the name is self- explanatory due to initial surveyors having navigational problems). This small and shell-strewn beach comprises rocky coves, making it difficult for turtles to come ashore and lay, although we do currently have six nests there yet to hatch.

The finale of our beach marathon concludes with "Message" (named so due to the exciting discovery of a message in a bottle). About 2.5km long, this beach is strewn with many rock pools, good for snorkelling and general cooling down after strenuous nest patrolling in the heat (it's usually around noon or 1pm at this point). Currently there are only three nests still to hatch here. These are all located up in the vegetation and belong to Green turtles, which are known to nest higher up the beach than Loggerheads.

The truck rescuers
The Truck Rescuers

So herein ends the field work section of our day.  It's then back to base camp to type up data and wash our sandy and salty limbs!

Oops!
At this point I feel it necessary to mention a certain series of unfortunate events which occurred while commuting between these various beaches only this morning (I would first like to stress that this was my first attempt at off-roading on what I would mildly describe as "unfriendly terrain"). The long and short of it - was that I managed to get myself and my fellow turtle warriors well and truly stuck for rather a while in a vast sand ditch. Between visions of us being stranded for so long that we would eventually have to decide which one of us to eat, we all worked hard digging and strategically placing planks of wood around the wheels, so that with the awesome power of Stu's wheel manoeuvring we were eventually back on solid ground. As well as congratulating him, I must also reimburse chiropractor bills for both Lucy and Charlotte, who tirelessly pushed the car from behind while avoiding mouthfuls of sand spray and exhaust fumes.

Birthday shenanigans.
Just a quick mention of Robbo, our project leader, who turned 26 on the 24th of this month, and who enjoyed his turtle-shaped chocolate birthday cake. Thanks to all of you who came and brought cakes and general party foods.

6th September 2008

Another busy excavation-filled week has passed here in Guzelyurt. There have been a few more minor car-stuck-in-sand incidents but nothing a spade and several determined volunteers couldn't rectify.

A very welcome night off from cooking was had as volunteers were treated to the sumptuous cuisine and hospitality of Maureen and Tony Hutchinson, who have been involved in the turtle project for many years. Thanks go to them for a lovely evening.

Unfortunately, in some of the nests we monitor, babies which had emerged in the very early hours of the morning were found predated upon by dogs.

Although the wire nets we place over the nests help to significantly reduce the incidence of predation, once babies emerge and begin their walk to the sea, they are prey to many terrestrial opportunists, such as ghost crabs, crows and carnivorous wasps. Fortunately however, we were able to help the rest of the clutches in question to reach the nest's surface and make their seawards journey in safety.

Following last week's article detailing a typical day out at our Guzelyurt base, this week's focus is on our main base camp at Alagadi. Here, volunteers are involved in numerous activities ranging from the greeting of visitors in our information centre to daily and nightly monitoring of the beaches, aiding in data collection and entry on our computer database, helping with the public excavations that we do, and finally cooking for about 20 sand-covered and hungry people in the evenings!

The optimal time for hatchlings to emerge is thought to be at night (triggered by the temperature gradient of the top 10cm of sand). As some babies do, however, emerge during the early hours of the morning (and even during the intense midday heat), it is the job of the day-time hatchers to patrol the whole of Alagadi beach.

A public excavation at Alagadi beach, North Cyprus
A Public Excavation at Alagadi

Each nest is checked for any signs of hatchlings, and depending upon the time of day, babies are either helped to reach the sea, or are taken back to the shade of our base camp to be released when the sand is much cooler and waters turtle-friendly.

Research has indicated that hatchlings emerging in small groups during the day are more at risk from terrestrial predators. Small groups cannot benefit from the dilution effect that otherwise lowers the risk from predation. There are also thought to be more sea predators in coastal waters during the day (such as the large pelagic fish Coryphaena hippurus), also potentially significantly reducing hatchling survival rate.

"Day-time hatchers" work in groups of two or three and at about 5am begin the task of carefully checking the nests and opening the ring cages placed around them during the night (so that all the babies can be weighed and measured when they first emerge). The second patrol is at midday, followed by an evening patrol at 7pm when all the ring cages around the nests are closed.

When nests have hatchling activity during the night, they will be excavated publicly the next day, helping babies to reach the surface and offering visitors the chance to learn more about what we are doing out here, ask any questions they may have and (most importantly) see the cute little hatchlings making their way down the beach and into the sea.

During public excavations, visitors arrive at our base at around 5.30pm and are then escorted down to the beach. Some arrive a little earlier to ask questions and watch our 10-minute DVD which gives useful background information about the project before seeing the turtles first-hand.

At 10pm every night, another group of about six volunteers stock up with flasks of coffee and various snacks (Rich Tea-type biscuit sandwiches filled with chocolate spread are the general favourite) before making their way down to the beach. Each nest is checked about every two hours throughout the night, with any hatchlings being carefully collected, weighed and measured before being released into the sea.

The public excavations are free to watch, although donations are greatly appreciated and ultimately enable our work to continue.

13th September 2006

Waving a sad goodbye to Guzelyurt, it is time to head east to the Karpaz peninsula. One of the most prominent geographical features of the island of Cyprus, the Karpaz is a biologically diverse area with many endemic species of flora and fauna. There are around 1,500 species of plants, 350 of birds and, 26 of amphibians and reptiles. At the tip of the peninsula there are also some 250 roaming wild donkeys.

There are an estimated 46 sandy beaches in the Karpaz that comprise the main nesting ground for the eastern Mediterranean's endangered green and loggerhead turtles.

The karpaz team of volunteers
The Karpaz Team

Two of the most important beaches for turtles on the north coast are Ronnas and Ayios Philon, both of which are surveyed by volunteers on a daily basis. With an estimated total of between 180 and 200 nests having been laid there this summer, Ronnas is also generally considered the third most important beach for green turtles in the whole of the Mediterranean. The success of this beach is generally attributed to the lack of industrial and commercial development in the area, leaving the beach largely undisturbed and predominantly lit by moonlight during the night-time prime hatchling emergence period.

One major problem on this beach, however, is the overwhelming amount of pollution and general debris littering its entire surface. Much of this pollution is medical waste which is thought to have originated from Syria, and is washed up oil the beach dining bad weather. The levels of pollution are particularly high this season due to the absence of the mass rubbish clearing operation that usually occurs on an annual basis and has depressingly led to whole egg. chambers being enclosed in plastic bags and numerous hatchlings getting stuck in rings of plastic and even the necks of empty bottles.

A smaller and more picturesque beach, Ayios Philon is the second stop on our daily beach Karpaz patrols. With only around 15 nests left to hatch, there have been approximately 60 nests laid there this year. This beach is also of historic interest due to the remnants of the Roman harbour which can be found there.

Other beaches in our care this year are Golden Beach (where the nests have now all hatched) and those near Kaleburnu. With less nesting activity, these beaches are surveyed every other day. This year at Golden Beach there has been a particular problem of unauthorised people disturbing nests prematurely and significantly decreasing the survival rate of clutches laid during the season.

At present, the Marine Turtle Conservation Project (MTCP) is the only organisation with the authorisation to monitor these nests and allow the public to come and watch and participate in excavations. We do not charge for this privilege but greatly appreciate any donations that come our way. We generally hold public excavations on a nightly basis from around 5.30pm and thoroughly enjoy being able to share our work with anyone interested.

Alternatively, there are friendly individuals at both the Oasis restaurant in Ayios Philon and Deks in north Karpaz, who will be happy to help with turtle information.

On a particularly happy note this week, I am proud to inform you of a few Karpaz records which have been broken: more than 70 nests were excavated in the past nine days, and the biggest clutch of 191 eggs was found -182 of which hatched successfully. A nest on Ayios Philon contained 132 eggs of which 100 per cent hatched. And finally, 103 hatchlings were also released all at once from a single nest that started hatching while we were doing our evening excavations.

20th September 2008

THIS week saw the sad departure of project leader Robin Snape, who is soon to head to colder climates for the great Antarctic survey. It was also time for me to return once again to the main base at Alagadi after a regrettably short stay out in the Karpaz.

The volunteers at the British high Comission
The BHC Cocktail Party

One of the highlights of my week was being able to attend the annual environmental evening held at the British High Commission in Lefkosa. After innumerable weeks hanging out at the Goat Shed in dirty shorts and T-shirts, it was all rather exciting to be clean and presentable for a whole evening and to be in such impressive surroundings. (The free bar providing cocktails to order was also something greatly appreciated by most of the parched turtle warriors present!) In previous years this annual event was solely for the members of the Marine Turtle Conservation Project (MTCP). This year, however, it hosted representatives from various Cyprus-based environmental NGOs, as well as government officials from both the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot sides. The main speech of the evening, given by High Commissioner Peter Millett, stressed issues relating to the current lack of any recycling facilities throughout the country. With increases in tourist development, pollution levels are only set to rise, and the disturbance such development can cause when not done sensitively means the future is looking less than positive for not only the turtles of Cyprus, but also its many other marine and terrestrial species.

In the 2007 ICUN Red list of threatened species, mammals such as the Mediterranean monk seal are listed as critically endangered, whilst the horseshoe bat and wild goat are vulnerable. Reasons given for their fragile state include habitat loss and degradation, disturbance brought about by tourism and recreation, and changes in native species dynamics (effectively, disruptions to their ecosystem).

Before Alagadi beach was offered any kind of environmental protection, the needs of local development saw an estimated 100 tons of sand being removed from the dunes on a daily basis, with vehicles dangerously close to turtle nesting areas. This is thankfully a thing of the past where Alagadi is concerned, and the closure of the beach between 8pm and 8am helps to decrease the amount of human disturbance during turtle nesting and hatching periods.

Not all beaches important for nesting turtles have been afforded such protection, however. In recent years, the dumping of rubble and cement on to beaches previously frequented by adult females has occurred along the north coast. Since this time there has been no evidence of any nesting activity and it is doubtful if there will be any for the foreseeable future.

Under current legislation and initiatives such as Natura 2000, it is hoped that improvements will eventually be made in the conservation status of certain habitat types and species, which are important both on a local and global scale. This is no easy task, however, and there is always a frustrating time lag between the creation of such laws, their implementation and the positive effect they are hoped ultimately to have upon the environment.

With regard to such problems currently facing Cyprus, it is hoped that the future will bring increased unity and cohesion between North and South, creating a united front, if not politically then at least environmentally.

A final thanks must go out to the High Commission who have agreed to pledge the sum of 500, to be used by the MTCP so that we may further improve our conservation efforts out at the Karpaz.  

27th September 2008

SADLY it is almost time for us to pack up and say goodbye to Alagadi, our beloved Goatshed, and all the hatchlings which we hope are now somewhere out in the Mediterranean munching on sea grass (or, in the loggerheads' case, jellyfish). Although not so much turtle-filled any more, our days are still fairly hectic as we clear away all of our equipment from the beaches, tidy up our living quarters, and tackle the mammoth task of sorting and entering all of this season's information on to our databases. One of my favourite jobs of late has also been attempting to use up all of the leftover ingredients in the cupboards by making interesting concoctions and getting my fellow volunteers to sample them!

To summarise, this year's nesting season has been brilliant for green turtles, especially at our Alagadi base where we have had a high amount of activity with a total of 65 green nests being laid. Loggerhead activity, however, has been less than usual but has still resulted in a good total of 44 nests. Our Alagadi hatchling total stands at more than 6,000, with an average clutch success rate of 64 per cent. Average success for nests laid on the western beaches was 51 per cent, for the north beaches 44 per cent and for Karpaz 66 per cent.

The Karpaz beaches have also had both the highest amount of nesting turtles (241) and the highest amount of general turtle activity (981 cases). Of all the beaches we monitor, Ronnas has again been the most important, with a total of 119 nests being laid there this year. Thanks to the continual efforts of volunteers at our Alagadi base, we are pleased to say that there was no single incidence of predation on this beach. Sadly, however, around 18 per cent of the nests laid on our west and north beaches were either partially or totally predated due to the numerous stray dogs and other predators roaming the beaches.

A few of our volunteers this year were able to visit the Kyrenia Animal Rescue (KAR) centre in the Besparmak mountains, where visitors can exercise the rescue dogs on the stunning mountain trails. As well as rehoming and sponsorship, the centre also carries out routine neutering of both cats and dogs, an important step towards reducing the occurrence of predation of not only our turtle nests, but of other species endemic to North Cyprus. The KAR centre in Besparmak is open every day from 9am-lpm, and there is also a helpline on 0533 869 4098.

Volunteer Tom and the Karpaz firemen
Volunteer Tom and the Karpaz Firemen

Many years ago and then once again this year, volunteers working out at the Karpaz have been kindly put up by the fire station and a big thank you must go out to them for all their hospitality, friendliness and generosity. Next year it is hoped that we will have the funds to develop a more permanent base nearer to the beaches where our field work is carried out Maybe one day we will even be able to have an information centre out there too!

A final big thank you is reserved for all the individuals who have supported the project this year, either through helping to raise funds, visiting our information centre, coming along to the public excavations, or attending one of the many turtle fundraisers held this season.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time spent volunteering with the Marine Turtle Conservation Project over the past two months and have had the opportunity to develop many new skills and meet an interesting bunch of people. I recommend it to anyone with a passion for conservation and adventure!

On that note, it's goodbye from everyone here at the turtle project and we hope, to see you all again next year! If in the meantime you would like to find out more about our organisation and the project, please go to www.seaturtle.org/mtrg where there are also links to sites showing the migratory routes and areas where our tagged satellite turtles have ventured!

Read other diaries. 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012

Follow the links for more information about the the turtles of Cyprus, their nesting,  and hatching.