When Nick and I were walking the Lycian Way, along the Mediterranean cost in Turkey, we were lucky enough to be in Cirali during the baby sea turtle hatching season. (Walking the Lycian Way at this time of year also involved being ‘lucky’ enough to go trekking in 40 degree Celsius heat, but that’s another story).
I have to say witnessing these tiny, amazing little creatures’ first moments of life as they make the treacherous but magical dash for the sea is one of the most incredible things we’ve witnessed on our travels so far. Here’s how we were able to do it:
To be entirely honest, when we arrived, exhausted in Cirali after a long day of trekking in the August heat of Mediterranean Turkey (did I already mention it was hot?), I knew nothing about the place or the fact that it happens to be one of only a handful Caretta Caretta nesting sites in the world – and that we were there during hatching season.
We got to our guesthouse on the beachfront (as almost all of the guesthouses in Cirali are), and after checking in pretty much immediately flaked out in our air conditioned cabin until we forgot what it felt like to be sweltering hot and sweaty. Once we were sufficiently cooled to venture back into the world, we stepped outside to the smell of freshly caught fish being grilled for evening dinner. Bliss. Chatting to the owner of the guesthouse at dinner, he asked if we – like many visitors to Cirali at this time of year – were hoping to spot the baby sea turtles hatching on the beach in the morning. My response was something along the lines of ‘WELL YES, WE ARE NOW’.
Cue excitement as I frantically googled how best to increase our chances of seeing them the next morning. This is where the caveat comes in: from what I gather, we were extremely lucky to have the experience which we did. I read many a post online from disappointed people who didn’t manage to spot the sea turtles hatching. In a way, which I will explain later, neither did we.
The trick is to get up at about 4.45am to get onto the beach before sunrise begins (we were there in late August and sunrise began at around 5am, but check the exact time when you visit). You then walk up and down the beach in the dark hoping to see (and not step on) these tiny little creatures which are virtually invisible in such low light. Not to mention, the beach is miles long and the nests are dotted all the way from top to bottom. Sounds easy, right?
As to be expected, we were not alone. There were plenty of people also walking from nest to nest trying to spot something. At this point, we were totally clueless. Do we walk up and down the beach? Do we stay put and look out for crowds? Are there already crowds which are too far up the beach to see in low light? It was a gamble.
Whether any one of the hundred or so hopefuls actually saw some baby sea turtles as they dug their way out of their sandy nest and crawled to the sea that morning, I will never know. But it got to about 7am and after plenty of wandering up and down the beach, plus watching an awesome sunrise (and at least that one is guaranteed), we had all but given up.
We were standing up to head back to the guesthouse for breakfast in defeat. Then we saw some marine biologists checking the nests. The Caretta Caretta nests on Cirali beach are identified by the marine biologists during the nesting season, and cages with expected hatching dates are placed over them to avoid the nests being stepped on or disturbed. Two marine biologists were checking nests which were due to have hatched to see whether or not they had already hatched and the cages could be removed. We followed them up the beach for a while as they dug into the sand, revealing empty shells and tragically the occasionally baby turtle who didn’t make it. I was starting to get quite upset at this, and we were again planning to head back for breakfast soon when we came up to another nest, right at the back of the beach and one of the furthest from the sea. As we walked up to it, you could see tiny track marks in the sand – this nest had hatched that morning.
The marine biologist started digging through the sand, and all of a sudden found a tiny little sea turtle still trying to struggle his way through to freedom. The poor guy (or gal) had been left behind by his brothers and sisters, and after what might have been hours trying to dig his way to the surface, he was exhausted. We were one of only a few tourists around at this point, and were basically assigned the duty of keeping this tiny thing going till he made it to the sea, while the marine biologists kept on digging up the other overdue nests along the beach. He had an incredibly long way to go across the sand to get there (by baby sea turtle standards), and we had to help by smoothing out the sand and removing large rocks in his way, squirting him with water when we was flagging (and he really was flagging), and making sure no shadows crossed his path so that he always had the sunlight as his guide to the water.
If you ever go to Cirali or any other sea turtle nesting site and are lucky enough to see babies hatching, it is incredibly important that you do not touch or pick them up. As hard as it was to watch this tired little thing struggling, it is an important part of their journey to let them find the sea themselves. Later in life, sea turtles actually go back to within meters of the same spot on the same beach where they hatched, to mate and lay their own eggs. And they can’t do that if they don’t learn the way first.
A little while later we became aware that the marine biologists had found another partially hatched nest further up the beach, and a large crowd had gathered to watch 4 or 5 sea turtles make it down to the water. Most of the people who were with us by this point left to see the group of turtles, but I couldn’t have cared less about them – I was so in love with our little friend that we couldn’t leave him.
It took a full 45 minutes of tired crawling, and much sand flattening and water sprinkling before he finally made it to the water.
He got splashed by the waves a couple of times and you could see him liven up immediately. When on the third wave or so, he got pulled into the water, all of the slow struggling was forgotten and he was instantly gliding along with grace, off into the distance. It was an absolutely beautiful moment. I’ll admit it. I cried a little bit.
That was our fantastic and unexpected experience. We went back for breakfast and the guesthouse owner asked us if we’d seen any Caretta Caretta. When we said yes, he was surprised, and told us we were blessed to be so lucky. I certainly agree.