It’s easy to see why Crete, the largest gem in Greece’s crown of Islands, has become a Shangri-La to sun worshippers from across the globe. With sultry Mediterranean heat and waters just a few degrees cooler it has become an accessible paradise. The 650 kilometres of coastline enticed over two million tourists last year.
But between the sunbeds there is a war raging. Every year from May until the end of July, thousands of female Loggerhead Sea Turtles return to the Greek sand to lay their precious eggs. For centuries this process went on uninterrupted — beaches were pristine and space abundant.
That has changed over the last two decades as flight prices to Crete dropped and the number of hotels rose. By 1990 there were 53 percent more hotels and resorts on the island than ten years previous. Beaches that were already subjected to exceptionally fast erosion, due to poor coastal management, now faced sprawling hotel development.
Once, a prospective mother Loggerhead would leave the safety of the sea to be greeted by miles of untouched sand, perfect to lay her fragile eggs. Now, she must navigate between seas of umbrellas and sunbeds only to find a small oasis of potential nesting ground. Often these areas are littered in yesterday’s water bottles and cigarette butts.
The Loggerhead, known in Greece as Caretta-Caretta, is classified as critically endangered, with only one in ten thousand hatchlings surviving until adulthood. Unsurprising, every egg counts.
I spent the summer on Crete trying to help the Caretta-Caretta, with ARCEHLON, The Sea Turtle Conservation Society of Greece. Volunteering for five months in the searing heat was extremely demanding at times, yet the most rewarding experience of my life. Walking the shoreline, my eyes scoured every centimeter of sand in hope of spotting the footprints of a mother turtle – an exciting sign she’d successfully found a nest for her precious eggs.
But every morning as the sun rose, my heart filled with shame. Each miraculous track I saw was surrounded by the stain of our throw-away culture. Tourists had painted humanity in shades of black and grey. An estimated, 100 million marine animals are killed each year from plastic debris in our oceans.
The Loggerhead is the last living relative of a family of reptiles that appeared in the oceans 100 million years ago. Currently there are as few as 200,000 Loggerhead’s left in the wild.
However, the brilliant efforts of non-profits such as ARCHELON, means the plight of the Caretta-Caretta is being heard. Through research, public awareness campaigns, restoration of habitats and the construction of their rescue center, ARCHELON are joining an international effort to fight for this ancient warrior.
We need to join their fight. Tourists visiting Crete can help by being mindful of their environmental impact whilst enjoying the Greek sunshine. Picking up litter even if it isn’t yours sets an inspiring example to other beach users. Choosing to stay in hotels that remove their sunbeds from the beach each night puts pressure on local municipalities to make this compulsory, creating more space for the turtle to lay her eggs.
Where there is life there is hope, and it’s not too late to save these creatures. As the cold pulls in and we dream of our summer escapes, we should acknowledge our responsibility as tourist to leave no more than just foot prints in the sand whilst on holiday. Tourists and holiday-makers alike can bring peace to these crisis of the Caretta-Caretta.
To find out more about volunteering visit www.archelon.gr