Turtle Watching in North Cyprus

Turtle watching in North Cyprus

WILD stretches of sandy beach where turtles bathe in the warmth of azure blue waters are not just the wow factor of nature documentaries. It is the picture postcard reality of the beaches of North Cyprus. What’s more, it is possible to witness the breathtaking phenomenon of the turtles nesting and hatching season that takes place annually on these beaches.

There are multiple nesting beaches in the North including the must-see beauty of Golden Sands on the Karpas Peninsula. However, Alagadi beach, aka Turtle beach, a few kilometers east of Kyrenia, is without doubt turtle HQ. Alagadi beach is a major breeding ground for two of the seven remaining species of sea turtles left in the world, the Loggerhead turtle and the Green turtle, and one of the few locations in the Mediterranean where both species nest.

You can spot the species difference by the size of the head. Whilst, the omnivorous Loggerhead turtle is surprisingly smaller than its herbivorous counterpart (the Green turtle can grow up to 1m long), the Loggerhead has a much larger head with powerful jaws to support its diet of shellfish.

Between late May and August female turtles of both species can be spotted at night labouring ashore to lay clutches of ping-pong sized eggs in the soft sand, sometimes over 100 at a time, and returning the same season to lay more although it may be 2-3 years before these females nest again.

The hatching season peaks around August to September where turtle hatchlings, of just 4x3cm, emerge en masse. The leathery eggs are sensitive to movement such that the first-born will trigger a chain reaction of hatchlings digging their way out of the sand. The hatchlings then embark on a frenzied race to the promise of the surf, drawn by the moon’s reflection off the sea.

Sadly infant mortality is high where both land and sea-born predators take their hungry toll on hatchling numbers. And together with environmental hurdles such as fishing trawlers, it’s no surprise that only a few lucky hatchlings make it to adulthood, around 1 in every 1000. However, for those who reach maturity, a long lifespan is in the offing, 30 years for the Loggerhead and a mighty 80 years for the Green turtle – something to be said for a diet of sea-grass?

But of greater concern to both species, and a marine heritage that has survived for over one hundred million years, have been the effects of modern development and the destruction of nesting sites, particularly south of the island. Fortunately, in the North, conservation efforts, with the support of government-backed measures, have significantly salvaged dwindling numbers over the last two decades.

The Society for the Protection of Turtles (SPOT) has a loyal following with enthusiastic fund-raising friends and works closely with the hands-on Marine Turtle Research Group based at Alagadi beach. Coordinated by scientists from the Centre of Ecology and Conservation, based at Exeter University, marine biology students from all over the world volunteer each breeding season to help monitor and protect the nesting turtles and their hatchlings, as well as their vital habitat.

Equally crucial to the continued survival of these magnificent creatures are their protected status as endangered species where hunting for Loggerhead shell to make trinkets or the delicacy of Green turtle eggs is thankfully now banned. Similarly, the special protected status of Alagadi beach imposed by the North’s Ministry of Environment has helped to boost survival rates by legally prohibiting public access to the beach after nightfall during the breeding season, as well as banning boats close to shore, lighting fires & littering.

But visitors needn’t despair. Despite the access prohibitions on Alagadi beach and as a means of promoting conservation awareness there are organised nightly groups where visitors can experience nesting and hatching activity first hand, or even a post-hatching nest excavation where dormant eggs are checked for life and rescued hatchlings pointed in the right direction.

To make a booking head for the locally nicknamed ‘Goat Shed’ on the beach itself or find a manned information desk on the old Kyrenia harbour over the summer months. Book in advance to avoid disappointment – this is a once in a lifetime experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

And if you find yourself with a bucket and spade by day enjoying the beautiful setting of the Five Finger Mountain Range that frames Alagadi beach, remember not to dig too deep and accidentally crush or unearth precious eggs.

For the lucky turtles who emerge unscathed and reach the shoreline alive, and for those who thrive and migrate thousands of miles until they reach maturity, these turtles will return several years if not decades from now and nest at the very same beach they were hatched. That definitely warrants the wow factor!