Sea turtles have been swimming the oceans and seas of our planet for over 150 million years. Contemporaries of the earliest dinosaurs, they appeared long before humans did. After having survived climatic and geological changes, sea turtles today face extinction due to uncontrolled exploitation of the environment by man.

Sea turtles spend almost all their life at sea, but their survival depends entirely on specific beaches where the females lay their eggs. Most of the turtle beaches worldwide have been destroyed or are under immense human pressure. Sea turtles are reptiles biologically adapted to a marine environment. They breathe with lungs and their soft inner organs are protected by hard upper and lower shells, known as the 'carapace' and the 'plastron'.

In its present form the 'Caretta caretta' has existed on the earth for 80 million years. Today, Greece hosts the last major habitats for the Loggerhead turtles in the Mediterranean and Ionian sea. Kefalonia's southern west beaches are probably the most important on the island, with Mounda being the most significant as it is the island's main nesting habitat for these ancient turtles.

There can be little doubt that the situation facing the ancient marine turtle is extremely grave and, despite the various research programmes, political debates and protection measures, their plight continues to worsen year by year. Turtles are migratory animals who know nothing of national boundaries so their safety has to be the responsibility of all countries concerned. Each nation is crucial in taking measures to ensure the continued survival of these extraordinary ancient creatures.

There are eight species of marine turtle and they live mostly in tropical waters. Two species, the Loggerhead turtle, 'Caretta caretta', and the Green turtle, 'Chelonia mydas', live and breed in the Mediterranean and Ionian seas. The Loggerhead turtle feeds on crustaceans and has large crushing jaws to break the shells of crabs and lobsters. The Green turtle is a browser, living off sea-grass that grows like a feathery lawn on the bottom of shallow lagoons. During the nesting season, the females haul themselves ashore to lay over a hundred eggs in the sand. For this process and that of egg-hatching to be a success, the beaches must be totally dark and silent.

The nesting season lasts from June to beginning of August. During the night they come ashore on quiet beaches to lay their eggs in the sand. Once the female has chosen her spot, she digs a body pit with her front flippers, flicking sand over several metres. Then she digs an egg chamber directly beneath her with her rear flippers. Though short and stubby, these flippers are as articulate as a human hand. Eventually a cylindrical shaft about 30 cm deep is produced, into which she quickly lays her eggs. She covers the eggs and disguises the location of the nest by flicking sand over it once more. Exhausted, gasping for air, she will have just enough strength to return to the sea. The whole process will have taken an hour or two. Thereafter, the mother has no further influence in their development and survival.

Approximately two months later the hatchlings break out of their shells, they work their way to within a few centimetres from the surface where they wait for the cover of darkness. They then emerge and dash, helter-skelter, for the sea. Hatchlings emerge from the nest in the cool of the night and use the light of the moon and stars reflected on the sea to find their way to water. Lights above the beaches at night can attract and disorientate the hatchlings, causing them to stray inland where they die in their hundreds from dehydration within an hour of sunrise. Those hatchlings that survive the gauntlet of the beach and are not eaten by fish, swim out to the deep waters of the sea. It is estimated that only one in a thousand hatchlings survive to sexual maturity.

Where they go no-one knows, but they return 25-30 years later, they migrate back to the waters surrounding the nesting beaches where their life began. How they find their way back after such a great length of time is not known. The turtles mate for about one month in the lagoons, and then, about a month later, the laying process begins all over again.

Everyone must be made aware of the turtles’ fragile existence so that their environment can be protected to ensure their future survival!

I truly believe that these ancient, peaceful creatures facing extinction must be protected from disappearing forever.


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