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Saving the Marine Environment; One Turtle at a Time

HDN | 8/8/2009 12:00:00 AM | Gary S. Lachman

A unique pair in the fight to preserve the lives of Turkey's sea turtles, Kaptan June Haimoff of Iztuyu Beach in Dalyan and Professor Dr. Yakup Kaska of Pamukkale University in Denizli have turned Dalyan beach into a model of nature preservation for the country. Locals now boast in the turtles and the absence of hotels that would jeopardize their lives.

Last week I had the privilege of meeting a living icon of Turkey and her knight in shining armor. Well… Perhaps not shining armor; more like tortoise shell. I am referring to Kaptan June Haimoff of Iztuyu Beach in Dalyan and Professor Dr. Yakup Kaska of Pamukkale University in Denizli. A lady of “indeterminate age,” June Haimoff left the lap of luxury in Gstaad, Switzerland to embark on a voyage that has really never ended. Sailing a converted Greek fishing boat Bouboulina, Kaptan June first laid eyes on Dalyan beach in 1975. Here she has spent much of the past 30 years making extraordinarily successful efforts to protect the nesting beaches of the Loggerhead (caretta caretta) and Green (Chelonia mydas) turtles. Professor Kaska is a man who discovered his passion at relatively young age, earning both an MSc and PhD in the study of turtles. Although not exactly qualifying as “life in the fast lane,” his research on turtles, sea turtle conservation, research on sex ratio variation and heavy metal pollution has shown tangibly positive results.

My daughter, Julia, a marine biology student at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, and I, arrived early in the morning at what first appeared a simple beachside cluster of tents, signs, shacks and a large metal Quonset hut. Professor Kaska was there to greet us and introduce Kaptan June. I had been corresponding by email with both of them, thanks to a referral from my good friend, Rahmi Koç, himself a staunch protector of the marine environment, as one of the founders of the Turkish Marine Environment Protection Association (TURMEPA).

[HH] The “patients”

Inside the rescue center were many large round tanks containing turtles that had been brought to the professor and his team of volunteers for treatment. One injured turtle had a fin nearly sheared off by a fishing line. Another had a severe head wound made presumably by a propeller blade. Two other tanks held day old hatchlings, each about four or five centimeters in length. Volunteers from universities throughout Turkey and the world are invited to come and work with Professor Kaska on numerous projects, including the care and feeding of the center’s “patients,” nest protection, public awareness campaigns, census taking, and other research activities. Julia immediately bonded with one of them; her name was Stephanie, a veterinary medical student from Cornell University.

Turkey has long played an important role in the preservation and conservation of sea turtles in the Mediterranean. The 1380th Water Products Circular forbids the hunting and collecting of sea turtles in Turkey. That legislation was followed by the 2872nd Environmental Law, the 3621st Coastal Law, the 2873rd National Park Law, and the 2863rd Law of Protection of Natural and Cultural Beauties; all serving to protect marine turtles. As a member of the international treaty protecting endangered species, as well as a member of several other international accords, Turkey has been a leader in the region for conservation of these beautiful creatures. 

 [HH] Dalyan Beach preservation

The preservation of Dalyan Beach as a nesting ground is perhaps the best know action. And thanks to the tireless efforts of Kaptan June, Dalyan has served as the “flagship beach” for the conservation of marine turtles since 1987 when she was successful in preventing the development of a large resort hotel that would have destroyed the turtles’ nesting sites. At first the locals infuriated by her interference, and feared their property values would plummet. However, when the area was officially designated as a Special Environmental Protection Area in 1988, they began to appreciate the unique value of the coast line. The Dalyan area has the unusual characteristic of providing a nesting habitat for both freshwater and marine turtles, supporting a population of Soft-shelled Nile Turtles in the brackish waters of the Dalyan River and Köyceğiz Lake. The largest populations of these freshwater turtles are in Dalaman, the Seyhan River, and the Tuzla channel.

According to Professor Kaska, only a small percentage of sea turtles actually reach the ripe old age of about 40 years. Sadly, most fall victim to beach predators like foxes, sea birds, nets, and nest destruction by careless beachgoers, as well as long lines and fish hooks, and boat propellers. The day before we arrived, Professor Kaska and his volunteers released a fully recuperated caretta caretta in the waters near Antalya. After a few months of care and feeding, the “patients” that Julia and I saw will hopefully share a similar happy fate. The biggest challenge now is raising the funds required to establish a government recognized foundation to support their rescue and education activities. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the Sea Turtle Rescue Center of Dalyan and the perseverance of Kaptan June, the sea turtle population around Turkey should continue to prosper.

(Those wishing to contact Professor Dr. Kaska may do so at caretta@pau.edu.tr and visit a website regarding the caretta sea turtles and the rescue center at http://www.dalyan.org.uk/en/carettaturtles.htm. For more information on TURMEPA visit http://www.turmepa.org.tr/en/hakkimizda/sikca-sorulanlar.html)

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