Tracking the Elusive Loggerhead Turtle in Touristy Crete
Story and photos by David Kalish

A visitor to the island of Crete joins a sea turtle protection mission in an area stacked with beach chairs and watersports motors.

Crete tour story

The rising sun smears the horizon pink as I pace an empty beach in northern Crete, repeatedly checking my iPhone. It's 5:50 a.m. The environmentalists taking my family and I on a search for loggerhead turtle nests are late—and I'm starting to wonder if we'll find any, judging by all the development.

Bordering the beach is a strip of stores and multi-story hotels, sunbeds and umbrellas cluttering the sand. The Mediterranean, now sparkling orange, will soon ripple with jet skiers, para-sailors, and sport boats. All are potential impediments, some possibly fatal, to this endangered turtle's long ocean journey back to the beaches of her birthplace, seeking a safe space to dig a nest for her eggs.

My interest in the giant reptile's survival runs deep. For this closet environmentalist and American consumer, today is my chance to become part of the solution, to take direct action to help the planet. I woke up my family at 4 a.m. to drive here in a rental van from our Airbnb villa in a tiny mountain village about 45 miles inland, stuffing down boiled eggs and feta cheese on the road. Taking an altruistic detour from visiting Greece's castle ruins and hills scattered with goats, we came to lend a hand to a rare turtle where it most needs help. That would be on the beaches of Rethymno, the third-largest city on Greece's largest island, where tourists and loggerheads compete for the same limited real estate.

Crete sunrise

Inevitably, perhaps, the turtles are losing. The number of loggerhead nests found in the Rethymno Gulf area has dropped by half in the last 15 years, falling from an average of nearly 400 a year to less than 200, according to Archelon, a Greek turtle protection group that arranged our hike. A surge in island tourism has been a boom for Greece's debt-laden economy but a bust for these reptilian behemoths, which already face steep obstacles to survival such as poaching, pollution, entanglement in fishing gear, and global warming.

After traveling partway around the world, can we make a difference, in our small way? As if reading my mind, the Archelon volunteers—a survey leader, from Great Britain, and two students she's training, from France—suddenly walk up. "Sorry we're late," says the leader, Eve Pilmore, who was delayed helping to arrange a second search for nests, on the opposite end of the beach. Wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with, "ask me about sea turtles," she's in her 20s, with curly brown hair and cheeks ruddy from all that Greek sun. She radiates youthful enthusiasm. I figure it's a prerequisite for bringing back an endangered species in a tourist zone.

As if making up for lost time, Eve immediately starts us across a three-mile stretch of beach, briskly walking and providing context for our search as I struggle to keep up. During nesting season, from May to October, she lives in a campground two miles down the beach with some forty volunteers from around the world, many of them students and interns. Up to today, seven weeks into the season, the volunteers have found 38 nests on these beaches, each containing an average of 100 eggs, with incubation taking 50-60 days. But given all the obstacles they face, only one in 1,000 hatchlings on average survives to sexual maturity, around the age of 20.

That grim statistic propels us as we trudge barefoot across sand and pebbles, our gazes sweeping the coastline for turtle tracks etched overnight. The three Archelon volunteers spread out, as do we; Eve keeps in touch via group chat on her smartphone. A sharp rock stabs my foot but I walk through the pain, reminding myself these true miracles of nature are worth the effort: Each loggerhead weighs up to 350 pounds, lives 80 years or more, and swims thousands of miles in an epic journey back to the beach where it hatched—including the one we're searching—to perpetuate the species.

Just ten minutes in there's a shout from a volunteer up ahead: our first set of tracks!

Following Sea Turtle Tracks to Hidden Nests

I jog up and snap photos with my iPhone of Eve bending low, her bronzed shoulders hunched as she studies the sand like a forensic scientist on spring break. The fresh tracks emerge from the ocean, travel inland about thirty feet, stop at a beach chair, and circle back to the water. They look like something left by an ultra-wide tire on a military Humvee: scythe-shaped indentations on both sides of a smooth middle flattened by the turtle's underside. Sadly, there's no telltale evidence of a nest, no leveled patch of sand indicating the female tried to camouflage a hole she'd dug. Eve deduces why: indentations on one side are deeper, indicating a damaged rear flipper, probably injured by entanglement with fishing nets or lines. "She could be a stumpy," she says, noting how difficult it is for a hobbled turtle to nest.

Loggerhead turtle tracks travel story

Eve directs us to erase the tracks with our bare feet, so they're not counted again during a return trip, and jots the location by GPS into a notebook. "There's not a lot of nests on this part of the beach," Eve acknowledges, waving at the hotel strip that seems to follow us on our search.

As a bright orange sun shimmers off the Mediterranean and heats up the beach, my feet grow sore, T-shirt sagging with sweat. I see my wife hovering over my daughter, who's cut her foot on a cracked seashell. Sophie limps over to a beach hotel to find a bathroom to clean the wound, promising to catch up to us. As we trudge on without her, a wave of tiredness comes over me, tinged by sadness. I think of Sophie missing part of our search for nests—and then, come August when she departs for college, leaving my wife and I with our own empty nest.

Eve, meanwhile, shows no sign of letting up. A 24-year-old with a graduate degree in zoology from University of Leeds in England, she wakes up every morning at an insanely early hour to beat the sun and crowds. She leads hikes like this to find, mark, and protect loggerhead nests from high tides, predators, and people.

Moments later, we come upon a second set of tracks emerging from the sea—apparently left by the same hobbled turtle we detected before—again with no evidence of a nest. This time the creature seemed to bump into a sun umbrella before lumbering back to where she came from.

"Turtles are very shy," Eve says. Particularly a crippled one. If they see or sense people, they may just return to the water. After my own epic trip to get here, flying from New York with stops in Istanbul, Athens, and finally Crete, I imagine a jet-lagged female loggerhead would be pretty pissed finding tourist paraphernalia, instead of the untrammeled beaches of her birth. Hey, if I met me, I'd probably high tail it out of here.

Tourist Versus Tortoise

I ask Eve why these beaches aren't more turtle-friendly. She says local businesses do in fact follow rules, set by government in cooperation with Archelon, to improve conditions. During nesting season, hotel owners must tightly stack their beach chairs and sun umbrellas overnight, to give female loggerheads room for a nesting spot. They must remove or replace bright lights so hatchlings, which see poorly, don't confuse them with moonlight and stars reflecting off the ocean, their destination. And owners are discouraged from raking sand before 7 a.m., so volunteers can locate tracks first thing in the morning.

But it's clear as we hike the beach that rules are skirted. Several hotels have already laid out beach chairs, and we spot tracts of beach that are raked smooth.

Another mile or so and the tourist strip peters out, replaced by grassy dunes bordering the beach. We come to the Archelon encampment, a small tent city slightly inland where Eve and other volunteers live communally, including preparing and eating group meals. I consider stopping here and walking up the road to see if I can hail a couple of taxis back to our rented van in downtown Rethymno. Though we're only partway through our beach hike, I'm tired and pessimistic we'll find any nests.

Loggerhead volunteers camp

I ponder the paradoxical futility of a bunch of tourists trying to help turtles survive the impact of tourists. Not to mention my own hypocrisy, multiplied millions of times over by my fellow Americans: I'm a conspicuous consumer who worries about pollution, global warming and species extinction even as I drive an SUV, sip coffee from disposable take-out cups, and douse the lawn with herbicides.

Just as I'm about to call it a day, I hear a cry. I jog up to where Eve stoops and waves her hands over a patch of sand, as the two students watch. Emerging from the sea, the fresh tracks travel inland and stop in a flat open area—as if the mother turtle had swept aside sand to camouflage a hole—before circling back to the Mediterranean.

"This potentially could be one," Eve declares.

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