My heartbeat quickens as my family gathers around, my wife grabbing my arm and kneeling on one knee to get closer. Sophie, who has rejoined us after washing her foot wound, clasps my hand. Even as I feel a rush of nervous energy, Eve is calm and methodical as she describes a process she's repeated many times before: confirming there's a nest under a patch of flattened sand.
"Now, she says, "the hard work begins."
The volunteers mark the potential nest site by placing sticks around the smooth sand. Then they gently scoop out the top layer of sand, the turtle's attempt at camouflage. After twenty minutes of digging about a foot deep, Eve stops and looks up. "There's a wet layer of sand here. Could be the roof of the egg chamber." She carefully moves this damp sand to one side to put back later, since it potentially contains antibacterial secretions left by the female turtle to protect the eggs.
With utmost care, she and another volunteer poke fingers several inches into the damp layer, hoping to touch the top of an egg. Struck by the intimacy of it, how gently they reach for a mother's most precious creation, I ask: "Do you think the turtles know in some way we are working to help them?"
"No," Eve says, still poking away, not looking up. "They have no idea." Seconds later, she stops and smiles. She clears more sand to reveal the white curve of shell poking up.
"Wow," I breathe. She's found an egg. The reality hits me: dozens of loggerhead eggs are potentially buried right below our feet and, over the next two months, beneath the footsteps of countless beachgoers. Fragile, full of life. Tiny turtles waiting for the right time to break free, and make a break for the ocean.
Now that we've confirmed there's a nest, I ask, how do we protect it?
Eve explains we must make sure the nest is far enough from the ocean so it won't be inundated during high tide—a growing threat with global warming and erosion shrinking the beachfront. If the nest is too close, Archelon will move it further inland, a time-consuming process of digging a replica of the nest and carefully lifting and moving the eggs into it.
She measures the vertical distance from the top of the egg to the beach surface—37 centimeters, or about 15 inches—doing it twice to make sure. Then she asks the other volunteers to measure the distance from the nest to two markers along the dune—Archelon places markers every 30 meters up and down the beach—and to the sea-line. She does some calculations in her head and makes the call.
"It's safely behind the high tide line," she says, hands on her hips. "I'm going to leave it here. It's good."
The volunteers install a simple tripod to cover the nest area, with a sign warning people not to disturb it, and plan to return later in the day to put up a more substantial metal cage.
Eve observes their handiwork. Counting what the second survey team found this morning, she says, Archelon has found a total of four nests on the beaches of Rethymno today.
"It's been quite a good day," she says.
We all agree it's a good way to end our hike, on a positive note. We found a nest and protected it, comforted the eggs will stay safe no matter how many beachcombers and sunbathers invade the nesting ground. My stomach is grumbling as my wife mentions a restaurant at the Archelon encampment. I'm in the mood for grilled octopus but dismiss the thought because it seems too closely related to turtle. To wrap things up, I ask Eve, who earns just a small stipend to cover living costs during her six-month stint, why she gets up so early and devotes so much time to a task that some would say is a losing battle.
"It's a very glamorous life," she jokes. "You just get hot, digging in sand."
I press the point, pushing past her British wit. "Really, what keeps you going?"
"I don't know. It's still magical when you see a new nest. When you're training new people, it's pretty special."
If we'd stayed a few weeks longer in Crete, we might have joined one of Archelon's night hikes, which start in July. Each night, environmentalists search for nesting loggerhead females emerging from the ocean and lumbering up the beach. Crouching stealthily behind the turtle, trained volunteers measure her body and tag her flippers to track movements in the future, intervals between nestings (each female lays several nests a season), and number of nests laid by each turtle per season. I can imagine the loggerhead's giant shell glistening in the moonlight as she digs a nest with flippers, so focused on her reproductive duty she's in a trance-like state.
Despite a decline in nests in Rethymno, and in Crete overall, Archelon is optimistic about its work with local government and businesses to make beaches friendlier for loggerheads. It's not an "us vs. them" situation, says Odysseas Paxinos, director of Archelon's Crete operations, as I sit down to lunch with him at the Archelon encampment. It's collaborative. Fishermen will phone Archelon if they spot an injured loggerhead, for instance; Archelon supplies them with tools to untangle turtles from nets.
Outside of Crete, Archelon monitors and protects loggerheads and other sea turtles on more than a dozen sites throughout Greece. It runs a rescue center near Athens, treating and rehabilitating some 70 sea turtles a year. Several of the nesting sites, particularly less touristy ones, are quite vibrant. In one area, protection measures put in place 30 years ago have more than doubled the number of nests observed each year, to 2,000 from 1,000.
But what about Rethymno? Can Archelon reverse the sharp drop in the number of observed loggerhead nests there?
Odysseas pauses and looks out at the ocean. A motorboat passes close to shore. It's clearly going faster than it's supposed to, he says, a potential hazard for sea life. Six knots is the limit here. He sighs. "The reality is you cannot erase past failures. Even if protection measures are upheld, you have to realize this is a very heavy touristic area. There's going to be a lot of development, pollution and, yes, turtles found dead."
Still, he's optimistic.
"I'm Greek as well. I know the businesses are trying to make a living. But it's not a difficult thing to just stack your sunbeds, to not rake your sand."
That mixture of hope and harsh reality resonated with me months later, long after we returned to New York and my daughter started her freshman year away at college. As Sophie struggled through school, and my wife and I coped with our empty nest, the nest we discovered in Crete emptied out too. Eve gave me the good news through email: a solid percentage of the nest's 123 eggs had hatched. All told, 106 baby hatchlings dug their way out and scampered to the sea, under the watchful eyes of Archelon volunteers.
When I called my daughter at college to tell her, she exclaimed "awesome!" — and told me her own good news: she aced on her chemistry final, despite her fears of bombing.
I felt like a proud parent, twice over.
A novelist, essayist and recovering Associated Press reporter, David Kalish's idea of a fun vacation is digging into an exotic culture and writing about it. His story credits include the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and The New York Times, and he wrote The Opposite of Everything, an award-winning comedic novel inspired by his brush with cancer and mortality. He blogs wry essays for the Times Union, in New York State's capital region. See his portfolio site here.
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