4. Turtle tales

Posted: 10 October 2000

Author: Maya Pastakia

Sea turtles have existed for over 100 million years and have outlived the dinosaurs. With the encroachment of tourism development and marine pollution the very survival of these ancient sea-dwellers is now under threat. Maya Pastakia reports on one woman's effort to save the sea turtles.

One day in November 1996, a young Italian girl, Paola, having seen a TV programme on turtle conservation and the work of the Naples Institute of Zoological Research, Anton Dohrn, begged her restaurant-owner father to save a turtle caught in the nets of an Italian fishing boat that very same day.

After much pleading, the 15-year-old girl persuaded her father to take the turtle to the Institute instead of putting it on the menu. Under the care of Dr Flegra Bentivegna, the turtle nicknamed "Paola" in honour of its heroine, was nursed back to health. An operation was performed to remove a fish hook embedded in her throat.

Five months later, fit and well, Paola was ready to be returned home to her natural habitat, the sea. The Institute, interested in tracking the movements of sea turtles around the Mediterranean, fitted Paola with a satellite transmitter with the aim of tracking her for six to eight months.turtle© Costas Papaconstantino/MEDASSET The Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles (MEDASSET) was called in to help organise her release. MEDASSET suggested releasing Paola from The Greek island of Kefalonia where many turtles nest in the Summer and, importantly, where there is less driftnet fishing.

MEDASSET was founded in 1988 by Lily Venizelos, a committed environmentalist and nature lover. After picking up a magazine in a dentist's waiting room in 1983, she read that her favourite place, Laganas Bay - an area undergoing tourism development - was a crucial nesting area for loggerhead turtles. Lily realised that if development of beachfront hotels continued unabated, the survival of this endangered species would be seriously threatened. Lily had found her mission in life: the sea turtles had to be saved.

Paola was given a royal send-off. Dignitaries of the island and representatives from the Italian embassy, a TV crew and a large local crowd bade farewell to her. Paola had now become a TV star.

For the next few months, Paola meandered her way south-east down the Peloponnese coast of Greece. Then on May 25, transmission ceased, just off Cape Tenaro, on the Mani Peninsula. At MEDASSET press releases were issued and port authorities and vessels alerted. Antenna TV broke the story on the news.

Incredibly, the first call was from a fisherman from Lavrio who reported catching a turtle in his nets off the Island of Kea in the Aegean, 190 kms from her last known position. "A turtle did get caught in my net as I was fishing in shallow water off Koundouros, Kea. I took it to the beach, cut my net to free it. It had a transmitter on its back. I thought it must be important, it was fit and healthy, and rushed down the beach back into the water."

The description of the tags seemed to match those of Paola. The next download from the satellite revealed that Paola had resumed transmission from precisely the place the fisherman released her. A sheet of black plastic which the fisherman disentangled from Paola's aerial had obstructed signalling.

The final transmission from Paola was in August 1997 indicating that she was safely swimming between the island of Lesbos (Greek-Aegean waters) and Dikili (mainland Turkey). The monitoring period has now expired.

Pollution threat

Lily Venizelos is eager to point out that Paola was an extremely lucky turtle. Many sea turtles, marine life and sea birds face a less fortunate fate. Many turtles are killed by fishing nets, especially driftnets which entrapped them and, unable to surface for air, they drown. Other hazards include the many varieties of marine pollution, most notably plastics and tar.

"Plastics are the scourge of our seas," says Lily. "They take over 450 years to degrade. The impact of small pieces of garbage, like foil sweet and cigarette wrappers, plastic bottle caps, straws, string and security tabs is catastrophic to marine wildlife when swallowed. A transparent plastic bag looks like jellyfish to a hungry turtle, her favourite food, by eating it she dies a slow painful death through blockage of her intestine, or by suffocation."

These beautiful, migratory reptiles face danger from the day they are born. Hatchlings being inexperienced feeders ingest plastic waste around them. They become so buoyant by consuming plastics that, unable to dive for food, they starve.

Unless efforts are made to protect these mysterious, ancient creatures their extinction is imminent. "It is time to stop selling sun and sand on the cheap. Out-of-control tourism disturbs and injures the turtles and prevents them from nesting and illegal driftnet fishing can needlessly kill and waste precious marine life," contends Lily. "The majority of countries bordering the Mediterranean sea are signatories to several international conventions protecting sea turtles and other marine life. As long as we continue to put pressure on governments to implement and give teeth to existing legislation and recommendations, we believe that there is still hope. Species extinction is the greatest the world has experienced for the past 65 million years. Unlike most other ecological problems it is totally irreversible. We must all work together to preserve the planet's biodiversity which we ourselves depend on for our own survival."

Lily Venizelos was awarded the Global-500 roll of honour by UNEP in 1987 for her efforts to save the turtles.

Contact:MEDASSET-UKc/o Park Towers, 2 Brick Street, London W1Y 7DF, UK.Tel/Fax: +44 171 629 0654.

Or, MEDASSET-Greece1c Licavitou Street, 106 72 Athens, Greece.Tel: (+301) 361 3572, Fax: (+301) 724 3007Email:

A new web site entitled EuroTurtle, providing scientific information and educational initiatives to save the Mediterranean sea turtles can be accessed at:

http://www.exeter.ac.uk/MEDASSET http://www.exeter.ac.uk/telematics/EuroTurtle