Two species of turtles nest on North Cyprus beaches; The Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta), and the slightly larger Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas). In north Cyprus, there are over 80 nesting beaches, mainly to the east of Kyrenia and on both coasts of Karpaz. Alagadi beach, near Kyrenia, is one of the few locations in the Mediterranean where both the Green and Loggerhead nest. In 1998 it was made a Specially Protected Area (SPA). From May to September there is a one mile exclusion zone for marine craft which pose a considerable threat to any turtles resting around the sea grass during the day time. Vehicles are not allowed on the beach at any time, and public access is not permitted (apart from organised groups) overnight.
Between late May and late August, after sunset, the adult females return to the beach that they left perhaps 35 years earlier. There they make their way up the beach. Perhaps only a few yards for the Loggerheads, but further for the Greens. Often they sense something is unsatisfactory, and perform a U-turn back to the sea to make another attempt on the same night, or perhaps another night.
She may have to come on to the beach several times to find the right place to lay, but having found a satisfactory location, she will dig a number of trial pits to check the depth of the sand and its consistency. Only when she considers that the conditions are right does she lay her ping-pong ball sized eggs, around 60 to 120 for the Green Turtle, and 40 to 80 for the Loggerhead.
Once the eggs are laid, the turtle then has the mammoth job of covering the eggs to provide the correct environment for incubation. This could mean moving over 4 tons of sand. She then often moves a little way from the nest. It is thought that this is to deceive any predators that might be looking for an easy meal of turtle eggs.
Exhausted, her night's work done, she makes her way back to the sea. But she's not finished yet. On average, at 2 week intervals the Green turtle will lay 3 clutches of eggs, and the Loggerhead 2 clutches. The Green will probably not breed again for at least 3 years, and the Loggerhead for 2.
After nesting, the turtles journey to their foraging grounds, mainly off the North African and Turkish coasts.
Both the Loggerhead and Green turtles are classified as endangered species. Since 1992 the Marine Turtle Research Group has been monitoring nesting turtles in North Cyprus. Although all beaches are checked where possible, the main centre is at Alagadi beach, just a few miles east of Kyrenia.
Coordinated by a group at Exeter University, up to 30 students from all over the UK, pay their own way to come to North Cyprus to help conserve the turtles and monitor their behaviour. The teams of volunteers attempt to increase the survival rate of the turtle's nests, and therefore the hatchlings.
During the nesting season from May into August, the volunteers have two different roles, day work and night work. Day work takes place on the west coast beaches and the northeast beaches. Volunteers look for turtle tracks and nests that have been laid the previous night. If a nest is at risk of flooding by the tide, it is transplanted higher up the beach to a drier site. All nests found are caged to prevent predation from wild dogs and foxes.
Night work takes place on Alagadi beach, and involves observing turtles as they come out of the sea to nest. Once a turtle has been spotted, it is followed and its behaviour is monitored. When egg laying has started, the turtle enters into a trance-like state and can be safely approached. During this time, volunteers measure the turtles, tag them on the shoulder with metal flipper tags, and microchip them so they can be identified on future visits. The nest is caged and labelled for easy identification. Some turtles are also fitted with tracking devices in order to determine over-wintering, feeding grounds and migration routes.
The project has an information centre at Alagadi (known locally as "The Goat Shed") where visitors can come and learn a little more about the turtles. Visitors can also book a place on a guided evening trip down to the beach to observe the nesting turtles. Bear in mind, however, that whether you see any nesting activities or not, is entirely down to the turtle!
This is one of the rarest sights in nature, and one which few people have witnessed. Numbers are restricted, and the limited spaces become booked up several days ahead, so it is essential that you book in advance by visiting the Goat Shed to place your name on the list. If you are on holiday in North Cyprus, it is probably beast to book early in your holiday so as not to be disappointed. Please do this in the afternoon, as the students will be catching up on their sleep after their night shift.
Alagadi beach is 15Km east of Kyrenia on the Esentepe road. Shortly after the electricity station, where the road starts to sweep down into a valley, you will see the turning for Alagadi. Follow this road till you reach the fork in the road with the St Kathleen's Restaurant. Take the right fork and follow the road to where it becomes a dirt track. The goat shed is on your right, just after joining the track. It is a white single-story building with the painting of a turtle on the side.