Updated: Aug 13, 2018
Sitting on a beach under a moonless sky, my eyes were redundant and I was forced to use sound to orientate myself. To my left I could hear the rumbling waves of the Mediterranean Sea, to my right the sibilant whisperings of people. Directly in front of me there was a repetitive swoosh swoosh of sand being flicked, pausing every minute or so and replaced by a sharp rasping inhalation of air.
The darkness was suddenly lifted as red LED lights flooded the area, revealing a rounded lump lying in a hollow in the sand. This was my queue to start the camera rolling, documenting the female green turtle as she covered her precious eggs. When finished, she dragged her huge body over the lip of the hollow and awkwardly made her way back into the sea. All in all it was a process that took several hours, and she would do it twice more in the coming weeks, laying hundreds of eggs each time. Having only been in Cyprus less than 24 hours, it was an incredible way to start what would turn out to be a very demanding two weeks of filmmaking.
After the successes of the first night, much of the next day was spent looking over footage with the other members of the team. All graduates from the University of Exeter, Billy, Hattie, Robbie and myself now work under the name Muddy Duck Productions, our start-up media company specialising in short online scientific films. Having worked on filming projects with each other whilst at university, we didn’t want the fun to stop and so decided to put the skills we had developed to good use.
Fast-forward a year and there we were in Cyprus, commissioned by our very own university to produce films about their turtle research, as well as the excellent work of the Marine Turtle Conservation Project, which hosts student volunteers during the summer months. These volunteers patrol the beaches every single night during the nesting season, collecting valuable data that have been used to gain legal protection for the beaches. The results from 26 years of data collection have also given us huge amounts of information about the size of the turtle populations around Cyprus and the life history traits of turtles.
The work of the University of Exeter focuses on the two resident species of turtle found in the Eastern Mediterranean, the green turtle and the loggerhead turtle. Both look relatively similar, but the loggerhead has a much larger head in order to crush its crustacean and mollusc prey. The green turtle, on the other hand, gets its name from the green colour of its fat, which is a result of its seagrass diet. Northern Cyprus is home to around 10% of the nesting population of loggerheads in the Mediterranean and around 30% of the nesting greens, which makes the nesting beaches very important in regional terms.
However, despite the relatively stable populations, the turtles still face serious threats. One of the major problems is bycatch, where turtles are accidentally caught by fishermen in their nets. This is thought to largely affect loggerheads as they are carnivorous and forage further away from the shore than the greens, putting them closer to the fishing vessels. Another threat is more familiar- plastic pollution. The currents in the Eastern Mediterranean tend to transport material from the coastlines of Turkey, Syria and Lebanon and dump it on the beaches of Cyprus, in some cases smothering them under mounds of waste.
In order to see this for ourselves, we travelled up to the Karpaz Peninsular at the northern end of the island where the problem is more prominent than anywhere else. Just as on our first night in the country, we joined the volunteers on their night walks and filmed the turtles, but the footage told a very different story. We followed a green turtle as she made her way up the beach and dug her nest just under an overhanging bank of sand. On top of this sand was a layer of plastic debris. As she filled in her nest, she slowly eroded away part of the bank, causing plastic to fall around her.
We filmed the turtle as she pushed human rubbish onto her own egg chamber- plastic bottles, polystyrene, flip-flops, food packaging. Apart from merely being unnatural and unpleasant to look at, plastic that covers turtle nests may warm the sand beneath it, causing the temperature-dependent sex ratio of the eggs to shift, producing a higher proportion of female offspring than males. In addition, large pieces of plastic can block the hatchlings as they try to dig their way out of the nest, killing them through overheating or exhaustion.
Although our time in Northern Cyprus was soured by terrible scenes of plastic pollution, ultimately we saw a strong population of marine turtles supported by the ongoing work of some excellent research and conservation organisations. Along with our footage we also took back some great memories of friendly people, exquisite food and stunning landscapes, but most importantly the amazing experience of being so close to such a charismatic, prehistoric-looking creature as the marine turtle.
Russell graduated from the University of Exeter with a degree in Conservation Biology and is now a wildlife and travel filmmaker. You can check out his work at www.russellbarnett.co.uk. To find out more about Muddy Duck Productions and their latest films, find them on social media @muddyduckuk or see their website www.muddyduckproductions.co.uk. If you would like to volunteer in Cyprus for the Marine Turtle Conservation Project, visit www.cyprusturtles.org/home/volunteering/ .