[WATCH] Scientists still trying to understand why turtles are choosing busy beaches like Għadira to lay eggs

A turtle nest requires around 160 volunteers to monitor for the duration of its existence

The second turtle to nest at Ghadira and the fourth to do so in Malta this year (Photo: ERA)
The second turtle to nest at Ghadira and the fourth to do so in Malta this year (Photo: ERA)

Turtles choosing busy beaches to lay their eggs are a growing phenomenon scientists are still trying to understand and Malta is no exception this year.

Two turtles out of four that laid eggs on Maltese beaches over the past few months did so at the very busy Għadira Bay.

But this appears to be a trend that is becoming more common in many parts of the Mediterranean, according to Nature Trust President Vince Attard.

“Something has happened, and scientists are still trying to discover why, but for some reason, turtles are moving to beaches that are populated and even disturbed and nesting there,” he said.

Attard was speaking on TVM’s Xtra about the turtles that have graced Malta’s beaches this summer to lay their eggs.

Recently, a second Loggerhead turtle chose Għadira’s sandy beach as its nesting ground, bringing the total number of active nests to three, with two of these being found at the popular beach.

Hatchlings from the nesting site at Gozo’s Ramla l-Ħamra, which was the first to be recorded last May, emerged from their eggs at the start of August, making their way to the sea.

Attard said the choice of populated beaches where turtles go to lay their eggs may be the result of overdevelopment taking place across the Mediterranean that has seen many areas, previously considered sacred for turtles, turned into tourist zones.

Nest volunteers keep a lookout for rats

Attard said that a turtle nest needed around 160 volunteers to monitor it for the duration of its existence.

Eggs take between 60 to 70 days to hatch, and require round-the-clock monitoring.

“The volunteers monitor the nests 24/7, as well as providing information to the public, watching out for predators like rats, for example, and even putting sandbags to divert water away from the nest in case it rains,” he said. 

Attard said turtles were important for the Mediterranean’s biodiversity. Apart from having been around for millions of years before humans, turtles are also instrumental in helping to keep jellyfish numbers in check.

“Unfortunately, this delicacy of theirs is also their doom, because today, as we know, plastic is increasing, and for them a plastic glove or plastic bag can be mistaken for a jellyfish,” Attard explained.

There have been instances of turtles being found dead with multiple plastic bags in their stomachs.

Breeding age at 25

When asked about the chances of any of the hatchlings in Malta growing up to then lay their own eggs, Attard said that only 1 out of every 100 hatchlings manages to reach breeding age.

Turtles take 25 years to reach breeding age, and once having done so, they will lay between 80-120 eggs once every two years.

Attard said that usually only around 80% of the eggs will hatch, with one notable exception being the 2018 nest at Ġnejna, where 111 of the 112 eggs present managed to hatch.

He said the precautions taken to protect the nest, included protection with an aluminium cover.

“The cover has to be made of aluminium because if a magnetic metal were used it would disorient the turtles’ natural sense of bearing once they emerge from the nest,” Attard said. 

And when the hatchlings do emerge, light pollution in the area can distract them from travelling towards the water. This is why volunteers have to assist the turtles in finding their way to the sea once they hatch. 

“We have to have someone with a powerful white light who’ll be near the sea. This is because if, for instance, they see the lights of Mellieħa once they hatch, there can be cases where they’ll head towards Mellieħa. So, we’ll have someone with a light on the sea, they will think that’s the moon and will make their way there,” he said.

Attard praised the attitude that people are now harbouring towards turtles, noting that fishers, who used to catch turtles in the past are now helping to save them, while people on the beaches and even kiosk owners are doing their part to ensure the nests are not disturbed.

If you would like to volunteer to help Nature Trust Malta monitor the three active turtle nests you can email Nature Trust at [email protected]

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