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A caretta caretta turtle swimming near Kaş in Lycia in Turkey

Unforgettable: a caretta caretta swimming, near Kaş in Lycia.

Sometimes, there is little to say and much to communicate.

That may not work well for a blog that is usually concerned with matters of history, archaeology and art, with sites, places, peoples, contexts and – most of all – with narratives. Still, occasionally those moments occur.

Last month, I was guiding a private charter on the Lycian Coast of Turkey, visiting a host of fascinating and very beautiful archaeological sites and telling their stories. That is my job and I hope I did it well. But for once, the archaeology was not the most memorable part of the tour: that was caretta caretta, the loggerhead sea turtle. We do see some wildlife on our tours and cruises here and there, and it is always a wonderful experience, but the caretta caretta is special to me.

That sounds casual and light-hearted perhaps, but it is not meant to: these creatures, who are impressive and unique and interesting in many ways, have an immense and utterly irrational effect on me and I feel blessed when I met them – an emotion I appear to share with many other people. I remember swimming with one, looking immeasurably old and terminally grumpy (they always do), but taking great care to match its pace to mine (they are better swimmers than I am) when I was eight. Presumably, the animal was merely curious or wondering whether I might be edible, but the encounter is among my most treasured and vivid childhood memories.

A caretta caretta turtle coming to the surface to breathe near Kalkan in Turkey

This is how we usually see them: catching a glimpse while they briefly surface to breathe. This one’s near Kalkan on the Lycian Shore of Turkey.

Meeting those remarkable creatures was not new to me in itself: travelling in these waters, we see them now and then, usually at a distance as they surface to breathe; and once in a while we see turtle nests on a beach. Twice in my life, I have had more intense encounters with caretta caretta: I swam with them off the shore of the Peloponnese when I was a little child, and again off Crete when I was a student involved in research on that island – so apparently they come to meet me every 16 years or so.

If you know the right people – the turtle protectors, environmental volunteers looking after turtle beaches – you can observe or rather witness part of that mating cycle. The actual mating is private – as it should be – but the egg laying is not. The female turtle comes ashore, usually on the beach where she herself was hatched, and laboriously makes her way a few metres inland where she digs a deep hole to lay her eggs, numbering somewhere between fifty and a hundred. She then buries the eggs and returns to the sea to go off to do whatever turtles do. The entire process can take up to three hours.

A caretta caretta turtle swimming under water near Kaş in Turkey

Floating under water: again, near Kaş.

In this Lycian August of 2015, they were a regular feature of our cruise, more or less our neighbours throughout. I cannot claim to understand why they were so common and so short of shyness. It is assumed that they mate and hatch in June-July and incubation (if that is the word) takes about two months, so it is unclear to me why they would hang on in the various coves we anchored in. Perhaps they were just grazing the seaweed, or perhaps they were staying about to mate repeatedly, which they can and which sounds like a good idea.

It seems the most absurdly dangerous and risky way to enter this world, but it is rather well-established: they have been doing it for about 40 million years. Witnessing the event, the tiny baby turtles appearing from under the sand and crawling straight towards the surf in silent determination, disappearing in the vastness of the sea and the mystery of their growing years, is awesome in the old and real sense of that word. Of course, both events, laying and hatching, should only be observed under supervision – and no-one should ever intervene with the animals!After about eight weeks, the baby turtles hatch. Not many creatures have a harder start into this world: they hatch while buried in sand, dig their way out, identify the direction the sea lies, and make their way there, all the while being soft-shelled and appetising to birds. If they get there, they enter the sea and disappear from our observation and our understanding for years, to reappear when they are sexually mature. No-one quite knows how long that takes, estimates range between twelve and thirty years!

It’s impossible to explain the mystique of these creatures, who have been around as a species since long before us and whose individual lifespan is probably much longer than ours. It is certainly a privilege to meet them and to see them moving about so elegantly and seemingly effortlessly. Many of our guests find the experience profoundly touching, edifying and humbling at the same time. Caretta caretta are not a regular or in any way predictable feature of our cruises – but sometimes we are lucky – and maybe you will be, too!

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