“You must see the ruins of Olympos at dawn; it is better then. Everything is under mist and there are no people there. Very atmospheric.”
Feride’s words echoed inside my head as I made my way, bleary-eyed, through the dew adorned vegetation of my pension towards Çırali beach and the ianthine sky. A weak sun struggled to climb above the horizon; struggling to navigate large pebbles, I empathised with its plight.
Despite the early hour, there were a surprising number of people on the beach, standing in clusters and looking intently at something I couldn’t quite see. With all the grace of a fledgling bird, I stumbled over, realising that they had gathered to watch a handful of WWF wardens digging up the nest of a Caretta Caretta, or loggerhead turtle, with latex-gloved hands.
The men worked rhythmically, expertly discarding empty shells and cadavers as they searched for hatchlings. We looked on, collective breath bated. Behind us, the rose gold orb of the sun began to bathe the sea in liquid light, yet the nest remained a cool, uncertain grey. My nostrils were assaulted by the fetid smell of rotting fish and I took a step back; not wanting to accept the harsh reality of raw nature. Photographers lowered their lenses. An uneasy silence settled over us. Time was punctuated only by the breaking of the waves. Suddenly, and without ceremony, two tiny hatchlings were placed to one side. Survivors. The wardens resumed their work. We exhaled.
Dusted in granules, the hatchlings looked strangely alien, lying on their backs in the sand. They moved weakly, all flailing fins. The adolescent sun reached out towards the two small, slate grey shells with rosy fingers and the sea called to them; they responded by frantically waving a flipper and desperately struggling to right themselves but their efforts were fruitless. Once again, camera lenses were lowered, along with expectations. We willed them to live. Hushed conversations took place in half a dozen languages; our expressions, however, needed no translation.
Finishing their excavation, the wardens began to replace the contents of the nest, covering it back over with sand and replacing the location cage. Gently, they lifted the weakening hatchlings and placed them in a plastic container before walking briskly to the next cage, trailing tourists behind them.
Like watching a film reel, the second nest yielded a heady stench of rotting fish, empty shells, cadavers…and then the plot changed: three healthy, feisty hatchlings emerged. As soon as they were placed onto the sand these tiny adventurers began to navigate the unfamiliar terrain with vigour, using their powerful anterior fins to propel themselves along the shingle, bright, beady eyes flashing with determination. Triumphant, the sun illuminated their passage.
The crowd began to chatter excitedly; cameras documenting the hatchlings’ every move as they raced to the sea. Reaching a bank of pebbles, the hatchlings succeeded in climbing and sliding over a seemingly impossible giant-sized assault course. Eager to play some small part in the miracle unfolding before them, members of the crowd broke off to run ahead and flatten pebbles.
At the crest of the berm, the hatchlings picked up speed; their goal tangible. Lapped by the sea, their shells gleamed ebony and they reached an incredible pace, their tiny fins motoring like pistons. A breaking wave knocked them back, seemingly increasing their determination. The strongest turtle reached the shoreline and was instantly swept out of reach, suddenly graceful in its natural habitat. The second and third hatchlings quickly followed. Applause broke out amongst the crowd, effervescent elation rising within us. Smiling our goodbyes, we parted not as strangers, but as friends.
Picking up my bag, I continued awkwardly down the beach, towards the ruins of Olympos.