Wonders in the Sand

A dispatch from Cyprus

By / March 2013

When I think of Cyprus, I don’t think about bank runs or the euro crisis, let alone Russian money laundering. I think of turtles. Every spring, scores of female green and loggerhead turtles swim across untold miles of open sea to the beaches of northern Cyprus. They can weigh up to 700 pounds. Each carries a hundred some-odd golfball-sized eggs. The turtles quietly clamber ashore at midnight for nearly a month and take turns depositing eggs into warm incubators of sand.

They have been here before, these mother turtles. The beach was their birthplace, too. It is one of the great mysteries, how the turtles know to return here, twenty, thirty years after first leaving the Cypriot sand to set out into the Mediterranean Sea.

A couple of springs ago, I traveled with my family to Alagadi, a half-moon stretch of shoreline near the harbor at Kyrenia, to witness the spectacle. Since 1992, students and researchers from various British universities have descended upon Alagadi, also called Turtle Beach, to monitor the nesting and hatching of thousands of baby turtles. Volunteers, sleeping by day on cots in primitive shacks, rise at night to patrol the waterfront. They tag the turtles. They track mating and migration routes. They fence off nests to keep out foxes and wild dogs.

At around 9 p.m., near the beachfront research building that doubles as a dormitory, a student from Italy who was part of the program issued orders in broken English. She said flashlights were forbidden. All was to be quiet. The volunteers would walk us down to an appointed spot where we would wait for the signal.

On the dark beach we waited, huddled beneath a blanket, my wife, my three kids, and me. The only sound was the steady lapping of waves. There were millions of stars overhead, posed, I remember thinking, like miniature stage lights placed there to illumine the evening performance. Sand between our toes, we could not sleep, though the hour grew later and later.

By midnight there was still no sign, no sound, of a turtle landing. We squinted dilated pupils up and down the shore. Mirage-like, the darkness began to move. The ocean played tricks with our ears. Was that a turtle or just an off-beat wave out of time with the metronomic sloshing of the sea? The kids moved from excitement to boredom. We picked out constellations. We made up new ones. My wife ran her fingers through the kids’ salty locks until they fell asleep.

Then something stirred. Not turtles, researchers. Lanterns, different colors at different distances, lit up along the beach, blinking out some kind of code. We slipped on our sandals and roused the kids. Twenty meters on, a silent giant had barreled ashore without any of us knowing. She had already burrowed half of her body into a bunker of sand. We gathered around, close, as our guide held up a dim lamp and encouraged us to touch the turtle’s thick, hulking shell.

The creature, she said, was in a kind of birthing trance. Batting large swaths of dirt with every stroke of her powerful front fins, the turtle carved out a home for the eggs a foot and a half beneath the surface. Her jerking swipe kicked sand into the kids’ faces. With a laugh, they began to caress the rugged back of the four-foot-long sea turtle.

Only when the nest is finished do the turtles deposit their eggs. Two months later, the babies that hatch successfully will waddle into the Mediterranean and subject themselves to the perils and predators of the sea. A lucky few, having survived the watery ordeal, will return to the island, just as their kind have been doing for generations.

As we picked up our children and carried them back over the hill, away from the eggs and the sand and the sea, I wondered whether they might also return to Alagadi, with their own kids, someday. On Turtle Beach, that lineal sliver of northern Cyprus, one cannot do but think of such things.


Brian McKanna is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.