On June 20th at 10.30pm on the sands of Gnejna Bay (pron je-ney-na) those revellers who stayed on this lovely beach in the north of Malta to barbecue, drink and party into the night were blessed with a sight not seen there for around 100 years.
A loggerhead turtle dragged itself up from the sea, walked a sort distance, dug a deep hole in the damp sand and laid 76 eggs before scooping the sand back over them and returning to the water. It did not seem disturbed by the flashes from cameras and mobile phones. Those people there asked for a policeman and a nature warden to witness the event with the result that the site was declared a temporary conservation area with immediate effect.
Resident foreign experts consulted that night by the conservation authorities deemed the nest to be too close to the waterline with the risk of the eggs being washed away, so they were carefully moved to another hole dug at a safer distance from the sea. Other reasons for the move were that the laying area was in the middle of the most heavily used part of the beach, and also the underlying clay in that area would heat up in the sun during the day and overheat the eggs, making hatching less likely. The area has been cordoned off and a 24 hour watch has been set until the eggs hatch. Lights and loud noise is now prohibited on what was once a revellers beach. Everyone is fascinated and proud that a turtle has once again chosen to lay in Gnejna, so no-one is upset at the interruption to their partying.
Loggerheads live 35 years or more and usually return to their birthplace to lay their clutches of eggs. They lay 2-5 clutches a year, then have a couple of fallow years before laying again. So, our turtle may return. Whether this was its birthplace or not is a point of speculation, but certainly there are no officially recorded sightings for many decades.
The eggs hatch about 60 days after laying. The infant turtle breaks the shell with its “egg tooth”, a temporary structure on its beak which disappears gradually after hatching. It then digs its way to the surface and heads for the sea, guided by the reflections of the moon and stars on the water.
This is where the importance of not having artificial lights around is critical. Baby turtles are instinctively drawn to light. In their unpolluted habitats, the only light they have is that of the moonlight or the stars on the sea which is much more reflective than the land. Were they to go to land, they would be prey for night predators, suffer dehydration and exhaustion in their random attempts to find the sanctuary of the sea.
So flashes from cameras and phones, spotlights are banned, as are barbecues and bonfires. The necessary security lights have been specially shielded to ensure the tiny hatchlings have the best chance possible of making it to the sea.
So, our eggs should be hatching soon if everyone’s efforts have borne fruit. I will let you know what happens.
One final interesting fact about the turtle eggs is that their sex is temperature dependent. If they are laid in cool damp sand, the majority will be male. If the sand is warm, the hatchlings will be predominantly female.
I bet you did not know that now, did you?