Ġnejna Bay suddenly turns turtle
Alfred E. Baldacchino
The everyday summer scene at Ġnejna Bay turned turtle on the night of June 20. From a free-for-all venue where activities such as sunbathing, swimming, car parking, barbecues and music with no decibel limit on a floodlit beach at night, it was transformed into a protected, monitored, delineated area.
A female loggerhead marine turtle, one of the seven remaining marine species in the world, which appeared on earth about 100 million years ago, survivors from the dinosaur period, triggered all this! Never too late. It is documented that, in the distant past, marine turtles used to lay eggs on sandy beaches such as at Ramla l-Ħamra, in Gozo, and Santa Marija Bay, in Comino. A more recent laying is said to have occurred at Golden Bay in 1960, when the eggs were dug up and, with mother turtle finished, cooked by some indigenous barbarians.
The laying season of the loggerhead is between the end of May and the end of August. The turtle approaches sandy beaches after 10 p.m., depending on the moon, which affects its behaviour. It digs a hole 13-18cm in diameter at the top and five centimetres wider at the bottom. In this 35-55cm-deep hole it deposits its eggs, on average 80, each 38.4mm in diameter, and weighing 30g.
The whole process takes about an hour to complete, after which the female returns to the open sea. The eggs take from 44-60 days to hatch, depending on air temperature: the ones at the top receiving more heat hatch out as females while the ones at the bottom layer hatch as males. These hatch during the night and are imprinted with the magnetic forces of the earth, the direction of the waves and certain substances in the sand and in the nearby water. They hurriedly crawl towards the waterline where they disappear in the Mediterranean Sea.
The female loggerhead can return to the same beach after 15 days to lay a second and, later, a possibly third clutch of eggs. It is estimated that from every 1,000 eggs laid only one manages to reach adulthood and breed.
Why this particular loggerhead turtle (which, from the published photos, one can estimate is from 30 to 35 years old) chose Ġnejna Bay to lay its eggs is not easily understood. The background of the floodlit beach, alive with sound, is not exactly the adequate habitat to attract and induce any marine turtle to nest. Furthermore, this loggerhead dug its nesting hole very close to the waterline; very unusual considering that a little sea swell could easily fill the nest and the eggs drown.
About 2,000 loggerhead nest in the eastern Mediterranean, mainly in Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. Though young migrant loggerheads from the Atlantic enter the Mediterranean, they do not mix with the eastern Mediterranean population but leave again to the Atlantic where they nest.
One has to say that, this time, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority was quick to act and prevent the tampering with the eggs and the nest itself. Ġnejna Bay was temporarily scheduled and measures taken to prevent more disturbance such as photo flashes and other curious eyes and meddling fingers. The eggs were rightly transported to a higher level on the beach.
The officers concerned conducted such operation with great professionalism, reflecting the intensive hands-on training they received in the past at Cyprus Lara’s Beach. Monitoring is being carried out round the clock and decisions taken through such professional expertise.
The leathery eggs of marine turtles are very fragile and exposed to a number of dangers both during their incubation and also immediately after hatching. Trampling, predation by dogs, cats, rats and man himself are some of the dangers during such a sensitive period, especially on a crowded popular sandy beach as Ġnejna.
Measures taken include the surrounding of the nest area with a dark green sun shade enclosure. It would be wise to consider whether this can possibly obstruct breeze and sea spray reaching the nest in a natural way and, thus, change the ambient temperature of the enclosure. Would it perhaps have been better to use the conventional one metre plus diameter shallow wire cage which, besides marking the site, keeps away any predator and does not interfere with such ambient temperature. The sun shaded delineation can easily be replaced by a less obstructive structure.
So far, so good. First proven marine turtle nesting record. Prompt professional action in such a short notice and a professional approach by qualified personnel. Good back-up and support by the public showing mature and genuine appreciation and control.
Hopefully, the 79 eggs will hatch and the Maltese-born loggerhead turtles will all hopefully reach the waterline and swim towards the open Mediterranean.
With fingers crossed, the one or two which will manage to reach maturity after about 15 years or more, imprinted by the Ġnejna beach environmental build-up, will return to their native ground to nest.
The Loggerhead turtle has not only turned Ġnejna Bay turtle, it has also shown the ever-increasing public awareness and appreciation, a public who wants more and more protection for our natural heritage. It has also shown that we Maltese can handle the protection of biodiversity in a professional way when there is the will and when politicians understand such expertise.