“ Based on the Greek island of Kefalonia, the Katelios Group is a conservation group set up to protect turtles. „
Last September I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful island of Kefalonia, and certainly the lasting memory I have of the place has to be that it is a major breeding ground for the Loggerhead Turtle.
This simple fact conceals a complicated situation, as where there is tourism in any environment, it can have consequences for wildlife and conservation, which if not managed carefully, can lead to devastating consequences for the individual species.
Walking along the coastline close to where we were staying, it became clear that turtles had been nesting along the beach as sites were marked with tepi like wooden structures, which had been placed over these nests to protect them. In one view you could see beach umbrellas and loungers, which were half way back from the waters' edge, and behind them the tell tale signs of turtle activity. I felt like an intruder into a territory which I felt belonged to these creatures.
They come ashore at night to lay their eggs which then incubate in warm sand for several weeks, until one morning close to the dawn the baby turtles emerge and desperately try to reach the sea. If they see any light they will follow it, believing it to be starlight. For this reason hotels at the back of the beach are dangerous beacons, leading these creatures away from their destination, risking their survival, as they need to be submerged quickly or their delicate bodies dry out and they dehydrate. Even if they do set off in the right direction, they can fall into the moats of sandcastles, well meaning children have unknowing created, which ultimately trap them in the deep channels. It is a sad task for them, which until Kefalonia recently saw tourism begin to develop on a commercial scale, was much easier- as these were their beaches and theirs alone.
With this in mind in 1994 a volunteer group was started called The Katelios Group for the research and protection of marine and terrestial life, and this operates in the area doing everything it can to protect these turtles.
In 1999 they were able to secure an old building which has become an Environmental Centre which is really the headquarters of their work. It is situated on the road between Skala and Argostoli, and it was within a short walking distance of our apartments where we were staying, affording us the opportunity to visit regularly to check turtle nesting statistics, which changed on a daily basis. No visit to kefalonia is complete, in my opinion, without a visit to this centre which not only provides details about the turtles but has a superb collection of data and information about all the wildlife of the area.
It is open every day in the summer between 9.30 and 13.30 in the morning and 17.30-2100 in the afternoon.
Thinking about the area where we were staying and its relationship to the turtles was a very thought provoking set of emotions for me. Katelios, the village we had chosen is a very low key resort, and certainly has not seen the development of other resorts or islands nearby, but still it is slowly moving from its origins as a tiny fishing village 20 years ago, to a small but bustling resort centred around the harbour area in recent years. Admittedly most of the turtle nesting is way from the main beach area, and there is a clamber across rocks to reach the nearby beach of Mounda where many of the turtles nest, but even here there is a hotel now and many more energetic tourists venture over this rocky headland to reach the beach because it offers seclusion and an opportunity to enjoy a fantastic unspoilt sandy playground which stretches for miles. The beach just next to the main part of the village of Katelios at Agia Barbara has been cleaned and the sand compacted, making it totally impossible for the turtles to dig their nests at all here.
So the work of the Katelios group is twofold. Firstly to watch closely planning applications, council intentions and anything which will threaten the survival of these creatures, and to oppose it through the courts if necessary, and secondly to study in depth the turtles nesting behaviour, gathering statistics and providing valuable learning opportunities for students who come to Kefalonia as volunteers.
Learning about their work, and putting it into context against the backdrop of my holiday, I felt privileged to have visited this area and mindful of the fact that I really was a visitor. I viewed sun beds on the beach as blockages preventing turtles from accessing the back of the beach, and had visions of them struggling back to the sea without having been able to fill their nest with eggs. I felt I had intruded on their world and their territory.
I admire the work this group are doing as it is vital, and the problems faced by wildlife are mirrored all over the world as man builds more and more tourist friendly places. Kefalonia thankfully is standing back from mass development, partly because high rise buildings are not possible to build due to its earthquake studded history, but it is still presenting dangers to the turtles in more subtle ways.