Plastic Pollution Diaries: Our impact on Loggerhead Turtles in Kefalonia

Welcome to the first blog post in our new series the Plastic Pollution Diaries. Our aim is to get as many voices as possible heard on their interaction with plastic pollution and the work they are doing to combat it. First in the series is Criminology and Social Policy student, Sophia, who following a summer working with turtles in Kefalonia has been inspired to do more after seeing our impact on the species. Take it away, Sophia…

Hello! I’m Sophia and I am a second year Criminology and Social Policy student at Cardiff University. For two weeks this summer, I volunteered in Kefalonia with a turtle conservation project called Wildlife Sense. Two years ago, I went out to volunteer with the same organisation, and fell in love with the project so much that I decided to go back. During my time in Greece, I saw the first-hand the impact humans have on marine life through our plastic consumption and our general human activity. I noticed a significant increase in plastic pollution on beaches this year in comparison to 2016.

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More and more plastic is being washed up on Kefalonia’s beaches endangering the turtle species that nest therre

So, a bit about Wildlife Sense and what I got up to. Wildlife Sense is a research and conservation project which help protect Loggerhead Turtles in Kefalonia. There were a range of shifts we would do on a daily basis which I will go into a bit more detail about. The first shift were “Morning surveys”, where we observed nesting beaches to check for any signs of adult tracks and hatchling tracks and observe events like high tides, standing water or the presence of potential threats (predators or even human activities like new volleyball courts). These shifts included walking the beaches first thing in the morning (allowing us to see the beautiful sunrises), using a GPS to monitor how the size of a beach changes over the year and between years and to also check each nest. We would look out for signs of hatchling tracks and any sign of disturbances or anything unusual.

Harbour shifts would happen three times a day, where we would check for the health and behaviour of the adult turtles through observing them and their interactions with other turtles. A huge issue in the harbour is turtles being fed fish by tourists or fishermen. Fish is not necessarily a food turtles would naturally eat very much of, so this artificial feeding of fish isn’t very good for turtles, (in fact it is the equivalent of eating fast food or dogs eating chocolate!) Feeding the turtles also creates an association for turtles between the “good food” and fishing boats, so rather than looking for food themselves, they approach fishing boats. This behaviour of approaching fishing boats is then continued, which often results in boat injuries to the turtles (a few turtles in the harbour have marks on them from interactions with boats). Sometimes they come away with just a scratch, but other times this results in serious and life-threatening injuries.

Another issue created by this is that it increases competition between the turtles to fight for food, making some of the turtles more aggressive than they typically would be in the wild.

While out in Kefalonia, there was numerous observations made of turtles in the harbour who had fishing lines caught around their flippers or trailing from them (having been swallowed and slowly moved through their digestive systems). When things like this happen, the Wildlife Sense team will rescue the turtle and send it to a rescue centre which will rehabilitate the turtle until it is ready to return back to the sea. This was personally very upsetting to see, not only to see a turtle distressed and injured, but knowing this could have been avoidable and was due to human recklessness (e.g. not leaving fishing lines in the sea or fishing near sea turtles).

Through these shifts I quickly learned about the impact humans had on turtles in particular and how regular activities we carry out is decreasing their life span, for example through fishing nets and longlines (a big threat to turtles) getting caught in turtles throats, the turtles swallowing plastic by accident by getting plastic items like bags confused with for food and the impact of light pollution on beaches that would disorientate the hatchlings. The hatchlings would often become disoriented due to artificial light, so we would sleep on certain beaches at night that we knew had the risk of being affected by light pollution, to reduce the risk we would check nests and protect them with a box. We would then check the box every hour (the box was used to keep the hatchlings safe) and then help them get to sea by putting them down a trench.

What Greece has taught me is how important it is to get involved in reducing our plastic consumption as it is so relevant. Worldwide, 73 % of the beach litter is plastic according to National Geographic, this can be from cigarette butts, bottles and bottle caps. Studies have also shown how marine plastic pollution is in 100% of marine turtles species, 59% of whale species, 36% of seal species and 40% of seabird species which have been examined.

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Microplastics like these found on the beach in Kefalonia have been found in many marine species

I hope you enjoyed reading this and taken something from it! It’s important to remember all steps and actions make a difference.

Sophia’s top tips to cut down on plastic:

  • Say no to plastic straws (in some countries they have banned the use of plastic straws already and we should encourage other countries, including our own, to do the same)
  • Recycle and properly dispose of your waste
  • Get involved with local community litter picks
  • Avoid single use plastic cutlery by bringing your own wooden metal cutlery with you!

Follow more of Sophia’s adventures on Instagram and Twitter

Do you want to share your story on plastic pollution? We want to hear from you! To get involved with the Plastic Pollution Diaries please contact us.

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