Skip to main content

90-year-old woman battles to save Turkey's loggerhead turtles

By Robin Gauldie, for CNN
updated 12:13 AM EDT, Fri April 4, 2014
The turtles of Dalyan are victims of their own popularity. More than 600 tour boats ply the waterways taking tourists to view them. The turtles of Dalyan are victims of their own popularity. More than 600 tour boats ply the waterways taking tourists to view them.
HIDE CAPTION
Loggerhead turtles
Ruins at Kaunos
Dalyan river delta
'Kaptan' June Haimoff
Protecting Turkey's turtles
Return of the loggerheads
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Turkey's Dalyan Delta was used as the backdrop for the 1951 film "The African Queen"
  • June Haimoff, who came to Dalyan in the 1970s, was instrumental in blocking plans to build a hotel complex
  • Haimoff, known as Kaptan June among locals, has dedicated her life to saving the local loggerhead turtles

(CNN) -- "No turtle, no pay," says the boatman as we arrive at the Iztuzu jetty, where visitors are embarking on tours of the lagoon in search of loggerhead turtles.

Iztuzu lies on Turkey's Dalyan Delta, an almost-tropical maze of river channels, pools and reed beds that once doubled for east Africa in the 1951 film "The African Queen," starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.

Its beautiful stretches of unspoiled sand are as much a draw for tourists as, for the past 100,000 years, they have been for turtles.

That both tourists and turtles can still enjoy those beaches today is largely thanks the efforts of one remarkable woman: June Haimoff.

Royal backing

In the mid-1980s, plans were drawn up for an 1,800-bed hotel that would have wiped out the turtles.

But the developers hadn't reckoned on Haimoff.

MORE: 6 Turkish adventures beyond the beaches and bazaars

The English ballet dancer, painter and singer fell in love with Iztuzu during a sailing trip in 1975 and moved into a simple wooden hut here eight years later to live among fisherman, who nicknamed her "Kaptan June."

The ancient ruins of Kaunos lie within reach of the Dalyan river delta.
The ancient ruins of Kaunos lie within reach of the Dalyan river delta.

She also fell in love with the loggerheads, launching a campaign to save the beach that won global support -- including the backing of Prince Philip, the husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth and then president of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

The campaign led to the cancellation of the hotel project and what Haimoff praises as an "intelligent and courageous" decision by the Turkish government to make Iztuzu a specially protected area.

"I began it alone, but I didn't do it alone," she tells me.

Now 90, Haimoff no longer lives on the beach, but in nearby Dalyan town, with an extended family of cats and dogs.

She continues to campaign on behalf of the beach and its inhabitants through the Kaptan June Sea Turtle Conservation Foundation.

"The battle has not been won," she says.

Propeller threat

Today, Iztuzu's loggerheads are threatened by their own popularity.

June Haimoff no longer lives on the beach, but in nearby Dalyan town.
June Haimoff no longer lives on the beach, but in nearby Dalyan town.

More than 600 motor boats now ply the river, ferrying visitors hoping to glimpse them or to view Kaunos, a ruined city built 2,500 years ago by the Lycians, who also built rock tombs in the cliffs overhead.

MORE: 5 of the world's best kebab joints

But unless the boats are fitted with propeller guards -- those that are carry the foundation's logo -- the turtles are at risk of injury.

Cafe owners often toss leftovers into the water to attract them, but the food scraps can do more harm than good, making the turtles ill or deterring them from heading out to sea where they're at less risk of injury from boats or from hypothermia in winter.

Conservationists want to see turtle feeding banned before this year's season starts.

"The Dalyan Delta is not a zoo," says Haimoff, who is also campaigning against the construction of a giant metal turtle sculpture within a protected nesting area.

A visit to the Sea Turtle Research, Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, where injured turtles are cared for, is enough to convince most visitors.

Those hoping for a glimpse of the amphibians in the water are unlikely to be disappointed.

Turkey\'s Dalyan Delta is a maze of river channels, pools and reed beds.
Turkey's Dalyan Delta is a maze of river channels, pools and reed beds.

Luring loggerheads

Turtles are easy enough to spot if you come to Iztuzu -- or other protected turtle beaches such as Patara or Cirali, on the surrounding coast -- in early summer.

About 300 females still bury their eggs in the sand here in May.

The female hatchlings that scramble into the Aegean Sea around 80 days later spend 20 years at sea before returning to Iztuzu as mature adults, each up to a meter in length and weighing 135 kilograms, to lay their own eggs.

MORE: Best restaurants in Istanbul

The turtles have become a nice little earner for Dalyan, a fact celebrated in the town's center by a life-size sculpture of a loggerhead.

Among those benefiting are the boatmen.

It takes about 45 minutes to chug down to Iztuzu from Dalyan aboard one of the boats operated by the Dalyan Boatmens' Cooperative and costs 10 Turkish lire ($4.50).

At the Iztuzu jetty, where boatmen offer turtle spotting trips for an extra five lire, we putter over to where a couple of local fishermen are casting lines baited with crabs, hoping to lure a loggerhead.

The crabs have vivid red and turquoise claws and are a Dalyan delicacy.

Loggerheads like them too, and after 10 minutes we (and five other boatloads of sightseers) are rewarded by a glimpse of a massive, big-eyed turtle taking the bait in its beak.

Smartphones flash, and everyone goes home happy -- especially the boatman, who pockets a 100 lire bonus.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:07 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Where to pay homage to the cutest local celebrities you'll ever stalk.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
For air travelers who like to gripe about being cramped in economy, here comes another warning that they've never had it so good.
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Cream cakes from the Ruszwurm bakery in Budapest, Hungary
Proving they're what's really important, the world's best pastry shops have survived survived sieges, revolutions and World War II.
updated 11:50 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Lois Pryce ignored naysayers and traveled 3,000 miles via motorcycle to discover the real Iran.
updated 11:20 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Built at a cost of $442.2 million, Universal Studios Japan hopes its new Potter attraction will bring in $55 billion over 10 years.
updated 10:40 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
A scene in Marrakech
The gateway to Morocco's Atlas Mountains is becoming a photographer's paradise -- but capturing it on camera isn't easy.
updated 5:36 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Cathay Pacific was pronounced the world's best airliner of the year at the industry's leading awards ceremony in Farnborough on Tuesday.
updated 4:44 PM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
Britain has stolen a march in the space race with plans for the world's first spaceport outside the U.S.
updated 10:53 AM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
In the hunt for the world's best amusement park, the people have spoken -- and it seems the people like mixing with creatures who eat a lot of fish.
updated 2:11 AM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
An Hellenic Seaplanes aircraft
Seaplane network set to open up far-flung destinations to affordable jet-setting tours.
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
A man who took a dangerous selfie during the running of the bulls in Pamplona, with the half-ton beasts right behind him, is still on the run -- but this time from the police.
updated 10:07 PM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
Its cramped rooms and retro lobby are dated, but its charm and devotion to customers are worth preserving.
updated 1:53 AM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
A young girl sits on a bench decorated with an image of Paddington Bear.
As part of a scheme to encourage reading, 50 benches designed in the style of popular novels or kids' stories have been scattered around London.
updated 9:01 PM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
To all the locals who have been hoarding the following beaches, please forgive us.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Jason Hullinger, a computer security architect in Los Angeles, went to Joshua Tree National Park in December to catch the Geminid meteor shower.
CNN iReporters from across the globe share their incredible images of the skies above us.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT