They’re big, they’re green (or a log-like yellow) and they’re slow. Meet the green and loggerhead sea turtles, two sets of endangered species that are making a measured comeback on Israel’s shores.
It’s a tale that goes back to the days of British Mandate Palestine, when turtles were hunted for sport and their meat – which was also exported to Europeans who craved some exotic eats. One Acre fisherman tells the tale of catching some 30,000 turtles over the course of several years. Whether his tale is tall or not, tens of thousands of sea turtles once trawled the area between Michmoret – the beach north of Netanya — and Acre, and now their numbers are in the hundreds.
For Yaniv Levy, director of the Israel National Parks Authority Rescue Center at Michmoret, it’s been a 12-year effort to protect these turtles and restore them to their native breeding areas as well as the local rivers where they once lived, bringing them back to a better kind of existence.
He loves turtles. He likens them to humans, for their 90 to 100 year span of life, and to Israelis, as he says jokingly, because “the minute they’re born, they know everything.” Newborn hatchling turtles are left on their own – the mothers having laid their eggs and left the scene as much as two months earlier – forcing an innate sense of survival. But never make the mistake of confusing green or loggerhead sea turtles with the Nile soft-shell turtles that reside right next door to the center in the Alexander River, a tributary that flows into the Mediterranean Sea, right at the Beit Yanai Beach next to Michmoret.
“They’re ugly,” says turtle-lover Levy of the Nile species.
Still, this is turtle territory; with the Nile soft-shell terrapins resting on the banks of the Alexander; and the Center just a short walk away, with its collection of green and loggerhead tortoises resting in their wet pools, munching on fish and lettuce. And now, as a result of a careful breeding program, Levy and his team at the center have been transferring turtle eggs to protected locations along the Israeli coastline, and there are now some 100 female loggerhead turtles reproducing on a regular basis.
That’s one side of the center’s work; the other half is taking care of injured turtles that wash up on Israel’s shores. Some have been snared in fisherman’s hooks, injured by boat propellers, or choked on plastic debris floating in the sea. The center cares for them, performing surgery if necessary, giving antibiotics and then slowly coaxing them back to full health. Levy’s dream is to build an entirely new center, replacing his somewhat bedraggled warren of buildings that have served his beloved turtles and dedicated volunteers old and young for the last decade. If that happens, he’ll create an artificial breeding beach for the turtles, with the new and improved center in back to provide all the care and treatment necessary for these water-dwelling reptiles.
Based at the Michmoret Campus that is also home to the School of Marine Sciences, a sailing school and several other high school and college-age institutions, the center welcomes visitors and groups, as does the nearby Alexander River, or Nahal Alexander. Da’at often brings groups here, and can arrange a picnic on the banks of the Alexander River, followed by a dip in the Mediterranean.