Dedicated conservationists battle to keep Israel’s sea turtles from extinction.

Green sea turtle (photo credit: COURTESY YANIV LEVY / NPA)
Green sea turtle
(photo credit: COURTESY YANIV LEVY / NPA)
EXITING ROUTE 4 heading north from Or Akiva toward Haifa, you take a short drive through agricultural land, irrigated and green, before passing under a bridge that carries the main coastal Route 2 highway taking you to Jisr-a-Zarka. When you pass under that brightly colored bridge, you move from modern Israel to another time, another place.
The Arab town of Jisr a-Zarka is poor. Its inhabitants are kept at arms’ length by most of their Arab brethren. It’s a ramshackle, very Middle Eastern place, a world away from the myriad of sites foreign tourists hurry around to mark off their “been there, done that” checklist. One of the latter being the exclusive neighborhood of Caesarea, on Jisr a-Zarka’s southern border.
I’ve lived close to Jisr (as it is simply known locally) for eight years. I’d never before crossed the threshold into the village itself, where a decaying main street leads you through decrepit buildings down to the seashore and a beautiful beach untouched by developers.
A smattering of corrugated iron fishermen’s huts framed a picturesque little bay where a small, multicultural crowd had gathered for a special event.
Hijab-veiled women blended seamlessly with others in T-shirts and shorts; Arabic, Hebrew, English, and even Dutch permeated the air. What brought everyone together? They had gathered to witness the happy culmination of exhaustive work to save the life of Carlo, a Mediterranean green sea turtle, who a year earlier had been brought to the National Parks Authority (NPA) Rescue Center at Michmoret, a few kilometers to the south, by a local Arab fisherman. He had found the poor creature on the brink of death, washed up on the Jisr shore.
Speaking to the gathering in Hebrew, aided by an Arabic translator, 44-year-old Yaniv Levy, director of the Rescue Center, explained that after a long rehabilitation the badly injured turtle was now healthy and ready to return to the wild. There was a ripple of applause. Local schoolchildren had been learning about Carlo and the plight of Israel’s endangered turtles and have been in the vanguard of encouraging their families and friends to be more aware of how to avoid harming them and help protect the species.
Eventually, Carlo was taken out of the nearby “tzavbulance” (tzav is turtle in Hebrew) and amid great excitement and much clicking of cameras felt his flippers back on the Mediterranean sand for the first time since his ordeal.
They called him Carlo because his body temperature, as a result of his injuries, was dangerously low. He was very cold and close to death. The Hebrew for “he’s cold” is “kar lo,” so it seemed only right to call him Carlo.
“This is a green turtle, which is much rarer than the brown turtle in Israel,” Levy, a marine biologist, explains to The Jerusalem Report. “His condition is amazing as six months ago he was in very bad shape.
He suffered from a variety of blast injuries, including impaired sight and vision, either from gas or oil exploration, the 2014 Gaza war, or possibly from Lebanese fishermen who fish with hand grenades.
“Any of those scenarios could have caused his injuries. He was brought to our rescue center and now we’re returning him to nature.”
It’s hard to tell just how excited Carlo was about his release – turtles are fairly phlegmatic creatures. He took his time negotiating the sand despite plenty of good-natured encouragement from the expectant crowd and a curious dog.
Slowly, but surely, he edged into the warm blue Mediterranean waters and gradually submerged, crossing a small reef before disappearing from view, hopefully for a long and healthy life ahead. Estimated at between 10-15 years of age, if he avoids the many dangers in the sea ‒ both natural and man-made ‒ he might live to be up to 100 years old. When fully mature, he could grow to weigh as much as 120 kilograms.
I wondered how Levy felt having to let go after working so hard to bring the impressive creature – one of more than two dozen at his center ‒ back to life.
“MAINLY RELIEF,” he said.” I won’t say there’s an outpouring of emotion because I’ve been doing this for 16 years, but I’m enjoying it because this is a success for me, a complex success. In addition to the connection with this community, the survival of this turtle after the state we received him in, barely alive, to see him walking back to the sea is great. It’s a whole package.”
Levy has clearly made it his life’s work to protect the endangered sea turtles since saving an injured turtle found on a local beach in 1999 catapulted him into conservation.
“I had no connection to the NPA then, I was just a student,” he relates. “I didn’t know how to treat it, but I had previously worked on diving boats in the Seychelles and the Red Sea and had joined a scientific study with international turtle expert, Jeanne Mortimer.”
Someone had reported a dead turtle and Levy went to investigate, finding that it had a long line and hook lodged down its throat, but it wasn’t dead; not quite. He rescued the turtle and then found a vet willing to try to save it. A park ranger, hearing of the discovery, arrived at the clinic to find the vet and Levy in the midst of life-saving surgery.
“It was crazy! We were operating under instructions from a friend of the vet’s on the other end of a telephone at Sea World in Florida! It took around eight hours; the same procedure now would only take us 30 minutes. We gave him a sedative called Ketamine, and gave him a dose similar to what you give dogs. It’s a downer. We [weren’t aware] that turtles react much slower than most other animals. We knocked him out for two days, but he stayed alive. Six months later, he was released back into the wild and this was the start of my mission to save Israel’s turtles.”
Levy is relating the story to a group of Dutch tourists who heard about the work of the rescue center and wanted to learn more.
He has a tremendously engaging manner, full of life, energetic, loaded with humor.
Israel’s green and brown sea turtle populations have been under threat since before World War I. Between the world wars, when the country was ruled by the British, they were hunted to the verge of extinction.
“Up to 40,000 turtles were hunted during that period. This is what devastated the population.
From here they would be sent to the markets of Alexandria in Egypt, and from there to the UK, the world’s main market for turtle meat in those days.”
“What we have today is a maximum of just 20 female green turtles left in Israel.
This is now the end of the nesting season and we found only six green turtle nests.
Every female produces two to five nests, so it means there are probably just two females who produced nests this year.”
“In each nest, there are around 130 eggs.
So a female lays at least 300-400 eggs per season. New research has shown that most nests are found in the same place that the turtle herself was hatched. This is a kind of survival of the fittest. ‘I hatched, I walked to the sea, and now I came back to this beach.
I know it is possible to create life on this beach.’” Levy notes that global research indicates that just one percent of turtles reach sexual maturity – at around 20 years old. That’s a shocking rate of attrition. Apart from many natural predators, turtle populations have come under threat due to construction near their breeding grounds; cars driving along beaches and smashing their nests ‒ as well as the many other man-made issues that have beset the seas.
While in the modern era turtles are rarely hunted as in the past, trawler and long-line fishing have caused them massive harm.
Pollution from gas and oil exploration has also had an impact, as has the scourge of litter, such as plastic bags.
Levy and his colleagues are on constant alert to try to save the turtle population.
“The NPA does a survey every morning during nesting season, then relocates nests into a hatchery or special places on beaches we know are highly protected. We put a net over them so foxes won’t dig in and eat the eggs. They have to be moved because they are also affected by artificial lighting at night.”
The baby turtle’s instinct is to hatch and then follow the moonlight to the sea, but artificial light from buildings and cars confuses them, sending them in the wrong direction to an almost certain death.
The success of the Michmoret turtle rescue center, housed in the Mevo’ot Yam maritime boarding school, has led to plans for a new custom-built home for the turtles. Work started this summer at a location less than a kilometer from the current center. It will include two large pools, an artificial beach where turtles from the NPA’s breeding program will breed and lay eggs in safety.
There will be glass fronted pools so visitors can see the turtles swimming beneath the water. The existing turtle hospital facilities and intensive care units will be significantly upgraded.
THE PROJECT doesn’t come cheap though.
Two-thirds of the NIS 22 million (more than $5.5m.) required to complete the center has been raised so far, but the balance is still needed to finish the job properly.
Day-to-day funding comes from the NPA budget and also from charitable donations, but, as with most charities, it’s a juggling act with not less than NIS 500,000 ($131,000) a year needed just to keep the existing center going. As many as 60 adults volunteer on a rotating basis.
Surprisingly, one of the biggest costs at the center is water. The turtles cannot survive in seawater in captivity. “The water in which the turtles swim is drilled from 70 meters below ground,” says Levy. “You can’t take it straight from the sea because of the pollution in the water and because in the winter the temperature of the seawater drops too low and would probably kill turtles that in the wild would have moved to warmer climes. We have to drill and get water that all year round is constant at around 21 degrees. It’s 24/7 and costs a lot of money.”
Local farmers donate lettuce for the turtles to eat, and some trawler fishermen send their bi-catch – fish that can’t be consumed by humans and is normally dumped back at sea – to help feed the animals they appreciate they have endangered through their work. It’s still a daily battle, though, to make ends meet.
It sounds almost a daft thing to say – until you’ve seen them up close – but there is something rather human about these giant creatures. Their skeleton, seen without the shell, is uncannily human with collar bones and hips, while their arms end with hands and fingers that are hidden beneath the skin of their flippers. They also cry, to expel salt water from their tear ducts.
They are, quite simply, endearing, harm no one, yet had been teetering on the brink of extinction for years until conservationists such as Levy, the NPA, and their colleagues around the Mediterranean took affirmative action to make a difference.
 Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist.
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