Conservationists and biologists have been always uncomfortable – if not categorically against – with the idea of humans feeding animals in the wild. Sometimes the reasons are obvious especially when human safety is compromised: you really don’t want to start feeding a polar bear, a lion or a great white shark. Beyond safety issues there can be other concerns of course, like the health of the animal itself (when it is fed food that is not used to) as well as changes in its habits and its behaviour. Of course, it all depends on the scale that this feeding take place. In this post we will focus on feeding wild sea turtles and in particular as this takes place around a very specific area in the greek island of Zakynthos, an area that I have been closely observing for the last years. Before we start, we should stress that feeding sea turtles is not illegal in Greece.
Agios Sostis is located on the west part of Laganas bay, Zakynthos, within the limits of the National Marine Park of Zakynthos. We are going to focus on 3 specific areas around Agios Sostis: A small port that local fishermen regularly use, a patch near the shore that a few of the all year-round resident loggerhead sea turtles naturally forage, and the marine area between these spots. This marine area is characterised by turtle spotting boat activities, especially during August and September. This is due to the fact that the area has relatively high density of resident loggerheads, who, in contrast to the actively reproductive females, do not migrate to any distant foraging grounds. See here for photos of some of the resident turtles of the area.
The little port is used daily from local fishermen, who after returning from the night’s fishing, they are typically cleaning off their nets, discarding any unwanted bycatch. A male loggerhead, named Sotiris, who has been possibly around for more than 15 years now, started to take advantage of this discard. Thus, an interesting relationship started between him and the local fishermen who sometimes just throw fish, crabs squid etc in the water or other times feed him directly in the mouth. It is clear that the scale of this feeding is very small. As far as this specific turtle itself is concerned, Sotiris has also been observed foraging naturally in several occasions.
As a conservationist, I always found it very hard to come up with arguments against that type of feeding. For me, it has always symbolised an alternative relationship, between turtles and fishermen, a relationship very often devastating for the animal as the interaction with the fishing industry has always been considered the number one anthropogenic threat for the sea turtles worldwide. One should never forget that many people, including fishermen, view marine life in a completely different way, than others who, for example, have grown up with David Attenborough documentaries. As we will also stress in a future blog post, understanding people’s relationship with animals is crucial for conservation. Not all people make the discrimination between not wild and wild animals (the ones that “shouldn’t be fed”). One does not have to look too far in order to see that other people can categorise animals differently: useful for humans, dangerous for humans, animals that do harm with one way or another, animals that are indifferent to humans.
Even though, it could have always been the case, the first time it came to my attention that more turtles are entering the port, seeking for food, was in 2011. In this video (3:42-7:44), another resident-to-be male loggerhead turtle, Agisilaos, makes one of his first appearances in the port. It is interesting how the french narrator of this particular documentary, also describes the story with great amounts of romanticism. Until today, Sotiris and Agisilaos are the two turtles that regularly occupy the port, with other resident turtles appearing from time to time. When two turtles meet at the port, a fight between them starts. Typically, one turtle is the attacker, the other being the offender, and the fight typically consists of head to tail circling and several attempted bites (we should note that the loggerheads have pretty good defensive skills against these bites).
These type of fights however do not occur only in the port but also in a nearby foraging ground. Only a few meters away from the part, there exists a patch of relatively small size where most turtles are observed foraging on a sponge from the phylum Porifera. Regular fighting is observed among turtles that have never been observed to be involved in a human feeding incident. In fact, one can identify specific individuals that occupy the patch more often than others and also being the most aggressive.
It is safe now to conclude, that loggerheads can exhibit some territorial behaviour, defending their foraging grounds, by attacking other turtles that are trying to be there as well. Moreover there are indications that the more spatially restricted the foraging place is, the more aggressive these interactions become. Even though, it is not easy to quantify, the interactions inside the port seem to be more aggressive and last longer than the ones in the natural foraging ground, where the food is more available and spread out. In fact in this one of a kind video, shot by Giannis Xenos, one can see a long term resident male loggerhead looking for molluscs, in a very wide sandbank area, while being followed closely by another resident. No aggressive interaction occurs between the two turtles whatsoever, possibly having to do with the fact that the food in this case is scarce and spread out. However, one should also not underestimate the personality factor, it is true that different turtles react differently in similar situations.
More research is required to see if this feeding can indeed result to increased antagonistic interactions and how this affects the welfare of the turtles, see also this interesting preliminary study from the nearby island of Kefalonia. Again, it all depends on the scale of the feeding. It seems to be the case that in Kefalonia this is more intensive and tourists are even encouraged to buy fish from the fishermen in order to feed the turtles themselves. Here the issue loses its romantic flavour and becomes more complicated.
Turtles being fed by or for tourists
Apart from Kefalonia, Zakynthos recently experienced a similar issue. Last summer, it became somehow a trend, to feed with tomatoes a specific turtle, right near the port and the foraging ground. This feeding was coming from both turtle spotting and private boats. Interestingly only one turtle seemed to be involved, Achilles, a young male loggerhead also a long term resident.
Having been observing Achilles for the last 5 years, I could say that his habits were a bit different this year. He was slightly more aggressive, mostly swimming around the area, and not spending as much time naturally foraging on sponges as the year before (he did not quit doing this however). It could be the case that this had something to do with this feeding in which he was continuously involved. The National Marine Park of Zakynthos and Archelon released a joint public statement about this issue (greek version, english version, article in a Zakynthian newspaper in greek).
Encouraging tourists to feed sea turtles is problematic. On one hand the scale of this activity increases a lot, more turtles can be involved also for a larger amount of time and as we have explained this can potentially have a negative impact on their welfare. On the other hand, it gives the wrong messages to the visitors of the island, about how to treat wildlife. I can understand that the word “wrong” here can be debated by people who see wildlife in a different way. However I would encourage the Zakynthians involved in sea turtle spotting to think what they would like to see in their island:
- Sea turtle tours that look like visits to the zoo or a farm.
- Sea turtle tours that promote nature in its pure and untouched form.
Even though, I don’t want to tell people what to do, I hope they go for the second option and encourage others to do the same.