Turtle Power

After June Haimoff lost her house, partner & beloved boat, she went around the world to find a new home. She ended up saving thousands of turtles’ lives and is now a leading conservationst. She tells Lorenza Bacino her story

June Haimoff emerges from her traditional Turkish cottage, several of her seven dogs in tow and a packet of biscuits in hand. “I’m afraid I spoil them somewhat,” she says apologetically.

The sun is shining through the branches of the lemon and orange trees in her garden, and we seek a table in the shade to conduct our interview. The sound of birdsong and the scent of wild thyme and rosemary fill the air.

I’m quietly in awe of this 90-year-old lady who’s spent the last 30 years doggedly trying to protect the rare loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) that come and nest on Iztuzu Beach in Dalyan. In fact, ‘Captain’ June – as she’s fondly known by the locals because of her love of sailing – was largely responsible for getting the whole Dalyan Delta area (about 100-150 sq km in total), recognised as a Specially Protected Area (SPA) in 1988.

The year before, she and her supporters managed to halt the building of a huge hotel complex on Iztuzu Beach. She’s recently received an MBE for her turtle conservation work, including the creation of The Kaptan June Sea Turtle Conservation Foundation in Dalyan.

“The turtle doesn’t have a lot of support in this country because it’s only been studied since the 1970s on these beaches,” explains June. “Turtle data worldwide is fairly recent.”

Largely due to June’s perseverance, the turtles of Iztuzu Beach have an international reputation and have gained important support from governments and NGOs worldwide. Sir David Bellamy is a personal friend and supporter of her work. So how did she end up here?

“I fell in love with the courage of these creatures and their longevity as a species”

“It was the most special moment of my life arriving at Iztuzu Beach,” reminisces June. “So enraptured was I with this magnificent sweep of sand and the delta lying behind it, that I wanted to throw myself upon the sand and embrace it like a lover.”

June explains the personal circumstances that led to that moment.

“I lost my boat, house and partner in 1981 and I needed to find a new place. After I had to sell my boat I was at a huge loss. Losing it meant I lost my summers of freedom and adventure. I’d also lost my home in Switzerland and my 13-year relationship had broken up.”

She began travelling the world in search of all that she’d lost: “We women, we like a foyer, a nest, a home, don’t we?”

She found that foyer in 1984, in the shape of a simple beach hut borne of a sketch in the sand. There she kicked off her shoes and with them she kicked off all traces of her previous life.

“It was perfect. I didn’t have an engagement book and I had no transport so I couldn’t go anywhere. I just wore my bikini. I was 60 then, but I could still wear a bikini,” she smiles.

“I’d maybe wander down to the ramshackle cafes and say hello and watch the sea. It was a time of feeling a bit lonely and lost, but also a time of healing.”

At the time, June knew turtles lived nearby but had not managed to spot one yet. One evening, when returning late to her hut, she saw a lump in the sand.

“I proceeded slowly and sure enough it was a turtle. I lay on the sand to watch her. In the space of an hour she dug a nest and deposited about a hundred eggs, then she sighed and covered them up with her flippers, like a housewife, and then she lumbered back to the sea. This was a changing point in my life.

“I fell in love with the courage of these creatures and their longevity as a species. I fell in love with the concept of a creature that wanted to be alone, to perform a primeval act, to lay her eggs.”

June still swims at Iztuzu Beach nearly every morning during the summer months. Her beach hut now houses the area’s turtle museum, near the local turtle hospital, which is managed by Pamukkale University and relies upon help from volunteers – tangible evidence of June’s quiet hope and optimism that generations to come will see the beach as a living evolving being, whose ecology and natural beauty needs to be preserved.