The woman who saved a beach and sparked a movement

Alison Homewood meets the inspirational nonagenarian June Haimoff.
Environmentalist June Haimoff

© Alison Homewood

Are you an armchair activist? Chances are if you read this website, you are one of over 128 million people who have signed a petition on, the world’s largest platform for online campaigning. With 15,537 victories in 196 countries, and a new victory being celebrated almost every hour, is making campaigners of us all. And Change is not alone; Avaaz, 38 Degrees, The Sum of Us all allow like-minded people on a mission to connect in the click of a mouse.

Try and imagine, now, how it was in 1985; pre-internet, pre-media globalization, pre-environmental awareness, even pre-PCs and photocopiers for most of us. How did people campaign, generate support, bring injustices to wider attention – and most importantly, make things happen? Or, in the case of June Haimoff, stop them happening?

Two lives

‘Kaptan’ June Haimoff MBE is a remarkable woman who turns 93 on 22 December 2015. She has effectively lived two lives; born in Essex, she enjoyed an exotic, peripatetic childhood with a petroleum-engineer father posted to Uganda, Iraq and Iran. Her two marriages – to the wealthy Percy Sutton, complete with a lovely country house in Norfolk; and then to the wealthy Charles Haimoff, with a lovely flat in New York – brought frolics, friends and fun, although both ended in divorce. In 1975, she and a younger lover bought a small boat and sailed for several years around the Greek and Turkish coast. So far so jet set.

But in 1984, aged 62 and single again, Haimoff dropped anchor in Dalyan Bay in Turkey and instantly fell in love – this time with the magnificent, unspoiled Iztuzu Beach, a five-kilometre-long, millennia-old birthing ground for the endangered Caretta Caretta turtle. Careless of the fact she was a middle-aged foreign woman who spoke no Turkish, she decided to put down roots, and built a hut amongst the small, bohemian community already living at the delta end of the beach.

A year later, the beach paradise was torn down by local authorities claiming the huts were unsanitary, but in reality to make way for a 1,800-bed holiday complex to be built by a German company DEG, which had struck a deal with the Turkish government. Haimoff was outraged, not only for herself, the community and the beach, but also because of the threat posed to the turtles by the massive development.

And thus was triggered the transformation from social butterfly into one of the most peerless, fearless environmental campaigners of the 20th century.

Turtle beach

Yet the only tools she had at her disposal were her pen, her personality, a paper petition and her powers of persuasion. Tourists to the little village of Dalyan in the mid-1980s were few and far between, but Haimoff convinced many to sign. She wrote endless letters to the Turkish authorities and people in Britain she thought might help, but it was a slow and painful process to alert the world to the potential desecration of ‘Turtle Beach’.

A Caretta Caretta turtle.

Brian Gratwicke under a CC Licence

Eventually, in 1987, a lucky crossing of paths with a freelance cameraman led to a one-minute report on BBC2, which was seen by the British representative to the European Economic Community’s department on environment matters. Haimoff got the World Wildlife Fund in Istanbul onside. British naturalist David Bellamy brought three journalists to write about the beach, and Prince Philip, then President of WWF International, reportedly ‘had a word’ with Turgut Ozal, then president of Turkey, although Haimoff plays that down.

The most remarkable aspect to Haimoff’s victory was that the German construction work was literally stopped in its tracks. A lagoon on the beach had been partially drained to accommodate the construction lorries. Concrete foundations for workers’ huts had been cast and dozens of mature pine trees had been felled. Yet DEG pulled out, and the beach was saved and was declared Turkey’s first-ever Special Environmental Protection Area, banning everybody from the beach between 8pm and 8am except nesting turtles. According to one of Turkey’s leading herpetologists, there were between 350-400 nests last year, which measures up well to past years. In 2008 it won the Times’ Most Beautiful Open Space in Europe award and it featured in Trip Advisors’ Top 20 Beaches 2015.

Beach battles

A beach-hut museum now stands on one of DEG’s concrete bases, bearing witness to the battle for the beach, and to raise awareness of Haimoff’s Sea Turtle Conservation Foundation. So does she now enjoy the quiet life?

‘For environmentalists there isn’t a quiet life because you gain ground and then you lose some. It’s a fox trot, one step forward, two steps back,’ she says, sitting on the museum porch, physically frail but strong of voice and regard.

Who are her adversaries now? Haimoff laughs, ironically.

‘I can’t say I have any real adversaries, but all over the world there are those who want to make money out of vast tourist complexes, huge building projects; they cut down forests and they invade beaches. We can never hope to have complete peace.’

She is currently fighting against the building of a coach park, not only because of the beach it would encroach but also because of the additional hordes of tourists the coaches would bring.

‘For environmentalists there isn’t a quiet life because you gain ground and then you lose some. It’s a fox trot, one step forward, two steps back’

A plan to build a huge new turtle hospital, in the shape of a turtle using an iron frame and plastic cover was flung out, although that was as much due to local opposition as Haimoff. She is hoping that Kaunos, the ancient city standing high on a hill behind the delta, will be declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is now on a shortlist and success should protect the beach once and for all.

Haimoff’s main focus now is on protecting the turtles from a different threat – the hundreds of boats plying their way along the Dalyan delta bringing tourists to and from the beach, as well as the fishing boats. Boat propellers can kill or wound the turtles, and so Haimoff persuaded the British Ambassador to Turkey, David Reddaway, to donate funding for 90 propeller guards to be produced. The problem is persuading the boatmen to use them.

‘It’s an ongoing struggle and we’re not getting anywhere, it’s most disappointing. The best thing would be if the government made it obligatory to have them,’ says Haimoff.

In Turkey, the environment is split between three different ministries: Forestry, Water, and Urban Planning, which means any campaigning via official routes has to be done in triplicate.

‘I’ve been to the three ministries, they know me, they are always polite – hello Kaptan, yes, we’ll do something – but like all governments, it goes very slowly. Our board of managers has now decided we need an expert, an experienced environmentalist and a good presence to visit the boatmen and tell us what is required to persuade them. It would be a fabulous advertisement for Dalyan if they do it. Some tourists do refuse to get on boats without a propeller guard but people come here for a holiday, not for an environmental battle.’

There are around 650 boats on the delta; the captain of one of them explains he doesn’t want a guard because they are heavy and slow the boat down. Itzal, who sells boat tours from the quayside, says that is a silly answer: ‘The boats go slowly anyway. It should be compulsory, a law. You should write to the Minister. If five people do, he has to reply.’ Think what an effect a petition would have.

Another captain, Ihsan Arslan, has fitted one onto his propeller because a local tour company insisted on it. But of the 120 boats in the public Dalyan Co-operative, only nine have guards, although the manager says unconvincingly that next year they will all be fitted with them.

Making waves

Haimoff thinks it is an education problem. ‘Most Turks are not “green”, it’s not taught in schools, no classes about the environment, although it is appearing now in Turkish universities. I guess it’s not a priority in a country which in many ways is still developing.’

Another issue bringing her into conflict with the boatmen is the feeding of turtles as a tourist attraction.

‘There is a law in Turkey against feeding wild animals, but to enforce it the person has to be seen handling the food to prove it was given something unsuitable. That makes it very difficult. We have achieved some success because now the marine has a patrol boat here, which goes round the waterways looking for those feeding. But now you have the pensions and restaurants advertising on the internet, “Come to our restaurant and feed the turtles from our garden”, and people come. This is the terrible thing about the people and animals; the only true enemy of the Caretta is human beings and what they do.’

So how does this feisty, foreign female think she is perceived by the bureaucratic macho society that she has called home for the last 40 years?

‘Mostly people put up with me, but I must have been a thorn in the side, I suppose. Although there is a road named after me now in Dalyan.’

Her village home is called The Peaceable Kingdom and she shares it with a menagerie of rescued animals. It bears a sign saying “Never Mind the Dog, Beware of the Owner.” After so long away from home, does she still feel British? She scoffs at the question.

‘Oh yes, I still feel British. I was a Girl Guide and a Brownie; you don’t do those things and not remain British. I go back once a year.’

In 2011, she was awarded an MBE ‘for her services to environmental conservation and the protection of endangered turtles in Turkey’ by Queen Elizabeth II, a woman she admires very much. Another idol is Sir David Attenborough, although amazingly they have never met.

She has written three books about her life; the most recent, Kaptan June Makes Waves, was published just last year. She has also featured in a friend’s book: ‘I was included in Sacred Monsters, by Daniel Farson, alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Salvador Dali. I said, “Oh, Daniel, please don’t say I am a monster”. He said, “Yes, you are definitely a monster, but a beloved monster.”’

Her spirit is indomitable but her body is weaker. Today is her first visit to beach-hut HQ for two weeks following a recent fall. Who will take on her mantle as guardian of Turtle Beach when she is gone? Her foundation is staffed by a brigade of gentle, middle-aged Turkish women volunteers, none of whom seems tough enough to take on Haimoff’s battles.

‘I partly feel I have handed over the fight to younger generations,’ she says, adding: ‘everybody is younger than me, but I do have followers all over the world.’

Certainly, Haimoff can claim to be one of the first to put environmental campaigning on the international map. So will turning 93 herald her retirement? She dismisses the idea with an abrupt wave of the hand.

‘It is tiring at times, but I love it and it would be treachery to not do it unless I was incapacitated. It would be treachery.’

June Haimoff is on Facebook, here

Alison Homewood is a freelance journalist with a particular interest in the environment, heritage conservation and the media. She tweets at @alisonwonder2