Archelon 2018 – Conservation Work Experience
Boudicca is fortunate enough to have been accepted to volunteer with Archelon, the turtle conservation and scientific research NGO in Greece working with Caretta Caretta the loggerhead sea turtle and the ecosystem it inhabits.
As she is under 18 it was only possible to join as a family volunteer, meaning a parent had to be present during the work placement. The placement had to be agreed with Project Director Odysseas Paxinos.
We arrived in the turtle team camp in Rethymno, Crete as arranged for our briefing and schedule the day before the placement started.
We were greeted by the team and Paul, Project Volunteer Co-ordinator took us through a brief introduction to the project, what is expected and how the week would work. We had volunteered at Rethymno specifically because there are night surveys. This is where volunteers walk certain sectors of the beach to identify and collect data on nesting turtles. Paul had to first break the news that as family volunteers we would not be able to be included in a night survey. To minimise the disturbance to the turtles, people on the beach are kept to a minimum and obviously the senior volunteers had priority.
Bou and I understood of course, frankly we were just happy to be on the project at all.
Our outline schedule drawn up, we were to return to camp for 8.30pm that evening for an induction and slide show similar to those used in the tourist hotels. After that out first morning survey shift would begin at 4.30am
The induction and slide show went through to around 10.15pm A lot of the information was familiar as we had spent a lot of time around Archelon volunteers, but it was different listening to it in a way that we would over the next few days have to use the information to inform others.
This is Boudicca’s story…
Up at 4.00am (that was 2.00am to our bodies from the day before) and having been at the airport the previous morning at 5.00am was by using 2 alarms..!
An amazing morning followed. We worked with Taylor and Jasmine. Taylor led and was incredibly skilled in her work. Starting on the beach at 5.00am we quickly found the first tracks and nest identified and marked by the night survey team. We had to dig to find the nest, carry out a series of measurements and GPS to be certain of the nest location. I was responsible for recording all the information (for the whole morning) in the survey day book.
Once it was carried out we carried on with the survey.
We found two more nests on the survey, following digging to find the nest both had to be relocated due to the proximity to the high tide line. The embryos and later hatchlings in the eggs breath through the shell and soft sand. While the sand has to remain moist, wet sand mans the young will suffocate in the nest.
Around 50% of nests on the beaches of Rethymno have to be relocated either due to the tide line or occasionally the unsafe position due to human activity or river / stream run off points on the beach.
To relocate, first the eggs are found, then a new nest has to be dug either in a hatchery or in a safer position near the original nest.
Once the new nest has been prepared, the eggs are removed from the nest into a bucket lined with damp sand from the nest. The volunteer has to be careful not to rotate any of the eggs as by this time cell division will have begun in the fertilised eggs. The structure of the embryo will have begun to form around an axis. The embryo will be compromised if any rotation occurs.
Taylor removed the eggs, each time saying how many eggs had been removed, I had to repeat the number and mark in the day book.
When the final eggs have been removed and the nest checked, final measurements are taken for the true depth of the bottom of the nest. The aim is that the new nest resembles the original nest as far as possible.
When the new nests measurements have been adjusted, the same process is followed to replace the eggs in the nest. This allows a second confirmation of the numbers.
All relocations must be completed within 30 minutes from start to finish and non can start after 11.00am.
It was around half way through our second relocation that the sun came up on day 1 and so of course the eggs had to be shaded when removed from the nest.
We had 3 relocations out of the 4 nests we found during the week.
Morning survey was completed around 10.45am
We returned to camp and I was trained and completed the morning survey reports, transferring the data from the day book used in the field onto the worksheets to be filed and entered in Athens.
Best shading ever…
We returned to camp in the afternoon for a shading shift. Nests near human activity suffer from light pollution. When the hatchlings emerge from the nest they are drawn to the sea by the vibration from the waves and, importantly by the moon and it’s reflection on the water.
Where hotels, bars and homes have lights shining on to the beach the hatchlings become disoriented by the lights. Often they will walk towards the lights in completely the wrong direction. If there are beach beds, volleyball courts and bars they will get further lost. Many then never make it to the sea. By shading the nests, the hatchlings are exposed to less additional light and make their way safely to the sea.
The shading is made from bamboo poles attached to beach mats that have been donated by tourists. An overlapping fence is made with the poles on the outside and the overlaps made so that they do not “catch” the hatchlings on their way.
Led by Luca and supported by Agathe, we quickly had the finest shading ever seen on Rethymno beach!
Day 2 Public Awareness
On the second day we met at camp to make the 1 hour walk into town for a PA shift at the Archelon Kiosk.
A maximum of two people are allowed in the kiosk with everyone else outside greeting passers by.
Very few people approach the kiosk, the best work is done by approaching people. There is a cut out turtle shape where children have their photographs taken. Also there is a carapace (made from plywood) that can be worn to attract attention.
The shift goes more quickly when out of the booth meeting people. Some people of course aren’t interested or won’t listen but lots are and will!
After the shift we went into town and found the basketball courts for a shoot around – it was 40 degrees though and so it wasn’t long until we started the 1 hour walk back to the camp.
Evening PA at Pearl Beach.
We were led by the PA co-ordinator, Maja and volunteer Emma made the slideshow presentation. Emma was a little concerned as she was out of practice but she did a great job of the presentation. Emma and Maja are always fun to be around as well so it wasn’t a difficult evening.
The main thrust of the slide show is to inform tourists about the turtles, to help them have a better understanding and in particular to increase awareness of the fragility of the beach ecosystem. In addition there is the opportunity to sign volunteers to the project, collect donations and sell Archelon merchandise. All the money raised goes to support the project. The main requirement for income is the Archelon turtle Rescue Centre in Athens. Up to 50 adult turtles are cared for at any one time with injuries from boats, attacks, fishing gear, hooks and increasingly consumption of plastic.
The evening ran from 7.00pm until 10.00pm
A key message for us both in the morning and at the evening presentation was to invite people to come to the turtle release the following day. This got lots of interest.
When we got back to camp Paul asked us if we would do morning survey the following morning with Taylor prior to the release.
Day 3 – Rescue centre Release
We started the day with another morning survey from 5.00am with Taylor. This time the furthest sector out to the East, J-K. It’s quite a rocky sector with a hatchery to check at its Western end.
It was a quick survey allowing us to return to camp for 20 minutes before preparing for a major event for Archelon Crete.
Release of Anastasia
At 8.30 we gathered and were allowed to see Anastasia. She is a turtle of around 35 years old. She had been recovering in the Archelon turtle Rescue Centre in Athens for around 7 months. Her injury was a blow to the head. When she was rescued she had almost no scalp. The injury looked to be a deliberate violent human act.
The whole Archelon team, including colleagues from Chania gathered for the release.
We met at Caramel, a luxury hotel. We then had public awareness tables to man, some volunteers watered the sand that Anastasia would walk down while others created a perimeter fence to keep back the crowds.
Paul then briefed the team to ensure we all knew our role. At 11.00am with a huge crowd Anastasia was brought out and lifted from her secure container. She is 72cm long. She immediately started moving her flippers and then made her way down the beach.
Anastasia took around 8 minutes to walk the beach. When her head popped up in the sea there was a cheer from the crowd and she was off into the open sea.
It was really emotional and an amazing thing to be a part of. Even though I had only been on the project for a couple for a couple of days I was part of the team and it was a very special moment. I have seen nests, I have helped relocate nests, I have seen hatchlings before and now I have seen a wonderful creature returned to the wild because of Archelons work.
That evening we had a BBQ with the team and there was a wonderful feeling in the camp. It was a really special day that no one could ever forget.
At the end of the BBQ Paul approached us and said he needed to speak with us. It looked as though something was wrong but instead Paul said that he was surprised and pleased with the work I had done. He didn’t think that a 15 year old would work in the way that I did and have the knowledge that I have. He then said he wanted to offer us a night survey. He had spoken with the rest of the team and they agreed that we should be given the opportunity. It was emotional and such valuable recognition and praise, especially coming from Paul.
We were to be on night survey the following evening.
Day 4 University of Rethymno and Night Survey
In the morning of day 4 I visited the University of Rethymno as I am hoping to study in a Greek university.
We saw everything including the book repair studio and the archive containing the most precious books in the collection. The earliest printed copy of a Greek dictionary from the 1500’s printed in Venice by Greeks using the Guttenberg method was the star of the collection.
I also visited the small university museum including the table that King George signed the letter aligning Crete to Greece. It was signed in Gergiopoli – hence the name – the place of George.
We rested in the afternoon as we could not complete our workshop session. Paul and other leaders had been called away to a stranding of a turtle – it turned out to be an attempted daylight nesting – and so there was no one to guide us on what to do.
We gathered at 9.15 for a briefing from Luca on what would happen during the night survey.
Most importantly, turtle tags are checked. If they have no tag then a tag is placed on it’s front flippers. This is used to monitor turtle behaviour and movement. As turtles lay up to three times with around two weeks between each nest it is normal to see a turtle several times during a nesting season. Turtles then be checked for general health and well-being.
Also, night surveys can help the morning survey team by marking a nest site making it safer and quicker to survey and record.
Luca is so calm and relaxed his briefing was clear and gave us confidence for the night ahead.
When we arrived at the beach, plans had changed slightly and we worked with Emma and Project co-ordinator Eve. Both are really good at making other volunteers relax.
Eve involved me from the start, I walked alongside her at the waters edge looking for tracks or emerging turtles.
After only 20 metres, Eve indicated to drop down. There was a turtle that had just laid eggs about 4 metres in front of us.
When Eve said so, we crawled up and noted that she had laid and was now covering the nest. We began taking measurements. Eve carried out the straight line Carapace measurements, I recorded them. Then I took the curved carapace measurements and Emma recorded them. We also recorded the time she finished covering, the completion of camouflage, the leaving of the nest and the first immersion in the water when her head is submerged either by a wave or swimming.
Emma took photos for me too!
It was incredible to be part of this. I even felt a turtles knee. It’s the strangest thing. This was the same turtle that had been on the beach earlier that day, Eve recognised it by a large propeller scar on its carapace. It was the third time Eve had seen it as she had tagged it 2 weeks earlier!
Emma took photos while I measured the turtles Carapace.
We completed the rest of the night survey with no other turtle sighting and no hatchling emergence from nests. On night survey we walk the beach in 20 minutes. Rest for 20 minutes and then walk back 20 minutes. That way every part of the beach is seen at least every hour. With the length of time it takes a turtle to emerge from the sea, find a nest site, nest and leave it should mean that any significant activity will be seen.
The only frustration was a couple that refused to leave the beach. They set up a bed near the water and wouldn’t move. They refused to understand that they could prevent a turtle from nesting and so just by being there potentially risk the loss of hundreds of eggs.
We finished the survey at just after 3.00am and made out way back to camp.
Day 5 Lunch out and Kiosk sales
Back to the Kiosk
I spent the whole time outside the kiosk engaging people. It was fantastic with so many different people of different nationalities. I had families, couples, solo travellers and even a big English wedding party.
The shift before took hardly any money in donations and sales, we managed 86euros – which on a quiet day is really good.
I went to the basketball courts then when I finished at 9.00pm. It was mostly men playing but at the end I had a 45min shoot around with 5 of the players. It was a lovely court and a great way to wind down.
Day 6 Friday
We were scheduled by Paul for another morning survey. We met at camp at 4.30am and were joined by 3 executives from Booking.com these are responsible for working with the accommodation providers on Crete.
We walked around 45 minutes to the start of the beach to be surveyed. Eve was leading with Emma and Marie.
It wasn’t long before we found a nest. Once identified it had to be relocated further back up the beach. It was a more difficult nest to extract as it was full of sand and gravel – there were no gaps between the eggs.
Once relocated we moved on with the survey.
We found more tracks and two body pits in front of a hotels wooden deck walk way. Although we didn’t think it was a nest – Eve can tell by the pattern of movements, we had to dig it to be sure. Everywhere the sand was really hard. We dug for an hour before deciding that there was no nest, including taking up the decking. Shortly after this the crew from the next sector joined us. They had completed their sector as there was no activity and so had probably saved us another hour of walking by cutting back to meet us.
We made our way back to camp. Even though the Booking.com execs had arranged to be with us, because they are not trained volunteers, they constitute a beach violation and are listed in the day book!
Database, light survey, beach furniture
In the afternoon we were scheduled to complete our database work by entering details form the field reports of tourist location activity on the beach. This includes sunbeds, volleyball courts, lights, jet skis – anything that my affect turtle nesting or hatchlings. This information goes to the Greek authority for sanctions or remedial actions. Paul trained me and then left me to work out the handwritten notes!
Before the database work however we were invited to attend Base Camp. This takes place at 4.00pm on Fridays and is the meeting that reviews the week past, outlines the week to come and shares important messages. It was really interesting as it shows how the camp works and how close everyone is as a team. It felt like a really close family.
During the briefing honourable mentions were made of volunteers including Lou.
Then I was named volunteer of the week for going above and beyond what was expected of me! I couldn’t believe it.
Tears, hugs and farewells
After the data work I went to play basketball with friends and then, in the evening we knew the team would be gathered before night survey. We returned and gave some small gifts.
At 10.00pm we then had hugs and said goodbye. We are returning in August but I’ll never forget my time on work experience in Archelon Crete. I made great friends and loved every minute of everything I did.