Volunteers making sure Sea Turtles can swim into the 21st century
October 6th 2019
When I arrived on 8th September at the Argostoli field station, I quickly realised we were in the midst of baby sea turtles action! There was a chart showing all the nests that were imminently hatching and before I knew it we were at the beach trying to ‘swim out’ a hatchling with a deformed flipper who couldn’t be released with the rest of his siblings. He tried and tried but didn’t have the strength, therefore we took him back home into the rehabilitation tank for a few days to try again when he had regained strength.
That afternoon we received training and lectures on all aspects of the programme, to bring us up to par with the work ahead. It all felt overwhelming having been up since 3 AM to travel here, but I was excited and eager to get started.
I had been put on the early morning shift, so that evening, I spent a good hour sorting out all my camera equipment before crashing out as I knew I wouldn’t be in the right state of mind at the crack of dawn and I had to plan for a lot of lying on my belly on wet sand moments to get the shots that I wanted! So I fell into bed and woke up at 5.30AM with anticipation. I joined the other volunteers outside and grabbed our hi-visibility vests and cycle helmets and bikes and headed down the road in the darkness to the beaches to patrol for tracks before the tourists arrived.
Sure enough on one of the beaches, we found three hatchling tracks, which we recorded on a special data sheet with different codes according to whether it made it to the sea or if it was disoriented. There is something so crisp about early morning light for photographers. It was a real treat, the week ahead looked promising.
This year, Kefalonia had a record number of nests (double from last year), which is excellent news for preserving these majestic species. When the females lay their nests between May and July, if need be, the nests are relocated to a safer part of the beach or even another beach if under threat from tourist activity or being submerged in water. These nests take between 45 to 55 days to incubate and hatch, and this is when hatchling rescue work starts!
I came to visit the Sea Turtle project in Greece on behalf of WorkingAbroad to experience all facets of the project over a period of one week (usually volunteers do 2-4 weeks), therefore I was put on a hatchling night rescue shift two nights in a row, which carried over into mid-morning shifts due to the amount of nests that hatched. Over those two nights and mornings, I witnessed five nests hatching and with that, we carried out “top egg”and “partial” checks to see if any other turtles were in the upper egg chamber and thin top layer of sand ready to crawl out, which they were!
Night shifts consisted of sleeping on the sand under a blanket of stars and watching the moon move across the sky from when darkness arrived until the break of day and listening to the waves rippling on the beach all throughout the night. Aside from not having much sleep, I felt invigorated and alive, as it had been ages since I’d last slept out on a beach! The last time I slept out on beach in Greece was with my school friends after we had graduated from high school in Ios… !
We set our alarms every hour to wake up to check the nests to see if there was any ‘dipping’ in the sand and hatchlings emerging and if they were, we set to work digging trenches that were at least 12 metres in length, so that the hatchlings could travel the “turtle highway” to the sea and imprint the GPS and location, so that as mature turtles they would know what beach to return to – simply amazing! We released them in groups of 5, as we had to watch them very carefully under the moonlit sky with no head torches whatsoever, to make sure they made it to the beach.
Some of the little babies were real troopers and headed straight towards the sea, clambering over each other as their instincts were kicking in, whereas others kept trying to escape and climb out of the trench towards distant light or even the moon if it wasn’t on the horizon. So those ones needed particular attention. Once they were safely in the sea and swimming straight out, then we released the next batch and this went on until all the hatchlings were released and all the nests were clear and then we could creep back into our sleeping bags for a quick nap until the alarm went off again!
Then when the first light appeared on the horizon, we were up with the morning shift volunteers working on the nests that had hatched throughout the night – and that is also when my camera came out again, as night shots weren’t possible with no light. We must have released over 100 turtles in just one night! I felt very honoured to be part of this work, for having been responsible for the precious lives of these little creatures.
It is such a hard fact that only 1 in 1000 hatchlings actually make it to adulthood, so its imperative that we protect as many little hatchlings and assist them to get to the sea. Whatever happens after that is out of our hands and at the mercy of the big blue seas and their inhabitants.
By 9.30AM, all the nests had been taken care of and we were free to head back to camp, but I was due to head to the harbour to see the adult loggerheads interacting, as they did everyday. That was an eye opener – turtles don’t usually “interact” and fight, bite and chase each other as they do in the harbour. Fishermen unfortunately have drawn turtles in from the wild and competition over food has resulted in some peculiar behaviours. Volunteers head there each day to record interactions and if need be, to rescue any turtles that have had injuries due to boat propeller strikes or other. I spent a couple of hours there photographing and filming these encounters before the midday sun, lack of sleep and water/food started making me sway a bit… Time to refuel!
Early evening after a power nap and a bite to eat, I was packing up my bags and heading in my little car back to the harbour, but this time to the ferry to cross over to the Lixouri base for the next two nights, where I met the lovely team working on all the red sandy beaches including the famous Xi beach which is popular with tourists, and unfortunately turtles love it too.
That’s one of the main problems – co-Founder of this project, Nikos said to me in an interview – that turtles love the places that tourists love – wide soft sandy quiet beaches! And unfortunately the turtles are out-competed by tourists, because the tourists put their beach loungers on the widest best part of the beach which is also the ideal spot for nesting. This is why the work of this project is so essential, the nests often have to be relocated to a safe spot on the beach, but its usually not ideal, as the beaches are getting narrower and as the beach erodes and the tourists encroach on the last pristine spots, the turtles have less and less space to nest. Nests cannot be too close to the water, nor too close to artificial light, which makes the work of the volunteers absolutely critical to their survival.
I spent two nights in Lixouri– the first morning we got up very early and hiked for 3-4 hours to a beautiful long stretch of beach which involved climbing over rocks, wading through water and through olive groves whilst enjoying a constant scent of all of the wild herbs bordering all the paths and beaches. Once again, we were blessed by the sun rising above the mountain peaks and being the first people to walk the beaches that morning – it was truly magnificent! We checked all of the nests on all of the tiny beaches and there was no activity – but it was essential work, as every nest must be checked each day.
The two following mornings I was lucky enough to be involved in hatching nests and more babies being released. Interestingly I noticed that the hatchlings on these red beaches were smaller in size than on Argostoli. This is apparently because the red sand is hotter which makes the incubation period shorter, and some hatchlings have hatched at 41 days, which is exceptionally short. With the onset of global warming, this is also a big cause for concern, as hotter temperatures mean that more females will develop, as males develop at slightly cooler temperatures. This is a serious concern for marine biologists, as the future of turtles is bleak if the temperature increases to such a point that no more male turtles will hatch. We are not there yet, but this is why the work of the volunteers and team leaders is carefully documented and recorded, in order for it to analysed in the winter season.
My week had flown by, but I had enjoyed every minute of it, and had learnt much about turtles and I loved meeting such a positive group of people impassioned by their work. The project attracts people from all around the world – just the week I was there, I met people from the USA, India, Portugal, Greece, Ireland, Poland, Belgium, England and the Netherlands – it is a really great multicultural feel and everyone is made to feel very welcome.
I also took a lot of pleasure in picking lemons, oranges, plums and figs from the trees in the garden at the Argostoli base, such abundance and savoury delights growing right in the garden of the volunteer house! Sleeping out on the beaches was a highlight and assisting these tiny newborn turtles making their way out to sea was something I will not forget. Finally, I am thrilled that I put my camera and GoPro to good use, I sweated and struggled carrying them around with me everywhere I went, with all the heavy lenses and equipment, but knowing that I now have over 1,500 photos and video clips to play around with, I am very grateful for this opportunity.
If you’re looking to get off the beaten track, sleep out on soft sandy beaches under the stars, and to work alongside people who are committed to taking responsibility to ensure sea turtles continue to swim into the 21st century, then this is a project I would highly recommend.