Hello WILD readers and welcome to my turtley amazing (sorry, couldn’t help myself) conservation article! Close the fridge door, pause the 8th episode of Queer Eye and give your brain the stimulation it is crying out for – baby loggerhead sea turtles are here to brighten up your lockdown!
My name is Hazel and I have just completed my degree in Environmental Science at York! Between 2nd and 3rd year, I found myself longing for a life-affirming, CV-enhancing summer adventure doing something I had never done before. Luckily, at a uni careers fair, I met representatives of Frontier – a volunteering abroad agency with a huge range of projects to get involved with. I decided to join their turtle conservation trip on the beautiful Greek Island of Kefalonia, and had the greatest 2 weeks of my life!
I arrived the day before my 21st Birthday in September 2019 – the height of the hatching season for the loggerhead turtles there. My first experience travelling alone went very smoothly and on arriving in Kefalonia I was taken to the villa of the charity Wildlife Sense, with which I would be volunteering. The accommodation was basic but beautiful, we were surrounded by nature, kittens and the sound of crickets which made the villa so peaceful and a welcome change to the stress and speed of my normal life. Instant friendships were made with the other 20 people that I met there and we were given lots to do straight away!
The many different responsibilities were timetabled and shared out among the group. Morning beach surveying involved walking along the beaches looking for hatchling tracks from marked or unmarked nests. If we found tracks, we made note of what direction they took and if we thought the hatchling had made it to the sea. One morning I came across a baby stuck on its back and drying out in the morning sun. Luckily, after a wakeup call with some cool sea water, and a chance to catch his breath, he was able to swim out to sea! Events like this one, where these animals would have died without our help, highlighted for me the importance of conservation programs and made me feel so proud to be part of one!
The harbour shift was patrolling the Argostoli harbour morning, afternoon or evening, to monitor adult turtle behaviour and educate tourists. The harbour is home to around 60 named and tagged adult loggerheads, which hang around fishing boats and feed on the (unhealthy) fish scraps thrown overboard. Naturally, turtles live alone however, the abundance of easy food here means that the animals interact with each other and often fight. It was our job to note down the sex of each turtle, the area it was seen in, what it was eating or how it was interacting with another. It was amazing to see such huge, ancient creatures so close up and to pass information onto fascinated holidaymakers!
At night, volunteers would camp out on the beaches in pairs, for the hatchling rescue shift. This was an experience I will never forget! We had to construct boxes around the nests expected to hatch, dig a 12m trench to the sea in the darkest area of the beach and wake up every hour to check if any had appeared! The light pollution from hotels and beach bars behind the nests disorientates hatchlings, preventing them from finding their way to the water, so we were there to help them! One night, I woke up to 28 babies hatched within 1 hour! It was incredibly fulfilling to watch them make their way, one by one, to sea.
On a typical morning we would wake up at 5:30am, eat a quick bowl of coco pops and cycle to the beaches as the sun was rising, breathing in the fresh sea breeze and appreciating the glorious views. We would survey our allocated beaches and undertake partial or full inventories on nests where hatchlings should have emerged or were believed to be stuck. These inventories also involved analysing each hatched or unhatched egg, to record signs of infection, which was very interesting and forms a huge part of the research that Wildlife Sense conducts. When all turtle related tasks were completed, we would enter the morning’s data into the system, then nap in a garden hammock or swim in the nearby pool until our next shift or meeting!
The afternoons were spent on harbour patrol (with a cheeky ice cream break!) or beach profiling to measure erosion, or sand sifting to remove microplastics from the island. On an evening we would sit down to a communal dinner which we cooked in teams, wave goodbye to the volunteers on hatchling rescue and play a card game or quiz. There was such a great balance between work and relaxation and we were each given 1 day off in the fortnight to explore Kefalonia! Even so, spending your day with turtles and taking (a million) hatchling selfies did not feel like work in the
On this trip I learnt so much more than I ever could have in a lecture hall. By the end of my time in Greece, information on loggerhead sea turtles, their natural history, behaviours and the threats to their survival were sketched on my brain forever! I also gained practical experience with light pollution monitoring equipment, GPS and beach profiling techniques. Most impressive of all – my legs were very toned from all of the cycling!
I was sad to leave Wildlife Sense and the lifestyle I had come to love, and with my flights booked with Thomas Cook (the day they were due to go under), I had high hopes that I would be left to live out my Mamma Mia fantasy! However,(unfortunately) I was able to return home, but with so many amazing memories, new friends and a passion for turtles which I will never lose!
I hope that my incredible experience will inspire you to get involved with conservation! Whether it be in your own country, the same continent or further afield, from big cats to coral reefs there truly is something for everyone. Never convince yourself that you can’t do it, because you absolutely can and (after this pandemic is over) you will!
About the Author: Hazel Swiften is a recent graduate from the University of York, she studies Environmental Science Bsc.