A turtle-y good time: Archelon Project 2019

The loggerhead sea turtle (caretta caretta), a favorite local, munching on some mussels by the docks of Preveza

This past summer I had the opportunity of volunteering with loggerhead sea turtles in Greece through ARCHELON, The Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece. For five weeks I was in western Greece participating in the Amvrakikos project, one of the organization’s many project sites! ARCHELON was founded in 1983, in Zakynthos, Greece. In addition to protecting nests and hatchlings, ARCHELON seeks to educate the public on conservation issues and rehabilitates injured sea turtles in their Athens rescue center. 

For the first half of the project, I surveyed the nesting beaches by looking for turtle tracks and locating nests. We woke up at five in the morning to survey, with the sun barely up and the sky still hazy, because it would be too hot by 8. Greece’s weather definitely made Southern California’s seem chilly when I got back home. Long walks on the beach are nice, but imagine trudging through kilometers of sand dunes in pebbly shoes and blazing heat! At least we found nests and the ocean views were scenic.

The difference between dawn and midday on the beach: one moment it’s soft and peaceful, the next it’s like a picture of paradise

During the evenings, we set up an information booth in the nearby town of Preveza. Preveza was a very cute tourist town with plenty of tavernas, a street lined with small shops, a harbor with proud yachts, and a beach. Unfortunately, because most of the tourists were Greek and did not speak English well, we had difficulties with educating the public. While the general public, especially the children, are familiar and fascinated with the “caretta caretta,” on several occasions people did express hostility towards our work and towards the presence of sea turtles. 

These people (a rarity) were often misinformed about the turtles and also had different perspectives on the situation. Some fishermen believe the turtles are stealing fish from their nets. Some beachfront hotel owners resent the placement of protection structures on their private property, believing that the caution signs hinder the tourists’ fun. When a gray area like this exists, efforts to bridge the divide between conservationists and the public require understanding of each others’ circumstances, rather than persistently promoting the turtles as amazing creatures. As ridiculous as that phrase sounds, it bothered me how often it had been a recurring argument (not limited to just turtles, but other endangered species, too).    

For the second half of the project, the team went out to the Amvrakikos Bay in a little motor boat during the day. The Amvrakikos Bay is located in the Ambracian Gulf and apparently a popular feeding ground for loggerhead sea turtles! We didn’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn for this, but we did stay out for much longer — often till mid-afternoon.

We stayed in the complex pictured, which was located next to a taverna, visitors center, and docks for fishermen

This was far more intense than walking on a beach. The “jumper” perched at the tip of the boat, scouting for turtles. Once a turtle was spotted, we had to “chase” it down in the boat in order to get close enough for the jumper to dive in and capture the turtle. Picture a high-speed police chase — except the turtle is a nimble motorcyclist and the boat is a clumsy tank.

If the jump is successful, the turtle would be brought on board to have it’s carapace measured, DNA sampled, and flippers tagged with metal tags. The turtles are cute, but once captured, they become chomping discs determined to escape. This was understandable, of course. Turtle and human stress levels probably increased three-fold during the measuring process, with the turtle flailing about and me staying on my toes in a cramped boat to avoid getting bit.

Sunset views of the Ambracian Gulf, featuring the town of Menidi
The Koprena lighthouse, which overlooks the bay where we find turtles

During this trip, I’ve realized that perhaps field biology in a foreign country is not the path for me, and that I am far more comfortable rehabilitating animals. Having subsisted on basic foods, endured hours of crustiness, and been exposed to the elements 24/7, I have so much more respect for those who rough it for weeks in the name of scientific advancement. 

I’ve also felt firsthand the difficulty in communicating to others a message about protecting a species and the Earth when a language barrier is present. In this age of climate change conversation and the rise of eco-friendly living, it is more important than ever for people of different cultures to be passionate about change (and hopefully speak two languages!).

While this program had its ups and downs, overall it was such a novel experience because I stepped out of my comfort zone. Reptiles used to be of little interest to me, but after this trip, I’ve grown to appreciate turtles. There were a lot of firsts: first time seeing and interacting with sea turtles, first time driving a boat, first time swimming in such clear and warm waters, and first time experiencing the Mediterranean lifestyle. It’s isolating being in a foreign country, where you don’t understand the language AT ALL, for a prolonged period of time. However, I am thankful that I was in a less touristy part of Greece, for it introduced me to a more authentic Greek culture. I would definitely recommend this program for anyone who is interested in sea turtles and Greece! For more information, check out ARCHELON’s website

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