Chris – “Do you want to go and check out a possible new project in Greece?”
Me – “Absolutely, when?”
This is where my first volunteering trip began, I was going to volunteer with sea turtles in a country I’d never been to! This is when the nerves kicked in.
Having never done any voluntary work abroad before or even been out of the country on my own, I was a little apprehensive about what laid ahead of me. I had two weeks to get over myself before I set off on my four-day adventure.
Those two weeks flew by and there I was at 2am on a Monday morning, driving to the airport. On my own. Not even sure that the motorway was open. Luckily, it was and before I knew it I was at the car park waiting for my transfer to the terminal. First step complete.
Getting through security was much the same as always. Lots of people not really sure exactly what needs to go through the scanner. Do I take my jumper off? My rings? My shoes? Same questions every time. Different answers every time. Saying that, the process was quite a quick one. Step two was complete and now I’m in departures having a little look around the shops.
Step three is just making it to the gate on time and getting on the plane. I’ve already learnt something by this point. Travelling alone isn’t as scary as I thought it would be. I’m fine, I’ve got this!
The short plane journey was over in a flash.
I was met in arrivals by Emma, a field leader of the project in Greece. A quick chat about the journey and the weather (so hot!) kept us occupied whilst we waited for Annya to come around with the project van to take us back to the volunteer accommodation.
I was expecting a long journey to the volunteer accommodation and I was quite looking forward to seeing a bit of the island. I was completely surprised that it only took around five minutes.
We pulled up to a gorgeous building that had a good few apartments. I immediately spotted some volunteers mooching around the property and it seemed like such a friendly place already. Emma gave me a guided tour around the property, starting with my room. I was going to be sharing with two other girls but I had my own bed and there was a private bathroom so it didn’t bother me at all. The only thing that may have posed a problem was that, apparently, I snore… Awkward!
The rooms were very basic, but I had expected it wasn’t going to be five star. The tour led us to the communal balcony, where everyone seemed to congregate after their shifts and in the evenings. Everyone’s rooms led on to the balcony, so there would always be someone there to talk to.
Next was the communal kitchen. I was advised that there is a ‘meal share’ in operation at this project. This meant that volunteers each paid €20 towards the food kitty and all meals would be provided. It was strictly Vegan/Vegetarian diet; which as a meat eater was a little daunting but, I knew I could manage. Volunteers took it in turns to cook for the group each night, I was looking forward to trying what was on offer.
After I’d had a good look around, I was treated to an orientation. I was given information on what to expect from my time there and what was expected of me. It was immediately obvious that everyone was so passionate about the project and what they hope to achieve. It was lovely to see everyone care so much, I knew that I could learn a lot from them.
It didn’t take me long to notice that there was at least a ten year age gap between me and the other volunteers but I wasn’t made to feel uncomfortable about this. For the purpose of the project, it was very clear that we were all the same age. That made me incredibly happy, I often tell myself I’m still 21!
After my orientation and a quick introduction of the volunteers who were there, I was given a couple of hours to get changed, freshen up and chill out before my first shift. Yep, I was getting stuck in immediately and I didn’t mind one bit!
The shift start time soon came around and it was a very rare occasion that all of the volunteers were taking part in the same shift, at the same time. Around 20 of us took a short stroll down to the beach. The holiday makers had gone home for the day and the sun was just about to begin setting. It was a beautiful view but, not nearly as beautiful as what I was about to see.
I was told that the night before on the ‘sleep-out’ shift, a nest had erupted with 33 hatchlings. They all made it safely to the sea, but there were a good 50 more eggs in the nest and they were probably ready to make their way to the sea. I couldn’t believe it. I’d made a joke that if I didn’t see any hatchlings during my four days I was going to stay until I did and I didn’t care how long for. Little did I know that on my very first evening, I would see 41 tiny hatchlings work their way out of their nest.
We dug a small trench, 12 meters from the sea, for the turtles to crawl down. I learnt that whilst walking down the trench they imprint on the sand and when their ready to nest themselves they’ll make their way back to that same area. I couldn’t believe it! These tiny little turtles would someday come back as fully-grown adults and lay their own eggs. This is why it’s so important to let them make their own way to the sea, however tempting it may be to pick them up and help them along.
Before they made it to the trench, they were all measured and given a health check. We needed to know that they were fit and healthy before allowing them to make their mammoth journey. Luckily none were found to be unhealthy, although if there were any, they would be taken back to the volunteer accommodation for a short while to complete a rehab programme that would give them the best chance in the wild.
Every single volunteer was on a high after this. We’d all witnessed something so amazing, some had waited weeks to see it! I felt so lucky to have been a part of it and it really made me excited about what was to come over my next few days.
My next shift was the early morning beach survey. It’s very important for the project volunteers to be the first on the beach to look out for any hatchling tracks – a nest could’ve hatched overnight and this needed to be recorded before holidaymakers got down to the beach and spoiled the sand with footprints. This meant an early start of 6:45am and my first ride on a bike for around 10 years!
We visited four beaches and recorded data of the size and time it took us to walk from one end to the other. We didn’t find any hatchling or nesting tracks, which was great because it meant that no hatchlings had to make their way to the sea without being quickly checked over and shown the way.
The rest of the morning and the early afternoon was free time for me. Sadly, the accommodation was a little out of the main town and I would’ve needed a car to get there. I could’ve taken a bicycle but there are a lot of hills in Kefalonia and in that heat I don’t think I’d have managed without having to call for rescue! After a little nap (the heat just takes it out of you, honest!), I went for a stroll to the ‘pool bar’. A little hotel along the road kindly let the volunteers use the pool and their outdoor bar, a welcome relaxing zone. I recognised a couple of volunteers from the project and we all sat and had a chinwag. Mostly about what we thought of the project, what made us want to partake and what we hoped to achieve from it. It was lovely to find that I had a bit in common with them and we all enjoyed something to eat and a few drinks. I was back on shift in the evening, so there were no cocktails for me, just a few litres of water!
My next shift was the evening harbour shift. As a team, we patrolled various parts of the harbour hoping to catch a glimpse of the adult turtles. It’s important to record their activity down at the harbour. They’re often there to be fed by the tourists and fisherman. Sadly, this is very dangerous for them so as well as recording their activity, it’s important to educate people on why it’s not healthy for them to be fed. I patrolled the lagoon bridge and despite being there for approx. two hours, I didn’t see one turtle! In a way, that was a good thing. It meant that they were out getting their food naturally, but I wasn’t too impressed that they didn’t come to say hello. Never mind, I was on the early morning harbour shift the next day so I was sure to see one or two then.
Every week, the field leaders at the project organise a night of fun. This week it happened to be a movie night. They get up to all sorts on these evenings and have been known to have bingo evenings, charades tournaments and quizzes. I was quite happy with the movie night though, I mean what could be better than sitting outside in the night time heat watching The Lion King! It was actually really funny to watch a film I’ve not seen since I was a youngster, there are some really funny lines snuck in there, which I just didn’t understand when I was younger so I was finally able to appreciate them.
The next morning was the early morning harbour shift. I was looking forward to this as I knew that I would get to see some of those adult turtles I was told all about.
We got down to the harbour for around 7.20. We had a few minutes before we got started. It was very quiet, with only the first of the days fishing boats lining the harbour walls ready to sell their catches.
I spent the first 90 minutes of my shift patrolling the area by the restaurant. Strolling up and down watching the sun rise over the lagoon was so peaceful and a real treat. Sadly, I didn’t get to see any turtles on this occasion, but that was soon about to change after our break and moving to a different area.
I spent the next hour strolling up and down and I was so happy to see lots of activity. Sadly, I saw the fishermen feeding the turtles their scraps. On the up side though, there was no tourists feeding them and a lot of interest from the tourists in me (they could see I was wearing a researcher t-shirt) and the conservation. I was only happy to explain what I could and so impressed to find out that everyone I spoke to was eager to help the cause and would try to educate their loved ones back home. A couple even asked for more information so they could look in to volunteering too.
My next hour was up and my shift was taken over by another volunteer. To be honest, I was grateful of the swap because the temperature was really starting to rise. The second shift wasn’t for another two hours, which gave me plenty of time to explore the harbour and what it had to offer.
There were some lovely shops with traditional offerings, along with the souvenir shops we’re all used to seeing abroad. I managed to stop at a little cafe/restaurant for a spot of brunch (I hadn’t had time for breakfast that morning so I was starting to feel a little hungry). The two hours I had to stroll around flew by and before I knew it I was back at the volunteer accommodation. I checked my step count and was amazed to see that I’d done a mammoth 13kms all by 12:30pm. No wonder I was feeling a bit tired.
After a small siesta, it was time to head back to the harbour, where I’d be witnessing a tagging event. Due to the amount of activity during the high points of the season, they don’t often have time to do tagging events, so I was really lucky to get to witness this.
Half of the team had seen a tagging event a few days prior so around 15 of us went down there. A few of the team from Lixouri came to join us and once we were all present, we started.
A good few of us were tasked with ‘spotting’. Looking out on to the water to find turtles. It didn’t take us long to find the harbours biggest resident, Kostas. Within seconds, Harry had his flippers and snorkel on, ready to go and catch him. I can appreciate that this may sound a little cruel, to ‘catch’ something seems a bit sinister, but I can assure you that no harm was caused to Kostas, Harry was in for a bit of hard work though – gently guiding him to the team so they could get him out of the water and measure him and give him a health check.
Kostas weighs around 80kg so it took four people to get him out of the water. He was placed carefully in a wooden crate and that’s where the work started. He was checked over for any injuries. Sadly, he’d had a few knocks previously, resulting in carapace damage, although it didn’t look as though he’d suffered any recent injuries. I’m told that the carapace damage was likely caused by a boat propellor. Because the turtles are fed by fishermen, they are used to boats being their food source. They go there because they think that they will get fed and this can often result in injury.
Kostas was measured for growth and he had his barnacles removed. Obviously, barnacles on a turtle is natural and they wouldn’t usually be getting a pamper in the wild. However, the barnacles are parasitic and can cause drag which slows them down when they’re hunting for their food naturally. It’s good practice to get them off if the chance is there.
By this point, a few tourists had gathered around and could be heard wondering what we were doing. It was explained by the field leader that we were here in the turtles best interest and why it was important to do.
Once it was confirmed that Kostas was as healthy as he could be and measured, he was put back in to the water, safe and sound. He swam away safely and was seen in the harbour area again the next morning.
That evening, we did similar checks on three other adult turtles. It was so exciting to see Harry bring them in to the team and I’m so happy to say that they were all as healthy as they could be and measured well. I even got to help and got to gently handle an adult turtle. Being wild animals, it’s obviously not advised to handle them but, I was under the supervision of the experts and I felt truly honoured to be a part of it. It was a fantastic way to spend my last evening and I am so lucky and grateful to have been there.
We all headed back to the volunteer accommodation, buzzing from what we had experienced. I don’t think anyone had expected to be a part of something so special when they first arrived.
Before I knew it, it was time to travel home again. I’d only been there for three days, but I loved every second and wished that I was staying for longer. Alas, I had to get back and share what I’d learned with the team and every one of our volunteers so that they could experience what I had!
Again, it was time to travel alone. This time I was a little less apprehensive, I’d gotten there fine, going home would be a doddle.
So, to summarise my first solo trip abroad and my first volunteering trip; it was the most amazing experience, in the most beautiful setting. Travelling alone is nothing to be worried about, plenty of people do it; in fact, every single person on this particular project had travelled there alone and most had travelled alone for the first time!
Age is just a number. The youngest person there was 18 and the oldest 63. You would never have been able to tell though. Everyone got on so well and had so much in common. Anyway, even if they had nothing else in common, they were all there for one reason. To save the sea turtles and help them live the best life they possibly could.
I cannot wait to go on my next trip. I don’t know where I will be sent next, but I know that I am excited for it! I’ve got the bug now, and I can’t wait to feed it!
Chris… Where am I off to?
Let us know the best bits of your first volunteering trip in the comments below!