Volunteering with ARCHELON – the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece

Well, this blog is a very long time coming! I volunteered with ARCHELON back in 2011, in my third summer of university, where I decided to take the summer off getting a job and instead took a lot of trips around Europe. When you’re at university, it’s the best time to be free and explore but also take up the opportunities that your university offers too. I would never have heard about ARCHELON without Leeds Beckett nΓ©e Metropolitan University’s international volunteering programme. Every year different volunteering projects are set up around the world and current students and alumni can apply.

I signed up for 5 weeks at ARCHELON and after a short interview which included a teamwork activity and many university bake sales to raise money, I was placed at the Chania site in Crete with two others; Coralie and Rachael aka Frankie. If you apply directly through ARCHELON then you don’t have to go through the the above protocol to follow, just fill in one of their application forms.

At the end of July, we flew into Heraklion and made the journey from the Cretan capital to Chania by public bus then managed to get the last bus to Gerani. We stepped off the bus into the pitch black night after being chucked off by the driver and thought “hmm where are we and what have we got ourselves into…?” but I was confident enough for us to follow our noses, and we luckily stumbled upon Bossa Nova bar where we saw some ‘turtle looking people’ speaking English. So we asked them, “are you turtle people?” and they thankfully said “YES!” Phew. After introductions and slight surprise that we’d actually found the bar, they walked us to the camp where we set up our tents and crashed for the night. This was all before any of us had smartphones and travelling was way more random and interesting just following your intuition.

In the morning we met loads more volunteers and got accustomed with our new surroundings by being shown around the camp. In 2011, we had a field where we lived right next to the beach. We had running water and a good but basic sanitary area. I believe the camp has now moved to an established campsite closer to Chania town.

The actual volunteering is split into different jobs for pairs to undertake and on our camp it ranged from shopping and cooking (all vegetarian) to morning surveys and public awareness. This includes talking with guests at local hotels and tourists at the Information Kiosk in Chania town. There is always something to do in camp as well, like making nest shades from old donated beach mats and cleaning the camp. Of course there is time to relax too where you can spend time at the beach (not after sunset!) and have a few drinks at local bars. I remember we spent a lot of time at Manoli’s bar, he was a local legend. Sadly when I returned to Crete a few years later on holiday I learned he had passed away. We used to take trips on his tour boat and speak to tourists about the sea turtles and sell our ARCHELON gifts to raise money. Buying and wearing a wooden turtle necklace was an unofficial must for volunteers, it was like a part of our uniform. We were known by the locals as ‘the turtle people’.

I quickly learnt a lot about caretta caretta sea turtle biology and their habits and habitats. It was incredible to learn so much about their nesting procedures and especially seeing baby turtles hatching. That was a super special moment for me. Morning surveys are one of the ways you can potentially spot a female turtle coming to nest or later in the season see the hatchlings. You wake up at 5am and walk the beaches to pick up rubbish and also to check for signs of new nests or hatchlings tracks heading towards the sea. Ruth, the camp leader, and I were on a morning survey late August and we came across a strange looking situation.

Ruth proceeded to help the hatchlings along by lightly giving them a nudge then suddenly something amazing happened. All the hatchlings exploded from the nest and started making their way to the sea. It was amazing to witness and I felt very privileged. Turtles can lay up to 120 ping pong ball shaped eggs so there were a lot of turtles to come. After a nest has hatched, the camp leaders or experienced volunteers, who are usually undertaking marine biology degrees, do an excavation to determine the success of the hatching. It can be difficult watching these as there are sometimes underdeveloped hatchlings, but you’ve just to think that it’s natures way.

ARCHELON is a small charity which relies on volunteers and donations to keep it running. The Information Kiosk in Chania was split into four 3-hour shifts which are covered by two volunteers. It’s actually really fun talking to members of the public who are interested in the turtles and a lot don’t realise that Loggerheads turtles nest in Crete and other areas in Greece. If the public are lucky, they even have the opportunity to see the resident turtle that lives in Chania harbour. I never saw it in 2011, but when I revisited in 2014, I saw it really up close! Chania is a gorgeous town too so it means you can explore the Venetian harbour, cobbled alleyways and the Old Market area. The best kebab shop, in my opinion, is Ya Souvlaki. They do vegan and vegetarian gyros…YUM!

As well as the Information Kiosk, you have the opportunity to visit local hotels and help present and manage information events to engage with holiday makers who primarily use the beaches in the day time. It’s a good way to inform beach goers on how to behave on the nesting beaches to prevent harming the nests and also reinforce the importance of keeping them clean and encouraging the hotel to put their sunbeds away in the evening. Guests have a big say on how hotels are run so feedback by them is better then a bunch of hippy looking volunteers going on at them! It also gives hotel goers an opportunity to “adopt” a turtle or buy some gifts to help support ARCHELON’s mission.

Camp life is so much fun and you are never short of interesting conversations, games of Greek backgammon tavli and a general atmosphere of good people from around the world coming together for one thing, the turtles! Ever since my experience with ARCHELON, I have become obsessed with sea turtles and any country I visit that has nesting turtle sites, I always try to visit the charity behind helping them, like the Gili Trawangan Turtle Hatchery in Indonesia and the Society for the Protection of Turtles in Northern Cyprus. I actually went on a Night Watch in Cyprus which we didn’t have the resources for in Chania. I luckily got to see a female Loggerhead turtle laying her eggs, it was an incredible experience.

If you’re even contemplating volunteering with ARCHELON, then I say definitely go for it. It really was one of the best summers of my life! It’s something you can do alone comfortably as you meet loads of new people or it can be great with a partner or friend too if it’s something you want to do together. It’s really rewarding knowing that you’re genuinely helping with the turtle population in Greece; the nest count has increased every year in Chania since I was there in 2011, which is awesome news. You not only learn about turtles, but also about other people who care about conservation and a lot about Greek people and their culture. Greece is one of my favourite countries in Europe and ARCHELON has around 10 project areas you can choose from. Seriously, if you want to do something truly worthwhile, whilst chilling in the Greek sunshine then ARCHELON is the perfect adventure for you.

Beautiful nature in Crete:

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