Monthly Archives: July 2014

Save the Morning, Save the World

Beyond the whir of the small outboard motor which hummed the boat’s occupants slowly and rhythmically across the portion of the Ambracian Gulf locally referred to as Pelican’s Bay, were the piercing cries of the flock of gulls whose cradles were being robbed.

Taking our eyes from the water where we scanned in search of Loggerheads, my fellow sea turtle conservationists and I glanced up to see that the morning sky was speckled with a stirring of bird silhouettes, frantically fluttering above a nesting site reachable by a series of connected islands and sandbars.

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Below, four emaciated stray dogs nosed their way from nest to nest, where an open buffet of eggs and hatchlings lay spread out before them. Fighting against current, seaweed, and time, we paddled and trudged our way to the nesting grounds to survey the situation. 

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The substrate was comprised entirely of empty shells of former sea creatures, the shorebirds’ nutrient source. Upon focusing eye sight, the shapes of speckled eggs began appearing among the debris, not in nests, but strewn about in chaotic fashion following the dogs’ interference. 

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After additional careful steps, small tufts of new downy feathers appeared, signifying the survival of a few hatchlings.

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At this point, the dogs were at the farthest end away from us, successfully capturing a second adult bird for their main entree.

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Having discovered the island was imperative to the dogs’ health and survival, and they were rewarded handsomely for their travels. However, the mouths of four hungry dogs mathematically correlates to the total demise of a new generation of a species of birds that had carefully selected a nesting ground virtually free of predators. For any chance of the remaining eggs and hatchlings to survive, the dogs could not be allowed to continue their meal.

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This small island is the last in a line of islands where the vulnerable Dalmatian Pelicans also nest. It is unclear if and how much damage the dogs may have caused in the pelican nesting grounds along the way. And regardless of our presence for the protection of the birds on this morning, knowing that a food source is available will surely have the dogs returning to the islands for subsequent meals.

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Luckily, the presence of the Dalmatian Pelicans, Loggerhead Sea Turtles, and other rare and threatened species has resulted in the foundation of a branch of the environmental management organization for the Ambracian Gulf. The organization was notified immediately of the dogs’ interaction with the nesting grounds so that steps may be taken to both protect the gulls and pelicans and meet the needs of the stray dogs.

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The needs and balances required by nature are keeping us on our toes daily, but it is a rewarding and unparalleled experience. In place of traditional travel, I highly recommend ecotourism! The hatchlings need you.

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For the Love of Dog

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These puppies, like many adult dogs, can often be seen in areas along Kyparissia Bay. Locals are used to stray dogs and do not see value in the animals, so not only are locals least likely to adopt strays, they are also reluctant to donate food or other needed supplies toward the cause. Luckily, the Hellenic Animal Welfare Association of Zacharos is working to address the dogs’ needs. Campgrounds become prime venues for seeking adopters and supporters, as foreigners are more likely to help.

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The Animal Welfare Association is also a valuable asset in the conservation of the local endangered Loggerhead sea turtle population. This year, an unprecedented number of dog attacks on adult nesting turtles has resulted in numerous admissions into the Sea Turtle Rescue Center, and in some cases, death.

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Dogs are also responsible for nest predations. When one of the first protected nests of the season began hatching, dogs dug under the grid and bamboo and destroyed the entire nest.

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With support, the Animal Welfare Association may be able to build a shelter – the first in the area – as early as August, providing a solution for collecting and caring for the puppies and stray dogs on the beach until homes can be found.

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If you are interested in learning more or supporting the Hellenic Animal Welfare Association in any way, they may be reached at hellenicanimalwelfareassociationzacharos@hotmail.com or by phone at (30) 690 737 00 34.

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Amvrakikos Project

While in Greece, I jumped on the opportunity to participate in a new Archelon project in the Amvrakikos Gulf. Loggerheads and other sea turtles do not nest in this area, but it is an active feeding ground, and the shallow areas (chest-height water) provide Archelon with a venue for capturing sea turtles in daylight for data collection and tagging.

Last year, funds became available to support satellite tagging of the turtles. This year we are limited to metal tags which depend on recaptures or nesting night surveys (females only) for continued monitoring.

For this project, the day’s journey begins on a small inflatable boat with three people. The driver carefully zig-zags across the bay while the jumper stands on the bow looking for turtles.

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When a turtle is spotted, we follow it until the jumper is able to capture it.

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Once on board, a wet towel is placed over the turtle’s eyes to help reduce stress and calm the animal. The turtle is checked for previous tags and injuries. The carapace and tail are measured and all scutes are counted. A metal tag is applied to each of the front flippers, and a tissue sample is taken from one of the hind flippers. Photographs of the carapace, flippers, head, and tags are taken. The GPS location of the capture is saved and recorded.

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Sometimes another turtle is spotted while one is already in the boat. It can get crowded, but we make it work!

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After the data has been collected, the turtles are released back to sea.

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In this glass-like gulf, we can often see the wake left by a released turtle.

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And then we are on to the next one!

 

The International Experience

Language

Regardless of which way your tongue moves and what comes out of your mouth when it does, there are a few messages that break all language barriers: a smile, a sense of gratitude, and the willingness to try to communicate. Pick up the formal “hello” (“geiasas”) and “thank you” (“efharisto”), and have destinations in writing to show bus drivers and ticketing agents for assistance. Nonverbal communication can also be quite successful.

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Relations

At camp, the project is constructed of a colorful collection of personalities from a wide variety of backgrounds, and the shared interest in the project is enough to eliminate any social boundaries found elsewhere. Instead, unexpected friendships are formed and the differences between and among us become points of entertainment or opportunities for learning.

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Amenities

The toilet, kitchen facilities, and washing methods at any international location may not make sense at first, but the necessity of them in combination with creative thinking skills will have your bladder emptied and stomach full in no time. It won’t matter that the cereal has been left open to the flies all night or that there is no toilet seat. You’ll get used to taking cold showers when the solar-heated water runs out. Whatever it is, just go with it.

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Climate

Despite the rumors, it will be what it will be, and it will be so only for you. Find out what to expect (hot days, cool nights, mosquitoes, etc.) and then keep an open mind. For me, the weather in Kyparissia is perfect every day and there are virtually no pests (just big, interesting critters!). The sweat droplets and 52 bites on the person next to me signify that the experience has been a little different for her.

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Changed Perspective

Gone is the judgment, vanity, and rule-following. In its place, bus drivers board full buses with cigarettes burning, large 60-year-old men with beards walk around camp in their briefs, stomachs hang out, legs go unshaven, and the streets double as dance floors. While some of the natives may seem passionate (recognizable by the string of curse words elicited), Greece (like many other countries) is much more relaxed than the United States. This casualness has wormed its way into my rule-abiding, OCD head and has sprung a leak. Without the need to judge and blow whistles, there is much more time in the day for living and being and doing . . . and enjoying it.

Challenge Accepted

Only one in one thousand sea turtle eggs will survive to become a sexually mature adult after egg predation, hatchling predation, injuries sustained by developing and adult sea turtles, and human activity. Evidence of the challenges faced by the Loggerhead sea turtles in Kyparissiakos Bay is seen daily on both morning and night surveys.

This includes:

  • Attempted and successful egg predation
  • Nest inundation
  • Animal attacks
  • Fishing net entanglements, dynamite fishing, fishing hooks, and/or boat propeller accidents
  • Development of beach housing, hotels, and bars
  • Driving and camping on the beach
  • Artificial lighting from street lights, hotel lights, beach fires, and flashlights

Archelon’s management team has been working to build relationships with local fishermen and business owners to reduce negative impacts on Loggerheads and their nesting activities. In the case of hotels and beach bars, we ask that sun beds be put up each night to allow the turtles to come ashore to nest without being greeted with additional obstacles. Some business owners comply, while others resist.

Plans have been created for the development of 50 new homes on one section of beach, which would destroy prime nesting habitat and increase artificial lighting, which is harmful to both adult and hatchling turtles. All forms of construction along the beach have been suspended through the end of the year, yet illegal construction still occurs and regulation is lax. Those that seek to benefit from beach development are one of the largest human threats to the Archelon team, as they view us more as a hindrance to them than as a workforce for the protection of an endangered species.

Fishermen are reluctant to change their methods, as their forms of fishing provide them with both a livelihood and sport. In some cases, fishermen have demanded that we should be responsible for the damages incurred to their fishing nets by sea turtles, since our work is the reason the turtles are here.

A common daily theme here is dog activity, which did not exist in this capacity in the past. We have seen evidence of a team of three dogs that have become aware of the turtles’ presence at night and are ready on the beach to greet them with predatory instincts. This new challenge has led to the creation of an additional Night Patrol duty for leaders and volunteers to monitor the section of beach most actively visited by dogs. Next, the Morning Survey teams arrive on the beach at 5:30 am to begin protecting the nests and looking for any stranded turtles.

In the case of nest predation, we separate the damaged eggs from any remaining good eggs, and protect the nest with wire grids and bamboo, as we do with every nest. Any turtles found injured by dog or fishing activity are assessed and taken to the Archelon Rescue Center in Athens for further treatment until they may be released back to the sea. In some cases, the injuries sustained are too great, and the turtle dies or washes ashore dead.

During hatching season, alleyways are created around the nest and leading down to the sea to reduce the impact of artificial lighting disturbance to the hatchlings. The journey from nest to sea is an important one for hatchlings, providing exercise for their lungs and muscles before reaching the water. This journey also helps them learn the beach to which they will return in 30 years when they are ready to nest. Hatchlings should not be carried to the sea, as some well-meaning people may believe.

One of the most important aspects of Archelon’s work is public awareness, not only to educate others on the history, importance, and life cycle of the Loggerhead sea turtles, but also to provide a source of support for our ongoing mission. Donations made by tourists and locals do not get sent to an office to cover administration salaries, but rather go directly toward the gas that fuels the vehicles for morning and night surveys and patrols, for the bus ticket to send injured turtles to the Rescue Center, and for the many other costs associated directly with the Kyparissia Project. Anyone interested in supporting the project may adopt a nest, hatchling, or injured turtle in the Rescue Center, or receive a gift in exchange for a donation. (For more information, visit http://www.archelon.gr/index_eng.php and follow the Support link.)

The effort going into Archelon’s sea turtle protection mission by leaders and volunteers in Kyparissia and other Archelon locations is immeasurable. Many challenges to the Loggerheads are presented and faced on a daily basis by a team of dedicated turtlers from around the world, who could not do so without continued support. If you would like to be involved in this incredible mission in any capacity, please visit the website today!